The Iraq Family Health Survey, conducted by the Iraqi government and the World Health Organization, found that there were about 400,000 excess deaths in Iraq up to June 2006 associated with the invasion. The second Lancet survey conducted by researchers from Johns Hopkins and Al Mustansiriya University found that there were about 650,000 over the same time period. Both surveys missed the most violent period in Iraq — if we project forward to the current day I estimate that the net cost of the war so far has been between 750,000 (using IFHS) and 1,250,000 (using Lancet2) deaths.
So how on earth does Eric Posner come up a net benefit for the war? Let’s see:
The sanctions regime, which began in 1990, destroyed Iraq’s economy (reducing GDP by as much as three quarters) and impoverished millions of Iraqis. Particular attention was given at the time to its effect on children. The contemporary critics of the sanctions pointed out that before the sanctions began, the child mortality rate was about 50 per 1000; during the sanctions, on one accounting the rate soared to about 128 per 1000 (click on “basic indicators” here). More conservative estimates were in the range of a doubling of child mortality. Using the more conservative estimate, at one million births per year, this works out to an annual difference of 50,000 children surviving to the age of 5 (for various qualifications, see here). Today, the child mortality rate is below the pre-sanctions figure, and so every year in excess of 50,000 more Iraqi children survive than during the sanctions. The data are hotly contested but the trends are unmistakable and will continue to strengthen if security improves. A conservative estimate is that more than 40,000 Iraqis survive per year today than during the sanctions regime, and probably most of them children.
Has the ending of sanctions improved child mortality? Posner’s link just has UNICEF’s child mortality rates for 1990 and 2006, but click around a bit and you can find a more complete table:
Yes, the current rate is lower than before the sanctions, but most of that decrease occurred during the sanctions. Posner cites an earlier UNICEF report that mortality had increased to 128 per 1000, but the current numbers are based in the new 2006 Iraq MICS-3 survey and are likely to be more accurate than statistics gathered under Saddam’s regime. All other large surveys agree with MICS-3. The 2004 Iraq Living Conditions survey found child mortality rates of
40 38 per 1,000 for 1994-1998 and 35 40 per 1,000 for 1999-2003. The 2006 Iraq Family Health Survey finds:
For all Iraq, [child] mortality rates were higher at the beginning of the analysis period  and started to decline, until around the year 2002, and then started to increase again to levels closer to the mid-1990s.
The increase after the invasion found by the IFHS corresponds to an extra 10,000 child deaths per year.
Both Lancet surveys found increases in child mortality after the invasion.
All published sources, including the one Posner cites, show that there has been no decrease in child mortality after the invasion, and most actually show an increase.
Let’s suppose that the sanctions regime had continued for 10 years, from 2003 to 2013, and further that security flattens out–it doesn’t get worse, but it doesn’t get better. Under these assumptions, 400,000 Iraqi children would have died if the war had not occurred and the sanctions regime continued. Now, almost 100,000 Iraqis died during the war, and so one of the war’s benefits is that it saves the lives of 300,000 Iraqis (over 10 years).
Posner cites the Iraq Body Count number of civilian deaths reported in the media. But not all deaths are reported in the media so it is wrong to treat this as an upper bound. To find the net cost or benefit in lives we need to look at mortality survey data. I find it perplexing that Posner would use survey data to measure child mortality but ignore the surveys that measure the number he is interested in. The IFHS found that up to June 2006 there were about 400,000 excess deaths and the 2nd Lancet survey found about 650,000 excess deaths in the same time frame. Both surveys missed the most violent period in Iraq — if we project forward to the current day I estimate that the net cost of the war so far has been between 750,000 lives (using IFHS) and 1,250,000 lives (using Lancet2) deaths.
In a survey of Americans last year their median estimate of the number of Iraqi civilian deaths was 9,890.