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How big a disaster ?

January 15th, 2008

The publication of new survey estimates suggesting that there were 150 000 violent deaths in Iraq in the first three years after the invasion, and as many as 400 000 excess deaths (relative to the death rate immediately before the war) has provoked a predictable flurry of blog activity. The main concern has not been the figures themselves, but whether and to what extent these results are consistent with previous, even higher estimates, by Burnham and others, often referred to as the “Lancet survey”. You can read the Crooked Timber view, with which I broadly agree, here and here, and follow links to others on all sides. For an opposing view from Oz, you can go to Harry Clarke.

It seems to me that most of this debate is, like most blog and media wars, is missing the main point. The central fact is that the Iraq war has turned out worse, on almost every count, than even the most pessimistic critics suggested .

As regards war deaths, there were few precise predictions, but suggestions that the death toll would amount to more than a hundred thousand were at the upper limit. Here’s a piece written two years into the war saying that such estimates were way off the mark. If the latest estimate of 150 000 violent deaths in the first three years of war is correct, the pessimists had already been proved right by then, and we’ve had nearly three more bloody years since. Almost certainly, the war has, by now, caused the deaths of well over half a million people who would be alive if the policy prevailing in 2002 (sanctions, but with essential imports of food and medicine permitted under Oil-For-Food) had continued. That includes over 4000 US and Coalition troops killed, along with tens of thousands severely wounded.

The UN suggested war would drive 1 million refugees from Iraq, and internally displace another million. The true figure could be twice as large.

While Treasury Secretary Lawrence Lindsay was sacked for predicting that the war could cost $100 to $200 billion, extreme pessimists like William Nordhaus were projecting a total cost of $1 trillion. It’s already clear that the total cost will be closer to $2 trillion, and it could well be more.

This war has been a disaster for everyone involved*. Quibbling over how large a disaster seems pretty pointless.

* With a handful of exceptions: mercenaries and contractors on the US side, Shia radicals like Sadr in Iraq, and the Iranian government waiting in the wings to pick up the pieces.

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  1. rog
    January 22nd, 2008 at 16:46 | #1

    The veto rights of the permanent members of the SC has rendered the UN virtually useless, it was Stalins paranoia and the Wests desire to go home that allowed this fatal flaw to be embedded. In chess its a perpetual check resulting in a draw.

  2. Ken
    January 23rd, 2008 at 08:41 | #2

    For all it’s faults, there isn’t anywhere else to turn to for rebuilding Iraq in the event of a US withdrawal. Which the US could well do for domestic political reasons. US recession might be the thing that tips things that way.

    If any responsibility for rebuilding Iraq is dumped on the UN it would, of course, do better with the full and active support of the US and that may not be popular within the US, where anti UN sentiment can translate into anti UN policy. I don’t know how that might play out in US domestic politics. I seem to recall a time, not so long ago, when the US had stopped or continuously delayed contributing financially to the UN and of course the lack of UN endorsement/compliance for invading Iraq may still have reverberating effects on US policy.

  3. Katz
    January 23rd, 2008 at 09:28 | #3

    But the question is: what is US policy?

    The US withdrew from the task and expense of reconstructing the economy and infrastructure of Iraq years ago.

    This decision was in stark contrast to the Marshall Plan of the 1940s. And probably there are good politico/economic reasons for it. In the late 1940s the US was the only place that the French, Italians, etc., could spend their Marshall Plan funds. On the other hand, before, funding was cut off to the Iraqis, a large proportion of that money was spent in Japan, South Korea, etc.

    So that if the UN took over, at least the Iraqis may get some funding.

  4. Ken
    January 24th, 2008 at 19:38 | #4

    It’s more the security side of things that concerns me – you’d think that if the violence settles down and a halfway sensible Iraqi administration is in place, that they could fund a lot of infrastructure reconstruction from Oil revenue. The UN is already involved in Iraq, but isn’t providing peacekeepers or security to my knowledge. I know it withdrew it’s personnel after they were attacked but I confess to ignorance as to the current extent of their involvement.

  5. Katz
    January 24th, 2008 at 20:23 | #5

    But the argument made by the promoters of the Marshall Plan back in the late 1940s was that security and a civil society grows out of prosperity. The first task to accomplish was to offer citizens an opportunity to live a life that offered the opportunity for prosperity and material comfort. Recognition of hat possibility, it wasargued, would turn citizens away from extremism.

    At first the Bush Clique seemed to be pushing that line in Iraq. The world was informed about how active the street markets were and how much more electricity was being generated today than yesterday. The tacit assumption in this propaganda was that Iraqis would come to their senses and embrace civil government.

    Quite patently nothing of the sort happened. The Americans withdrew from this task. Instead, an attempt to impose “security” followed, culminating in the “surge”. In the meantime the Shiite majority used the opportunity to rid itself of a large part of the Sunni population.

    And still the various parties in the Parliament of Iraq refuse to pass a law to regularise control of oil revenues. Clearly the majority don’t want the bill dictated to them by the Bush Clique, but they are astute enough not to oppose it outright. Instead this bill sits in limbo waiting for the day the Americans give up and go away.

    And then some coalition or other of Iraqi politicians will pass the law they want. What that will be is anyone’s guess. But it is for sure that Iraqi oil revenues will never be used to establish the kind of society and polity that the Americans want.

    It’s comical to read the egregious Christopher Hitchens braying about the imminent passage of this law way back in early 2007:

    http://www.slate.com/id/2161629/

    I recommend the last paragraph as an emetic.

    Needless to say, a year later the law is further away than ever from being passed, and like increased generation of electricity is hardly even mentioned in the media.

  6. January 31st, 2008 at 10:15 | #6

    My apologies that this contribution does not acknowledge previous contributions.

    The chapter in Naomi Klein’s “The Shock Doctrine” (referred to earlier by myself in the discussion in response to “Worse than you can possibly imageine”, review on webdiary) on Iraq finally made it clear to me what had actually happened, years after I had protested against the invasion.

    The neo-liberal Friedmanites in Washington including Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Bush himself exploited the invasion to put into practice on a scale not yet attempted before their agenda of privatisation, axing of government spending and handouts to the wealthy.

    The ensuing carnage, destruction and chaos is the result.

    It’s well past time that Friedman’s obnoxious doctrine was consigned to the dustbin of history.

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