Sunday, November 29, 2009

Iraq debate round 1

What follows is a 3-round debate I had over e-mail with my friend Tyler. If you're interested, please read it and give your judgment of who you think is the winner. Feel free to comment on any of the notes, write me a personal message on Facebook, or send me an e-mail if you have questions, arguments, or complaints. This debate is available on my facebook page in a public format, so if you want your arguments to be seen by a slightly wider audience, you may want to put your comments there.


The war in Iraq has quietly left the public debate. As the violence and turmoil of Iraq has been pushed off of the front pages, there is the danger of losing sight of the importance and costs that the war represents. In this debate, I will show that the Iraq War has, on balance, been a major and costly mistake. This debate should not be seen as an attempt to Monday-morning-quarterback the Bush administration or to convince anyone that President Bush is personally culpable of any crime or purposeful malfeasance. It is my hope, however, that as we collectively acknowledge that the Iraq War was a dreadful and preventable mistake, and as we see the reasons why and how this mistake was made, that we will be able to prevent similar mistakes from being made in the future.

I propose that we should analyze whether the Iraq war was a good decision or not based on a cost-benefit analysis. In discussions about the Iraq War, it’s common practice for one half of the partisans to accuse Bush of “trading blood for oil” and the other half to accuse the first half of hating America and apple pie. Motivation surely plays an important part of the discussion, but I have no intention of accusing Bush, the Illuminati, or any of our secret supreme overlords of a conspiracy. In point of fact, the War in Iraq has largely been a tragic string of errors, miscalculations, and ad hoc justifications that don’t hold much water. How America chooses to proceed, if it learns anything from these mistakes, or whether we ever reach a consensus on how similar situations should be handled in the future are topics for another debate; no amount of discussion can undo what has been done, unspend money that’s been spent, or resurrect the thousands of American and Iraqi dead. Regardless of whether Tyler wins this debate or I do, in a very real way we’ve both already lost the important competition: the War in Iraq.

There are three basic reasons why, in hindsight, America should not have gone to war in Iraq: the war was founded on some crucial assumptions, all of which turned out to be false, the war has cost more than it could possibly be worth, and the war has uniquely caused and exacerbated a number of problems, each of which is likely more harmful than the original problem the war was meant to fix.

I. Incorrect assumptions

1. Saddam Hussein posed a threat to the United States. Whether or not Saddam Hussein ever had a credible nuclear weapons program, our occupation failed to recover any of it. Even our unpreparedness, our lack of a long-term plan, and our inability to immediately secure Iraq post-invasion could have been excusable lapses, had they been for the purpose of capturing a weapons program. Whether or not such a weapons program ever existed, it is not in the hands of the American military.
2. We would be greeted as liberators and would be able to hand over power to a credible political force. The naivete of this assumption makes me want to cry. To say that the Bush administration should have known better doesn’t begin to explain my disappointment in our past leaders.

2a) We have had recent experience trying to do nation building and playing with puppet governments. We assumed, however, that our current governments would somehow be more credible than the ones we set up in Iran or Vietnam, and with better results.

3. The Iraqi regime had ties to international terrorism that posed a threat to America. Although this was an implicit and explicit link that helped convince us to support this war, no evidence exists or existed that such was true, Bush officials have confirmed this fact, and we’ve all got egg on our face for believing this in the absence of any credible reasons.

II. Costs

1. Thousands of American troops have died (3477 in combat since 2001). Many thousands more (31571) have been wounded. It’s hard to put a value on the costs that our troops and their families pay. Our troops sacrifice willingly, which speaks volumes to their greatness, but makes our unpreparedness and flippancy in sending them to needlessly die all the more tragic. They deserved better.
2. PTSD. In order to keep enough combat-ready troops, the military has not done nearly enough to diagnose and treat psychological effects of the war like PTSD. The effects of this are both private tragedies within the soldier’s lives and public tragedies like the ensuing suicides and murders that are committed by afflicted troops.
3. $700 billion dollars and counting. Call me crass if you will, but I’d rather have spent that money in America.
4. The war in Iraq represents an opportunity cost on any number of policies that could have actually made us safer. I don’t want to debate the war in Afghanistan here, but for those who think that we need more troops there in order to win, the war in Iraq is uniquely preventing us from winning a war which is likely more important for our safety.

III. Results of the Iraq War

1. Knocking out Iraq has caused a power vacuum in the Middle East. Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas were all too glad to fill in that power gap.
2. We have further inflamed tensions between Muslims and the West. We no doubt helped recruit some amount of new terrorists and future enemies.
3. We made Americans easier to attack. Whereas as borders, anti-terrorist measures, and law enforcement efforts make it more difficult for terrorists to hurt and kill Americans, moving thousands of troops into a country with porous borders, embedded enemies, and a native population which includes people who hate us makes it much easier for them to inflict their revenge upon us.


