The Buzz

John Yoo's Tortured Logic on Iraq

John Yoo, best known for his role in the White House’s Office of Legal Counsel during the George W. Bush administration, has this to say about the Iraq War’s ten-year anniversary and whether the war was a mistake:

In law, we often come upon a situation after an event -- a crime, an accident, etc. -- and we must decide what to do based on the knowledge we have now. Courts award damages based on the harm to the victim and the harm to society. Suppose you thought that the Iraq war was a mistake. If so, isn't the proper remedy to restore Saddam Hussein's family and the Baath Party to power in Iraq? If you are unwilling to consider that remedy, aren't you conceding that on balance, the benefits of the war outweigh the costs?

In a word: no. As the first commenter on Yoo’s piece says, “To say that the Iraq War was a mistake does not imply that Saddam Hussein and his family were the wronged party.” Nobody who thinks the war was a mistake now does so because they feel badly about what happened to Saddam or his coterie. Rather, their assessment is that the many victims were other players: the over a hundred thousand Iraqis who were killed and millions more who were displaced; the roughly 4,800 coalition soldiers who were killed and more who were wounded; and the U.S. taxpayers who collectively paid a financial price in the trillions of dollars, just to name a few.

For the most part, these are not costs that we have the power to “remedy.” But notably, where it is possible to do so (if in a partial way)—as in providing health care to returning veterans, for example—we already do this, and it’s totally uncontroversial. The problem is that Yoo’s calculus presents overthrowing Saddam as the principal cost of the war, whereas in reality most war opponents likely view it as a benefit in isolation, but one that is outweighed by the drawbacks listed above and elsewhere. Yoo wants war opponents to endorse a situation where they renounce the war’s principal benefit while keeping all of its costs. This argument simply doesn’t pass the laugh test.