Too many people have died in Iraq and too many people are dying there - and this is to say nothing of the wider social disaster that has overtaken the country, the numbers of the dead aside.
The above is not intended as a comment on the latest Lancet report. I didn't comment on the first one, not by so much as a syllable, and I don't mean to depart from that self-imposed restraint. I didn't comment then and neither will I now, for three reasons.
First, I lack the statistical competence to be able to judge these reports. Second, beyond any matter of technical competence, I don't know how - morally, humanly - to deal in calculations that say that n deaths (where n is a very large number) are an acceptable price to pay for some putatively desirable end result. (It is noticeable, in this regard, that opponents of the war who were always confident its costs would be too high don't avoid the difficulty; at any rate I've not seen judgements from their side of what costs they would have found acceptable, nor estimates of what the costs of leaving Saddam in power would have been - something which nobody really knows.) Third, and for that reason, at the levels of mortality and suffering now involved I'm put off by expressions of scepticism of a form to suggest that while 600,000?+ deaths is not a credible figure there is some lower, though still very high, figure about which supporters of the war could feel relaxed. The situation has passed that point, whatever it might be thought to be. Too many have died and too many are dying.
Saying this, I do not intend, either, to imply that the battle in Iraq is lost, and that all hope of salvaging a half-way decent, or even just not totally disastrous, outcome should be abandoned. I fear this may be so, but am unwilling to give up hope even now because of what giving up hope is likely to mean in terms of the forces then able to claim victory in Iraq.
I am also not, therefore, signalling agreement with those who say that there is now nothing for it but to pull US and British forces out of Iraq, that no outcome could be worse than what will follow from leaving them there trying to hold the line. I'm not at all persuaded of that. It seems to me that even worse than the situation now obtaining is more than possible if an emergent civil war were to become an unchecked, full-scale civil war in the circumstances brought on by the withdrawal of Western forces.
Still, there have been too many deaths; there has been too much other suffering. It has lately become clear to me - and this predates publication of the second Lancet report - that, whatever should now happen in Iraq, the war that I've supported has failed according to one benchmark of which I'm in a position to be completely certain.
That is, had I been able to foresee, in January and February 2003, that the war would have the results it has actually had in the numbers of Iraqis killed and the numbers now daily dying, with the country (more than three years down the line) on the very threshold of civil war if not already across that threshold, I would not have felt able to support the war and I would not have supported it. Measured, in other words, against the hopes of what it might lead to and the likelihoods as I assessed them, the war has failed. Had I foreseen a failure of this magnitude, I would have withheld my support. Even then, I would not have been able to bring myself to oppose the war. As I have said two or three times before, nothing on earth could have induced me to march or otherwise campaign for a course of action that would have saved the Baathist regime. But I would have stood aside.
Were we therefore wrong to support the war, those of us who did? In terms of what we hoped and what we thought likely, we obviously were - given how things have actually turned out. But on the basis of what could have been reliably foreseen, I think it's harder to say that. Only if the disaster was always foreseeable as the most likely outcome would I be convinced of it. I'm aware, of course, that there are opponents of the war who claim it always was foreseeable, but there are other impulses at work there than a detached estimate of probabilities, and amongst these has been a desire not to dwell too closely on how bad things had been in Iraq over some three decades. Just yesterday I read these words of Kanan Makiya's (via Clive):
I, like many others, made many mistakes of evaluation, of judgment. But I don't know how to look anybody in the face today and say that because things have gone wrong since the liberation, that it was therefore wrong to get rid of an extraordinary tyranny like [the one] we suffered under in Iraq. An exceptional tyranny, even by the terrible standards of the Middle East. It seems to me these are two separate questions, morally speaking.I am not an Iraqi, but Makiya's words seem to me to carry some force. Sometimes there is a justification for opposing tyranny and barbarism whatever the cost. Had I been of mature years during that time, I hope I would have supported the war against Nazism come what may, and not been one of the others, the nay-sayers. The same impulse was at work in my support for the Iraq war. Even so, I am bound to acknowledge that, though I never expected an easy sequel in Iraq, much less a 'cakewalk', I did not anticipate a failure on this scale, and had I done so, I would have withheld support for the war without giving my voice to the opposition to it.
[A]s an Iraqi, from the point of view of someone for whom that dictatorship and its abuses over 30 years have been the be-all and end-all of my life - I have seen what they have done - I cannot ever say that it was wrong to support the overthrow of that dictatorship. And I challenge any human being to say to me that that was wrong.