Steel v. gold in Iraq

What if we were willing to spend what we’re now spending on military activity in Iraq on multi-lateral reconstruction aid and direct payments to individual Iraqis? Couldn’t we prevent a bloodbath without continuing to spill our own blood into the sand?

The only serious argument offered by those who want to maintain U.S. military presence in Iraq is that terrible things will happen if we leave.

Terrible things might also happen, of course, if we stay. And there’s no good reason to think that the terrible things that will happen when we leave two years from now would be any less terrible than those that would happen if we left by next summer.

So, unless you’re willing to contemplate a permanent U.S. presence in Iraq, the argument for sticking around depends on the plausibility of the claim that the aftermath of withdrawal will be less hideous if the withdrawal date is pushed back. That claim may be true, but I haven’t seen it convincingly argued. Instead, what we get from the opponents of a fairly quick withdrawal is wishful thinking: maybe if we keep buying time for al-Maliki at the cost of our soldiers’ lives, he’ll eventually figure out something useful to do with that time.

One factor ought that ought to enter into the equation has been largely ignored. Our current activity in Iraq costs a ton of money: roughly $200 billion per year. That’s nearly $7000 per Iraqi, or about five times Iraq’s GDP per capita. Imagine that instead of spending another two years occupying the place, we were willing to spend $200 billion on multi-national reconstruction efforts and give the other $200 billion away on a per-capita basis. The intolerable population transfers required for a “soft partition” option would be much more tolerable if every family that had to move could build itself a nice house and finance a small business in its new location. At worst, those payments could finance emigration on the part of those afraid to remain in Iraq.

No doubt the details would be complex. But the details of the current effort are surely no simpler. It is easy to believe that Iraqis as a group would derive more benefit from the money we’re currently spending there if we spent it in forms other than maintaining an occupation force.

That’s also true in retrospect; if we’d made sure that the paychecks kept flowing to the Iraqi military and civil service in the first months of occupation&#8212 a matter of a few billions &#8212 we might well have saved ourselves hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of fighting, and a couple of thousand lives and countless disabling injuries.

Of course, it is precisely those most eager to spend American blood and treasure on imperial adventures who are most reluctant to spend money alone on doing good in foreign lands. A mere $50 billion a year spent on easing the transition to a post-Soviet Russia (e.g., by providing housing for retired Red Army officers) might well have avoided the resurgence of Russia as a threat to its neighbors, and potentially to us, but the Bush the First administration never gave that idea any serious consideration.

It’s hard to avoid the inference that, for our conservative hawks, the blood-and-guts aspect of warfare is a feature, not a bug. Otherwise the preference for steel over gold as an multiplier of diplomatic force doesn’t really make logical sense.

As to the immediate problem, though, I think the best answer to the “bloodbath” argument is that we could prevent a bloodbath much more cheaply by flooding Iraq with dollars than we can by continuing to feed it our young men and women.

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