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We have a president (updated)

April 6th, 2005

After months of delay and dispute, the BBC reports that the Iraqi Parliament has finally mustered the two-thirds majority needed to nominate a president and two vice-presidents. These positions are largely ceremonial, but the deal presumably implies an agreement to select a Prime Minister, after which an interim government can finally take office, with the task of drawing up a permanent constitution. Some good news is that the Allawi group has been kept to the marginal position its weak electoral support implies.

There are still plenty of big problems ahead – the delays reflect fundamental divisions between Kurds and Shias about the future of Iraq and, except for some token appointments, the Sunnis have been excluded altogether. And the insurgency continues with little letup, having no doubt found many recruits among the refugees from Fallujah, almost completely destroyed in the November campaign there. Still, it seems reasonable to hope that a reasonably democratic, and only moderately Islamist government will eventually emerge.

Assuming this happens, was the invasion worth it? Definitely not, in my view.

As far as the Iraqis themselves are concerned, they are rid of an odious dictatorship, but tens of thousands of lives have been lost in the process, and many more will be lost before this is all over[1]. If the decision to invade had been made in support of a domestic insurrection, this kind of trade-off might be justified, but it was not for the US to make this kind of decision. An invasion to change a government can be justified, if at all, only when it is assured of quick and fairly bloodless success, and of a rapid handover of power.

From the viewpoint of the world as a whole, the issue is much clearer. The $200 billion spent on the war could have saved millions of lives if even half of it had been allocated to health care in poor countries. Even if the money were spent in the US, it could have saved tens of thousands of lives (the usual estimate is that marginal health interventions cost about $5 million per life saved). Similarly, Australia’s estimated cost of $1 billion could have saved around 200 lives if spent at home.

A fraction of the military resources used in the war could have supported a more robust international intervention in Darfur, again with a huge saving in lives. Or there are a bunch of other dictators who could have been pushed aside with less cost in lives, some of whom are allies of the US. Cheerleaders for the war are hailing the possibility of partially free elections in Saudi Arabia and Egypt as a consequence of the war. But particularly in the case of Egypt, the US could have ensured free elections any time it chose by telling Mubarak that his aid would be cut off unless he held them (ideally with a carrot of more aid if he did hold them).

As far as weapons of mass destruction are concerned, the real problems in Korea, Iran, Pakistan and the former Soviet bloc have got steadily worse while we spent years chasing shadows.

The costs of the war were also great in terms of the lies needed to promote it, the crimes committed in its course and the international distrust and hatred that was generated. It’s hard to chase down the costs of such things, but they are real. It’s clear for example that, no matter what evidence the US produces about Iran’s nuclear program, it will have little or no credibility.

Finally and obviously, if the US government had been willing to make the kind of commitment in Afghanistan that was made in Iraq, instead of leaving the job to local warlords, bin Laden would be dead or in jail by now.

Update A more difficult hypothetical question. Suppose that the US had held elections in 2003 as Sistani demanded at the time. The election result would have been much the same (maybe with a better Sunni turnout), and perhaps some of the disasters of 2004 would have been avoided or mitigated. I still would not judge the invasion to have been justified, but the ratio of benefits to costs would have been much higher.

fn1. I don’t want to get into numerical disputes here, as these have been aired in detail elsewhere. As far as I can see, no credible authority is now claiming that death rates from violence and related causes like malnutrition have fallen since the invasion. Saddam killed hundreds of thousands in his domestic and civil wars of the 1980s and early 1990s, and sanctions killed many more before Oil-for-Food, but neither of these were relevant to an invasion in 2003.

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  1. Simon
    April 6th, 2005 at 10:06 | #1

    “An invasion to change a government can be justified, if at all, only when it is assured of quick and fairly bloodless success, and of a rapid handover of power.”
    Firstly, how on earth would you know beforehand.
    Secondly, for the quick and bloodless success – as far as the actual war goes, that is exactly what happened. Of course the changeover is proving more difficult.
    Thirdly, the Americans thought that it would be bloodless. That they were partly wrong is perhaps reason to criticise them for lack of foresight but not for bad faith. So why is it that they are mainly criticised by the left for bad faith.

