Consider these statistics (from this mostly dated Brookings report):
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Or these: Internet and Telephone Subscribers
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Or these: Index of Political Freedom (1-10, highest)
[Pre-war Iraq was certainly a 1.0.] A poll conducted last March found that 65 percent of Shiites and 87 percent of Kurds said that the “invasion was right.” Few (5%) Sunnis agreed but, overall, 49 percent of the population supported the invasion. (The poll results are in the Brookings report.)
Since the poll was conducted, conditions have greatly improved in Iraq. Security and other services are returning; whether or not democracy lasts, dictatorial rule seems unlikely to recur. Oil revenues pour in. The economy, thanks in part to the high price of oil, is growing (or perhaps was, now that the price of oil is down). The majority of the country—Shiites and Kurds who suffered grievously under Saddam’s reign—have significant political power. It is likely that if the poll were conducted today, a majority would agree that an invasion—of their own country by a distrusted and now hated foreign power—was “right.”
About one hundred thousand Iraqis have died as a result of the war; probably many more. Many others have been maimed, still others abused in various ways. Even with greatly increased political and (what has not been measured but is probably more significant) religious freedom, could these human costs be justified?
To answer this question, one needs to look at the counterfactual: how would Iraqis be doing if the war had not occurred. The status quo ante was one in which Saddam Hussein was in power but his power was constrained by a sanctions regime that had immiserated Iraq and indeed had killed many thousands of Iraqi children.
The sanctions regime, which began in 1990, destroyed Iraq’s economy (reducing GDP by as much as three quarters) and impoverished millions of Iraqis. Particular attention was given at the time to its effect on children. The contemporary critics of the sanctions pointed out that before the sanctions began, the child mortality rate was about 50 per 1000; during the sanctions, on one accounting the rate soared to about 128 per 1000 (click on "basic indicators" here). More conservative estimates were in the range of a doubling of child mortality. Using the more conservative estimate, at one million births per year, this works out to an annual difference of 50,000 children surviving to the age of 5 (for various qualifications, see here). Today, the child mortality rate is below the pre-sanctions figure, and so every year in excess of 50,000 more Iraqi children survive than during the sanctions. The data are hotly contested but the trends are unmistakable and will continue to strengthen if security improves. Meanwhile, violent deaths of civilians, while still far too high, are declining; a very cautious estimate of 500-800 per month, based on the most recent reports on the Iraq Body Count website, is much lower than the avoided deaths of children compared to the sanctions regime. A conservative estimate is that more than 40,000 Iraqis survive per year today than during the sanctions regime, and probably most of them children. The tight correlation between GDP and child mortality across countries bolsters this conclusion.
Let’s suppose that the sanctions regime had continued for 10 years, from 2003 to 2013, and further that security flattens out—it doesn’t get worse, but it doesn’t get better. Under these assumptions, 400,000 Iraqi children would have died if the war had not occurred and the sanctions regime continued. Now, almost 100,000 Iraqis died during the war, and so one of the war’s benefits is that it saves the lives of 300,000 Iraqis (over 10 years).
The sanctions regime did not just kill children; it also killed adults, though no one knows how many. It also severely damaged Iraq’s economy, which had already been badly harmed by the Iran-Iraq war. The 2003 war damaged it even more, but now the economy is recovering. GDP per capita (PPP) in 2002 was about $2400; today it is about $3600. Everyone hears about how bad electricity is in Iraq, but that is news from Baghdad. For the country as a whole, there is more electricity generation today than there was prewar (see the Brookings report). If Iraq continues to recover, Iraqis will be a lot better off, financially, than they ever were, even taking into account the financial and physical hardships of the war years. And the recovery will benefit (and has benefited) the Kurds and Shiites in particular, who were badly treated during the Saddam regime, though the Kurds (not the Shiites) benefited from the (expensive) U.S. security umbrella and managed to enjoy some autonomy in the north.
Finally, the sanctions regime contained Saddam and protected the Kurds, but Saddam was still a dictator, and he tortured, murdered, and oppressed his own people. Shiites now have a chance to influence policy, for the first time in memory. Whether Iraq is really a democracy or not, its political system is clearly a lot healthier than it was under Saddam. Corruption is bad, but it was also bad under Saddam, and the middle east is filled with corrupt countries.
The sanctions regime was heavily criticized and may not have been sustainable. Consequently, we should consider an alternative baseline – one in which it was lifted. During his reign, Saddam’s security forces massacred more than 100,000 Kurds in the north, and an unknown number—maybe tens of thousands—of Marsh Arabs in the south. He started a war with Iran that lasted eight years and killed at least half a million Iraqis and Iranians, and impoverished Iraq. His invasion of Kuwait resulted in a war that killed many tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians. After the 1991 Gulf War, he crushed Kurdish and Shiite rebellions at the cost of tens, maybe hundreds, of thousands of lives. An ever-present threat to his neighbors and to his own citizens, during both wartime and peacetime he caused ecological catastrophes by burning oil wells, draining swamplands, and more. If this was the alternative to the war, then the war made Iraqis and their neighbors better off (though they have ample reasons to complain about how the occupation was conducted).
As to whether it was in the American interest to confer these benefits on the Iraqis at vast expense, and virtually no gain, in security or otherwise, to itself – well, that is an entirely different question. I should repeat that it is too soon to tell whether the war gains will be preserved but there are grounds for optimism.