Wars of Negligence
By Bryan Caplan
I’m a pacifist because I think that you shouldn’t kill innocent people unless you’re reasonably sure that such killing will have very good consequences. Occasionally I meet a thoughtful hawk who ably disputes my skepticism. For the most part, though, hawks are so eager to kill that they barely consider the long-run consequences of their killing. In The Atlantic, Dominic Tierney documents that the U.S. government ignored the long-run consequences of Iraq War II, and will probably do the same in the war against ISIS.
The case of Iraq War II:
Back in March 2003, Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense, told
Jay Garner, who was in charge of postwar reconstruction in Iraq: “I
haven’t given you the time I should have given you. Quite frankly, I
just have been so engulfed in the war that I just didn’t have time to
focus on everything that you’re doing.” Rumsfeld saw the stabilization
of Iraq as separate from, and secondary to, “the war”–when this goal
should have been the whole focus of the military plan. Similarly, Jeb
Bush recently suggested
that the United States achieve a “total victory” over ISIS, “and then
you need to forge political consensus to create a stable Syria and a
stable Iraq.” Notice the “and then.” Shoot first, then worry about politics.
What responsible hawks would have to figure out this time around:
Who, for example, will govern
the territory captured from ISIS? You break the caliphate, you own the
caliphate. Stabilizing Syria and Iraq is a truly daunting task. It may
require a decade-long humanitarian and peacekeeping effort. The United
States will need to play a key role in this endeavor, which will very
likely involve a commitment of American ground troops. If ISIS is pushed
out of key cities, the insurgents won’t sign surrender documents like
Japan did in 1945. Instead, they’ll wage a brutal campaign of terrorism
to reclaim the caliphate. Are those fighting ISIS prepared for a wave of
suicide bombings, kidnappings, and torture? Is the international
community ready to invest billions of dollars in humanitarian aid and
economic development? How will the U.S. and its allies win over Sunni
Muslims to their cause rather than ISIS’s?
Why are hawks so much more eager to start killing than answer these questions? Tierney suggests a harsh but fair answer:
These hawks may be neglecting the endgame because they fear that long-term thinking will deter
the United States from escalating the campaign against ISIS. They are
eager to obliterate the Islamic State, and they don’t want to be
distracted by tough questions about, say, how Syria can be reconstructed
from the ruins of war. Look too hard before we leap, and we might
decide not to jump at all.
Or to put it more strongly, once you factor in how poorly the West is likely to handle the peace, the case for war is weak. As I put it back in 2007:
Given the way that public
opinion works, though, intelligent hawks ought to think again. Last year, Rumsfeld warned against “the dangers of
giving the enemy the false impression that Americans cannot stomach a tough
fight.” The study of public opinion
suggests that this is exactly the impression the Iraq War is likely to
Next time around, intelligent hawks need to ask
themselves: “Does it really serve the national interest to take
advantage of the rally-round-the-flag effect to start a war, if public opinion
will reverse long before the war can be won?” It’s a democracy, after all; once public
opinion reverses, policy will not be far behind.
My main quarrel with Tierney’s piece is that he talks as if Roosevelt and Churchill carefully planned for the post-WWII era. If so, they apparently planned to leave half of Europe and all of China in Communist hands. The real sordid story is that Roosevelt and Churchill, like Bush and Obama, were too obsessed with beating their current foes to focus on the aftermath. In so doing, they set the stage for World War III, an apocalypse mankind managed to avoid only with a healthy dose of good luck.