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Robert Higgs: The Iraq War, A Catastrophic Success

The Iraq War - A Catastrophic Success

By Robert Higgs*
December 21, 2004

“For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
—Matthew 6:21

On the campaign trail last October, Vice President Dick Cheney created a small stir when, speaking of the Iraq war, he declared: ''I think it has been a remarkable success story to date when you look at what has been accomplished overall.'' In view of the rampant violence raging in Iraq, the widespread devastation of the country’s human and material resources, and the dim prospects for its future peace and prosperity, Cheney’s statement seemed bizarre, and the Democrats seized on it as still another example of the disconnect between the Bush administration and reality. Yet, on closer inspection, we can see that the war has indeed been a huge success, though not exactly in the way that the vice president intended to claim.

In a characteristically unwitting way, President George W. Bush himself stumbled upon a resolution of the seeming paradox when he told Time magazine’s interviewer last summer that the war had proved to be a “catastrophic success.” By that oxymoron, he sought to convey the idea that in the invasion the U.S. military forces had overcome the enemy unexpectedly quickly, “being so successful, so fast, that an enemy that should have surrendered or been done in, escaped and lived to fight another day.” Although this hypothesis seems far-fetched as an explanation of the nature and extent of the resistance now being waged against the U.S. occupation forces and their collaborators in Iraq, the term “catastrophic success” does express the character of the war precisely. We need only bear in mind that the catastrophe afflicts one set of people, whereas the success accrues to an entirely different set.

Moreover, to appreciate the war’s success, we must keep in the forefront of our thinking the instrumental rationality of its perpetrators. We must ask: Who bears the responsibility for launching and continuing the war? What are these individuals trying to achieve? And have they in fact achieved these objectives? Having answered these questions correctly, we shall be obliged to conclude that the war has been a huge success for those who brought it about, however disastrous it has been for many others, especially for the unfortunate people of Iraq.

A short list of the war’s perpetrators must include the president and his close advisers; the neoconservative intriguers who stirred up and continue to stoke elite and popular opinion in support of the war; the members of Congress who abdicated their exclusive constitutional responsibility to declare war, authorized the president to take the nation to war if he pleased, and then financed the war by a series of enormous appropriations from the Treasury; and certain politically well-placed persons in the munitions industries and in interest groups that have chosen to support, sometimes for reasons based on religious beliefs, a war that they perceive as promoting Israel’s interests or as bringing about the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy. Each of these responsible parties has gained greatly from the war.

President Bush sought above all to be reelected. In his 2004 campaign, he made no apologies for the war; indeed, he sought to take credit for launching it and for waging it relentlessly since the invasion. Vice President Cheney also campaigned actively on the same basis. Bush and Cheney’s efforts have now yielded them the prize they sought.

In reshuffling his cabinet for a second term, the president has retained the belligerent Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense. Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, and other key warmongers remain in their top positions at the Pentagon, while other neocon desk-warriors, such as Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Cheney’s chief of staff, and Elliott Abrams, special assistant to the president at the National Security Council, retain their important offices elsewhere in the government—continued success for one and all. Even George “Slam Dunk” Tenet, who resigned as Director of Central Intelligence of his own accord, not because the president held him accountable for the manifest failures of U.S. intelligence efforts during his tenure, recently reemerged to accept the Presidential Medal of Freedom in recognition of what the president described as Tenet’s “tireless efforts” in service to the nation—God help us if the next intelligence chief’s tireless efforts bring forth equally fatal results.

Members of Congress have no regrets about authorizing Bush to attack Iraq or about continuing to fund the war lavishly. These career politicians crave nothing more than they crave reelection to office, and nearly all the incumbents who sought reelection in the 2004 elections gained this supreme objective: all but one (Tom Daschle) of the 26 incumbent senators running and all but six of the 402 incumbent representatives running succeeded—outcomes that imply a reelection rate greater than 98 percent for incumbents running in both houses combined. Backing the war has obviously proved to be entirely compatible with, if not absolutely essential to, the legislators’ quest for continued tenure in office. If as a consequence of these political actions thousands of Iraqi children had to lose their eyesight or their legs or even their lives, well, c’est la guerre. Politics is no place for sissies.

