In retrospect …

So where do those of us on the left side of the political spectrum who backed the war in Iraq stand now? I’ve had several gloating emails from anti-war types, whose content can be summed up as: “Told you so!”

I can’t speak for others, but I stand about where I stood. I thought, and think, that going to war was debatable and risky, but on balance probably better than not going to war. I thought so partly on security grounds — better to fight Saddam Hussein before he obtained real WMD capacity than after — and partly on humanitarian grounds. (I’ve never been able to figure out why there has to be a single reason for going to war that, by itself, outweighs all the reasons not to go to war. We cumulate reasons in every other realm of policy discourse; why not this one?)

What’s happened since? The war went much better than anyone had any real reason to expect. The peace, too, has gone better than I would have expected, though not as well as the opium-smokers around Rumsfeld dreamed over their pipes, or as well as it could have gone if we’d had plans rather than pipe-dreams to work from. It seems certain that Iraq won’t be a functioning democracy and that our military will continue to take casualties and spend our money at moderately high rates for many months to come. But I’d factored that in to my thinking already.

The American people, who are always happy to support short, cheap victories and who were led to expect a much easier post-combat period, are getting antsy, but that’s GWB’s problem, not mine.

[A thoughtful and cynical friend who pays more attention to things military than I do says there’s only one way to deal with the security problems in Iraq: recruit Iraqi soldiers for an army that would have American officers. That way you get inexpensive locals doing the work and taking the casualties, while not having to worry about the loyalty of the officer corps. He says the Bushies won’t do it because it looks so much like a return to colonialism in its pre-WWII form.]

We didn’t find the WMDs I thought we would find, and it now seems pretty certain that, whatever plans the Iraqis had, they didn’t have much, if anything, in the way of bio weapons or an active nuclear program. So if that was the only reason for going in, the decision to invade looks much worse now than it did. (Does anyone have a good theory about why SH stonewalled the UN inspectors, given that he apparently didn’t have anything to hide but his nakedness? I sure don’t, and that was one of my reasons for thinking he had something before the war.)

Had I known on Day 0 that there weren’t any WMDs in Iraq, I probably would have been against invading. But that would have been because I was worried about a much bloodier conflict than we actually had. It looks to me as if we just got rid of a really nasty set of bastards pretty cheap.

If we aren’t finding any weaponized anthrax, we are finding lots of mass graves, so the humanitarian argument doesn’t look any weaker than it did. And the argument that the result of the invasion would be another massive terrorist attack on US territory seems much weaker now than it did when it was first offered.

So I wish the diplomacy and the occupation had been handled more successfully, and I wish there were political support for spending this sort of money on more cost-effective means of making human life on this planet safer and easier, but the decision to invade looks, on balance, somewhat better to me now than it did the day before the shooting started. And yes, I hope we do Liberia next — assuming we don’t have the nerve to take on Saudi Arabia.

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: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com