Iraq: Worth the Price

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By Christopher Hitchens
Tuesday, March 11, 2008; 12:00 AM

It's not enough that the Linda J. Bilmes and Joseph E. Stiglitz begin their article in Sunday's Outlook section with an old cliché (from Milton Friedman, as it happens) and then go on to make the breezy and easy assertion that "we've done the math." Their lame joint effort to affix a cost to the Iraq war is entirely based on an unspoken assumption that has nothing to do with economics or even with political economy. And that assumption (widely shared but seldom if ever articulated) is that our engagement with Iraq was somehow "a war of choice" -- to use a favorite catchphrase from a few years ago -- and thus that all of its costs, ranging from the physical damage to Iraqi infrastructure to the moral damage to our warriors, could have been avoided by abstention.

I don't know anybody who knows anything about the subject who believes anything so frivolous. The original, highly serious, disagreement about Iraq took its point of departure from this question: Was it possible or tolerable to continue to coexist with the regime of Saddam Hussein? Many "realists" thought that containment might be made to work, while many ex-realist "hawks" had changed sides after the Kuwait war and thought that Baghdad should have been freed of sadistic crime-family control at the latest by 1992. Either policy had, or would have had, great hidden or overt costs: the costs of enforcing the no-fly zones for an indefinite future, the costs of maintaining rather questionable United Nations sanctions on a crumbling regional economy and society, the costs of extinguishing the huge fires set by Saddam Hussein in the Kuwaiti oil-fields, the costs of future fights picked by him and the cost of cleaning up after the genocidal and aggressive adventures which were his government's raison d'etre.

That the costs of putting an end to this nightmare were underestimated by one side in the argument seems to me to be obviously, if trivially, true. (The opposing side has never, to my knowledge, come up with a "costing" for the continued life of the bankrupt Baathist system, and the Bilmes/Stiglitz analysis doesn't even touch the point.) Does this mean that we can only do one form of accounting? I would argue that this is not necessarily so.

In the area of Iraq that was liberated from Saddam Hussein's control the earliest -- the Kurdish provinces in the northeast part of the country -- all objective observers seem to agree that an unprecedented prosperity has replaced what was once an unimaginable wasteland of misery. With their head-start of liberation beginning in 1992, the Kurds (who still have no refineries and little infrastructure) have nonetheless set an example for the rest of the region as well as of the country. And fresh prospecting has shown us that enormous new fields of oil, from the Sunni province of Anbar to the areas around Basra and Baghdad and Kirkuk, are becoming available to make every Iraqi as potentially rich as a Saudi or Bahraini or Qatari can now hope to be.

Furthermore, the development of these so-called "super-fields" can, first, abolish the previous system whereby Sunni dictatorship had to be exerted over the oil-bearing Shiite and Kurdish districts and, second, gradually undercut the regional duopoly currently exerted in the oil markets by Saudi Arabia and Iran. Do our celebrated economists care to put a price on that outcome?

Of the military cost I would simply want to make the same point in a different way: that the most important factors are unquantifiable, or at least unquantifiable by this sort of actuarial shorthand. A few years ago, we had armed forces that were quite able to remove a ramshackle yet horrific government in Kabul or Baghdad but were quite unprepared to tackle the much more agonizing and tenacious enemies -- a Baathist/Al Quaeda alliance, or a Pakistani Pushtun/Bin Laden coalition -- that had partly emerged under those ex-governments' shadows. Now, after infinite labor, we have armed forces who have learned in practice how to smash Islamist terrorism on the battlefield, and also how to isolate and discredit it in the slums and the villages. This is what we needed in the first place and still need, as it happens, in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and will also need in the future. It's not that Bilmes and Stiglitz don't present an alternative accounting process here: it's more that they seem entirely unaware of the whole calculation.

Innocent as they are on the above points, they become positively childlike as they go on. Think how many candy-canes and vacations I could have if it were not for the space program, or the cost of carrier-groups or special forces or -- I don't know -- Black Hawk helicopters. (If you think I am being unkind or frivolous, see if you can detect the thread of reasoning that connects Iraq expenditures with the crisis in the mortgage system.) There are days when I think that the money raised by Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama might have been better spent on the alleviation of poverty, but I can still tell an apple from an orange and am not hopelessly stuck on the zero-sum fixation. Once again, the economic "experts" turn out to know the price of some things but not the value of anything.

Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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