What is the best measure of success to our expedition to Iraq?

I find National Journal an interesting and valuable website.  Esp their national security blog, which features brief provocative blognotes with responses from experts.  Here’s an example, followed by the most interesting replies.

A ‘New Dawn’ In Iraq, Or More Darkness?“, James Kitfield (bio), 22 February 2010:

This week the Obama administration renamed the Iraq war “Operation New Dawn,” ushering in an endgame of U.S. troop withdrawals over the next two years and a steady reduction of the U.S. role and influence in the everyday life of that nation. With national elections scheduled for March 7 as another milestone, we would like to ask exactly what you believe has been purchased with U.S. blood and treasure in Iraq, whether those gains can be sustained, and how they balance out against the costs.

And going from that macro view to the micro, do you believe that the Iraqi elections will mark a major step forward, for instance, in healing the fault lines between Sunni and Shiite, Arab and Kurd? Has a strong enough foundation been laid in terms of institution-building to sustain a unified and democratic Iraq, or will the country remain susceptible for the foreseeable future to civil war or military coup?

Will the United States military be able to keep to its schedule of withdrawing 50,000 troops by Aug. 30, and all combat troops by the end of 2011? What will the post-2011 U.S. presence look like? Are the Iraqi security forces capable of standing up as U.S. forces stand down, and to remain defenders of, and subservient to, a democratic government?

Most of the replies — all from serious experts — display unwillingness (certainly not from any inability) to run a cost-benefit analysis on the war.  Here’s one that raises a different and important perspective:  “The Measure of Most Things”, Michael Brenner (Prof of International Affairs, Uof Pittsburgh): 

There is, though, something missing – something of paramount importance. That is the effects on Iraqis themselves. Not Iraqis in the abstract, not as figures in a numerical category of sects. Rather, as flesh and blood and feeling persons. Frankly, most of the discourse about Iraq from day one has had a disengaged quality to it. That is the norm for dominant powers on the world stage; for the seminar strategist. That was not always the norm by which Americans referenced war and violence abroad in the 20th century when we truly believed in our proclaimed ideals.

To illuminate the point, here are some readily slighted facts.100,000 Iraqis are dead as the consequence of our invasion and occupation. Iraqis of all ages and status. That is the conservative estimate. Untold thousands are maimed and orphaned. 2 million are refugees in neighboring lands. Another 2 million are displaced persons internally. The availability of potable water and electricity is less than it was in February 2003. We did not do all the killing and maiming; we did most of the destruction of infrastructure. To all these tragedies we are accessories.

Digits make less of an impact on us than observed reality. That is always the case. And very few have been in a position to see the human effects of what our actions first hand. So let me suggest a way to approximate that experience. Go to your nearest cemetery; read and count the tombstones up to ten. Do that ten times, then multiply by a thousand. Try visualizing only half that number since it is in the nature of all of us to diminish drastically the affect and identity for those who are not part of our community. Step two: go downtown and watch the homeless. Multiply that number by 100,000 and cut it in half. Imagine.

Step three: go back to the office and reconstruct the Iraq balance sheet.  Does this imply that pacifism is the only ethically acceptable conduct? No – but it does give us a more honest fix on the meaning of what we have done.

“Let humanity be your ultimate measure” is a Confucian admonition meant to guide the behavior of officials. America today pays it scant regard.

Who are these “Iraqis” Brenner speaks of?   “Humanity” is perhaps too broad a perspective to examine the results of a war.  Looking at the peoples of Iraq yields a complex picture.

  • The Kurds almost certainly consider our invasion a benefit.  The cost in Kurdish lives has been small; the benefits to Kurds immense.
  • The Shiite Arabs almost certainly consider our invasion a benefit, well worth the high cost in lives.
  • The Sunni Arabs almost certainly consider our invasion a disaster.  They’re worse off, plus suffering high casualties.
  • The various minority ethnic and religious groups?  Just a guess, probably unhappy.

What about other ways to look at Iraq’s people?  For instance, women.  Much suffering by women, plus worse conditions by western standards. Replacing a secular State with one that an Islamic theocratic state.  How do they see this change?
We can more easily calculate the cost-benefit for America.  Disastrous results, converting a secular enemy of Iran into a Shiite ally of Iran.  Large costs.  That so many Americans consider it a success says much about the delusional state of America today.

For more information from the FM site

Reference pages about other topics appear on the right side menu bar, including About the FM website page.  To see all posts about our new wars:

Posts about the war in Iraq:

  1. The Iraq insurgency has ended, which opens a path to peace, 13 March 2007
  2. Beyond Insurgency: An End to Our War in Iraq, 27 September 2007
  3. Iraq, after the war, 20 May 2008
  4. Slowly the new Iraq becomes visible, 18 July 2008
  5. We collect our winnings in Iraq, 27 December 2009


Please email me if you have a correction to this post.  Or email me if you wish to make a comment and either have expertise in this field or are mentioned in this post. Send messages to fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

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