The War in Iraq — 1,760 Days and Counting

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On October 19, 2001, in speaking about the new government controls and heightened surveillance already being clamped on the American people in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Vice President Dick Cheney said that the new war “may never end. At least not in our lifetime. . . . The way I think of it is, it’s a new normalcy.” We should have taken his grim forecast more seriously.

The U.S. attack on and occupation of Iraq, represented by the Bush administration as a critical element in the larger Global War on Terror, began nearly five years ago, and it shows no signs of ending soon. Indeed, if John McCain is elected president and (with help from his successors) carries out the not-so-veiled threat to keep U.S. troops in Iraq for a hundred years, then we can confidently expect that the war will not end in our lifetime. Such a prospect is so seemingly preposterous, however, that one’s mind does not readily assimilate it.

It is difficult enough to absorb the reality that the United States has now been at war against the Iraqis for almost five years. An engagement sold to the public as a “cakewalk” and represented just six weeks after it began as a “mission accomplished” has now (as I write) continued for 1,760 days. Compare this duration with the time the United States was formally engaged in World War I (589 days) or World War II (1,365 days). In the 1940s, the U.S. forces (with important allies, to be sure) defeated two major economic and military powers in a globe-circling war in less time than the U.S. forces have been engaged in Iraq.

And after all this time, where does the U.S. venture stand? Evidently it is no closer to the “victory” the president has repeatedly said he seeks than it was immediately after the occupation began. The 901 U.S. troops who lost their lives in Iraq during 2007 were the largest number in any calendar year since the war began. As 2008 begins, we read reports of a U.S. air strike on the outskirts of Baghdad in which B-1 bombers and F-16 fighters dropped 40,000 pounds of explosives, an attack described by Major Alayne Conway as “one of the largest airstrikes since the onset of the war.” The attack came only a day after six U.S. soldiers participating in a major ground offensive were reported killed in the “biggest one-day loss in Iraq since May.” These events do not epitomize minor “mopping up” activities. The war obviously has no end in sight.

Notwithstanding these inauspicious developments and Senator McCain’s bizarre pronouncement, we might well think in a more focused way about what will ultimately bring the war to an end, because it almost certainly will end someday. Given its nature, it cannot be ended as each of the world wars was ended, by the formal capitulation of an enemy state. Loosely organized insurgents and guerrillas do not stop fighting in that fashion. In view of the particulars on the ground in Iraq, it would seem that no complete cessation of armed hostilities can occur there until the United States withdraws its military forces. So the question becomes: What will induce a future U.S. president or a future U.S. Congress to act decisively to bring the troops home?

In the abstract, the answer is easy: U.S. authorities will extract their occupation force when they perceive that doing so is in their interest. Note well that I said, “in their interest.” Whether a U.S. withdrawal serves my interest, or yours, or that of 95 percent of the American people is not necessarily important, because government leaders do not act to serve other people’s interests. Anyone who has advanced beyond infancy in his understanding of political affairs knows that despite all the dutiful claptrap that political leaders and their functionaries spout in public, they invariably pursue their own interests. Those interests may be material, political, institutional, or ideological, but in any event they are their own interests, not yours or mine.

It follows directly that up to this point the continued prosecution of the war has served the leaders’ interests. They may say they are trying to end the war. They may have secured their election or reelection, as many of the Democrats now serving in Congress have, by promising to do whatever they can to end the war. Yet the truth is that they’ve sold the public a bill of goods. When the leaders have considered all the personal consequences they expect to follow from acting to end the war, they have concluded that, all things being considered, doing so does not serve their interest, and therefore they have refrained from doing so.

After all, it’s not as though the U.S. war effort has a mind of its own. Whenever the president wants to remove the troops, he can do so; he has the power. Whenever the members of the majority in Congress want to remove the troops, by stopping the funding to support them there, they can do so; they have the power. The posture of powerlessness that our leaders often affect — my goodness, what can I do? my hands are tied — is a disingenuous pose. They can stop the U.S. engagement in the war whenever they want to do so. Thus far, they simply have not wanted to do so.

What might cause them to reach a new conclusion about what serves their personal interest? Several developments might turn the trick. Nearly all of them work by heightening the public’s anger with their leaders’ decisions.

Historically, the decisive development in similar instances has been the cumulation of public costs, especially the costs in life and limb. In both the Korean War and the Vietnam War, the public’s disfavor of the engagement closely tracked the cumulation of casualties. As political scientist John Mueller showed in his book War, Presidents, and Public Opinion, “every time American casualties increased by a factor of 10, support for the war dropped by about 15 percentage points” in the polls.

One reason the public has continued to tolerate their leaders’ continued prosecution of the war in Iraq is that the casualties have not been nearly so great, by an order of magnitude, as they were in Korea and Vietnam. So far, not quite 4,000 U.S. military personnel have been killed in Iraq. That’s only one death for every 75,000 persons living in the United States, and therefore the loss of life has not cut deeply into the public psyche — most Americans have not been personally acquainted with anyone killed in the war. (The vastly greater loss of Iraqi lives seems to have made even less impression.) Sad to say, the public may not turn decisively against their leaders’ continued prosecution of the war until many more American soldiers have died.

Economic costs have also mounted, and they have loomed relatively much larger in this war than in the earlier wars in Korea and Vietnam. Who says the military leaders never learn? They’ve certainly learned how to increase hugely the financial costs of fighting a war. Estimates of the costs to date vary widely, depending on how one accounts for various joint, indirect, and implied costs, but a total cost to date in the neighborhood of a trillion dollars is not implausible, and later costs, including those associated with decades of care for the war’s legions of physically and mentally disabled, will add enormously to the total.

In earlier wars, even though the costs were relatively greater in blood than in dollars, the public eventually wearied of the economic sacrifices entailed by the financial expenses of continued fighting. Economist Hugh Mosley concluded that the Johnson administration “was reluctant to resort to increased taxes to finance the war for fear of losing public support for its policy of military escalation.” Historian Stephen Ambrose wrote that President Richard Nixon “realized that for economic reasons (the war was simply costing too much) and for the sake of domestic peace and tranquility he had to cut back on the American commitment to Vietnam”; the retrenchment was “forced on [him] by public opinion.”

As the recession that has just begun deepens, the public may well object more strenuously to the government’s squandering of such vast amounts of tax money on a senseless continuation of the war in Iraq. When their purses are not so full, people may resent every additional dollar spent on the war more than they did previously. Ultimately, they may become so angry that they will take actions to punish severely the political leaders who continue to support the war. Serious political challengers may attract a mass following by embracing the example of Dwight D. Eisenhower, who promised in the 1952 campaign to end the enormously unpopular war in Korea and, after he took office, kept his promise expeditiously.

When substantial negative feedback begins to jeopardize the personal job security, not to speak of the respect and fawning, the electorate affords incumbents, they will begin to take notice, and to discount more heavily the contributions from defense contractors, big financial establishments, petrochemical companies, and other high rollers who have encouraged them to stay the hopeless course — though not hopeless for these special interests, of course; for them it has been a bonanza. George W. Bush parlayed a campaign of fear-mongering into his reelection in 2004, but unless another major terrorist attack occurs in the United States, the public will grow increasingly resistant to such appeals and more eager to throw the rascals out as the war’s costs continue to mount.

It is extremely unfortunate that escalating costs in blood and money are the only proven means of bringing the general public to resist strongly their political leaders who are committed to a continuation of unnecessary, unwise, and immoral war. Some of us wish that rational argument, cogent evidence, and humane sentiment would persuade a preponderance of the public to demand an end to the war. History suggests, however, that only personal grief and economic pain will induce the American public to act against their perfidious leaders. Needless to say, if the public remains as passive and as easily bamboozled as it has been during the past seven years, the war will continue, maybe even for the hundred years in which Senator McCain declares that a U.S. occupation of Iraq would be “fine with me.”

Robert Higgs [send him mail] is senior fellow in political economy at the Independent Institute and editor of The Independent Review. His most recent book is Neither Liberty Nor Safety: Fear, Ideology, and the Growth of Government. He is also the author of Depression, War, and Cold War: Studies in Political Economy, Resurgence of the Warfare State: The Crisis Since 9/11 and Against Leviathan: Government Power and a Free Society.

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