Whether This War Was Worth It
Serious scholars still debate whether the Civil War was necessary, never mind the more obvious "wars of choice" such as World War I, the War of 1812, the Spanish-American War, the Korean War, wars in Vietnam and Kosovo, and the Persian Gulf War. To a certain brand of American isolationist, even World War II was unnecessary and counterproductive. So there is nothing remarkable about polls showing Americans wondering whether the recent Iraq war was "worth it." It is a great American myth, voiced by John Kerry last year, that
the nation goes to war only when there is no question about the necessity of going to war. There's always a question. Even if the Iraqi insurgency disappeared tomorrow, George Ibrahim al Washington became president of Iraq and every liter of Saddam Hussein's onetime stockpile of chemical and biological weapons suddenly appeared in the desert, his-
torians would still spend
the next century debating whether the war was "worth it."
Wars remain subjects of debate not just because their "necessity" is in doubt but also because their results are mixed. No war has produced unmitigated successes. The Civil War did not completely "free" African Americans, who remained oppressed for another century. World War I destroyed Europe, and helped pave the way for the rise of Hitler and the Soviet Union. World War II defeated Hitler but enslaved half of Europe behind the Iron Curtain and introduced the world to nuclear warfare. The Persian Gulf War drove Hussein out of Kuwait but helped produce the Osama bin Laden we know today. Add to that the millions of innocent lives lost, and the toll of these wars, generally regarded as "successful," is high. Does that mean those wars were not "worth it"? Demanding unmixed results and guarantees against the unintended consequences of war is as unrealistic as demanding absolute confidence in the "necessity" of going to war in the first place.
One simple answer to the problem is not to go to war, ever. But for those not inclined to absolute pacifism, the question of whether a war is worth it has to go beyond such simple categories as "necessity" and whether or not the aftermath of war is an unmitigated success. It requires delving into the messier and hazier calculations that good historians spend careers contemplating.
One problem is that we always know what did happen as a result of war, but we never know what didn't happen. What if we had not gone to war in Europe in 1917, Korea in 1950, or even Vietnam in the 1960s? Would we have rued those decisions not to act as much as we now rue the decision not to drive Hitler out of the Rhineland in 1936? To answer such questions requires predicting, with only the conflicting and incomplete evidence available, what the world would have looked like had we not gone to war. We know what happened as a result of not going to war in 1936. We know, in particular, that British efforts to avoid war in 1936 and then in 1938 at Munich did not prevent war at all but only delayed it. Yet we can only try to guess what might have happened had Imperial Germany been allowed to conquer Europe, or had communist victories in Korea and Vietnam been allowed to stand unchallenged. A few years ago Michael Lind wrote a provocative book titled "Vietnam: The Necessary War," in which he argued that, even knowing what we know now, it was correct for the United States to fight a limited, losing war in Southeast Asia -- to "lose well," as he put it -- rather than allow a quick and easy communist victory.
To assess whether the Iraq war was worth it requires seriously posing the question: What would have happened if the Bush administration had not gone to war in March 2003? That is a missing but essential piece of the current very legitimate debate. We all know what has gone wrong since the Iraq war began, but it is not as if, in the absence of a war, everything would have gone right. Those who want to have this debate cannot simply point to the terrible toll in casualties. They have to address the question of what the alternative to war really would have meant.
There is not much dispute about what kind of leader Saddam Hussein was. Former secretary of state Madeleine Albright once compared him to Hitler, and the comparison was apt in a couple of ways. Hussein, as we will soon relearn in excruciating detail, had contempt for human life and no qualms about killing thousands of his own citizens and many thousands more of his neighbors' citizens, about torturing women and children and about using any type of weapon he could buy or manufacture to burn, poison, infect and incinerate political opponents and even entire populations, so long as they were too weak to fight back. This alone placed him in a special class of historical figures, a not irrelevant factor in determining whether his removal, even at the present cost, was worth it. Was it not worth at least some sacrifice to remove such a man from power?
