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. 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.