Over at Shadow Government, Peter Feaver defends the cost of the Iraq War. His “sanctions were falling apart; we had to do something” argument has always struck me as a bit odd – had we invested a tenth of the diplomatic capital we spent on badgering the U.N. and assembling a coalition of the willing on containing Saddam, I imagine we could have done something to shore up the sanctions regime – but I’m more interested in discussing his broader decision-making calculus:
I believe reasonable people can look at that ledger (or a more complete version of it) and conclude that the Iraq war was not worth it. I also believe reasonable people can look at that ledger and conclude that the Iraq war was a defensible gamble or even the right decision. However, I do not think that reasonable people can seriously look at that ledger and conclude, as so much of the angry-shout part of the commentariat does, that all of the evidence stacks up on only one side of the balance sheet.
Even if you accept Feaver’s (highly-skewed) framework, it’s worth remembering that many war-making decisions involving the weighing of complicated costs and benefits – Iraq included – are discretionary. I admit I have a hard time comparing the abstract risks of regional instability and proliferation to the very real human cost of the invasion, but I suppose Feaver has a point insofar as the Middle East may have been more conflict-prone had Saddam remained in power. At the end of the day, however, this analysis includes untold numbers of independent variables, which makes it difficult for anyone other than an omniscient deity to accurately assess the war’s costs and benefits, which is precisely why “reasonable people” disagree vehemently over these issues.
So, given what should be an overwhelming presumption against war, death, violence and destruction and the difficulty inherent in any comparison that involves tenuous hypothetical scenarios and abstract considerations like stability and proliferation, shouldn’t our first instinct be to stear clear of these arguments altogether? Threats against the United States demand a response, obviously, but Feaver’s argument rests on assessing other, less tangible concepts like “regional stability.” If reasonable people can disagree over the merits of a proposed military expedition that bears no direct relationship to national security, I think it’s best to avoid that debate altogether and mind our own business.