The right question on Iraq

We should learn from history

‘IF YOU KNEW then what you know now, would you have invaded Iraq in 2003?” Other than revealing basic IQ or blind family or party loyalty, is this question really worth asking our 2016 candidates for president? Is it worth asking compared to the real question below which will affect, if not determine, the wellbeing of another generation or two of Americans? Asking the real invasion question will reveal the truth about 2003. History is a teacher. We should learn from it, whether it is the old history of Vietnam in the 1970s or the new history of Iraq in the 2000s.


If the answer is “Yes,” sage military advice will surely recommend tens of thousands of soldiers deployed throughout Iraq and perhaps also in Syria. Since the enemy is more like a disease feeding on a body politic than a conventional army, other areas in the Middle East and Northern Africa are already infected and may call for additional military attention. To do the job the right way will take time, a horizon that we now understand to mean more than a single decade. The treasure spent in lives will easily be in the thousands and in dollars, easily in the trillions, just as before. What the economy, education, the middle class – what each could have been without the 2017 invasion and what each of these will be over the next 20 years with the 2017 invasion will be two vastly different phenomena. These consequences trouble me most when I think of my grandchild.

If the answer is “Yes.” the rationale will be national security, often put this way: We are safer killing extremists in foreign countries than in Times Square. Remember the North Vietnamese didn’t threaten to come to Times Square, so heads up this time! In short, today’s national security risks will go down measurably if we diminish and degrade religious extremists who vow to kill Americans wherever they can find us. And if we don’t invade and kill as many as we can in their home towns over the next ten or twenty years or so, the danger of these extremists infiltrating this country, or incubating among us, in each case wreaking terrorist horrors upon us, will increase to intolerable levels.

In light of the extreme costs of the 2017 Iraq invasion, the benefits of the 2017 invasion should be clear and large. Which means that proof of this rationale should be appropriately documented – solid proof being just another small lesson from history. Analysis is needed. Slogans are no substitute, particularly when common sense provides one warning after another. We need to analyze whether killing religiously-motivated extremists in their home towns works better than surgery works in eradicating broad-based cancers. We need to analyze what the survivors can and will do after yet more of their population fall prey to a US-fueled war. We need to know whether fewer extremists will take action against our homeland if we simply, and carefully, leave theirs than if we stay and increase the carnage beyond the levels that will inevitably occur in our absence. We need to investigate what spending a fraction of the planned treasure on new digital means of security and immigration control can do. In short, the risks of military action and the risks of no military action must be thoughtfully compared, each set of risks quantified to the extent of our ability. We need to know if risks really go up more than minutely if we take no action and if risks really go down more than minutely if we do invade again. Real intelligence is needed, salted this time with common sense. Relying on slogans from candidates with few discernible analytic skills is really scaring me.

Meet the Author
Ed Selgrade served as policy director in the state energy office and as a DPU Commissioner in the early 1980s.  After finishing a 35-year legal career in energy finance and siting, he now occasionally consults on renewable energy and electric storage technologies. He holds degrees in law and physics from Harvard Law, Cornell University, and Boston College. He lives in Belmont.