Monday, March 20, 2006

Keeping Score in Iraq

As the US occupation and rebuilding of Iraq enters its fourth year, there has been a lot of discussion lately about whether the US is "winning" or "losing." Unfortunately, there hasn't been a lot of logical or sane discussion about what metrics should be part of such a judgment.

Of course, many people focus on casualties. For those who believe the US is losing, the 2,314 US troops killed and 7,912 wounded (with another 9,121 wounded but able to return to active duty), those numbers represent unacceptable deaths. For the other side, the argument is made that the total casualties in Iraq have only now equaled those of the worst month of fighting in Vietnam. Others focus on the cost of the war to the US, Iraqi casualties, the fact that a vicious dictator has been removed and is on trial for his crimes, or any other fact that serves the purpose of making a case.

But none of these really can work, as divorced from the justness (or unjustness) of the cause itself, no statistic can determine success. The question isn't whether more soldiers died in Vietnam or WWII, but whether the loss of US life is worth it to achieve the desired goal, and whether that goal has a good chance of being realized. If Iraq is a lost cause, or was a bad decision to begin with, then no loss of life is worth it. If Iraq did pose an imminent threat to the US, then 2,300 lives is small, though terrible, price to pay.

So, is the goal of deposing Hussein and building a democracy a worthy one, and is it likely to succeed? These are the $64,000,000 questions. The former is of course extremely subjective. I supported the cause of the war 3 years ago, and I do now, even the absence of WMDs. But I don't really want to discuss this question today.

Is the project likely to succeed? In the aftermath of the bombing of the Askariya shrine, Iraq seems to be teetering on the brink of civil war. Iyad Allawi, the former Iraqi prime minister, said today that civil war had indeed begun, while British Defense Minister John Reid and US General George Casey, the senior military commander in Iraq, disagreed. Is Iraq in a civil war? I would argue not yet. True, relations between the Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds are extemely strained, and death squads, militias, and killings are occurring daily. But the political process has not yet collapsed, and until it does, there is no civil war. Senator Joseph Biden has called upon President Bush to push Iraq towards a unity government that could help tamp down the violence and help stave off political collapse and civil war. This is exactly right. Democracy does not emerge from a totalitarian society full-borne. It progresses in fits and starts, and Iraq right now is in a dangerous place. Better to deviate from the pure electoral results to build a government that can claim legitimacy by virtue of representing all of Iraq's peoples and moving Iraqi society past this dangerous junction.

Is the project likely to succeed? Until the bombing of the Askariya shrine, I had been moderately optimistic (55-60%). Now, it's about 50-50 in my mind. I don't think you can gauge the chances by the deaths or the rhetoric. I'll be closely watching the nature of the new Iraqi government; that will, for me, go a long way to determining whether I believe that the US can "win" in Iraq.

UPDATE: Here is Gary Becker and Richard Posner on the costs of the Iraq War.

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