A recent study published in the British medical journal Lancet claims to have measured 650,000 "excess deaths" resulting from the US invasion of Iraq. (These include deaths indirectly attributed to the invasion, such as those resulting from the post-invasion weakness of Iraq's economy, basic services and infrastructure.) Opponents of the war are using this figure to bolster their argument that it was foolish and morally wrong; one commentator has even argued that America ought to pay reparations to Iraq in penance for invading.
Pro-US bloggers, most notably Megan McArdle, have been blasting the study's calculations, claiming that the final result is self-evidently grossly exaggerated. They may be right, but their quibbling over numbers, in my view, misses the point entirely. In fact, the number of "excess deaths" in Iraq since the invasion is probably quite high--presumably in the hundreds of thousands. But that that fact alone says very little about either the wisdom or the morality of the American action.
Consider the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The number of excess deaths it generated in Chechnya alone--to say nothing of the many other hotspots that have flared up within its erstwhile borders, the lethal effects of the economic catastrophe that befell the entire region once the command was removed from the command economy, and the associated surge in alcoholism, AIDS, and other health problems of the kind that invariably flourish when the social order breaks down--likely dwarfs the claimed total attributed to Iraq. And the prospects for democracy in Iraq today are arguably better than in the former Soviet Union, where most of the republics are currently experiencing a resurgence of Soviet-style government. Does it follow, then, that the end of the Soviet regime was a disaster, and that the countries of the West should have done their best to prop up, say, the 1991 coup plotters, to save the country from chaos?
Or consider post-Tito Yugoslavia. Again, Western countries had the choice of embracing Slovenian and Croatian independence, thus encouraging the breakup of the country, or of rejecting these secessions and encouraging the central government to exert its authority. They chose the former path--and hundreds of thousands died in the bitter, bloody civil war that followed. Can we conclude, then, that the West should instead have done what it could to shore up Yugoslavia as a unified state?
Now, one could in fact argue that the correct answer to the above questions is actually "yes"--that the fall of the Soviet and Yugoslavian regimes was a humanitarian disaster in the medium term, and should in retrospect have been impeded to the extent it was possible to do so. But to take such a position is to focus the blame for the post-collapse misery in a very strange direction. After all, the collapse itself may have made the misery more likely, but it's the assorted thugs, thieves, terrorists, apparatchiks, strongmen and so on who have made life miserable for their countrymen, instead of participating productively in the reconstruction of their respective nations, who have actually caused the misery. To blame those who permitted or assisted in the collapse of these nations' dictatorships for the subsequent chaos, rather than the perpetrators of the chaos themselves, is to assert in effect that that chaos was as direct a consequence of the disappearance of the previous dictatorship as of the actions of perpetrators--that is, that the peoples of those countries were doomed to fall into Hobbesian disarray when freed from the lash of an iron ruler.
Such assertions are not entirely unheard-of--especially out of the mouths of iron rulers themselves. (For example, it was the justification that General Jaruzelski used when declaring martial law in Poland in 1981: that it was necessary to stave off civil war. The then-Prime Minister of Canada, Pierre Trudeau, infamously concurred.) But such confident determinism ignores history's long list of seemingly unprepared countries that nevertheless successfully managed the transition to democracy. It also implies a level of contempt for the nations in question that ought to give anyone pause. (Consider, for example, the assertion that the horrible decay of Zimbabwe following the end of white rule was inevitable, and should have been prevented by perpetuating the subjugation of blacks. How, exactly, is the corresponding statement about the Soviet Union or Yugoslavia--or Iraq, for that matter--less objectionable?)
Then again, let us even suppose that in some particular case it's actually true--that a particular country really is doomed to collapse into chaos if a given dictator is removed. (Some certainly made that claim about Iraq--and even I was none-too-optimistic about that country's prospects for the kind of democratic renaissance that the more starry-eyed supporters of the war had hoped for.) Suppose, furthermore, that the current dictator of the country in question is a run-of-the-mill absolute ruler--not a monster of the Saddam Hussein variety, but a grey Party stalwart in the Brezhnev-Tito mold. Might one argue that in that case, at least, the dictator is preferable to the post-dictatorship alternative?
The problem with that argument is that dictatorships never last forever. The eventual collapse of, say, the Soviet Union was inevitable, and if chaos was certain to be the aftermath of its collapse, then that, too, was inevitable. It follows that the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 rather than, say, half a century later had no net effect other than sparing the population an extra fifty years of oppression under Soviet rule. The misery we are seeing today would have occcurred regardless, but by coming sooner, it hastened whatever improvement is likely to follow. If what follows is to any degree better than what preceded it, then the people will have benefited.
The catch in this line of reasoning, mind you, is that it assumes that what follows the current dilapidated state of the former Soviet Union or Yugoslavia will be an improvement on the Soviet/Titoist era. That seems quite likely, but I'll concede that a cynic might predict Soviet-like rule for those countries for decades or even centuries to come. On the other hand, it's hard to believe that what follows the current strife-torn state of affairs in Iraq will not be an improvement on Saddam Hussein, one of the most brutal dictators in Middle Eastern history.
To be sure, there is ample room for criticism of American handling of Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein (not that we'll ever know whether implementing any particular different strategy would have saved lives, of course). But the mere fact that the post-Saddam era in Iraq has been disturbingly violent in no way refutes the claim that the war that overthrew Saddam Hussein was every bit as justified on moral grounds (putting aside the enormous strategic benefits) as the US-supported political maneuvers that broke up the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. Indeed, given the unusual brutality of the Iraqi regime, the moral argument for overthrowing it is even stronger than the case for encouraging the collapse of the old Communist regimes. And even after acknowledging the ugly condition of some parts of the old Communist realm, who today seriously wishes that the Soviets and Titoists had never lost power?