The Iraq War in Perspective

06/04/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The second and still ongoing Iraq war was a war of choice, not necessity. To paraphrase what a French statesman of the eighteenth century said about an ill-advised and unwarranted execution, it was also a blunder. There were other viable policy options available to the United States to meet the challenges posed by Saddam Hussein. In particular, the sanctions regime could have been reformed to allow Iraq more leeway in what it could import but also to limit the resources coming under the regime's direct control. Inspections could have been designed to provide considerable if not total confidence that Iraq was not developing weapons of mass destruction. Odds are that Saddam Hussein would have remained in power, but his ability to threaten his neighbors and his own citizens would likely have been circumscribed. The United States could well have accomplished a change in regime behavior and a change in regime threat without regime change.

Some would grant that this second war was not necessary but would hasten to add that it was a justifiable or even desirable war of choice. The best argument for this perspective is the ouster of Saddam Hussein and the avoidance of a possible (but by no means inevitable) future in which Saddam broke out of constraints imposed on him in the wake of the first Iraq war and dedicated enormous resources to military might and adventures. Avoiding this certainly belongs in the plus column; the problem is the associated costs, which include the American, coalition, and Iraqi lives lost and diminished, the huge financial expense, the enduring strain on the U.S. military, the relative enhancement of Iran's position in the region, the rise in terrorism and anti-Americanism, and the hard to measure but all too real cost in the time and attention available to senior officials to devote to other pressing concerns.

George W. Bush inherited a robust economy, a budgetary surplus, a rested military, and, even after 9/11, a world largely at peace and well-disposed toward the United States. He handed off to his successor a recession, a massive deficit and debt, a stretched and exhausted military, two wars, and a world marked by pronounced anti-Americanism. I am hard-pressed to find another set of back-to-back presidential transitions in which so many of the basic features of the domestic and international landscapes changed so dramatically for the worse. The Iraq war of course cannot be blamed for all of this, but it absorbed a great deal of this country's resources and, as a consequence, contributed significantly to the deterioration of the absolute and relative position of the United States in the world. It is quite possible history will judge the war's greatest cost to be opportunity cost, the squandering by the United States of a rare and in many ways unprecedented opportunity to shape the world and the nature of international relations for decades to come. Instead, Iraq contributed to the emergence of a world in which power is more widely distributed than ever before and U.S. ability to shape this world much diminished.

To be fair, it is too soon to calculate additional benefits should Iraq stabilize and come to resemble the model society that many of the war's advocates suggested it would be. But such "success" is highly unlikely given the many fault lines that divide Iraqi society, and even if it were to come about, nothing could erase the considerable costs of the war. More likely is a future in which the costs of U.S. policy continue to mount (albeit at a reduced pace) and Iraq remains divided and falls far short of constituting a normal much less model country.

Still others would say that the principal problem with the second Iraq war was with its implementation, that it was a necessary and even desirable undertaking but that it was carried out poorly so that its costs were increased and benefits decreased. Wherever one comes out on the advisability of the war, it is hard to dispute the criticisms over the conduct of the war and its aftermath. Indeed, criticisms of such decisions as going to war with a relatively small number of troops, demobilizing (or not working to remobilize) the Iraq army, and extending de-Ba'athification beyond the most senior level are frequently made and widely accepted for good reason.

The one question that needs to be raised in this context is whether a "neat" and successful outcome would have materialized even if the United States had used far more troops and made far better decisions about how to manage Iraqi reconstruction. It is not at all obvious this would have been the case given the nature of Iraqi society and its political culture, although it is highly likely that things could and would have turned out better if policies had been better. There is no getting around the reality that the second Iraq war was a war of choice; had it been carried out differently, it still would have been an expensive choice and almost certainly a bad one.

Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, is the author of War of Necessity, War of Choice: A Memoir of Two Iraq Wars.