Date created: 15/5/07
Last modified:15/5/07
Maintained by: John Quiggin
John Quiggin

War: Deadly game for losers

John Quiggin Australian Financial Review

18 January 2007

Years after it became obvious to any unbiased observer, President Bush finally admitted that the US needs to change its strategy in Iraq. However, all but the most committed Bush loyalists treated his announced change of plans with scepticism or derision. For those committed to pursuing the war at all costs, an increase of 20000 troops in 2007 is far too little, far too late. And for the much larger number who want to accept failure and pull out, the escalation of the war is a step in the wrong direction.

At this point, hardly anyone believes that the Iraq war will end in victory, defined as the achievements of the main objectives announced when the Coalition entered the war. But suppose instead that last year’s failed strategy had been a success in its own terms, leading to a gradual decline in violence and allowing a gradual withdrawal of Coalition troops. Could the Iraq war have been judged a success in such a case?

Surely not from the viewpoint of the Coalition countries. The US alone has lost over 3000 troops with as many as 20 000 severely wounded, and even if Iraq achieves reasonable stability, large areas will clearly remain a terrorist haven for years to come.

Iraqis have suffered far worse with tens or hundreds of thousands of deaths and millions displaced. Some might judge that they are still better off rid of Saddam, despite all the costs. But considering the world as a whole, there is no way that this equivocal net benefit justifies the resources that have been poured into this way, perhaps two trillion dollars by the time all the long-term costs (such as care for the wounded) are paid.

If such a colossal sum (more than five years’ income for the poorest billion people in the world) had been allocated to aid to poor countries instead, millions of lives could have been saved, diseases eradicated and universal education provided in all the world’s poor countries. And while there is no simple relationship between economic and political outcomes, such an infusion of hope would surely have stabilised many of the nascent democracies of the Third World, and reduce the appeal of dictators and terrorists, Islamist or otherwise.

In retrospect, it seems obvious that the rush to war was unjustified. How is it that so many people were willing to accept a casus belli full of obvious holes, and a set of assumptions about the consequences of an invasion so clearly based on wishful thinking rather than reality? More generally, how is it that resort to military force remains so popular as a policy, when experience has shown that it rarely yields the expected benefits and often leads to disastrous defeats.

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2002 recently looked at this question, along with Harvard researcher Jonathan Renshon, in a piece published in Foreign Policy. Kahenman and Renshon conclude that deepseated psychological biases in reasoning about other people and about uncertainty, predispose policymakers and the public to be hawks rather than doves.

The most important, in the context of today's news is "double or nothing" bias, which is well-known in studies of choice under uncertainty as risk-seeking in the domain of losses. The basic point is that people tend to cast problems like whether to continue a war that is going badly in win-lose terms and to be prepared to accept a high probability of greater losses in return for a small probability of winning or breaking even. Hence the Big Push, the Surge, the last throw of the dice and so on.

There are other biases that are based more in the way we manage things as a society than in individual psychology. The most important is the failure to treat decisions about war in terms of opportunity cost, by contrast with the way in which the budgeting process of governments (admittedly imperfectly) brings home the cost of other government activities.

Eventually, though, the horrific experience of war tends to cure people of hawkish delusions. European aversion to war is the product, not of cultural determinism but of the catastrophic wars of the first half of the twentieth century. Vietnam cured Americans of pro-war bias for a couple of decades, and Iraq may complete the cure. War is always a costly admission of failure. It may sometimes be necessary, but it should never be welcomed.

John Quiggin is an Australian Research Council Federation Fellow in Economics and Political Science at the University of Queensland.

Read more articles from John Quiggin's home page

Go to John Quiggin's Weblog