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November 24, 2008


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That's completely absurd.
There is one essential stat not included in the above estimation: http://www.iraqbodycount.org/

And it's not too soon to know for certainty that there will be much more to come as the country inevitably descends into civil war.

Brian Leiter

Eric, knowing that you are a skeptic about the idea of "humanitarian" military interventions, I can not escape the suspicion that this entire post is meant to be a bit, shall we say, "ironic." As you note, the war of aggression against Iraq by the United States and Britain has resulted in at least 100,000 civilian deaths, and perhaps many, many more; it has also created between two and three million refugees; and it has also, of course, resulted in hundreds of thousands of injuries, many serious and life-altering (I've not seen reliable data on this, perhaps you have). Against this litany of human misery caused by the invasion it does not seem justified to treat as the 'baseline' for comparison a sanctions regime that was itself wrongful and for which the United States also bore responsibility. (By this logic, of course, any time the U.S. wanted to launch a "humanitarian" war of aggression, all it would need to do is first commit some wrongful act against the target country, and then argue that a further wrongful act would, in fact, improve the situation!) The atrocities by Saddam Hussein's regime that you mention date from the 1980s, when he was, for all practical purposes, a U.S. and British ally, which supported his war effort against Iran and may have also played a role in supplying him with chemical weapons. By the time of the U.S. invasion, as you know, it had been at least a dozen years since Saddam had committed atrocities on a scale that would plausibly justify 'humanitarian' intervention. Indeed, as you know, Iraq was, prior to the invasion, probably the most progressive country in the Arab world with respect to the rights of women, whose post-war situation has deteriorated significantly.

In any case, since most of the preceding is probably well-known to you, and since I know you are a skeptic about the idea of "humanitarian" military interventions, my best guess is that your entire post is offered with tongue firmly planted in cheek, as a way of illustrating what a farce the idea of "humanitarian" military action is. So understood, I think your point is, indeed, well-taken.

Mahan Atma

There are a few glaring errors in your analysis.

First, this is demonstrably wrong:

"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 100,000 figure from Iraq Body Count only counts deaths from violence. Child mortality statistics capture deaths from *all* causes. You're comparing apples and oranges.

I can guarantee you that child mortality from non-violent causes shot way up immediately after the invasion, because of the relative lack of clean drinking water, electricity, prenatal care, and so on. But the Iraq Body Count would not have captured that excess mortality.

That's just one way in which the Iraq Body Count number fails to capture the true number of lives lost due to the invasion.

Overall, it is quite disingenuous to treat the Iraq Body Count stats as anything but an underestimate. The IBC researchers say so themselves:

"We have always been quite explicit that our own total is certain to be an underestimate of the true position, because of gaps in reporting or recording."

The IBC only counts violent deaths occurring to non-combatants that can be independently documented by two or more sources. The method is practically guaranteed to underestimate mortality, and they admit it.

Lastly, you might want to acknowledge (1) the large number of violent casualties (people who lose their legs, eyes, etc.), and (2) millions of refugees. I realize this is a lot harder to spin, but if you're purporting to do an honest analysis, it's rather required.


It's a good thing that the only two possible scenarios back in 2003 were 1) the war as conducted and 2) continuation of the status quo.

Otherwise, this "analysis" would be laughable.

Russell Burgos

Whether or not this post is tongue-in-cheek, the "humanitarian payoff" argument is often used by those still hanging onto the "we did the right thing" meme. Hugh Hewitt made this argument on his radio show while interviewing Georgia Senator Saxby Chambliss just last week.

And since we're certain to hear a good deal more of this kind of Iraq-triumphalism as President Bush's term expires and his few remaining supporters -- and past administration officials -- seek to produce some legacy for him, it's well-worth taking the argument seriously.

Having served in Iraq in 2003 and 2004, I have something of a vested interest in the outcome, and I think the Brookings Report does show that there has been "progress" on measures like Internet connectivity and television subscription. Do these things "matter" -- in a practical or even a metaphorical sense -- in evaluating OIF? I don't think the answer is obvious -- if war is worth waging to spread the Gospel of the Google, then I suppose the answer would be a qualified, "yes." I've often said to students, however, that the mere fact that there is measurable "progress" is not sufficient to justify the war under any circumstances. One needs not only a point of reversion (in the Brookings Report as elsewhere in the pro-war camp,
"pre-war Iraq") but also a projected point of comparison.

As far as the linear projection of the sanctions regime goes -- or the linear projection of Saddam's 1988-1991 abuses goes -- this is a different matter. The easy answer is that the sanctions regime could have been terminated with little or no further loss of Iraqi life.

