At Issue: The Iraq War


Are We Safer Now?

The recent departure of the last American combat units from Iraq marks an appropriate time to take stock: Was the war worthwhile? Has it made the U.S. more secure?

One way to approach this question is to compare the costs and benefits of the war. Clearly, the costs have been

John S. Duffield

John S. Duffield

substantial. Most obvious has been the human toll. Nearly 4,500 U.S. troops have been killed in Iraq and more than 30,000 seriously wounded. In addition, at least 100,000 Iraqis, mostly civilians, have died since the invasion.

To this we must add the tremendous financial costs. The total price tag could eventually amount to $2-3 trillion when delayed and indirect costs, such as caring for wounded veterans, are included.

Harder to measure are the geopolitical costs of the war, but these are no less real. A large U.S. military presence in a Muslim country combined with the deaths of so many Iraqis has provided a rallying cry for anti-American jihadists. The war diverted critical financial, military and intelligence resources away from Afghanistan. And it has emboldened North Korea and Iran to pursue nuclear weapons.

Against these costs we must weigh the benefits of the war. Certainly, the Iraqi political situation is much improved. Saddam Hussein and his repressive regime have been deposed and replaced by a democracy, and the country no longer threatens its neighbors. Indeed, a real possibility exists that Iraq could become a model for political reform and reconciliation in the region. If these positive changes hold, many may conclude that the war was worth the substantial costs.

The longer-term prognosis, however, is less clear. We do not yet know whether Iraq’s fledgling political institutions will strengthen or eventually be swept away and replaced by anarchy or new authoritarian structures. The country’s recent inability to form a new government and the resurgence of terrorist attacks are cause for concern.

There is, moreover, another way to evaluate the war, raising further doubts about its wisdom. Rather than compare costs and benefits, we might ask instead whether the resources the United States has devoted to Iraq might have been used more effectively in other ways to increase U.S. security. For example, the United States could have attempted to continue containing Iraq, as it had more or less successfully during the previous decade, at a fraction of the cost of going to war.

Alternatively, the United States might have tried to reduce the need to contain Iraq in the first place by taking steps to limit our oil dependence, the primary reason for our substantial engagement in the Persian Gulf. The transportation sector is responsible for two-thirds of American oil consumption. If the government had instead invested hundreds of billions of dollars in fuel efficiency, hybrids, electric vehicles and alternative fuels, how far might we have weaned our cars and trucks off oil by now?

If Iraqi nuclear weapons or terrorist ties were the real problem, the United States could have spent more on missile defenses, port and border security, and other aspects of homeland security.� Or we might have sought to promote our security by devoting more resources to political and economic development around the world.

Such questions are impossible to answer with certainty. But they are worth pondering, especially the next time the United States considers a major military intervention.

John S. Duffield is professor of political science and co-author of “Balance Sheet: The Iraq War and U.S. National Security.”