Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Opportunity Costs

The Knight Ridder Washington Bureau has a story reporting that according to the Iraqi Ministry of Health, US and coalition action has killed or injured 66% of the Iraqis killed or injured in the insurgency. It quotes an American military spokesman as saying that “damage will happen.” The spokesman also says that “the insurgents were living in residential areas, sometimes in homes filled with munitions. ‘As long as they continue to do that, they are putting the residents at risk," he said. "We will go after them.’"

James Fallows has an interesting article in the October Atlantic (not available online) presenting all the things we could not or cannot do (the opportunity costs we have incurred) as a result of invading Iraq. The last paragraph reads in part:

The administration’s focus on Iraq “hampered the campaign in Afghanistan before fighting began and wound it down prematurely, along the way losing the chance to capture Osama bin laden. [Because of its focus on Iraq, the administration] turned a blind eye . . . to WMD threats from North Korea and Iran far more serious than any posed by Saddam Hussein . . . It overused and wore out its army in invading Iraq—without committing enough troops for a successful occupation. It saddled the United States with ongoing costs that dwarf its spending for domestic security. . . .”

Discussions - 3 Comments

Sorry, but Fallows doesn’t impress me. Take his "turned a blind eye to Iran and North Korea" comment. This is a post hoc version of the antiwar talking point of late 2002 and early 2003 that Iran and North Korea were bigger threats than Iraq that Bush was ignoring.

But this has always been a red herring. None of the antiwar types or lib journos (like our man Fallows) who mouthed this line were seriously recommending military action against either of those countries. Instead, it was just another idle dart to toss at Bush, from a standpoint that could allow the tosser to posture as putatively "tough" on national-security issues.

The Administration has hardly been "blind" to the problem of NoKo and Iranian WMDs (though I do wish that somebody would tell Richard Armitage to stop calling the latter country a "democracy"). While fighting in Iraq, Bush has been trying to use means short of war to bring those two bad actors to heel, and the critics like Fallows would not have wanted him to do anything more than that, Iraq war or no Iraq war.

So could we please see this talking point for the phony rhetorical ploy tht it is?

FWIW, btw, any military option in either NE Asia or Iran is probably not going to involve a large ground invasion, anyway, so the idea that we’ve "tied ourselves down" in Iraq doesn’t have much force.

Just to be clear where I stand, I’m not at all sure that we HAVE effective military options against either country’s WMD program, in part b/c a limited escalation approach won’t be available in either case (OK, maybe in Iran, but almost certainly not in NoKo, given their probable possession already of nukes and the sheer number of conventional artillery tubes that Kim has leveled against Seoul from a distance not much farther than that which separates Washington from Baltimore).

So if we go against either regime, we’ll probably have to try and decapitate its key personnel while at the same time massively bombarding all known or suspected parts of its weapons infrastructure and ability to mount offensive military operations. This will mean massive aerial and offshore-missile bombardment, however, and not a huge ground incursion.

What I’m saying is that in both countries, we almost certainly do not have available a "surgical" option of "disarmament by bunker buster," but will have to go the full monty toward destroying each regime and its warmaking and overall coercive capacity. (In other words, you don’t wound a dangerous beast, you kill it.) It’s entirely conceivable that tactical nukes could be required to do such a job--a very, very scary thought which I truly hate bringing up, but there it is. Yet all this was so even before March 19, 2003, so Operation Iraqi Freedom has meant no change in that regard.

PJC -- Your comments make some sense but only from the narrow military view you take and only with regard to Iran and North Korea. Your response says nothing about Iraq as detracting from our efforts in Afhganistan and against bin Laden or the money spent in Iraq that could have been spent on other things, such as domestic security. If stopping nuclear material getting into the hands of terrorists is important, should the administration have not spent and done more with the Russians to secure this material in the former Soviet Union?

Dr. Tucker, thank you for your rejoinder. Here’s what I would offer in reply:

Of course there’s a general sense in which you’re right about "opportunity costs."

Given that all resources are relatively scarce, if you apply a certain amount of resources to A then it follows that you can’t apply them simultaneously to B. But in this sense, I could criticize the Department of the Interior on the grounds that money we give it to spend on national parks and the Smithsonian every year could go for border security or gathering up loose ex-Soviet nuke material.

Or I could argue that Lincoln "diverted" Grant from taking on Lee in Virginia with all the force the North could muster in 1864 by deciding to have the Union field large and offensive-capable armies far from Richmond on the other side of the Appalachians (or one could argue the converse and say Sherman’s effort was crucial and blast Grant’s Overland Campaign for diverting men from the march on Atlanta and thence to the sea). The point in either case is that one could cry "diversion!" and be at least arguably correct in a formal sense, albeit not necessarily in an especially meaningful one, given the overall context of events.

But on to contemporary specifics. As for Afghanistan, while I’m certainly open to the idea of a somewhat larger US "footprint" there (even though things seem to be going guardedly well at the moment [see the bottom of this post]), I haven’t heard any serious person say we would need to send 100,000 or more troops--it’s more like a brigade or two, with some more NATO forces tossed into the bargain to beef up ISAF outside of Kabul.

As for nailing OBL and company, I think that’s again not a matter of huge troop numbers so much as pressuring the Pakistanis to cooperate more sincerely and fully and rouse up better intel--assuming, that is, that OBL is still alive, which I regard as a matter of some doubt. If OBL is in the mountains of Pushtunistan along the Afghan-Pak border, the obstacle to finding him is basically political, and not a matter of massive numbers of additional boots on the ground.

On border security and nuke collection, I’d say if we need to make faster progress in these areas (and I believe we do), then let’s use the remaining vast resources of our $11-trillion per year economy to do it, and stop wasting time and breath recycling tired Demo talking points about how badly Operation Iraqi Freedom--an op that I would argue still remains strategically valuable and promising despite all its risks and difficulties so far--has "diverted" our (implicitly) helpless selves from doing what we need to do on other fronts of the war against violent Islamofascism. As Mark Helprin has pointed out, we are spending a much lower share of GDP on national security now--with 130K troops in Iraq--than we did for most of the Cold War, and just a tiny fraction of the massive percentage that we spent during WWII. So it’s not like we’re really that stretched in any fundamental sense. It’s really a matter of focus and willpower, not of overwhelmingly scarce material resources.

PS: Peter Bergen (not to my knowledge a fan of Bush or the Iraq op) argues here that things are going relatively well in Afghanistan:

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