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John Quiggin

Learn from iraq disaster

John Quiggin Australian Financial Review

17 January 2008

As we approach the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, and with levels of violence having fallen back from the extreme levels of early 2007, the war is starting to fade from the front pages and to some extent, from public consciousness. If we are to avoid making such tragic mistakes in future, however, it is important to recognise clearly the magnitude of the Iraq disaster. Unfortunately, the insulation from reality that has characterized the war’s supporters from the beginning, when they ignored the evidence of inspections suggesting that Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction no longer existed, makes this unlikely.

A stark illustration of this point can be seen in the reaction to a recent survey by the World Health Organization which estimated that nearly 150 000 civilians died violent deaths in the three years following the invasion, compared to only a handful in the years immediately before the war. Deaths from other causes have also risen dramatically, reflecting, among other things the collapse of the health system and the flight of as many as 20 000 doctors.

Taking account of the even worse violence in late 2006 and early 2007, it seems likely that the war has caused at least half a million deaths and probably even more. Yet supporters of the war have barely stopped to think about the dead. Instead, prowar commentators have focused on the claim that these results give the lie to an earlier study, using similar methods, published in The Lancet, which gave even higher estimates of 650 000 excess deaths.

The Wall Street Journal has led the charge, adding in the claim that the Lancet study was financed, for nefarious ends, by George Soros. Soros seems to be the target for conspiracy theorists of all stripes from former Malaysian PM Mahathir to Russia’s Vladimir Putin. The Soros foundation, did indeed provide some support for the second of two surveys, but there is no evidence to support the absurd implication that it rigged the results. The similarity between the WSJ’s paranoid theorising and that of dictators and would-be dictators around the world, upset by the Soros Foundation’s financial support for civil society initiatives is obvious and revealing.

Whichever survey’s estimate of violent deaths is correct, the war has been a catastrophe. Even the most conservative possible count, based on verified media reports is now apporaching 100 000 deaths.

By comparison with this massive toll of human suffering, the economic costs of the war, running at over $120 billion per year for the US alone, may seem trivial. But $120 billion a year would be enough to double the total amount of development aid going to the world’s poor and more than enough to meet the UN’s Millennium Goals for development, including massive improvements in

The Bush Administration has made some significant and welcome contributions to the global fight against AIDS, TB and malaria. But the $4.5 billion a year allocated to these programs could be covered by a couple of weeks of war expenditure.

The cost of the war will not end when the last troops are withdrawn, an event that still seems years away even if a Democratic president is elected in 2008. Rebuilding the capacity of the US armed forces will consume hundreds of billions more than has already been spent.

Beyond that, the cost of caring for the tens of thousands of badly wounded veterans and the even larger number who have suffered psychological trauma will match, or even exceed, current expenditure levels for decades to come. Plausible estimates of the total cost are as much as $2 trillion.

There is little that can be done now for Iraq beyond attempting to wind down our commitment without causing yet more violence and bloodshed. But it is important to learn the lessons of Iraq. Rather than trying to dismiss the evidence, or to put the issue behind us, we need to take a long look at the massive costs this war has incurred, and weigh them against the benefits that might have been achieved if policy had not been so exclusively focused on military action.

The ease with which the US and its allies, including Australia, were led into this war reflects fundamental psychological biases as well as failures in moral and economic reasoning. If we can learn to overcome these biases, and to turn rhetoric about war as a last resort into a genuine rejection of military force as a primary tool of policy, perhaps something will have been salvaged from this disaster.

John Quiggin is an Australian Research Council Federation Fellow in Economics and Political Science at the University of Queensland.

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