Was the Iraq War Worth Its Cost to the U.S.?

March 20 (Bloomberg) -- Ten years after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, Americans, Iraqis and others are asking whether the past decade of U.S. involvement in Iraq was worth it.

Some respond with a resounding yes or no, expecting the force of their reply to be sufficient justification for their judgment. The frustrating reality is that it is still too early to form a definitive answer. Rather than leave this emotional question at that, it is worth identifying what we are in a position to evaluate and to make preliminary assessments of the relevant variables, which are still too fluid to judge definitively.

Let’s begin by considering the factors we can reasonably appraise. First is that Hussein is no longer in power. Although a minority of Iraqis would embrace his return if it were on offer, most have greater hopes for a more meaningful life with him gone. Although violence continues, most Iraqis no longer have to worry about the arbitrary arrests, disappearances and killings that touched huge swaths of society under the Baath regime. Iraqis in the new security forces have died in significant numbers, but nothing on the scale of the hundreds of thousands who met their deaths as fodder for Hussein’s ruthless wars. Concerns about Iraq’s instability affecting the broader region remain, but the regime that invaded two of its neighbors in little more than a decade no longer rules to plot a third.

Second, Iraq has become a meaningful contributor to global oil markets. It now pumps more oil than any other member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries besides Saudi Arabia. Iraq is poised to contribute much more in the years ahead. This production has in part allowed the U.S. to pursue a sanctions-based strategy against Iran’s nuclear program and could prove critical to meeting global demand at a reasonable price if the world economy improves in the months ahead.

The Counterfactual

Let’s next consider factors that won’t grow clearer with the passage of time, such as the counterfactual. Some may imagine that, in the absence of the invasion of Iraq, the Middle East today would look much as it did in 2002: mostly stagnant and repressed, but more or less stable. There are, however, reasons to doubt this scenario, particularly when we consider Iran. Were Hussein still in power, Iran would probably be more quiescent in the region. But Iran’s nuclear ambitions would probably be even more intense than they are today. Hussein would have wriggled free from sanctions many years ago, reaped large windfalls from the high oil prices of the mid-2000s and, consistent with the findings of the Kay Report, continued the pursuit of the weapons that had eluded him by 2003. It is at least possible that Hussein would now have nuclear weapons. At best, Iran under the Islamic Republic and Iraq under Hussein would be locked in a race for a nuclear weapon, making the Gulf arguably the most dangerous region of the world.

Another factor about which we have scant new information is the opportunity costs of a decade of American attention and effort focused on Iraq and the political capital spent getting others to support U.S. endeavors there. These costs are hard to quantify, but certainly are significant. The U.S. might have paid more attention to the rise of China and shoring up its Asian allies, something to which it has turned belatedly. Or the U.S. might have concentrated more on its own hemisphere, helping it better integrate and meet its own energy needs.

One place where the outcome would probably not be different, however, is Afghanistan. Many suggest that the war in Iraq came at the expense of success in Afghanistan, although this claim doesn’t stand up well under scrutiny. The considerable resources devoted to Iraq are unlikely to have been allocated to Afghanistan even in the absence of the Iraq War. This is particularly true when we look at the early years, when the dedication of greater resources might have prevented the security and governance vacuum that created fertile ground for the later re-emergence of the Taliban. At the time, the U.S. expected to be fighting the war on terrorism in multiple engagements worldwide, which meant it couldn’t afford extensive long-term commitments to any one theater.

Remaining Variables

Last, let’s consider two other variables, crucial to the final reckoning, but still in flux and therefore eluding judgment. First is the domestic outcome in Iraq, which remains volatile and fluid. Iraq has built a set of institutions on paper, and to some extent in practice, that could serve as the foundation of a modern, democratic state. Its constitution, while imperfect, is one of the most progressive in the region. Moreover, in the past several years, Iraqi leaders have largely managed a number of core disputes through the political process, not through armed opposition or violence.

That said, there are developments that would weigh heavily on the positive side of the ledger, but none have come to fruition. Iraq hasn’t become a model to other countries for governing highly divided societies in a productive way. A related point is that Iraq hasn’t come close to meeting its potential as an economic, political or diplomatic power in the region because of corruption and internal divisions that create openings for the meddling of external powers.

Iraq also hasn’t demonstrated itself to be a useful ally to the U.S. It is conceivable that it could do so by helping to resolve regional disputes or that its emerging role in OPEC could bring significant indirect benefits to the U.S. and global economy. But neither has yet occurred. In fact, Iraq’s actual positions on issues like Syria have been more problematic than helpful. Had a security agreement between Iraq and the U.S. been successfully concluded in 2011, it is likely that Iraq would be a more forthcoming partner in these arenas.

Any grand tally has to acknowledge that the contours of the Iraqi state are far from being fully formed. Things could deteriorate badly, but it is also possible that Iraq will ultimately size up positively across the above dimensions. The situation in Baghdad today, however, gives scant room for optimism. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki continues his efforts to consolidate power. And the civil war in Syria is creating strains on Iraq’s still nascent institutions and the prospect of fragmentation is all too real.

Regional Role

The second variable still in flux, and critical to the final assessment, is the outcome in the broader region. Will the Arab revolutions of the past two years ultimately lead to a more stable and prosperous Middle East? Iraq’s role in instigating such revolutions is small compared with the domestic grievances in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen. But Iraq’s experience is related, even if not in the ways commonly imagined.

Few Arabs were motivated to emulate Iraq by watching events there from 2003 to 2011. However, in subtle ways, the region’s reaction to events in Iraq helped pave the way for the revolutions. For instance, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt allowed large-scale protests for the first time in 2003 to protest the Iraq War, providing Egyptian activists with their first lessons in mass mobilization. In addition, the destruction of one of the most brutal regimes in the region opened the eyes of some Arabs to other possibilities.

Moreover, still hanging in the balance is the confrontation between the international community and Iran. Iraq could well play a role in any plausible resolution to the current standoff, given its close relationship with Tehran and Washington and its long border with Iran. Whether diplomacy, military force or containment ultimately prevails, the U.S. will find the road easier if Baghdad is aligned.

Given the several still-undetermined variables and the wide variety of plausible outcomes, it is too early to bring final judgment on American efforts in Iraq even 10 years on. It is plausible that Iraq, for all the pain and trouble it caused, will eventually come to be seen as a good investment. It is also equally and, at this point, more conceivable that continued strife and sectarianism in Iraq will add to the turbulence of the region. Iraq may continue to be a headache at best, and a fundamental challenge at worst, to American efforts in the Middle East for years to come.

(Meghan L. O’Sullivan, a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and former deputy national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration, is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are her own. This column is adopted from a longer essay published in the American Interest.)

To contact the writer of this article: Meghan L. O’Sullivan at

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Tobin Harshaw at