TCS Daily

Why the Weapons Matter

By Matthew Yglesias - June 19, 2003 12:00 AM

Writing in The Washington Post Senator John McCain recently posed a question to critics of the Bush administration's recent war in Iraq, asking "Does anyone believe that the United States, the Iraqi people or the Arab world would be better off if Hussein were still in power, if 8-year-old children were still held in Iraqi prisons, if Hussein were still threatening his neighbors?" As the continuing failure of American occupation forces to uncover weapons of mass destruction has put renewed pressure on war supporters, more and more have taken to asking similar questions, so the argument deserves a response. The question, however, is more complicated than McCain and other hawks make it out to be.

Of course in one sense it's not a complicated question at all. Saddam Hussein was a very bad man running a very bad regime and I'm not going to shed any tears over its departure from the scene. Nevertheless, as conservatives more than anyone ought to realize, one can't evaluate the merits of a government program by simply looking at whether or not it has accomplished anything good. Rather, one needs to consider whether or not the initiative in question accomplished more good than the available alternatives.

Consider a town where ten houses simultaneously catch fire and the local authorities only have the resources to put out one blaze. Seven of the houses, fortunately, are unoccupied, but one contains a single person trapped inside, while a second house contains a likewise trapped family and a third house has two cats inside. Then the fire marshal arrives on the scene brandishing a stack of evidence purporting to show that hidden behind the walls of the cat house is a secret day care center and dozens of small children will burn alive if the fire isn't put out. The trucks come, the house is saved while the other nine burn, and then the firefighters come inside only to discover that there was no daycare center after all, just the cats. All of a sudden the sudden the town is in an uproar - the fire marshal got the facts all wrong. Then the marshal turns to his critics, points at the saved cats and asks "would it really have been better if I'd just let these cats die?"

Well, yes and no. We're glad, of course, that the cats are alive, but the marshal is ignoring the dead people whose lives he could have saved if he hadn't been acting on bogus information about the day care center (why would he have lied about this? who knows - maybe the cats were stuck in the house because of his father's carelessness and he felt guilty about it).

Invading Iraq had some real benefits, notably in that it promises a better life for those citizens of the country who managed not to get killed by bombs and who survive the current shortage of clean drinking water and the attendant outbreaks of cholera and other diseases. But it also had costs - around two hundred coalition soldiers killed, tens of billions of dollars spent, over one hundred thousand tied down and unavailable for other missions, and an enormous amount of diplomatic capital burned. The question is not whether or not something good was achieved at the expense of these costs, but rather whether or not this was the best deployment of the country's military, financial, and diplomatic assets. The answer, especially in light of recent revelations about the weapons intelligence, is no.

At this point it still may well turn out that Saddam was storing some quantity of chemical weapons somewhere and that he was, therefore, in violation of various UN resolutions and that the war was justified in some legalistic sense (though not, of course, in the sense that the UN actually authorized the war). Nevertheless, it is clear that Saddam did not possess such weapons in a sufficient quantity to constitute an immanent threat to the United States. Notably, Saddam was nowhere near acquiring a nuclear weapon, and the evidence that he was actively seeking African uranium in order to build such a weapon is now known to have been forged.

But while Iraq does not have nuclear weapons, North Korea and Pakistan - two countries with appalling proliferation records - do, but the United States has already expended the political and diplomatic resources that could have been used to address the problem. Russia's nuclear arsenal, meanwhile, continues to be poorly maintained and secured and the administration has actually cut funding to programs designed to prevent this arsenal from falling into the hands of terrorists while spending billions to combat Iraq's merely hypothetical arsenal. Afghanistan, famously, is slipping back into anarchy and members of the Taliban and al Qaeda are regrouping away from the desultory Karzai government's capital in Kabul. So from the point of view of American security is it a good thing that Saddam Hussein is gone?

The answer, in a sense, is yes, but it would have been a far better thing if the Bush administration had focused on these other more pressing problems rather than choosing the glamour of a conventional war. From a purely humanitarian perspective, too, while those Iraqis who haven't yet been killed by errant bombs or lack of clean water will be better off than they would have been under Saddam Hussein, the world has hardly become such a pleasant place that there was nothing else the United States could have done to help. Money could simply have been spent on foreign aid, or if military actions are your cup of tea the US could have contributed to peacekeeping operations in the Congo or in Liberia. Everyone knows that America doesn't have the capacity to do everything it would be nice to do - we must choose our battles, both literally and figuratively. This is why finding weapons of mass destruction matters, not because I harbor nostalgia for the Ba'athist state but because I want to know whether or not the president has chosen wisely.

Matthew Yglesias is a writer living in New York City.

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