Eric Posner wrote a post arguing that the Iraq War and Occupation has been a net gain for Iraq on several measures, including economic growth, improvements in economic and political freedom, and lives lost. Tim Lambert responded here, collecting substantial evidence that Posner is wrong at least about the the war saving lives on net. Posner responded here, essentially conceding the point. (Hat tip: Andrew Sullivan).
An additional point not made by Lambert is that the true test of whether the Iraq War and Occupation is a humanitarian success is not just whether there is a net gain in lives (or any other measure), but also whether the resources spent to achieve that net gain could have been spent in some other way resulting in an even greater net gain. This is the idea of opportunity costs so beloved by economists.
Linda J. Bilmes and Joseph E. Stiglitz estimate the costs of the Iraq War and Occuptaion at $3 Trillion. That is a lot of money which could have been spent in other ways.
The United States is a rich and strong country, but even rich and strong countries squander trillions of dollars at their peril. Think what a difference $3 trillion could make for so many of the United States’ — or the world’s — problems. We could have had a Marshall Plan to help desperately poor countries, winning the hearts and maybe the minds of Muslim nations now gripped by anti-Americanism. In a world with millions of illiterate children, we could have achieved literacy for all — for less than the price of a month’s combat in Iraq. We worry about China‘s growing influence in Africa, but the upfront cost of a month of fighting in Iraq would pay for more than doubling our annual current aid spending on Africa.
Closer to home, we could have funded countless schools to give children locked in the underclass a shot at decent lives. Or we could have tackled the massive problem of Social Security, which Bush began his second term hoping to address; for far, far less than the cost of the war, we could have ensured the solvency of Social Security for the next half a century or more.
A good example is malaria, which infects more than 515 million and kills between one and thee million people each year. Yet, Jeffry Sachs estimates that malaria can be controlled for just $3 billion in aid per year, a tiny fraction of the estimated cost of the Iraq War and Occupation.
What this illustrates is the wisdom of the standard account of Just War Theory, which treats war, even defensive war, as a last resort. In the run-up to the Iraq War Pope John Paul II said “War is not always inevitable. It is always a defeat for humanity.” He was right. If nothing else, war is a terribly wasteful and inefficient way to provide humanitarian assistance. It results in deaths and other forms of destruction which have to be subtracted from whatever improvements are secured.