Why we must stay in Iraq
Friday, August 4, 2006
Imagine that you are at a theatre to see a play. As you enter, you find that you have lost your ticket. Would you pay $10 to buy another ticket, assuming that there is no assigned seating? Now imagine that you had not acquired a ticket in advance and that instead of losing the ticket, you have lost a $10 bill. Would you pay $10 for a ticket? In a well-known experiment conducted by Kahneman and Tversky, a majority (54%) of the people who were presented with the first scenario said that they would not buy a new ticket if their ticket was lost, but 88% of the people presented with the second scenario said that they would buy a ticket if only money was lost. In the first scenario, because the ticket had already been purchased, it is a "sunk cost". Therefore, losing the ticket is effectively identical to losing the $10 bill, yet there is a large discrepancy in how people would react. Economists call this phenomenon the failure to identify and ignore sunk costs, and it is one of ways in which people act irrationally. But what does any of this have to do with the title of this post?
Although there are many different arguments against the deployment of American troops in Iraq, one of the most prominent arguments is that this war was a mistake--that we were deceived and that we entered under false pretenses without a plan. This, I do not dispute--and have not disputed since 2003. In many ways, this war has been a disaster. We too quickly shifted our resources and focus from Afghanistan to Iraq, without having devoted enough energy and troops to stabilize Afghanistan--a mistake that is growing increasingly apparent as the Afghan government stumbles about while the Taliban is reclaiming power. We have significantly boosted the power of the Iranians by removing the most significant check against their power from the region, by helping establish a pro-Iranian government in Iraq, and by tying up our resources in such a way that Iran no longer sees our military as a significant threat. We have destabilized a country and turned it into a massive terrorist training camp, which reverses any gains that we made by neutralizing their Afghan infrastructure. And finally, we have soiled our image and reputation within the international community. Thus, in so many ways, this war was a grand mistake and an enormous disaster.
However, that the Iraq War has been a huge mistake should not inform our judgment about what needs to be done next. Yes, we should draw lessons from it so that we do not repeat such a mistake in the future, and we should strongly rebuke those who are responsible (especially since the Administration has yet to act honorably by admitting to this mistake), but when it comes to deciding what to do next, we must act rationally and thus treat this mistake as something akin to a sunk cost; we must ignore it. The main question that we should ask ourselves is whether or not withdrawal from Iraq would make the situation better; any argument for withdrawal that is based on the war being a mistake is irrational and is a failure to recognize the what-is-done-is-done nature of this war.
With that in mind, it is my belief that withdrawal would not make things better. It cannot undo the damage that has been done (that would require a time machine, not a troop withdrawal). If we consider the problems in Iraq right now--that it is destabilized, that civilians are being killed every day, that there has been an exodus of skilled and educated citizens, and that it is a training ground of terrorists--withdrawal will in all likelihood make these problems worse. Remember the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan? The mistake of entering the war has already been made, and leaving now would not change that, but it would magnify the effects of that initial mistake, and for that reason, I believe that we cannot withdraw until the "job is done", even if that requires (and I think it does) more troops.