The war in Iraq is the unfortunate consequence of poor planning, making incorrect assumptions, and in jumping to action before all the facts were in. We could and should have been aware of the magnitude of the decision we were making, yet the rhetoric supporting the war, the results on the ground, and the fact that we still have 145,000 troops in Iraq bear witness to the fact that the action in Iraq was superbly poorly planned, devastatingly expensive, and rife with unintended consequences. In my opinion, the costs of the Iraq war far outweigh its benefits.

Tyler: How would Iraq be different today if Saddam were in power? Specifically, are you assuming he would be acting the same way he has the entire time he was Iraq's leader?

Daine: I'm not sure how to extrapolate what Saddam would be up to in 2009 had we never invaded. It's likely that he would be doing as much as we feasibly allowed him to do. More importantly, he would probably be talking a much bigger game than would actually be playing. It's important to note that there were many ways we could have handled Saddam. The choice wasn't between giving Saddam status in the WTO or invading and executing him. My argument is that, of all possible actions we could have taken with Iraq, that invading was perhaps the single worst, least intelligent option given the data.

Tyler: Without getting too specific or opening an entire Afghanistan debate, why is it a priority for us to win there? Is defeating Al Qaeda a strong priority for the United States? What is defeating Islamic terrorism worth?

Daine: I'm not exactly sure whether the war on terror was necessary or prudent. The fact remains, my candidate lost in 2000, so I must defer to the style and tactics of the Commander in Chief. While I may not have chosen the tactics that Bush did with regards to Afghanistan (I supported, at the time, a tactic similar to what Biden now advocates), I admit that there was good evidence that Al Qaeda trained in Afghanistan, that Bin Laden was living there, and that not acting could have posed a significant threat to U.S. security. What should be noted for purposes of this debate, however, is that the logic and gains from Afghanistan are completely separate from the logic and gains of going into Iraq. There may be the incorrect linking of the two wars as part of a "global war on terror," but the evidence which led us to invade Afghanistan would not have been reason to invade Iraq.

I think a fair price for defeating terrorism is anything less than we could reasonably assume we would lose by not defeating terrorism.


On September 12, 2001, Americans and the entire free world gasped as we tried to comprehend what had happened and how we would move forward. We faced an enemy based out of Afghanistan, a place where empires go to die. Most of all, Americans realized that we had a very real enemy in international terrorism.

On that day, if we had been told that two years later the central front of the war on terror would be moved from the mountainous wasteland and hostile population of Afghanistan to a more open and familiar terrain, I suspect we would have liked our chances.

This is exactly what happened. As side benefits, we also:

1. Removed a brutal dictator who had a long history of causing trouble for the world
2. Established a democracy in the Middle East
3. Turned most of the Arab world decidedly against Al Qaeda and Iran
4. Removed a principle financier of terrorism against Israel
5. Secured a large oil supply for the world
6. Scared Libya into giving up its nuclear ambitions
7. Exposed serious corruption and embezzlement in the United Nations

I cannot and will not argue that the Iraq war was handled perfectly – no war ever has been. However, I contend that for the above reasons, the war in Iraq has had more benefits than costs for the United States.

I will now address the benefits I listed and then answer Daine’s reasons for opposing the war.

To what extent Al Qaeda was involved in Iraq prior to our invasion is a matter for another debate; however, no one can doubt that Al Qaeda poured numerous resources and fighters into Iraq after our invasion. Osama Bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders labeled Iraq a must-win and made it part of their jihad.

Unlike Afghanistan, where order has never really existed, Iraqi citizens knew stability and preferred it. So, a few years into the war, when Iraq was getting stabilized, Al Qaeda began bombing Islamic edifices in order to start a “civil war.”

Now let me make a very important distinction. Until this point, rank and file Muslims had been horrified by and mostly opposed to the actions of Al Qaeda; however, leaders of Arab nations (which, in their entirety, comprise a very small minority and relatively extreme group of Muslims) had mostly either been indifferent toward or tacitly supportive of Al Qaeda’s actions. This small minority was horrified by Al Qaeda intentionally killing Muslim civilians. They turned on Al Qaeda, and though they did not and do not love the United States, they were less willing to help Al Qaeda. This, by itself, was a huge long term step in the war against Al Qaeda.

When the United States implemented a troop surge, it gave Iraqi tribal leaders the cover to begin supporting us. The truth about “the surge” is that it won the war in Iraq largely by allowing citizens of Iraq to begin reporting Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups to our soldiers, without the fear of reprisal.

