Friday, April 11, 2003

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Does victory in Iraq defeat the anti-war arguments?

Michael Kinsley's latest Slate essay strikes back at a lot of the pro-war commetariat -- including key players in the Blogosphere -- that are having a good time gloating at the expense of anti-war pundits. The subtitle of the piece -- "Victory in the war is not victory in the argument about the war." -- nicely sums up the argument.

Is Kinsley correct? Yes and no. He's correct that many of the anti-war arguments had to do with issues beyond the question of how the war would play itself out. The realist argument against the war was that Saddam could be deterred without the use of force. That counterfactual will be tough to check either way. The liberal argument against the war was that the costs of frayed multilateral institutions and estranged allies outweighed the benefits of regime change. We're about to find out whether that's true. The pragmatic argument against the war was that when you prioritize the threats against the United States, other menaces -- Al Qaeda, North Korea -- are more important than Iraq. Again, we're about to see whether the nine months devoted to Iraq will cost us in these areas of concern.

However, Kinsley is also being more than a bit disingenuous. All of these arguments are decision-theoretic -- they weigh the costs and benefits of different strategies. And what all of the anti-war arguments have in common is that their estimates of the costs were vastly inflated. Consider:

1) The human costs of war. Many antiwar advocates argued that Operation Iraqi Freedom would lead to a humanitarian disaster. This antiwar site has the following two paragraphs:

It is estimated that civilian casualties could be far greater than in 1991. In the Gulf War, 110,000 Iraqi civilians, including 70,000 children under the age of five and 7,000 elderly, died in the first year of war as a result of 'war-induced adverse health effects' caused by the destruction of infrastructure.

Estimates of civilian deaths range from 48,000 to 261,000 for a conventional conflict; if there is civil unrest and nuclear attacks are launched, the range is 375,000 to 3.9 million. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates 100,000 direct and 400,000 indirect casualties and that 'as many as 500,000 people could require treatment to a greater or lesser degree as a result of direct or indirect injuries.

The website's source for these numbers was this document, which contained this additional warning: "The UN estimates that 2 million persons will be internally displaced, including 900,000 seeking refuge in neighboring countries." (All of these figures, by the way, come from this leaked UN document).

It would be safe to describe all of these projections to be way off. Iraq Body Count -- which we would expect to overestimate the loss of life -- currently has a maximum of 1,413 deaths. Each one of those is tragic, but it's less than one percent of what was projected. The UN also states that there have been no refugee flows.

One of Kinsley's questions is: "What will toppling Saddam ultimately cost in dollars and in lives (American, Iraqi, others)?" The answer is: a hell of a lot less than you or most other antiwar critics believed.

2) The economic costs of war. William Nordhaus wrote an essay last fall on those costs (here's a nice summary table). His main findings:

Returning to the metaphor of war as a giant roll of the dice, we might say that the US could end up paying the "low" costs of around $120 billion if the dice come up favorably. If some dice come up unfavorably, the costs would lie between the low and the high cases. However, if the US has a string of bad luck or misjudgments during or after the war, the outcome, while less likely, could reach the $1.6 trillion of the upper estimate….

Even the upper estimate does not show the limit of fortune's frowns. The projections I have described exclude any costs to other countries, omit the most extreme outcomes (such as chemical or biological warfare), and exclude Perry's ‘worst’ case in oil markets. Moreover, the quantified costs ignore both civilian and military casualties suffered by Iraqis and any tangible or intangible fallout that comes from worldwide reaction against perceived American disregard for the lives and property of others.

It seems likely that Americans are underestimating the economic commitment involved in a war with Iraq.

Other economists envisioned even gloomier scenarios. Janet Yellen -- a respected macroeconomist at Berkeley who served in the Clinton Administration -- predicted doom and gloom a week ago.

Given that the war will likely be completely over in 60 days (the upper limit of Nordhaus' “best-case” scenario); the northern and southern oil fields were captured without significant damage [UPDATE: the last oil fire has now been extinguished]; oil markets have been unruffled; and none of the worst-case scenarios have come to pass, it would be safe to say that the dice came up favorably. However, both press reports and antiwar activists played up the potential trillions in economic costs.

As Nordhaus put it, "the record is littered with failed forecasts about the economic, political, and military outcomes of wars."

3) Regional fallout and "worst-case scenarios". The reaction of the "Arab street" was greatly feared during the build-up to war. Fragile regimes in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, etc., were projected to fall because of outrage over an American invasion of Iraq. Clearly, this hasn't happened. As one Arab journalist notes in the Washington Post:

Indeed, despite a war raging in one of the most important Arab capitals, there have been no reports of actual violence against American soft targets in the Middle East. We have not heard about Americans being killed or injured in Casablanca or Amman. This is a significant sidebar to this war that has attracted little comment. Dire predictions notwithstanding, Arabs did not rise up to destroy American interests in the Middle East.

(To be fair, this Washington Post update of Pakistan isn't brimming with optimism either.)

Here's what else hasn't happened: Israel wasn't attacked with weapons of mass destruction. Coalition forces weren't attacked with weapons of mass destruction. Turkey wasn't compelled to wipe out the Kurds. Al Qaeda hasn't attacked the United States.

United Nations officials, respected mainstream economists, Washington think tanks -- I'm not citing the fringe anti-war people here. All of these well-reasoned arguments were made in opposition to the war. And they were wrong.

To repeat, not all of Kinsley's or others' objections to the war were based on the immediate costs of the conflict. But a lot of the objections were based on comparing the costs of war to the other alternatives. And the antiwar estimates of the costs were -- just to repeat -- wrong.

posted by Dan on 04.11.03 at 10:11 PM