Is the Iraq war worth the cost?

Americans say "the result of the war" isn't worth the cost. But what is the result, anyway?

Published July 27, 2006 7:06PM (EDT)

In the latest New York Times/CBS News poll, 63 percent of Americans say that the war in Iraq hasn't been worth the cost. That leaves us with just two questions: What are the other 37 percent thinking, and how often did the pollsters let Joe Lieberman vote?

But seriously. The pollsters asked respondents, "Do you think the result of the war with Iraq was worth the loss of American life and other costs of attacking Iraq or not worth it?" It's sort of a trick question, really. On one side of the scale, you've got "the loss of American life and other costs of attacking Iraq." On the other side of the scale, you've got -- what? We've toppled the government of Saddam Hussein, and we've ... we've ... we've ... well, there really isn't anything else worth weighing, is there?

The "result of the war" can't include the elimination of Saddam's WMD because he didn't have any by the time the war started. The "result of the war" can't include putting an end to Saddam's evil schemes with al-Qaida because he didn't have any of those, either. "The result of the war" sure doesn't look like it will be a "free and democratic Iraq." And maybe peace and freedom and the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man will all go marching through the Middle East someday, but it's going to be hard to argue then that that's "the result of the war" in Iraq.

So what have we gotten in exchange for 2,570 American lives and about $300 billion so far? Or, to put a more relevant point on it, is there anything left to get in exchange for more American lives and more American dollars?

Well, maybe we could stop a civil war. But as Peter Galbraith wrote in a New York Times Op-Ed piece earlier this week, doing so would require the U.S. to "deploy more troops and accept a casualty rate many times the current level," which the Bush administration doesn't seem inclined to do and the American public wouldn't be inclined to support.

Instead, Galbraith argued, the Bush administration should encourage the creation of a Sunni region within Iraq, protected by its own army, and then move U.S. troops out of the new province and into Kurdistan, where they could be ready to swarm back in on short notice if the Sunni army isn't up to the task of protecting itself from "foreign jihadists." In Galbraith's mind, such a strategy would accomplish the only "overriding interest" that keeps the United States in Iraq: the hope of preventing al-Qaida from "creating a base from which it can plot attacks on the United States."

It's an interesting idea -- not altogether different from the one Jack "Cut and Run" Murtha proposed last year -- and it's picking up a "well, if we can't throw thousands more troops at Baghdad and invade Iran, too" endorsement from former Bush speechwriter David "Axis of Evil" Frum.

But as Glenn Greenwald notes, it's important to see what's being acknowledged here. America's mission in Iraq "has been reduced to ceding most of Iraq to Iranian control and acknowledging that a civil war is now inevitable and we can do nothing to stop it," Greenwald writes. "Worse, the only thing we can possibly hope to accomplish is to prevent al-Qaida from turning Iraq into its new terrorist training ground, something it was entirely incapable of doing prior to our invasion. Put another way, in exchange for the thousands of lives lost, hundreds of billions of dollars squandered, and destruction of U.S. credibility as a result of our invasion, the best we can hope for is what we already had -- a situation where al-Qaida cannot run free in Iraq -- along with a vicious civil war and control by Iranian mullahs over most of Iraq."

So, let's ask the question again. If that's "the result of the war," is it worth it? Was it ever?

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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