19 December 2007

Iraq War: Round #5

The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
November 14, 2007

The Theist's powerful and interesting arguments for continuing to pour money and lives into the Iraq are worth close consideration. He provides three arguments for continuing the war. First, we want to demoralize the Middle Eastern terrorists. Second, we destroyed Iraq's country (their internal security forces and infrastructure) and thus owe it to the Iraqi citizens to leave the country on firm footing. Third, it is in our economic interests because further terrorist attacks will cripple our economy. Seeing why these arguments fail highlights what's wrong with the view that we should fight on no matter what the costs.

Consider The Theist's first argument: the war demoralizes Islamic terrorist organizations. The Theist concedes that the purpose of the war is not to defeat Al Qaeda. He likely does so because continuing the war will at most set them back. It probably won't eliminate them in Iraq and has little to do with their presence elsewhere. Even General David Petraeus, the commander of the Multi-National Force in Iraq and leading proponent of continued U.S. effort there, admitted in his report to Congress that rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces would not result in Al Qaeda-Iraq regaining lost ground. It's also worth noting that as of this past August, violence in Iraq was at an all-time high (measured in terms of average daily attacks against coalition, Iraqi security forces, and civilians). Any gains are very recent and probably don't reflect the terrorist organizations' death throes.

Consider how unsuccessful the demoralization strategy has been against other terrorist groups. Most of Israel's recent gains against Palestinian terrorist groups didn't come about by demoralizing them. They came about when Israel withdrew from the occupied territories and built a wall to isolate itself from them. Great Britain didn't defeat the Irish Republican Army by breaking their morale. Ditto for the Soviet Union against the mujahadin and the United States against the Viet Cong. If a strategy has repeatedly proven itself to be a loser, we shouldn't adopt it.

I issue two challenges to the pro-war side.

1) Provide a list of more than a few or handful of ethnic or religious terrorist attacks when the target wasn't occupying or helping to occupy the terrorist's homeland.

2) Provide historical examples when ethnic or religious terrorist groups have been defeated by demoralizing them, as opposed to killing them or negotiating an agreement.

Answer or admit defeat.

The Theist's second reason is that because we destroyed their country, we should rebuild it for them. This is a version of the Pottery Barn slogan, "You break it, you buy it." This rests on a mistake about the duty to compensate those we've injured. If you defend innocent victims against an unjust attacker, you need not compensate those indirectly harmed by the defensive action. For example, if a rapist attacks a woman in a parking lot and you club him into submission, you don't owe compensation to his children for the income and support they lost as their dad lay in the hospital. Similarly, if Saddam Hussein was indeed an unjust and cruel tyrant, and this is uncontroversial, and the U.S. removed him using proportionate defensive force, then it doesn't owe compensation to those who were indirectly harmed by the defensive violence.

The Theist might respond that it is still be a nice gesture to hand over another trillion dollars (another $14,000 per working couple) and spend a thousand more lives to help out the Iraqis. The notion that taxpayers' wallets should be drained and the U.S. military turned into an international charity is an expansive view of our government that is distasteful for anyone who thinks that the military should only be used to defend Americans against attack and who doesn't think that Washington should show compassion by shoveling dollars to foreigners.

The Theist's third argument is that ongoing war is economically prudent because it will prevent a future attack that would cripple our economy. This is a mistake for a couple of reasons. Nothing wrecks an economy like high taxes and this war is a massive source of increased spending that helps to maintain anti-competitive tax rates. The U.S. already has some of the highest corporate income-tax rates in the world. Only Germany and Japan have higher corporate-tax rates and only Japan has a higher inheritance-tax rate. If we continue to have an atmosphere that is hostile to business, our economy will suffer. Politically, the war has helped put taxpayer-haters like Charles Rangel (D-NY) into the driver's seat. They then spend their days figuring how to jack up capital-gains and dividend-tax rates. Also, if our continuing presence in Iraq makes terrorists attacks more likely (see above challenges), then The Theist's argument doesn't even get off the ground. Also, if it leads to a war in Iran, even he would have to admit that this war has generated an unbelievably expensive mess.

One related argument is that if we leave Iraq, the terrorists will turn their attention to Israel and we will be drawn into defending them, which will be far more expensive. Israel has no problem defending itself. They have the best military in the Middle East and a well-known and potent nuclear arsenal. Terrorist groups and especially their state sponsors know full well that starting a fight with Israel leads to certain death and destruction. Even if that weren't the case, we give Israel more than $2.5 billion in welfare a year. Even if this were justified, and I don't see why it is, this is more than generous enough.

The Theist's arguments are unconvincing. They rest on misconceptions about stopping terrorist attacks, our responsibility for economic harm that resulted from our removal of Saddam Hussein, and the war's continuing costs. Dumping another trillion dollars and a thousand more lives into Iraq is just not prudent.


The Objectivist said...

Note that the money spent on the war is a sunk cost. As such, it is not rational to consider it in deciding what to do in the future.

This is part of a general economic assertion that it is irrational to consider sunk costs in deciding what to do.

The Objectivist said...

Note that Bush himself didn't even believe that this war was necessary. He sought UN approval and justified it via weapons of mass destruction. No such approval would have been thought necessary for the attack on Afghanistan. Nor did the attack need to be dressed up in terms of weapons of mass destruction or other concern, not tightly linked to American security.

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