  2. John Quiggin
    April 6th, 2005 at 10:56 | #2

    ‘Firstly, how on earth would you know beforehand.’

    A good reason for being very cautious about launching such wars. The US Administration thought it would be bloodless and quick but only because they’d silenced all those (like Shinseki) who told them otherwise.

    ‘So why is it that they are mainly criticised by the left for bad faith.”

    Mainly because they repeatedly claimed that the war was not about regime change but about WMDs

  3. April 6th, 2005 at 11:11 | #3

    The comparison of the US’s intervention in IRAQ with the recent history of AUS’s interventions in INDON affairs is instructive. The ADF (with vital assistance from the USMC) had a fight with rogue elements of the TNI in ETIMOR, which cost a bit of blood and treasure and generated some ill-will. But, unlike Operation Iraqi Freedom, this operation was done with due process under conditions of real crisis. The authorties obtained the support of the vast majority of the East Timorese under the supervision of the UN and with the compliance of INDON parliamentary representatives.
    The ADF’s military prevalence in ETIMOR was critical in discrediting INDON’s ethnic and sectarian militants. INDON has turned away from despotic, and towards democratic, forms of government. This has been the single greatest victory in the Global War on Terroristic political agencies such as KOPASSUS, Jemiah Islamia and Laksa Jihad.
    This martial confrontation was followed up by civilian cooperation in the form of AUS authorities Tsunami relief to INDON agencies. The polling evidence indicates that this good-will gesture has more than compensated for any ill-will arising out of the INTERFET intervention.

    In a recent poll of attitudes in Indonesia, 65 percent of respondents said they viewed the U.S. in a more favorable light as a result of the massive American [and Australian] relief effort launched after the tsunami.

    The AUS-US Tsunami aid has further strengthened the hand of secular moderates against sectarian militants in, what I like to call, the Clash within Islamic Civilisation. This is, apparently, what Howard thinks, at any rate:

    Speaking at a parliamentary luncheon for Yudhoyono, Howard said Australian business leaders should “invest in Indonesia’s future.”
    “A successful, moderate, Islamic Indonesia led by a man of compassion and man of vision such as President Yudhoyono is about the most powerful weapon that we can have against zealotry and extremism in our part of the world,” he said.

    elationship is by far and away AUS’s most important regional strategic interest. John Howard, through his martial and civil leadership, will go down in history as the man who, when the chips were down, put this relationship to rights through moral process and set it on the road to material progress.
    Think what moral and political advantages even 10% of the US’s current resource committment in Iraq could have accrued by way of humanitarian aiding to Islamic persons and utilitiarian abling of ME polities. If only GW Bush had a fraction of Howard’s good sense the world would be a much nicer and safer place.

  4. April 6th, 2005 at 11:21 | #4

    The U.S. invasion endorsed likely parliamentary chaos over the comparatively stable devil we all knew. For this, and many other reasons, I remain of the view that it was a foolhardy exercise.

    And who is to say that yet another “Saddam” or a group of more extreme fundamentalists will not rise to power? Nobody.

  5. still working it out
    April 6th, 2005 at 13:52 | #5

    Jack,

    Could not have said it better myself.

    Its hard to remember, but worldwide sympathy for the United States, even in the muslim world, was so high after September 11 that they could have done just about anything they wanted with practically unanimous support. If they had followed the policies you’re advocating they could have gone a long way to turning September 11 into something like what the Oklahoma City bombing was for the US militia movement. It would have been by far the best tackle militant islam.

  6. April 6th, 2005 at 14:20 | #6

    All of the arguments put – and more – make it very clear to me that invading was a stupendously flawed action. Stupid,wasteful (of lives & $$), illegal, destructive, dangerous, destabalising, duplicitous, etc.

