The Butcher’s Bill for Invading Iraq

Former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft’s critique of those who advocate orchestrating the overthrow of Saddam Hussein is convincing [op-ed, March 1]. I would only add several points that highlight the costs and risks of any U.S.-led ground war.

First, although it would not require the half-million U.S. troops who were deployed in Desert Storm, a ground war probably would require at least 300,000 U.S. troops. Iraq’s military is now only half as large and strong as it was in 1990. But it would be fighting on more defensible terrain this time around. Moreover, U.S. troops would not only have to defeat Iraq’s military but also occupy the country (almost the size of Germany). Among other complications, deploying a force of that size to the Persian Gulf would take two to three months—meaning that the war would unfold during the Arabian summer.

Second, an operation of this magnitude would be very expensive. Desert Storm cost about $60 billion, but almost all of that was paid by others—mostly Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, other Arab sheikdoms, Japan and Germany. With those other countries less enthusiastic about another war and in considerably worse fiscal condition than in 1990, the tab would be of comparable size—but fall mostly on us.

Third and more important, many American troops probably would be killed. Combat would resemble battles in Panama in 1989 and Mogadishu in 1993 more than Desert Storm. U.S. losses probably would be at least one-tenth as numerous as the enemy’s (in 1991, by contrast, our losses were only about one one-hundredth of Iraq’s). If just 100,000 of Iraq’s 400,000-strong armed forces fought us with determination, U.S. casualties could number in the many thousands.

Fourth, these casualty estimates presuppose that the war would remain conventional. But why should we assume that Saddam Hussein would exercise restraint about using chemical or biological weapons if he knew that this particular war was a fight to the finish? Given that the Pentagon has not yet completed improvements to chemical and biological weapons defenses that were recommended in last year’s Quadrennial Defense Review, U.S. troop casualties would certainly go up if Iraq employed weapons of mass destruction. If Saddam chose to use the weapons against population centers in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Israel or even the United States, civilian casualties could skyrocket into the hundreds of thousands.

The fact that Saddam has eschewed any further adventures outside his own territory since 1990 suggests that deterrence is working—and that the likely costs and risks of an invasion of Iraq are greater than those associated with leaving Saddam in power.