While authorizing enormous increases in military spending during the past four years, members of Congress have helped themselves to generous servings of pork from the defense-appropriations bills they have passed. According to Winslow T. Wheeler of the Center for Defense Information in Washington, D.C., “by the time Congress had finished with the bill [fiscal year 2005 appropriations for the defense department] in July [2004], House and Senate members had added more than 2,000 of these ‘earmarks’” for home-district projects, thereby dishing out to themselves “a record-setting $8.9 billion in pork” to use in buying votes from their constituents. In this workaday plundering of the taxpayers for wholly self-serving reasons, congressional doves as well as hawks, Democrats as well as Republicans, relish the opportunity to act as pork-hawks.

Between fiscal years 2001 and 2004, national defense outlays, defined narrowly as in the government’s official reports, rose by nearly 50 percent (approximately 40 percent after adjustment for inflation). This still-continuing upsurge ranks with the great military buildups of the 1960s and the 1980s. The beauty of all this increased spending, of course, is that every dollar of it lands in somebody’s pocket. Those to whom the pockets belong make a practice of lobbying hard for increased military spending, and they are prepared to compensate in various ways, some legal and some not, the politicians and bureaucrats who steer the money their way.

Procurement of goods and services from private contractors has been a major item in the increased military spending of recent years. In fiscal year 2000, the top ten contractors together received prime contract awards of $50.6 billion; just three years later, in fiscal year 2003, they got $82.7 billion—an increase of 63 percent (well in excess of 50 percent even after a generous adjustment for inflation).

Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics, and Raytheon are the biggest boys on this block nowadays, but lest anyone think that an aspiring smaller fellow cannot play in this league, let Halliburton serve as an inspiring counterexample. Back in fiscal year 2001, this company ranked 37th among the defense department’s prime contractors. Thanks to the war and Halliburton’s foot in the door as oil-field-service expert and caterer to the troops in Iraq and its environs, the company leaped to 7th place in the rankings in fiscal year 2003, with prime contracts in that year valued at $3.9 billion. Furthermore, even this outstanding corporate success seems to have been but a springboard to greater accomplishments. By the end of 2004, Halliburton’s contracts for Iraq work had accumulated to approximately $10.8 billion, with more in the works.

Notwithstanding the success that Halliburton, Bechtel, Dyncorp, and other “old boy” service contractors have achieved in connection with the Iraq war, the really big military money still goes to the suppliers of whiz-bang weapons platforms and related items: aircraft, rockets, ships, tanks and other combat vehicles, satellites, and communications and other electronic equipment, along with software, maintenance, training, and upgrades for the foregoing products. In this arena of institutionalized cronyism, the living dead rise from the Cold War graveyard to haunt the halls of Congress whenever the defense-appropriations subcommittees are in session. You might wonder how the military will employ, say, an F/A-22 fighter, a B-2 bomber, or an SSN-774 attack submarine to protect you from a suitcase nuke or a vial of anthrax slipped into the country along with the many shipments of contraband goods that enter unseen by government agents. But never mind; just keep repeating: there is a connection between the War on Terrorism and the hundreds of billions being spent on useless Cold War weaponry. It’s important to Congress, the Pentagon, and the big contractors that you make this connection.

As for the Christian (dispensationalist) soldiers marching onward as to war—in this case, it’s more than a metaphor—in order to ease the worries of “God’s chosen people” about Israel’s hostile neighbors or to hasten the glorious mayhem of the prophesied “end times,” suffice it to say that these fundamentalists worked hard to elect their favorite man to the presidency, and they succeeded in doing so. Indeed, one can scarcely imagine a viable national politician who would come closer to satisfying this interest group than George W. “Faith-Based” Bush.

In sum, when we ask ourselves who took the United States to war in Iraq (and keeps it engaged there) and what those individuals hoped to gain by doing so, we quickly come to appreciate what a roaring success this venture has been, and continues to be, for all of them. In view of the endless death and destruction being visited upon the hapless people of Iraq, however, not to mention the great and growing number of deaths, injuries, and mental disorders being suffered by U.S. troops in the Mesopotamian killing fields, we might well describe this adventure as a catastrophic success.


*Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at The Independent Institute and editor of its scholarly quarterly journal, . He is also the author of Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government and the editor of Arms, Politics and the Economy: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives. For further articles and studies, see the War on Terrorism and

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