08 December 2005

Playing "The Price Is Right" in Korea, Afghanistan, and Iraq

Dave Price, writing at the Dean's World blog, asked an uncomfortable but worthwhile question -- "Is A Free South Korea Worth 53,000 Dead Americans?"

I have a particular soft spot for South Korea and the Korean people, having lived there for a time during my adolescent years; even without that personal connection, however, I would recognize the Koreans' economic, political, and social achievements during the half-century since the cessation of Korean War hostilities as nothing short of incredible.

I've read little about the War and don't know whether the United States' participation in the conflict was just to prevent a "domino" nation falling to communist aggression or whether we had higher aspirations for Korea. If the former, the democratic and capitalist achievements of the Koreans are gravy; if the latter, I'd suspect that the Koreans have exceeded anyone's wildest hopes for them. Either way, things have worked out well, especially when you judge South Korea against its neighbor to the north.

The significance of the "was it worth it" question is, of course, the impact of its answer on the current debate about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Price wrote:
Given that those opposing the war believe the much smaller price paid so far in Iraq is already too high, it's reasonable to assume they certainly don't believe Iraqi freedom and democracy is worth 53,000 American casualties and 3 million lives overall. So, assuming they don't think Iraqis somehow deserve freedom less than Koreans, do they think (all else being equal) we should have allowed S Korea to fall to the North, and saved the vast majority of those lives lost in the war to keep the South free?
I think two conclusions can be drawn from this exercise: First, fighting for your own nation's freedom requires no deep thought or justification -- there is no price too high to pay -- whereas fighting for another nation's or people's freedom requires some degree of justification and cost-benefit analysis. Second, staggering historical costs are easier to stomach than modest current ones; only the objectivity which elapsed time can allow us will definitively establish whether the benefits yielded justified the costs incurred.

In large measure, the results of this balancing will be determined by the freed Afghani and Iraqi peoples. Will they be as productive with their freedom as the Koreans have been? There's considerable reason to be optimistic that they will be. Speaking this past Monday, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld highlighted some of these developments in Iraq and contrasted the Iraqis' optimism with the pessimistic, limited perspective of the American media:
[T]he Iraqi people see things somewhat differently [than the mainstream media]: They can compare as it is Iraq today, to what it was three years ago--a brutal dictatorship where the secret police would murder or mutilate a family member sometimes in front of their children, and where hundreds of thousands disappeared into Saddam's mass graves. From that perspective, Iraq today is on a vastly different, and a greatly improved path.

. . . .

Consider this: You couldn't tell the full story of Iwo Jima simply by listing the nearly 26,000 American casualties over about 40 days; or explain the importance of Grant's push to Virginia just by noting the savagery of the battles. So too, in Iraq, it is appropriate to note not only how many Americans have been killed--and may God bless them and their families--but what they died for--or more accurately, what they lived for.

So I suggest to editors and reporters--whose good intentions I take for granted--to do some soul searching. To ask: how will history judge--if it does--the reporting decades from now when Iraq's path is settled?
The results of an ABC News poll, released to the public yesterday, indicates similar resolve and optimism amongst Afghans:
Four years after the fall of the Taliban, Afghans express both vast support for the changes that have shaken their country and remarkable optimism for the future, despite the deep challenges they face in economic opportunity, security and basic services alike.

An ABC News poll in Afghanistan -- the first national survey there sponsored by a news organization -- underscores those challenges in a unique portrait of the lives of ordinary Afghans. Poverty is deep, medical care and other basic services lacking, and infrastructure minimal. Nearly six in 10 have no electricity in their homes, and just 3 percent have it around the clock. Seven in 10 Afghan adults have no more than an elementary education; half have no schooling whatsoever. Half have household incomes under $500 a year.

Yet despite these and other deprivations, 77 percent of Afghans say their country is headed in the right direction -- compared with 30 percent in the vastly better-off United States. Ninety-one percent prefer the current Afghan government to the Taliban regime, and 87 percent call the U.S.-led overthrow of the Taliban good for their country. Osama bin Laden, for his part, is as unpopular as the Taliban; nine in 10 view him unfavorably.
Within relatively short periods of time after formal military actions ceased in each nation, periods marked in each area by frequent bloodshed and material privations, both Afghans and Iraqis have expressed appreciation for the freedoms they had been offered, determination to build productive societies, and optimism that they would succeed in the longer-term. History will confirm for the skeptics amongst us that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were not another Vietnam -- these were another Korea

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