Monday, December 04, 2006

Counting the cost

The administration is still being a bit coy, but it is possible that this will be a key week in U.S. Iraq policy. The Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group is expected to release its recommendations Wednesday, and yesterday a leaked memo written by outgoing Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld two days before he resigned (or was fired) was published in the New York Times. On Sunday national security adviser Stephen Hadley (also subject to the leaked-memo syndrome) suggested that the president is ready to make “significant changes” in U.S. strategy in Iraq.

Few analysts have stressed the costs of various alternatives. To date U.S. taxpayers have sunk $340 billion or so into this war and occupation, and the ongoing cost is about $8 billion a month – even apart from the ongoing loss of life among American military personnel and Iraqis. It may sound cold-blooded, but it would be useful to apply the principles of cost-benefit analysis to the Iraqi commitment.
A ruthless dictator has been ousted from power. Although plenty of mistakes have been made along the way, tens of thousands of Iraqis have been trained for military and security duty, several elections have been held in relative peace, and thousands of Iraqis have gained experience in relatively democratic practical politics.

On the down side, many Iraqi security forces act more like sectarian militias than a national force for unity or reconciliation. Violence and the deaths of innocents have increased rather than decreased. The United States is less popular in Iraq and around the world than it was three years ago. We are steadily eroding the all-volunteer force, the backbone of U.S. military strength and harming morale in the National Guard and reserves. The commitment of troops in Iraq means resources are not available for other crises that could arise. The pursuit of Osama bin Laden and the terrorists responsible for 9/11 and eager to inflict further damage on the United States has been sidelined. And the entire region has been thrown into even more turmoil than usual, which could well bring calls for further intervention to fix the problems created by previous interventions.

Whatever the course in the next few months, it is important for Americans to absorb the lesson that intervention into the affairs of other countries is justifiable only if core interests of the country and the safety of Americans at home is at stake. That was not the case in Iraq, and we are paying a fearful price for our eagerness to decide for others how their countries should be run.

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