Saddam was in no position militarily to start another Iran War (as my Iraqi colleagues call it), so the projection of battlefield deaths is unwarranted. He might from time-to-time has repressed various groups again, but given the likely maintenance of the no-fly/no-drive zones (if only to ensure Kuwait's defense), but almost certainly nothing on the scale of Halabja or the Shi'a after Desert Storm.

Indeed, one could theorize that he would have had an incentive to become a benign dictator after having "won" the battle of the sanctions.

I would take issue with Brian Leiter's suggestion that, in the 1980s, Saddam was "for all practical purposes, a U.S. and British ally," which I think overstates the significance and extent of the relationship by an order of magnitude, but that would be a different post. Suffice it to say I think there is an important difference between alliance and alignment, and in any event the years in which there was an alignment were roughly 1984-1988 and not "the 1980s."

Likewise, I think the notion that Iraq was the "most progressive" Arab country with respect to women is somewhat ahistorical -- true, perhaps, in the 1970s, but far less true by the 1990s.


The counterfactual question you ask ("how would Iraqis be doing if the war had not occurred") is correct. However, you cannot count the people killed by Saddam's security forces in the eighties as sufficient proof of the fact that an equally high amount of people would have been killed by his forces if the war had not occurred. At the time Bush decided to invade Iraq there was no reasonable expectation that Saddam would have done the same atrocities as before. Moreover, you do not consider (less-violent) alternatives to the Iraq-war (e.g. targeted killing of Saddam Hussein).


NO gain in security?! You simply lack any basis for that conclusion and we have a lot of reasons to believe to the contrary. How many attacks have been foiled as a result of intelligence gained from AQ assets in Iraq? You have no idea.

Our presence in Iraq caused the shutdown of Libya's nuke program and inhibited Khan's spread of nukes to rogue states. You don't see any security gain from any of that?!


Interesting post; it reminds me of a situation that happened in our home a couple of years back.

The wooden shingles on my roof were in disrepair and given the nearing encroach of autumn I was afraid that if I didn't fix the shingles immediately, that the wind, rain, and snow would cause permanent damage to the house. So, being the proactive type, I set to finding all of the loose shingles and hammering them securely back into place.

Of course, given the urgency I decided to use my forehead as a hammer. (I couldn't afford a delay of even a few minutes.)

A couple of times my forehead hit a very tough nail and I knocked myself unconscious. Moreover, one time I even fell off the roof and onto my neighbor, breaking his leg and the lemonade that mulled wine that he had made to sell at the market that day. Needless to day, his income that day--and for days afterward, given his now broken leg--was zero. I also had to incur some medical costs.

In the end, though, the shingles were fastened and the winter weather had nary an malevolent effect on the house. Looking up to see what I had accomplished, I was proud. My wife, however (who is much smarter than I'll ever be) asked me if maybe I could have achieved the same results on the roof by having used a hammer instead. I scoffed and admonished her for looking at both the costs and benefits of my action, not at the benefits alone, which would have redounded to my benefit.

Oh, well...


The Brookings report is interesting. But there's a problem. You say

"A poll conducted last March found that 65 percent of Shiites and 87 percent of Kurds said that the “invasion was right.” "

There is no such poll in the Brookings report. Perhaps you're linking to the wrong report.

In any case, as Brian Leiter pointed out, your argument doesn't make much sense if it disregards the possibility that sanctions on Iraq could have been lifted or softened without invading the country. Most observers had grown very skeptical of the effectiveness of these sanctions.

These sanctions made it practically impossible for Iraq to import the technological material necessary to build an Internet infrastructure. Yet, you applaud increased Internet access. (And in any case, how is increased Internet access a humanitarian victory?)

I'm open to an honest analysis of positive and negative repercussions of the invasion. But the above isn't even honest.

Kimball Corson

This is a little bit like saying we found the dead man face down in the mud vs. we found the dead man face up on dry land, smiling. It is also Bush’s legacy argument: in the long run when we are all dead, the Middle East will be more progressive and a better place to live because of the Iraq invasion. I argue the price is too high, especially if considered in present value terms. Too, there were a million better ways to proceed for such results. Even using the word "humanitarian" in juxtaposition to what comes to mind when we say the word Iraq is an oxymoron. Help us all, if this is a consensus on how we should think about these matters.


And how many Americans were killed in Iraq prior to the invasion? Guess we'll have to ask the 4 thousand families if it was worth it...


