Saturday, May 07, 2005

270 dead in eight days

The horrific violence in Iraq continues unabated.

One of my more thoughtful pro-war friends has argued that the moral status of the Iraq War can only be judged in terms of a long-term cost-benefit analysis, something along these lines: if the price for ejecting Saddam, eliminating his WMDs, and establishing democracy in Iraq was

  • < 10,000 casualties => war clearly worth it
  • 10,000 - 100,000 casualties => war of ambiguous value
  • > 100,000 casualties => war clearly not worth it
Obviously one can debate what these exact numbers should be (and also whether casualties are the only relevant metric), but this seems like the basic, pragmatic view most Americans take on the war. Neither arguments that the U.S. has no right to invade other countries, nor the view that the war was an unconscienable geopolitical gamble seems to have moved the American people. But the simple cost-benefit view is, at last, bringing the moral catastrophe of the war into clear view.

What Americans understand is that in the absence of WMDs, for the war to have had any value whatsoever requires the establishment of a stable, secure democracy in Iraq -- absent which the war clearly won't have been worth it. But the point of the cost-benefit way of looking at the war is that even if, one day, stable and secure democracy arrives in Iraq, that still may not be enough to justify the mayhem that the U.S. precipitated with its invasion. Increasingly it looks as though we have reached the threshold or crossed the line where no matter how things "turn out in the long run," the human cost of the war will vitiate any long-term benefits to the Iraqis. We have reached the point, in short, where the only remaining argument in favor of the war is that we have had to destroy the country to save it. This is why most Americans now view the war as a mistake.

Unabashed pro-war hawks seem to have understood this, which is why the war is increasingly justified in terms of its larger regional or global value. But one has to be a true believer in political theory to think that country X can be justified in destroying country Y because of the putative democratizing benefits this will bring to country Z.

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