How are things going in Iraq? Well, elections were held and many insurgents are being killed. That’s good. The guys who got elected are bickering contemptibly, making a mockery of voters’ courage and car bombs are still going off. That’s bad. But hold it. You can’t figure out how well something worked until you know what you were trying to do; and, crucially, how you were trying to do it.
Conservatives are surprisingly unsystematic on such questions in foreign policy. Ever since Ronald Reagan started in with the cities on hills, people who instinctively favour driving a steamroller over Saddam Hussein’s head have been tempted instead to outbid liberals on global idealism. It brings temporary relief, both personal and political, but it tends to interfere with realistically pessimistic thinking about the limits of the possible, the true conservative’s stock in trade.
Of course, if you are a neocon who wanted to turn Iraq into suburban Cleveland, things are going better there than you had any right to expect. But that doesn’t narrow the field very much and, besides, things are probably not going as well as you actually expected and we need to address the matter in a more fundamentally conservative manner.
Here a deeper problem is that foreign policy conservatives have generally not developed as systematic a vision of how the world works as their economic or even social conservative cousins. They know any fool can visualize world peace, and that the key to avoiding both war and conquest, at least until Wednesday afternoon, is “Peace through strength.” But though commendable, this slogan is vague. So permit me to rephrase my initial question as an economist might: “Was the invasion of Iraq worth it?”
As I argued in the October 1999 issue of Policy Options, in “A Free Marketeer Looks at Foreign Policy”, despite the loose (at worst) alliance between economic and foreign policy conservatives, there is surprisingly little methodological overlap particularly on how and why, or even that, incentives matter. Carrots and sticks; this key insight of economic conservatives is increasingly appreciated on social issues and has, in recent decades, spawned a powerful new “public choice” school of thought about government in a domestic context. Let’s go global with it.
Proper economics is founded on a vision of people as self-interested and responsive to incentives. Far from caricaturing humans as shallow or identical automatons, it requires us to accept people’s complex personalities as they are. There is very little we can do to intrude on their autonomy even if we consider them stupid or nasty. We may try to persuade them to change some of their likes and dislikes but, if they do not, there is nothing we can do short of cracking their heads open to alter their preferences directly (and in the marketplace this expedient is discouraged).
If we must accept what they like and dislike, and how much they like and dislike it, as given, there is only one way we can try to alter their behaviour on everything from getting them into our Italian restaurant to getting them out of our provincial welfare office. It is to alter the rewards and punishments that attach to any given course of action. Fortunately, it is all we need to do.
This theory tells us that everyone currently eats as much of our fettuccini alfredo as makes sense for them given how much they like pasta, our prices, how much they like other meals that they might buy with the money instead, how much they worry about calories, and everything else that seems relevant to them. The theory sidesteps the vexed question of the sources of human motivation. It does not matter why some people will not eat pasta in cream sauce even if it is free and others will pay $30 for a plate. All that matters is that every person will be a bit more likely to buy a bit more of our pasta if its price falls. It cannot fail and it does not fail.
This crucial insight applies almost exactly to governments in foreign policy. Like individuals in the market place, they have inclinations on which we may hector them but must, for the most part, accept as given. Some are risk-averse, others reckless. Some are aggressive, others peace-loving. Some have warm-water ports, others wish they did. And while the question of what determines their conduct — whether it is political structure, culture, philosophy, economic interests, geopolitics or the Prieurs de Sion — is interesting in the classroom and the long run, in the short run it is irrelevant. Just like individuals contemplating dining out, all these influences are already operating at full blast and won’t change between now and Thursday. Therefore, if the incentives they face change, their conduct at the margin will change as if all these other factors didn’t matter. Hence all that’s important in the short run is changes in the costs and benefits.
Some Realpolitikers got half this theory right. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger in particular insisted that there was no need for high-risk meddling in other countries’ internal affairs because all nations were “black boxes” that responded predictably to geopolitical incentives without regard to idealisms or ideological rationalizations. Unfortunately, they mistook the unimportance of philosophy or culture “at the margin,” as economists put it, for their fundamental unimportance. This caused some problems in their foreign policy since quite evidently Britain, for example, did not conduct diplomacy the same way as the U.S.S.R. did. It also led many people, including many conservatives, to throw out the baby with the bathwater and discard — as part of a so-called ‘crackpot realism’ which is inexplicably blind to both culture and ideology — the more basic, and absolutely sound, notion of nations as being responsive to incentives.