    However, that doesn’t help much with deciding where to go from here. I think opponents of the war could do better turning more of their energies towards trying to influence what happens from here beyond ‘all troops out’ which I know some people genuinely believe but to me just seems to be a proxy for contuing the argument against sending troops in to start with.

    What happens now is a very different debate, particularly given that the Security Council has recognised the new Govt, the electoral process and the current military presence. I think a lot more focus needs to happen targetting the way (some of) the troops are behaving, and trying to ensure the new Govt behaves appropriately (a bit hard to do credibly given the illegality of the invasion and much that has happened since, but I believe we have to try)

  7. Simon
    April 6th, 2005 at 15:51 | #7

    John

    1 Good to be careful but easy to talk in hindsight. Still the US etc have learnt from all the criticism and are being very careful in Darfur.

    2 However you said that regime change alone can justify invasion.

    The Coalition relied on a number of reasons to justify the invasion – one was regime change, one was WMD.

  8. R J Stove
    April 6th, 2005 at 15:54 | #8

    Simon asks: “So why is it that they are mainly criticised by the left for bad faith.”

    Perhaps mainly criticised by the left – though I’m not convinced of even that – but certainly not exclusively. Unless one supposes that the late Pope, Patrick Buchanan in the States, the American Old Right in general, and the French Catholic Old Right – all of whom firmly opposed war in Iraq from the start – were/are politically “left”. Of course, maybe the likes of Tim Blair really do suppose this.

  9. Simon
    April 6th, 2005 at 16:55 | #9

    R J Stove,
    That’s a bit of a cheap shot.Sure lots of people from all over the spectrum have criticised the Coalition. Just like people from all over the spectrum have supported the coalition – I won’t bother listing them all.
    I think the Pope was a pacifist.Buchanan hates foreign intervention. I don’t know who the French Catholic Old Right are, I thought the vast majority of French were Catholics. I also don’t know who the American Old Right are – Strom Thurmond ?
    Not the brightest stars in the social firmament, still my enemy’s enemy is my friend, right ?

  10. April 6th, 2005 at 17:38 | #10

    JQ, you are quitewrong about the USA being able to use sanctions to force Mubarak into democratic elections. Sanctions do not hurt dictators, only the populace, and they actually help the dictators through boosting national togetherness in his support and by increasing his patronage through control of access to what sanctions busting gives (think Idi Amin’s whisky).

    All long lasting dictators are ipso facto smart enough to know this. Sanctions in isolation actually help them. Of course, as part of a wider package it may be a different story entirely – but that’s something else again.

  11. gordon
    April 6th, 2005 at 17:40 | #11

    So when are the Yanks going to impose democracy on the Saudis and the Kuwaitis? Or do they only do that when there are obvious payoffs, like oil? Ask Hector Chavez, he knows the answer.

  12. Ian Gould
    April 6th, 2005 at 17:43 | #12

    Simon,

    The Pope was not a pacifist. He was a believer in the doctrine of “just war”. He did not criticise the US invasion of Afghanistan or the NATO military action in Kosovo because he believed that those conflicts met the criteria for a just war.

    His opposition to the invasion of Iraq was an opposition to that specific war.

  13. Ian Gould
    April 6th, 2005 at 17:49 | #13

    Mubarak is somethign of a special case – Egypt receives huge amounts of miltiary and financial aid from the US which gives the US more leverage than in the case of, for example, Zimbabwe.

    Additionally, Muabarak is an authoritarian nationalist rather than a simple dictator. He justifies the non-democratic elements of his government (probably even to himself) on the basis of Egypt’s specific circumstances and pretends (again probably even to himself) to conform to democratic norms.

    The Egyptian people have been remarkably tolerant of Mubark’s regime over the years (but then the Mexican people tolerated the rather similar PRI for close to eighty years). But if US fudning was cut off specifically because, for example, Mubarak refused to allow new opposition parties that tolerance could well evaporate.

