Cost-Benefit Analysis

I’d like to bring the conversation back to the subject of the war’s costs and benefits and the issue of whether the latter justify the former. Christopher Hitchens, in his post, asserts that such considerations are irrelevant. “One cannot know the price of anything in advance, but one can be determined to pay it no matter what, as in a struggle for one’s own life or for the life of loved ones,” he writes.

That seems to me an appropriate sentiment for a battle of national and moral survival, such as the fight against Nazism. But if anything is clear in retrospect, it’s that the Iraq war was not a fight for our survival. The best arguments advanced for the invasion in this dialogue have been either bank-shot strategic or non-strategic humanitarian. Absent evidence of weapons of mass destruction or Iraqi sponsorship of al-Qaida, explicit self-defense doesn’t come into it. And because choosing this war when we chose it was optional, a weighing of the costs and benefits is not merely appropriate, but the very heart of the decision. 

Dare I make a comparison to Vietnam? I’m not sure where Christopher stands on that war today, but I would argue that there was a price worth paying to prevent Vietnam from falling into Communist hands. Unfortunately, the acceptable price—in American lives, Vietnamese lives, public funds, distraction from other problems, social division, and so on—was far less than what we paid short of achieving victory. If we could remake that decision with the benefit of hindsight, I hope we’d all agree Vietnam was a mistake—not on grounds of absolute principle, but because the costs were insupportable.

Of course, one does not simply stop fighting a war, even an elective one, because the profit-and-loss tally shifts from arguably favorable to marginally unfavorable—an implication of Christopher’s I accept. Indeed, cost-benefit analysis can say we shouldn’t have invaded in the first place, but that now that we’re there, we should stick. We have already incurred most of the costs of going to war in Iraq and reversing course now would only serve to increase them—a point Mickey Kaus made the other day in his blog, in response to something Fareed wrote in Newsweek.

But that still leaves the question of whether our initial decision to support the war was wrong based on what we knew, or ought to have known, back in March. Most of you seem to believe we did not make a mistake. This afternoon, I’m leaning toward Fred’s view that we did.