Amore intriguing question is whether a decision not to go to war in 2003 would have produced lasting peace or would only have delayed war until a later date -- as in the 1930s. There is a strong argument to be made that Hussein would have pushed toward confrontation and war at some point, no matter what we did. His Hitler-like megalomania does not seem to be in question. He patiently, brutally pushed his way to power in Iraq, then set about brutally and impatiently making himself the dominant figure in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, using war and the threat of war as his principal tools. In the early 1980s he invaded Iran and fought it to a bloody standstill for the better part of a decade. No sooner had that war ended than he invaded Kuwait. He fancied himself the new Saladin, much as Napoleon and Hitler had fancied themselves the new Caesar.
Many argue that, even if all this is true, Hussein was nevertheless contained through sanctions and no-fly zones and therefore could be deterred. Many advanced this argument before the war, too, even when they believed with as much certainty as the Bush administration that Hussein did have stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. And, indeed, although for most Americans the question of whether the war was "worth it" revolves around the failure to discover the stockpiles that most believed he had, nevertheless the key issue, I believe, remains the same as before that failure: whether Hussein could have been contained.
For another fact not in dispute is that Hussein remained keenly interested in and committed to acquiring weapons of mass destruction, that he maintained secretive weapons programs throughout the 1990s and indeed right up until the day of the invasion, and that he was only waiting for the international community to lose interest or stamina so that he could resume his programs unfettered. This is the well-documented, unrefuted -- and unnoticed -- conclusion of both David Kay and Charles Duelfer. Whether Hussein would have eventually succeeded in acquiring these weapons would have depended on other nations' will and ability to stop him.
That is a question to which we will never have a definitive answer, and yet it is critical to any judgment about the merits of the war. The most sensible argument for the invasion was not that Hussein was about to strike the United States or anyone else with a nuclear bomb. It was that containment could not be preserved indefinitely, that Hussein was repeatedly defying the international community and that his defiance appeared to both the Clinton and Bush administrations to be gradually succeeding. He was driving a wedge between the United States and Britain, on one side, which wanted to maintain sanctions and containment, and France, Russia, and China, on the other, which wanted to drop sanctions and normalize relations with him. The main concern of senior officials in both administrations was that, in the words of then-national security adviser Samuel "Sandy" Berger, containment was not "sustainable over the long run." The pattern of the 1990s, "Iraqi defiance, followed by force mobilization on our part, followed by Iraqi capitulation," had left "the international community vulnerable to manipulation by Saddam." The longer the standoff continued, Berger warned in 1998, "the harder it will be to maintain" international support for containing Hussein. Nor did Clinton officials doubt what Hussein would do if and when containment collapsed. As Berger put it, "Saddam's history of aggression, and his recent record of deception and defiance, leave no doubt that he would resume his drive for regional domination if he had the chance." Nor should we assume that, even if the United States and others had remained vigilant, Hussein could have been deterred from doing something to provoke a conflict. Tragic miscalculation was Hussein's specialty, after all, as his invasions of Iran and Kuwait proved.
It is entirely possible, in short, that if the Bush administration had not gone to war in 2003, the United States might have faced a more dangerous and daring Saddam Hussein later on and felt compelled to act. So, in addition to whatever price might have been paid, certainly by the Iraqi people and possibly by Iraq's neighbors, for leaving Saddam in power, we might have wound up going to war anyway. There is the further question of what the entire Middle East would have looked like with a defiant, increasingly liberated Hussein still in power. To quote Berger again, so long as Hussein remained "in power and in confrontation with the world," Iraq would remain "a source of potential conflict in the region," and, perhaps more important, "a source of inspiration for those who equate violence with power and compromise with surrender." Whether historians judge the war favorably will depend heavily on whether post-Hussein Iraq does indeed provide a different sort of inspiration, but, again, the effort to change the direction of the region was surely worth paying some price.
This may be no solace to those who have lost loved ones in this war -- and it certainly does not absolve the Bush administration from the errors that it made before and after the war and continues to make today. But these are the kinds of considerations that ought to be part of any serious debate over whether the war in Iraq was "worth it."
Robert Kagan, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writes a monthly column for The Post.