The result of all this turned Iraq into a quagmire for Al Qaeda, turning the Arab world against them, and giving us a venue to fight them with the help of a population.

Now let me address the other benefits previously mentioned.

1. Nobody denies that Saddam Hussein was a problem for the world.

1. In 1981, he built a nuclear facility, which was destroyed by Israel.
2. He later used chemical weapons against the Kurds.
3. He had biological and chemical weapons programs following the Persian Gulf War. We still do not know what happened to them as he refused to account for their destruction.
4. He murdered thousands, if not millions of his own citizens, to the point that the United States was regularly flying planes over parts of his country to prevent any future attacks.

And, worst of all, he stood to leave his kingdom to his two sons – both of whom were evil enough to have caused problems for the world for years to come. What other harm Saddam would have done to the world is questionable. However, giving the kingdom to one of his psychotic sons would likely have caused serious problems in the Middle East.

2. We have also established a democracy in Iraq. While the rest of the Arab Middle East struggles under brutal dictators, Iraq now is a democracy and supports the human rights we support. There is a reason no two democracies have ever fought a war with one another. America’s greatest allies today are nations we have fought wars with. While we won’t always agree with Iraq, and they may not become as close to the United States as Japan or Germany, they certainly are not and will not be the bitter enemy they have been since the creation of Israel.

3. This was addressed throughout the initial section on Al Qaeda.

4 & 5. In addition, as a democratic nation, Iraq is less likely to clamp down on its oil supply and cause further problems for the world. They are also less likely to fund terrorism against Israel – something Saddam did often. Alan Greenspan argued at the time for the invasion purely for this reason, calling Saddam’s removal “essential.”

6. Two final benefits must quickly be addressed. The invasion of Iraq scared Gaddafi of Libya into giving up his nuclear weapons program. He was building weapons of mass destruction to oppose the west, and was frightened enough by the invasion of Iraq to stop.

7. Also, the war exposed a serious problem in our system of diplomatic sanctions. A number of world leaders, including the family of the United Nations’ Secretary General, were trading around the sanctions. This rendered them ineffective and less likely to be successful.

Now I will briefly address Daine’s arguments.

Reason 1 – Incorrect Assumptions

This is irrelevant to a cost benefit analysis of whether or not the war was worth fighting. It may serve as an indictment to Bush-Cheney and it preempts some arguments I may have chosen to make; however, none of these arguments are reasons to accept Daine’s arguments based on a cost-benefit analysis.

Let me still address some of these issues.

I will grant point 1 & 2, insofar as they do not contradict my earlier discussions of these issues

Regarding 2a.

There is no question that the government we have established in Iraq is more legitimate than those created in Vietnam & Iran. It has been legitimately elected, and the local tribes have come to embrace it. This government can and probably will be a US ally in the Middle East (a region where we really need it).

1. Granted, though Saddam was involved in terrorism against Israel, as mentioned above.

Reason 2 – Costs

Daine has me here. This is where the real debate will be decided. It is indisputable that we have spent a lot of money and lost many good soldiers fighting in Iraq. I would contend that these resources would have been lost elsewhere had we not invaded Iraq (as mentioned above).

Reason 3 – Results of the War

Responding to Daine’s arguments.

1. It is difficult to determine how much of Iran / Hamas’ ascension has been due to Saddam’s removal and how much was due to rising oil profits. Regardless, these organizations are “small potatoes” compared with Saddam and Libya. Daine’s argument presupposes that Iraq would have been an issue if it had not been removed. We removed a problem here. Will others step up? Certainly, but we still removed one problem and a prime financier of the Middle East’s problems.

2. We may have inflamed Muslims against the West, but we also inflamed them against Al Qaeda. For the first time, Arab Nations have actively opposed Al Qaeda and rank and file citizens have helped in the fight. Nobody seriously contends that Arab nations will ever like the United States so long as it supports Israel; however, they now hate our enemies as well.

3. Turn: I believe we actually made Americans less likely to be attacked for two reasons:

1. We moved much of the fight from the mountainous difficult terrain of Afghanistan to Iraq. We were going to fight Al Qaeda somewhere. We chose to fight it in a country that was easier, not harder.
2. Al Qaeda used its terrorist attacks in Iraq against our soldiers. Had they not, they would likely have spent more energy attacking civilians on our soil. Our soldiers can better defend themselves than our civilians can.

If anything, our invasion saved civilian lives and put soldiers in a more friendly environment.

Daine: What, if anything, has Iraq's contribution to the world supply of oil accomplished?

Tyler: Iraq possesses a large portion of the world's oil and could significantly influence our economy by distributing it. By invading Iraq, we secured this oil supply and protected our economy. This is what Greenspan said and I agree.

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