The missing piece of the puzzle is that nations in geopolitics are already pursuing what they conceive to be their best interests in light of their philosophy, culture, geopolitical situation and every other causal factor you can name, reasonable or otherwise. A Communist bent on world conquest before you offer the sort of grain-and technology-for-strategic-missile-restraint deal that Nixon and Kissinger offered the Soviets in 1972 doesn’t become any more, or less, bent on world conquest because of it. But he does become more likely to hold off on invading his neighbour. And who knows? If you string together enough such delays, maybe the whole darn thing will collapse in a giant cloud of rust before tanks ever cross the Elbe.
Coming back to Iraq the long way, it seems that we should therefore ask how, seen from Washington, the costs and benefits of the invasion stack up. As historian Niall Ferguson wrote in the Summer 2004 edition of The National Interest, former Secretary of State Colin Powell was right when “he told President Bush, the Pottery Barn rule was always going to apply in Iraq: ‘You break it, you own it.’” And owning it is disagreeable. George Bush’s 2004 election victory certainly reduces the cost to American political actors of undertaking or supporting such interventions. But much blood and treasure has been expended and more will be, military recruiting is impaired, allies are alienated and limited forces are unavailable for other tasks. The ultimate cost of producing a stable, tolerable regime in Iraq, and even its ultimate success, remain uncertain.
Having Saddam Hussein around was also a pain, but is this cure worse than the disease? No. There is another side to the matter that we must not overlook in weighing the outcome of the 2003 Iraq war. Incentives don’t just matter in Washington. And while maybe George Bush didn’t want to own Iraq and may now be sorry he’s stuck with it, Saddam Hussein clearly did want it and is certainly now very sorry he no longer has it.
Events in Iraq do underline the drawbacks to wielding even hyper-power. But they underline, far more dramatically, the drawbacks to provoking it. So we must weigh the costs and benefits of the American invasion of Iraq not only as seen from Washington but also from Baghdad and, thus, from Damascus, Pyongyang and Tripoli. It would be cold comfort to Bashir Assad to know, as the US Marines closed in and his people dragged him toward a handy lamppost, that the American President’s popularity might soon dip in suburban Ohio.
To be sure, we cannot know what the world’s rogues, or for that matter America’s fair-weather friends, would have been up to since 2003 if the U.S. had blinked on this war. And the role of incentives is too complicated to let us do foreign policy on a calculator. One possible response to American assertiveness is cornered belligerence, to signal that we know you can take us down but you must know we will hurt you on the way. Still, when the U.S. is frisky, hostile regimes face an unpleasant choice between being more cooperative and giving up some of their goals and some prestige at home and abroad, and belligerence that risks either miscalculating one’s way into war like Saddam Hussein or overstraining one’s economy and having it buckle, as is apparently happening in North Korea. The calculation looks different there than here, especially given the tendency of many tyrants to misunderstand the world, including the very real restraints democracy places on the capacity of the U.S. president to do them harm.
For all these reasons, almost all of the costs the Americans have encountered as a consequence of moving in force against Saddam Hussein bother people in Washington far more than they encourage people in Pyongyang.
This calculus was quite clear in Muammar Gaddafi’s sudden fit of sanity last year in disposing of his nuclear program. Invading Libya was probably more trouble than it was worth for Washington, but certainly a great deal more trouble than it was worth for Tripoli. And Damascus; as Robert Fulford wrote in the March 19 National Post, on “security matters, including the arrest of Saddam Hussein’s half-brother, [Bashar] Assad seems to want the Americans to think he’s helping them and the Syrians to think he isn’t. He’s dancing as fast as he can. Sometimes he sounds pathetic. Two weeks ago he told a reporter from Time magazine: ‘Please send this message: I am not Saddam Hussein. I want to co-operate.’”
World politics is not a zero sum game and George Bush’s loss, if any, in Iraq is not Saddam Hussein’s gain. Which is why it is also, in ways ominous to the latter, not Bashar Assad’s. Or the Ayatollah Khameini’s. And having villains running scared around the globe is worth a lot more trouble in Iraq than just owning Iraq ever would be.
So how’s it going in Iraq? Pretty well. No conservative should ask for more.