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Challenging Bush's Scorekeeping System for Iraq

Yes, the Iraqis are better off. The question is: Are Americans paying too high a price?

November 03, 2003|James Traub | James Traub is a New York writer who frequently focuses on international affairs.

President Bush explained last week how he was keeping score on the Iraqi conflict. Speaking on a day when at least 35 people died in a coordinated wave of suicide attacks in and around Baghdad, the president said, "The more successful we are on the ground, the more these killers will react."

By this terrifyingly blithe logic, we should soon be celebrating yet higher body counts.

A more honest way of describing the situation would have been: We are doing better and worse simultaneously, and we are doing worse in part because we are doing better. The president is plainly right in saying that the Baathists will go to any lengths to prevent a legitimate Iraqi government, and a democratic Iraqi society, from forming.

And it is also plain that, under American protection, the Iraqi people are beginning to form the rudiments of an economic marketplace and a civil society. And that, in the heart of the authoritarian Middle East, is a very great success.

And so if we ask, "Are the Iraqi people better off, despite all the death and destruction?" the answer must almost certainly be yes.

The other day I asked Kenneth Pollack, the former Clinton administration official whose book "The Threatening Storm" persuaded a great many wavering readers of the merits of invading Iraq, whether he was still glad we went to war, despite the postwar mess and failure to find the weapons of mass destruction that had justified the war in the first place. He said, "It's impossible for me to say that I would roll back time and take back the Iraqi people's freedom." And you can be sure that President Bush will be saying the same thing next fall.

But it's not enough to ask whether we have made Iraq better for the Iraqis. We spent precious lives and resources invading Iraq not to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe -- as in, say, Kosovo -- but to secure a safer world. We were acting primarily in our interests, not theirs. And so the scorecard must be designed to answer the question: Has the price we've paid made our world commensurably safer?

And, as Pollack concedes, our discovery that the regime of weapons inspections that lasted from 1991 to 1998 had been far more effective than we thought means that we might have purchased our security at a far lighter cost. Though we do not know whether Saddam Hussein has hidden large stocks of biological or chemical weapons, he appears not to have had the nuclear program Pollack and others feared. It no longer seems so naive to think that he might have been contained.

The threat was less grave, and so the gain, though still very considerable, is proportionately smaller. What of the losses? The expense in blood and treasure is hardly trivial; as many as 246 American soldiers, as well as thousands of Iraqi soldiers and civilians, have died since the conflict began, while our costs have been running at about $4 billion a month.

But those are scarcely the only costs. The arrogant and unilateralist fashion in which the Bush administration conducted the war had a ruinous effect on our relations with our chief allies. And the failure to act in concert with others, in turn, made the United States the singular target of wrath across the Islamic world. Even a multilateral war conducted with the consent of the U.N. Security Council might have turned Iraq into the jihadists' ground zero, but at least it would have made terrorism everyone's problem and not just our own. Now we must live with the consequences of our isolation.

Perhaps, given all we have done for the Iraqi people, given the possibility of creating a democratic model in the Middle East, given the swift termination of whatever weapons programs' Hussein was fostering, we still come out ahead on the scorecard. It will be, as Pollack says, 10 or 20 years before we know. But even this is too narrow a question. For the choice was not between invading Iraq and doing nothing, but between invading Iraq and using the tremendous sense of common purpose created by 9/11 to do many things to address the terrible vulnerability that was exposed that day.

What if, rather than pivoting from Afghanistan to Iraq, the Bush administration had led a worldwide campaign to uproot Al Qaeda? What if it had focused the world's attention on placing nuclear weapons and nuclear material under lock and key? What if it had declared that failed and failing states were no longer regional problems but global threats? But it didn't. Instead, the Bush administration tried to bully our allies into enlisting in a war so unpopular outside the U.S. that we ultimately exhausted our store of moral authority. It's going to take a pretty spectacular outcome in Iraq to balance that scorecard.

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