An early post-mortem on the war

Okay, it’s not entirely over. But with the active fighting is done, it’s not too early to look up and see what we’ve learned so far.

1. First things first: it was much, much easier, on us and on the Iraqis, than anyone had any reason to expect it would be. Certainly fewer allied casualties, certainly many fewer Iraqi military casualties, and virtually certainly fewer Iraqi civilian casualties, than the first Gulf War.

Any war is horrible. But this was one hell of a lot less horrible than it could have been.

For anyone on (or at least near) the fence, as I was, the prospect of having to fight for Baghdad house-to-house, the prospect of an environmental and economic disaster as the oil fields were torched, and the prospect of dealing with chemical and biological weapons had to be part of the calculation, and none of those bad things happened.

Score one for the pro-war side, and for Rumsfeld & Co., whose “fast and light” approach seems to have paid off. I hope the colonel who had the bright idea of taking the palaces as a way of demoralizing the Ba’athists and convincing everyone else that the game was over gets to be a general very quickly. He deserves it.

[Update: Fred Kaplan has some questions for the military side of the post-mortem. He wants to know why we seemed so worried just a few days before the attack on Baghdad. Here’s an amateur guess: all the fussing was in part organized disinformation to get the Iraqis to let their guard down. [Phil Carter at Intel Dump has some answers to Kaplan’s questions.]

2. The evidence about crimes against humanity perpetrated by the Iraqi government is piling up fast. (Zelda who was and remains anti-war, has some good links, and scores points for intellectual honesty.)

Score another for the pro-war side.

3. The reception of our troops by the Iraqis wasn’t exactly a reprise of the liberation of Paris, but it wasn’t Vietnam either. Anyone who thought that the Ba’athists had any substantial mass support, or that opposition to infidels setting foot on the sacred soil of etc. etc. etc., ought now to acknowledge that a bunch of things one would have expected to happen if those things had been true haven’t happened yet. Pro-war 3, anti-war 0.

4. No target in the U.S. was hit by terrorists; the very real threat that there might be Iraqi, or Iraqi-influenced, “sleeper cells” ready to be mobilized into terrorist action the moment we crossed the Iraqi border. Again, the argument that some of the war might in effect be fought on our soil was a serious anti-war argument, but it doesn’t seem to have turned out that way. That makes the score 4-0.

5. But wait a minute. The occasion for the war was said to be the Saddam Hussein regime’s refusal to give up its weapons of mass destruction, and its links to terrorist groups. I for one never took the “terrorism” issue very seriously; I thought (and think) it was just a somewhat dishonest — and quite successful — attempt to mobilize post-9-11 sentiment in the cause of overthrowing Saddam Hussein. But the WMD issue was a serious one, and an important part of the war’s justification. If Saddam Hussein didn’t use those weapons this time, when was he going to use them? And where are they?

It’s reasonable to think that the speed of our assault, and perhaps the death or incapacity of SH himself, disabled what would have been Iraqi plans to use chemical or biological weapons. But if that were the case, they would have had to have been deployed. Any Iraqi major who could tell us where any of that stuff is, or even was, could made a good deal for himself. The fact that we haven’t found any is really fairly persuasive evidence that there wasn’t much to find. I’m still damned if I know why the Iraqis played all those stupid games with the inspectors if in fact they had nothing to hide, but my confidence that there really was a WMD program for us to disrupt is way down. And that, of course, was the central justification for the war.

Score a big one for the anti-war side.

6. The same analysis applies to the terrorism issue, though not with the same force. The fact that SH didn’t have, or didn’t use, terrorist ties that could have delivered a counterblow against the U.S. (or the U.K.) in response to the invasion doesn’t mean that he hadn’t in the past, or couldn’t in the future, have given them useful support, including access to WMDs if he had any. Still, the case for believing that SH was in bed with al-Qaeda seems even weaker now than it did three weeks ago.

Score another for the anti-war side.

7. The evidence that there exists an Iraqi civil society capable of supporting democratic reforms is, so far, roughly nil. Chalabi and his buddies are running around, but if anyone in Iraq is paying attention to them I haven’t noticed it in anything I’ve read. When we need policing done, we have to do it ourselves with MPs or recruit the police of the old regime. The only Iraqis capable of mobilizing other Iraqis to do things seem to be the mullahs. I suppose achieving friendly relations between Sunni and Shi’i has to count as some sort of progress, but so far the chief thing they seem to agree on is that they want the Americans out sooner rather than later.

It speaks well for us, and ought to put a damper on the viewing-with-alarm about “imperial conquest,” that the mullahs in question feel free to speak their piece and their followers to rally in the streets against the occupying force: that would not have been a smart thing to do in Austria or Japanese-occupied China in 1938.

[Update: Phil Carter is more cheerful about this than I am. He notes that Iraqis are getting a taste of freedom, and predicts that they won’t accept tyranny again. Well, the Iranians had a taste of freedom in overthrowing the Shah, but it turned out that the mullahs were able to impose another, and far nastier, tyranny instead. There’s every reason to think that Iraq is less ready for democracy than Iran was, and yet if Iran manages to throw off its theocracy in the next couple of years, that will mean a quarter-century between the first taste of freedom and a full meal.]

Of course, it’s still way too early to judge the outcome, but so far, I’d say, so bad. I don’t think we can take it for granted that any democratically elected Iraqi regime is going to invite us to establish military bases or allow us to control the oil, or that an undemocratic regime that does so won’t face serious and potentially violent opposition. And I think it’s quite unlikely that Iraq can have liberalism (e.g., free markets and religious toleration) and democracy at once, at least for now. I’d give even money against its achieving either one, unless we try a German- or Japanese-style long occupation and democratization, which probably wouldn’t be tolerated and wouldn’t work anyway.

That brings the anti-war folks about even, I’d say. The long-term foreign policy fallout, in the Middle East and elsewhere, remains anyone’s guess, though my impression is that it’s more likely to be net bad than net good. On the other hand, that the lives of ordinary Iraqis are likely to be much more pleasant over the next ten years than they have been over the last ten years seems like a very safe prediction. There’s a style of anti-war argument that seems to me fallacious: it consists of demanding a single reason as justification for the war, arguing that the justification in question, standing by itself, would not be adequate or would apply as well to other circumstances, and crossing that justification off. Why can’t it have been the case that the benefits of going to war included (1) freeing Iraq from a horrible regime AND (2) reducing the threat of aggression by a Ba’athist Iraq that might have, or acquire, WMD’s, and that the sum of those two benefits outweighed the costs?

So the bottom line for now is that I stand where I stood: for the war, but queasily, though I’m now queasy about a different set of worries. Naturally, the Bush Administration and the warbloggers are seeing mostly the good news, and some of them are having a good time making fun of those who predicted that the military side of things would good less smoothly than it did.

That crowing seems to me thoroughly unjustified, except as it applies to people who made firm claims about what would happen as opposed to offering warnings about what might happen. Any prediction about an uncertain event is, or ought to be, a statement of probabilities. Such statements are hard to evaluate in retrospect, unless you’re working on a large sample size.

If you put a bullet in a revolver, spin the chamber, put the barrel to your temple, and pull the trigger, five times out of six you’re going to be fine. That does not mean that you’re entitled to turn to the friend who was begging you not to risk your life with a triumphant “See? I told you it was going to be fine.” Keep it up, and one of these days it won’t be.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: