The greatest "opportunity cost" of all

Published September 16, 2004 7:37PM (EDT)

Last week, Salon documented the "opportunity costs" of the administration's decision to invade Iraq -- what the country could have done instead with all the resources we've committed to the war so far. Depressingly, the list of underfunded projects includes many vital domestic security programs that would seem to be far more effective in contributing to the safety of the United States than the toppling of Saddam Hussein -- for instance, bolstering the security of seaports and airports, and fully funding police and fire departments.

In "Bush's Lost Year," a masterful piece of journalism in the October issue of The Atlantic Monthly, James Fallows takes a deeper look at these opportunity costs of war -- and after speaking at length to experts "at the working level of America's anti-terrorism efforts," Fallows concludes that by choosing to invade Iraq, the administration more or less consciously decided to ignore the war on terrorism. The greatest opportunity cost of the war in Iraq, Fallows writes, is the failure to prosecute the war against al- Qaida: "Step by step through 2002 America's war on terror became little more than its preparation for war in Iraq."

And among national security professionals who aren't directly affiliated with either presidential campaign, Bush's decision to respond to the 9/11 attacks by attacking Saddam Hussein is universally regarded as "a catastrophe," Fallows writes. In two years of reporting, "I have sat through arguments among soldiers and scholars about whether the invasion of Iraq should be considered the worst strategic error in American history -- or only the worst since Vietnam ... About the conduct and effect of the war in Iraq one view prevails: it has increased the threats America faces, and has reduced the military, financial, and diplomatic tools with which we can respond."

An anonymous, "senior figure at one of America's military-sponsored think tanks" tells Fallows, "If I can be blunt, the Administration is full of shit. In my view we are much, much worse off now than when we went into Iraq. That is not a partisan position. I voted for these guys. But I think they are incompetent, and I have had a very close perspective on what is happening. Certainly in the long run we have harmed ourselves. We are playing to the enemy's political advantage. Whatever tactical victories we may gain along the way, this will prove to be a strategic blunder."

But the truly "startling part," Fallows writes, is that before deciding to fight in Iraq, the administration never once discussed the costs and benefits of such a plan to the larger war on terrorism. What would a war in Iraq cost in lives and in money that might better be spent for homeland security? How would the decision to invade Iraq affect the future of Afghanistan? Would a war in Iraq be more likely to improve or damage the U.S.'s standing in the Middle East? "There is no evidence that the president and those closest to him ever talked systematically about the 'opportunity costs' and tradeoffs in their decision to invade Iraq. No one has pointed to a meeting, a memo, a full set of discussions, about what America would gain and lose."

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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