Are you insane? We did evil, but it wasn't as evil as the evil we did, so it's a good thing?

The RIGHT thing to do was stop those horrible sanctions built on our lies and self-righteous sanctimony. Virtually all of them were pointless to the construction of WMDs and were only enforced in order to, somehow, "encourage" the Iraqis to revolt while lacking effective means and support.

Tim Lambert

You have to work pretty hard to avoid the evidence that mortality, far from decreasing after the invasion, has increased. A Johns Hopkins study published in the Lancet found that there were about 650,000 excess deaths up to July 2006. A study conducted by the UN and the Iraqi government andpublished in the NEJM found that were about 400,000 excess deaths over the same period. Of course, both of these surveys missed the worst part of the violence in late 2006. Extrapolating forward, I estimate (click on my name for details) that, to date, the number of excess deaths is about 750,000 (using NEJM survey) to 1,250,000 (using Lancet survey).

There was an increase in child mortality following the imposition of sanctions, but the oil-for-food program seems to have put it back to pre-sanctions levels before the invasion.

John Quiggin

Actually, it's not a question of whether the sanctions could have been modified. By the time of the invasion, they had been modified The much-maligned Oil for Food program ended the worst effects of the sanctions, on which the argument above relies.

One reason Bush and Blair were so keen on war was to head off a further relaxation of sanctions, which seemed likely at the time.


Brian Leiter,

You can't have it both ways. If the sanctions were lifted, Saddam would have quite easily reconstituted his weapons programs. The Iraq Survey Group concluded that he had the capability - scientists, laboratories, cash, connections, designs, etc. - to do so, and that the entire purpose of his regime had turned to getting the sanctions lifted. (Several well-respected members of the "international community" had a lot invested in helping him do that.) No one could responsibly remove the sanctions without also removing the regime. I don't think this is seriously in dispute.

When you say that the sanctions regime was "wrongful," are you implying that Saddam would have used trade money to invest in Iraqi infrastructure and humanitarian aid? In that case, you probably think that Russia and France did Iraqis a favour by doing business with the regime and subverting the sanctions. The problem, of course, is that Saddam tended not to be so big on investment in sewerage systems and medicine as opposed to, say, palaces and jets. Which is probably why the majority of Iraqis favoured the war, and still do. That was one lesson of the Oil for Food scandal, so quickly forgotten.

As for your comment about the progressive attitude of Baathists to women, well, I probably don't need to add any colour. I suppose that this nuanced analysis takes into account the public beheading of "prostitutes," the systematic use of rape as a means of criminal justice, and the legalisation of "honour" killings.

Finally, when you say the war "has resulted in" 100,000 deaths, what do you mean? Does it matter who actually killed these people? You write as if 100,000 people died of anger when the Americans rolled in. But most of these people were killed by the theocratic Sunni and Shia elements, as well as the dregs of the Baathist loyalists - in other words, by the very groups America has been fighting, and appears to have defeated. To say that the removal of Saddam Hussein killed these people would be like saying that the Indian independence movement "resulted in" a million deaths and "created" 17 million refugees in 1947.

Sam Roggeveen

I've made three counter-arguments here, at the Lowy Institute's blog, The Interpreter:


Don Meaker

of course if Hitler had been stopped for a few thousand casualties in response to his reoccupation of the Rhineland, one couldn't ten assert that 50 million lives had been saved. After all Hitler might have transmuted at any time into a peaceful artist, and butterflies might have frolicked with the unicorns.

Of the 100 thousand some odd Iraqi deaths, most were inflicted by Islamic terrorists, some Sunni-Iraqi, some Shiite-Iranian, some from other counries. Those terrorists and their enablers deserve the blame, not those who fought against them. And the news media who encouraged them at every opportunity.

And NYC has seen Iraqi-Baath terrorist acts in the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993. The explosive was laced with cyanide compounds in an attempt to murder thousands.

Jari Lindholm

"To say that the removal of Saddam Hussein killed these people would be like saying that the Indian independence movement "resulted in" a million deaths and "created" 17 million refugees in 1947."

No -- the Partition and the disastrously hasty British withdrawal were responsible for that tragedy.

Brian Leiter

I am loathe to engage in debates in the comments section, especially with people like Mr. Goot-Brennan who simply make up the "facts" to suit them. I would suggest that readers follow the link to Mr. Lambert's site, who is well-informed on the general subject.


It's important in making this kind of retrospective to also take into account how things in Iraq would have developed, rather than just statically extending the sanctions from the status quo ante.

