Saturday, November 17, 2007

The True Costs of War

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As the United States closes in on victory in Iraq, I'm noticing a new twist among antiwar types: Criticizing, for political purposes, the total costs of the war - financial, human, even opportunity costs.

Check out
Eleanor Clift's essay over at Newsweek for a bit of this theme:

The Democratic-controlled Congress is once again trying to change the course of U.S. policy in Iraq; once again they've failed. Without 60 votes in the Senate, the latest war-funding bill, passed by a narrow margin in the House and with a quarter of the money requested by the White House, fell short—and President Bush has emerged the victor. We've seen this movie before, except this time it has a new wrinkle: a huge drop in public consciousness about Iraq.

It's happened in part because American casualties are way down—even though this year has been the bloodiest since the war began. The news media have backed off in their coverage, paying more attention to a prospective military clash with Iran and the Musharraf meltdown in Pakistan than the day-to-day turmoil in Iraq. "The media requires change, and the story hasn't changed," says Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center. "People's mood about the war hasn't improved, but they aren't tracking it because they can't find it."

At a breakfast last week a reporter asked House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer if Democrats were so wedded to the story line of Iraq as a failure that they risked embarrassment if it turns out to be a success.

Whatever is meant by success in Iraq, it would have to be pretty spectacular to justify the $1.6 trillion that the war could cost by 2009, according to a report by the Joint Economic congressional committee, which includes such hidden costs as the interest on borrowed money to pay for the war and health care for tens of thousands of wounded. Administration planners assumed a certain number of injured and some dead, but not this many—not in a war billed as a cakewalk with grateful Iraqis strewing the path with flowers and candy. For the 3,859 fallen soldiers and their families, the cost, as they say in that American Express commercial, is priceless. With the exception of Cindy Sheehan, who took her rage public after losing her son, these families are hidden from view, partly because of their own choice, but also because of administration policy banning pictures of returning coffins and a society that too often prefers to look away.

Clift concludes her essay with a cursory discussion of the Iraq war in current cinema. Recent feature films on Iraq have bombed at the box office, most likely because the public's not going for antiwar moviemaking nihilism. Therefore, Clift focuses on the poignancy angle, suggesting that some releases are offering stories of "pain, loss and coping."

That's all well and good, even necesary: No American should dismiss the hardship our fighting forces have sustained. But we ought not feel sorry for them, and heartfelt films on the war should not be presented as surrogates for some broader national antiwar sentiment.

We are at a turning point in the war, where all of the costs we've borne as a nation are redounding to the benefit of the Iraqi people and to America's increasing international efficacy.

But one wouldn't know this by reading Tyler Cowen's essay over at the Washington Post, "What Does Iraq Cost? Even More Than You Think." Cowen offers some useful ways of thinking about the enormity of the war's costs to American society (for example, opportunity costs: What might we have done with war resources in the absence of the conflict?). But Cowen's agenda is deeper. His goal is to impugn the administration and discredit the cause of toppling Saddam's regime. We thus get more claims along the lines of it's "a disastrous war" based on "administration lies."

After laying out the bottom line, here's Cowen's indictment:

Following your lead, Iraq hawks argued that, in a post-9/11 world, we needed to take out rogue regimes lest they give nuclear or biological weapons to al-Qaeda-linked terrorist groups. But each time the United States tries to do so and fails to restore order, it incurs a high -- albeit unseen -- opportunity cost in the future. Falling short makes it harder to take out, threaten or pressure a dangerous regime next time around.

Foreign governments, of course, drew the obvious lesson from our debacle -- and from our choice of target. The United States invaded hapless Iraq, not nuclear-armed North Korea. To the real rogues, the fall of Baghdad was proof positive that it's more important than ever to acquire nuclear weapons -- and if the last superpower is bogged down in Iraq while its foes slink toward getting the bomb, so much the better. Iran, among others, has taken this lesson to heart. The ironic legacy of the war to end all proliferation will be more proliferation.

The bottom line is clear, Mr. President: The more you worried about the unchecked spread of doomsday weapons, the stronger you thought the case was for war in the first place. But precisely because you had a point about the need to stop nuclear proliferation, you must now realize that the costs of a failed war are far higher than you've acknowledged.

Ironically, it's probably the doves who should lower their mental estimate of the war's long-haul cost: By fighting a botched war today, the United States has lowered the chance that it will fight another preventive war in the near future. The American public simply does not have the stomach for fighting a costly, potentially futile war every few years. U.S. voters have already lost patience with the pace of reconstruction in Iraq, and that frustration will linger; remember, it took the country 15 years or more to "get over" Vietnam. The projection of American power and influence in the future requires that an impatient public feel good about American muscle-flexing in the past.

Even if the wisest way forward is sticking to our guns, the constraints of politics and public opinion mean that we cannot always see U.S. military commitments through. Since turning tail hurts our credibility so badly and leaves such a mess behind, we should be extremely cautious about military intervention in the first place. The case for hawkish behavior often assumes that the public has more political will than it actually has, so we need to save up that resolve for cases when it really counts.

Someone needs to break it to Cowen: This is a case that really counts. We are in Iraq to finish the job we began in 1991, and to enforce the will in the international community in sanctioning the Iraqi regime for frequent and egregious violations of U.N.-imposed sanctions. Rather than continue the tired old attacks on the origins and justification of the war, Americans need to be pulling together to compete the mission in national unity. That's the American way.

All wars are expensive, in all the financial and human totality of the word; and there's no discounting the burdens many Americans have shared in prosecuting this conflict.

But at some point the partisan rancor needs to stop. War opponents need to stand tall in facing our challenges, especially as a new American political alignment appears likely. The ulitmate cost of not doing so will be to continue the increasing and debilitating political polarization of foreign policy, precisely when the call of unity and purpose is at its loudest.