Time for another flip-flop on Iraq?

Now that many supporters of the war have had their mea culpas, its appropriate — given the annealing process that is the transformation of public opinion to written history — for the pendulum to swing back towards the pro-war camp. Eric Posner:

The sanctions regime, which began in 1990, destroyed Iraq’s economy (reducing GDP by as much as three quarters) and impoverished millions of Iraqis. Particular attention was given at the time to its effect on children. The contemporary critics of the sanctions pointed out that before the sanctions began, the child mortality rate was about 50 per 1000; during the sanctions, on one accounting the rate soared to about 128 per 1000 (click on "basic indicators" here). More conservative estimates were in the range of a doubling of child mortality. Using the more conservative estimate, at one million births per year, this works out to an annual difference of 50,000 children surviving to the age of 5 (for various qualifications, see here). Today, the child mortality rate is below the pre-sanctions figure, and so every year in excess of 50,000 more Iraqi children survive than during the sanctions. The data are hotly contested but the trends are unmistakable and will continue to strengthen if security improves. Meanwhile, violent deaths of civilians, while still far too high, are declining; a very cautious estimate of 500-800 per month, based on the most recent reports on the Iraq Body Count website, is much lower than the avoided deaths of children compared to the sanctions regime. A conservative estimate is that more than 40,000 Iraqis survive per year today than during the sanctions regime, and probably most of them children.  The tight correlation between GDP and child mortality across countries bolsters this conclusion.
Let’s suppose that the sanctions regime had continued for 10 years, from 2003 to 2013, and further that security flattens out—it doesn’t get worse, but it doesn’t get better. Under these assumptions, 400,000 Iraqi children would have died if the war had not occurred and the sanctions regime continued. Now, almost 100,000 Iraqis died during the war, and so one of the war’s benefits is that it saves the lives of 300,000 Iraqis (over 10 years).

Did I mention that I was against the war before I was for it and then abandoned the cause to only change my mind again?

8 thoughts on “Time for another flip-flop on Iraq?”

  1. So it’s agreed, then. We must invade Iran, Syria, Cuba, North Korea, and Venezuela. For the children.

    If you’re going for cost-effectiveness in saving children, aren’t there better ways to go about it? While by no means a trivial number, that 300,000 Iraqis came at a cost of over half a trillion dollars (and counting), around 4500 dead military personnel (and counting), about 10x that many casualties, and a good number of dead/injured contractors. If we are out to save lives, we would get more value by providing aid and security in hotspots throughout Africa.

  2. Assuming a life is worth $10,000,000 (see VSL threads some months ago) then those 300k children are worth $3,000,000,000,000. I’ll take your number on treasure (times two to get the decadal cost), add the cost in blood and that’s about $1,100,000,000,000. That’s a pretty good return if you ask me.

    Of course, if you assume American lives are worth more than Iraqi lives then… well, then you’re an asshole.

  3. That’s not my argument at all. I argue that you can save more than 300k lives by deploying those resources in other areas, using other methods.

    If you want to argue dollar values, your base investment is $1,100,000,000,000. Your return is either $3,000,000,000,000 or much greater than $3,000,000,000,000. Which is the wiser, more rational investment?

    Unless you assume Iraqi lives are worth more than anyone else’s, then you’re an asshole.

  4. I’ll bite (no pun intended). Here’s the WHO page on malaria. Some quick googling shows me figures of around 1 million malaria deaths among children in Africa, annually, with international aid at around $200 million annually. I’m seeing around $1.5 to $2 billion quoted as the requested amount of aid; this number seems to come from some plan in 1998 whose goal was to halve malaria deaths by 2010.

    This WSJ article (yeah, I know) puts US Iraq spending at around $6 billion per month.

    So, assuming the US singlehandedly bankrolled the whole thing, and the plan was viable, we could save about 400,000 children annually for 1/32 the price. Five years (counting from the Iraq invasion in 2003) gives me about 2 million children for $10 billion. Also a casualty number among aid workers a couple of orders of magnitude under the rates seen by the US military. If you want some really interesting reading that’s relevant to your interests, check out the estimates of malaria’s impact on economic growth in affected areas.

    I mean, if you want to argue that saving 300,000 Iraqi children is a nice bonus that takes some of the edge off of the mess over there, that’s fine. It just seems silly to argue that this is the best use of scarce resources for saving lives.

  5. This is the type of argument I love to see… someone should systematically analyze all the possible humanitarian investments and figure out which has the highest returns.

    Oh, wait.

  6. Neat link. I think I’ve seen second and third-hand references to that work; never did know what it was called, though.

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