    It might nto have worked but it also has the virtue of probably not requiring the death of circa 100,000 Egyptians; 2000 YS and allied servicemen or the bankrupting of the US Treasury.

  14. April 6th, 2005 at 18:31 | #14

    Comment # 9 by Simon — 6/4/2005 @ 4:55 pm

    Not the brightest stars in the social firmament, still my enemy’s enemy is my friend, right?

    rted judging thinkers by their fruits, not their poses. I judge stars by their intellectual, not ideological, luminosity. By that metric we all have something to learn from old stagers like JP II, Chirac and Buchanan.

  15. still working it out
    April 6th, 2005 at 18:47 | #15

    There would be no need for sanctions in the case of Egypt. They receive enormous sums in aid each year from the United States. Mubarak’s regime is quite dependent on this and would certainly give in to small demands on democratic freedoms or freedom for specific opposition figures if this aid was genuinely (but preferably quietly) threatened.

  16. wpc
    April 6th, 2005 at 19:38 | #16

    Why is it okay to militarliy intervene in Darfur, but not Iraq?

    Both are/were having large number of civilians murdered.

    The USA is damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

  17. John Quiggin
    April 6th, 2005 at 20:01 | #17

    On the contrary, wpc, the large-scale murders in Iraq stopped a long time ago. Having set off the last big round of them, by encouraging the Shias to revolt in 1991, the US should have intervened to support them but did not do so. Invading 15 years later is not an appropriate response.

  18. wpc
    April 6th, 2005 at 20:12 | #18

    I would say if there was any stoppage of murders in Iraq, it was because the population had learned what happened to people who are out of line, instead of any restraint on the part of the regime.

    Maybe not as many, but it was still easy to be tortured and killed if you did the wrong thing, including such serious crimes as losing an athletics event.

    However I do agree wholeheartedly with the disgraceful lack of support for that Shia rebellion.

  19. wpc
    April 6th, 2005 at 20:13 | #19

    That last part sounds wrong. What I meant was: you are correct, it was disgraceful that the Shia rebellion was not supported.

  20. Ian Gould
    April 7th, 2005 at 17:28 | #20

    WPC,

    Military experts such as David Hackworth, Scott Ritter and Sniegoski (I know i’ve misspelled that name) warned that Iraq would be a quagmire, cost hundreds of billions and result in thousands od excess deaths.

    quite simply more people are dying violently in Iraq today than were dying in 2001 and 2002 when Saddam is in power.

    The argument that the invasion will save lives in the long-run is still simply a pious hope.

    In many regards, Sudan resembles Afghanistan more than Iraq. It’s milirarily weaker than Iraq was even after a decade of sanctions and there is a large powerful armed internal opposition. Additionally Sudan is divided between a large number of ethnic groups many of which are hostile to the cetnral government.

    Additionally, up to 300,000 people have died in Darfur in the last year or so. This compares with estimmates that the Iraqi regime was killing around 1-2,000 people a year in the late 90′s and early 2000s.

    I’m not saying that military intervention in Sudan would necessarily be justified. i’m saying that there’s a stronger prima facie case forsuch action there than there was in Iraq.

  21. wpc
    April 7th, 2005 at 21:58 | #21

    Ian, well I would probably agree that there is a greater case in Sudan, and I would support military action taken there as well.

  22. April 8th, 2005 at 11:49 | #22

    I agree with your first point about how the trade off in lives should have been the Iraqis choice not the Americans. Using the same logic your seccond point contradicts because it should be up to the Americans (not you) how to spend their own money.

  23. John Quiggin
    April 8th, 2005 at 11:58 | #23

    Troy, I’m assuming that, as part of the Coalition and a contributor to these costs, Australians have a right to a say on such matters. But I should have separately factored out the estimated $1 billion expenditure by Australia and the implied loss of 200 lives. I’ll make this change.

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