How would Saddam's Iraq have reacted to the Iranian nuclear weapons program, for example? Even if he had renounced any aggressive intentions he would have had to respond.

Remember, though we did not find actual WMD stockpiles, we did find numerous mothballed WMD programs that could have produced stockpiles (at least chemical stockpiles) within a few months. Also recall the attempt to buy missiles off the shelf from North Korea (amazingly this attempt occurred during the build up for war).

The sanctions were breaking down due to money coming in from the oil-for-food program and smuggled oil. France and Russia were actively working to dismantle the sanctions (until they reversed themselves in an attempt to avoid the invasion).

Remember also that it took surrounding Iraq with 250,000 troops just to get the inspectors back in.

Without invasion, then we'd have seen a gradually strengthened Iraq . Once the Iranian weapons program was unveiled, then we'd have seen an arms race between Iran and Iraq . This would have eventually involved nuclear weapons (they are, after all, 1940's technology). Such a situation would have certainly forced Egypt and Syria to nuclearize. Libya 's program was surprisingly advanced as well. Do we really think that Saudi Arabia and Turkey could be convinced to rely on the US nuclear umbrella in that situation? Even if so, tensions would be immense in the entire area. Think India-Pakistan times ten. Oh, and don't forget Israel in the mix. Because missile flight times are so short (small distances), the area would lack even the stabilizing effect of MADD (because a response to a massive first strike could not be guaranteed).

All of this occurring over the world's energy reserves. Not good. And what of Lebanon ? Jordan ? Afghanistan ? How would Greece react to a nuclear Turkey ?

Of course, Saddam's Iraq was unlikely to last forever. Either it would get passed on to his sons (even worse), or it would break up into civil war on its own. A civil war much bloodier and more destructive than the aftermath of the 2003 invasion. Besides the sectarian armageddon in central Iraq , Turkey would feel compelled to invade in the north and go to war with the Kurdish population. Iran in the south. Saudi Arabia and Syria in the west.

In short, you can't just project the prewar status quo into an infinite future. You also have to consider important, likely possibilities. Does the outcome of the Iraq invasion look better than any of those possibilities? Yes. Who knows what would have happened without invasion, but an Iraq frozen in 2002 is unlikely.


IF we kept this level of thinking then World War II was a humantirian success because it took money from the rich in america's banks to pay for food, jails, weapons and shelter for the Europeans thereby staving off a depression. Hitler got some of his money from American banks.

Mark Shapiro

Yes, please do read TIm Lamberts post at Deltoid, referenced above. Infant mortality was probably lower and the post-invasion deaths far higher than M. Posner's single data points suggests.

The no-fly zone was preventing much of Saddam's internal killing (and giving USAF cheap combat experience and target practice). Did the invasion prevent any terror attacks on US? No.

Anonymous Bosch

Tim Goot-Brennan,

It's a quibble, and has little to do with the original post, but I would posit that the invasion of Iraq is much more akin to the enactment of Partition -- an act of political regime change conducted with little regard to potential consequences, perpetrated by bureaucrats with little interest in or understanding of the complex social and cultural webs they were tearing asunder -- than with the Indian independence movement itself. You are right that the removal of Saddam didn't kill those people, just as the exit of the British from India didn't kill those people; but the way in which those acts were carried out certainly contributed to the carnage that came after.

By the way, does Don Meaker's post above count against Godwin's Law? Perhaps unicorns and butterflies are an effective antidote. :-)


I'll note here the two thigns that pretty much every commenter has missed.

First, thanks to Saddam Hussein's frequent violations of the cease-fire that ended the First Gulf War, we were entirely within our rights to reinvade.

Second, we had no obligation whatsoever to do anything besides crush Hussein's warmaking abilities, kill him, and leave again. That we have stayed, at great cost, to help rebuild a nation deeply traumatized by tyranny and to help the people of Iraq develop self-determination, redounds to our great credit. We have, by any measure, waged the most humane military action in the history of the world. We could have razed the entire country to the ground but we did not.


Bosch and Jari,

The point of the Indian analogy was that Britain's exit and therefore partition would not have occurred, or were much less likely to have occurred, without the Indian independence movement. But it would be absurd to blame Gandhi for the subsequent deaths. (The fact that the likes of Gandhi and Allama Mashriqi were opposed to partition is not a devastating point against the analogy - it is essential to it.)

To indiscriminately blame the Americans for the deaths that occurred after the toppling of Saddam Hussein seems grotesque, especially considering that a substantial numbers of these deaths were caused by the Americans' enemies.


Which facts are you talking about?

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