Many of the headlines marking the fifth anniversary of the start of the campaign to remove Saddam Hussein from power focus on the cost of the war. Joseph Stiglitz’s new book claiming the Iraq war will cost $3 trillion is often cited, but these reports fail to mention that Stiglitz has admitted his estimations may be off by a trillion dollars — or two. More importantly, these reports fail to mention that Stiglitz also pegs the cost of Afghanistan at $1.95 trillion, yet very few are questioning whether it was worth it to topple the Taliban.

And that really is the question we should be asking as we look back at the decision to go to war. Not just what has the decision to remove Saddam cost us, but what would have the decision to leave Saddam in power cost us as well. Christopher Hitchens has amply detailed these costs before, but also reminds us this week that U.S. hostilities with Iraq did not begin five years ago: “We were never, if we are honest with ourselves, ‘lied into war.’ We became steadily more aware that the option was continued collusion with Saddam Hussein or a decision to have done with him.” Liberals who insist we never should have deposed Saddam have never answered how the containment/inspections regime could have effectively continued without a credible threat of force. In 2003 both Barack Obama and Iraqi military officers believed Saddam had chemical weapons at the start of the war. Worse, Saddam had clear ties to Islamic terrorists groups, including Osama bin Laden, whom he offered refuge to in 1999. Fouad Ajami writes today:

But those looking for that smoking gun did not understand that the distinction between secular and religious terror in that Arab landscape was a distinction without a difference. The impulse that took America from Kabul to Baghdad was a correct one. Radical Arabs attacked America on 9/11, and a war of deterrence had to be waged against Arab radicalism. Baghdad was the proper return address, as a notice was served on the purveyors of terror that a price would be paid by those who aid and abet it. It was Saddam Hussein’s choice — and fate — that he would not duck and stay out of harm’s way in the aftermath of 9/11. We have not fully repaired the ways of the radicals in the intervening years. But the spectacle of the dictator’s defeat, and the sight of him being sent to the gallows, have worked wonders on the temper of the Arab street.

Recent polling from the Arab world backs up Ajami’s claims. A January survey showed less than a quarter of Pakistanis approved of Osama bin Laden, compared with 46% last August; backing for al Qaeda fell from 33% to 18%. And a July 2007 report from the Pew Global Attitudes Project revealed “large and growing numbers of Muslims in the Middle East and elsewhere [are] rejecting Islamic extremism.”

More importantly, the change in course in American policy embodied by the surge in Iraq has markedly improved Iraqi views on the war: 55% now say things in their own lives are going well, 62% say their local security is good, and 49% say it was right for the U.S. to overthrow Saddam. Commenting on the continued success of the surge, Iraqi politician Adel Abdul Mahdi told the Washington Post: “One year ago, people were fighting. Now, well, they are fighting in words. This is much better than fighting.”

Looking forward, it is clear the Iraqi people do not favor the rapid withdrawal promised by liberal presidential candidates. Only 38% of Iraqis believe the U.S. should leave now and 80% want the U.S. to continue operations against al Qaeda and other foreign jihadis. Looking at the campaign promises of liberals, John Hopkins School of International Studies professor Michael Mandelbaum told the San Francisco Chronicle: “There’s an old saying in war that the initial war plan never survives contact with the enemy. I would say of the Democrats, neither of these peace plans is going to survive contact with reality.”

As architects of the surge readily admit, the U.S. sacrifice in Iraq has been great, but we still have an opportunity to help change Iraq for the better. As 15-year veteran Army Staff Sgt. Dexter L. Thompson told the Washington Post: “It’s a better place for them to live now. It’s a better country. You can see the difference. At the end of the day, I can sit down and look at the accomplishment and say it was worth the while.”

Quick Hits:

  • Ideas for a mini-boycott of the Beijing Olympics over violence in Tibet are gaining momentum.
  • It looks like Sen. Chris Dodd’s (D-Conn.) bill authorizing the Federal Housing Administration to provide up to $300 billion in guarantees to new lenders will be the first economic bill to get a vote after the spring recess.
  • A new poll shows that an overwhelming majority of Palestinians support violence against Israel, including the attack this month on a Jewish seminary in Jerusalem that killed eight young men, most of them teenagers.
  • Despite the “most sweeping ethics reform since Watergate,” Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) has raised a staggering $5 million since Democrats took control of Congress. That’s more than any other House member, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).
  • The National Marine Fisheries Service has approved the killing of California sea lions to protect migrating salmon populations.