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March 16, 2004

The Iraq War: Is the United States Better Off?


by Thomas Gale Moore

Before the Iraq war began, the President and his Administration claimed that Saddam Hussein was an immediate threat to the United States. The country had weapons of mass destruction and could use them against America or give them to terrorist groups. The White House talked about mushroom clouds. As we know now, neither nuclear weapons nor poison gas nor germ weapons existed or were being built. There was no immediate threat. Rather than admit they made a mistake, the Administration has argued that Saddam was a brutal dictator and that the Iraqi people are better off without him.

It is obvious that Saddam Hussein was a ruthless tyrant: he used gas on Kurds living in Iraq, tortured his enemies, and wantonly killed those who opposed him. But Saddam is not the only dictator around. Certainly Kim Jong Il of North Korea is worse. Then there are King Fahd and Prince Abdullah (Saudi Arabia), Than Shwe (formerly Burma, now Myanmar), Teodoro Obiang Nguema (Equatorial Guinea), Saparmurat Niyazov (Turkmenistan), Fidel Castro (Cuba), and Alexander Lukashenko (Belarus), each of whom has a claim to being at least in the same league as Saddam or worse. For the year 2003, Freedom House lists seven nations, including Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Turkmenistan, in addition to Iraq, as sharing the least civil and political freedoms. Certainly if security and a form of democracy are brought to Iraq, its people will be better off, although many of them do not see themselves currently as having benefited from the war. Many Iraqis have been killed (estimates range from 10,000 to 20,000); others have been incarcerated for months without trial or the availability of a lawyer; and many have lost their means of livelihood.

But what about the American people? Are they better off? As this is being written, 566 American soldiers have died in Iraq. The military reports that 3212 have been wounded; many of them will suffer permanent disabilities. So far the war’s cost to the taxpayer is over $100 billion and counting. We are committed to maintaining a large number of troops in Iraq for years at a cost that could greatly exceed $200 billion.

Almost without exception, the people of the world have opposed this war and anti-American feelings are running high nearly everywhere. Although the world rallied round after 9-11, there is now a strong antipathy to American foreign policy and a desire to see the U.S. humbled. The net result is to reduce the willingness of other countries to aid the U.S. in its war on terrorism or to be helpful in any other area of American concern.

If Americans were safer, this might be worthwhile. But this Administration’s foreign policy has created more terrorists, not fewer. As I write, al-Qaida has taken credit for the terrorist attack on commuters in Madrid that killed 200 civilians, asserting that the bombings constituted revenge for Spain’s support of America. The result of this attack has been the defeat of the conservative party in Spain and the election of the socialists, who promised to pull their troops out of Iraq.

In claiming to make the U.S. safer, President Bush has pointed to Muammar Gadaffi’s willingness to disarm as evidence that the war is producing peace. Martin Indyk, who as assistant secretary of state in 1999 opened negotiations with Libya, asserts that Gadaffi was trying to open up to the West and to the U.S. in particular well before the Iraq conflict. The war, he concludes, has nothing to do with Libya’s disarmament.

Consequently, even if we were to agree that Iraqis are better off now than before the war, Americans certainly are not. This unilateral conflict has already sacrificed American lives and continues to do so. It has increased sharply the federal deficit and cost the taxpayers dearly. We are certainly less safe than before the war. If we had spent only a portion of the funds that have gone into Iraq on routing out Osama Bin Laden and fostering peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis, we would be safer today than before 9-11. Unfortunately because of this senseless war, we are probably in greater danger.

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Thomas Gale Moore is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in economics and has taught at Carnegie Institution of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University), Michigan State University, UCLA, and in the Stanford Business School. He has written numerous peer-reviewed economic articles and several books.

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