Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Price of the Iraq War

I don't know whether to praise Anne Applebaum for acknowledging the huge price that the U.S. has paid (and continues to pay) for the Iraq War, or chide her for continuing to insist that it could turn out to be sunshine and lollipops. I do think it's fair to observe that nowhere among the prices she has listed will you actually find a dollar figure. The war has drained trillions from the treasury, and the bills keep coming. To quickly hit Applebaum's points, she believes that among the casualties of the war are,
  1. America's reputation for effectiveness;
  2. America's ability to organize a coalition;
  3. America's ability to influence the Middle East;
  4. America's ability to think like a global power; and
  5. America's ability to care for its wounded veterans.
As with the dollar cost of the war, the impact of the war on Iraqis goes unmentioned.

I find many of Applebaum's points to be unpersuasive. In terms of America's reputation for military effectiveness, the initial war was a success. The mistake was embracing the notion that it would be quick and easy (not to mention free) to occupy Iraq and reinvent it as a right-wing utopia and corporate grab-bag. Tyrants may not be trembling that the U.S. will attempt such a project in their nations after they are deposed, but they know that we can depose them.

In terms of the impact on coalition-building, the war can't be said to have had any appreciable effect. The war was unpopular with most of our allies, and coalition-building was difficult even before the war began. To the extent that the war "", that's his own fault, he managed to serve as Prime Minister for another four years (considerably beyond the term he negotiated with Gordon Brown when he became party leader), and if he's crying on the way to the bank his tears are so small as to be invisible to the naked eye.

In terms of Georgia, if the lesson to a nominal coalition member (and by that I mean no offense to Georgia, a nation that lacked the capacity to contribute more substantially to the war effort) is that their participation won't inspire the U.S. to militarily back them if they provoke a war with Russia, I would have to call that a good thing. Truly, if building a coalition is nothing more than promising a return greater than the investment - in Applebaum's words, "economic or diplomatic benefits" and "special American favors" in exchange for a small commitment of troops - we are going about it the wrong way. When Applebaum complains, "'Iraq' is part of the reason there is so little enthusiasm for Afghanistan", she displays amnesia - the Afghanistan war started first. To the extent that the effort to maintain a coalition in Afghanistan has suffered due to Iraq, it is much more because of the Bush Administration's change of priorities and diversion of resources from the Afghan war.

As for "why it is so difficult to put organized pressure on Iran", sure, having launched a war in Iraq on the basis of its possession of WMD's and coming up empty, it's harder to convince other nations to follow us into a potential war with Iran over WMD's we concede that it does not possess. At best that has to do with having demonstrated the limits of our nation's intelligence on the state of other countries' weapons programs, and at worst it's because the exaggeration of the threat of Iraq has damaged our credibility - but either way, the outcome was avoidable. If Applebaum is speaking not just of an initial war but of a prolonged occupation, even as the effort to democratize Iraq continues to wobble, few are eager at repeating the experiment in a nation with about twice the population and four times the land mass.

In terms of influencing the Middle East, the Bush Administration made no serious effort to end the Israel-Palestine conflict. It instead tightened the U.S. embrace of Israel. I'm not sure if Applebaum believes that to be good or bad, but it was foreseeable. She claims that the war increased the price of oil, and snipes at war opponents, "this was supposed to be a 'war for oil,' remember", but she misses the boat there as well. Even if we assume that she has never heard of the Carter Doctrine, and even if we view the war proponents who believed that the war would significantly reduce the price of oil and undermine the finances of the Arab oil states, she surely can't have missed that the war in Iraq did remove a potential threat to the world's oil supply. (Memories of the first Iraq war.) It would be naive to have imagined that launching a war in Iraq would flood the world with cheap oil, but it's no less naive to pretend that oil played no role in the decision to invade and occupy Iraq.

Applebaum refuses to reconsider her support of the war and, although she concedes a high price with no basis to yet declare victory, she offers a defense of her stance by way of anecdote,
Before speaking on Tuesday, Obama might ponder the words of former Chinese leader Zhou Enlai - who, when asked to assess the long-term impact of the French Revolution, allegedly told Richard Nixon that "it's too soon to tell."
If we were to assume that the anecdote occurred, our interpretation of the comment perhaps tells us more about us than about the speaker. Had, for example, G.W. made that comment during a debate, it would have been framed as a gaffe, a mistake, a reflection of ignorance. Had Al Gore done the same, it would have been equivocation, pointy-headedness, waffling. But when framed through the idea of a Chinese leader who is presumed to take an exceptionally long view of history, the statement is viewed as deep and meaningful.

Odds are if it actually occurred it was because of a translation error, Zhou Enlai's misunderstanding the question, or his providing a murky answer because he didn't know enough French history to know that the revolution had occurred almost two centuries before. But under any interpretation, it won't take two centuries for us to learn the impact of the Iraq war or, as Applebaum's own column reflects, its impact on the United States.

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