December 05, 2004

The Iraq War as Present Value

by Demosophist

Richard Posner, on the brand-spanking-new Becker-Posner blog, manages to say in a few succinct words what I've been attempting to say in a far less economical way for over a year. One implication of the exposte anti-war argument concerning Iraq is that the Administration knew the probability of Saddam having WMD was zero, but chose to invade anyway for some unambiguously self-serving reason. That's essentially what all the "Bush lied" talk was about. The other, less well articulated, implication is that there was no estimate made of the probability, because it didn't matter. We would have attacked whether the probability of a future WMD attack from Saddam was 1 or 0, or anything in between. The former implication, that we knew the probability was zero and acted as though it were closer to 1 really has little merit. Had we known with certainty that there was no threat, then there'd have been no debate at all about the evidence. If it had been faked, the fakery would have been undetectable, because the deception would have been coldly premeditated. There would have been no bungling attempt at a poorly constructed "yellow-cake" document from Niger.

But the second implication at least has some small degree of merit. The administration may well have decided that the real issue was not whether Saddam was about to attack the US, but whether in the fullness of time, a radicalizing Arab Middle East would have become an unacceptable threat. If an administration had concluded that this was a significant probability, then the only question left would be where to intervene.

Which Middle Eastern nation presented the ripest opportunity? With the objective of "interfering with" the gradual development of a totalitarian Middle East, not only potentially capable of attack, but also capable of withholding oil resources (though there's an inherent conflict between obtaining resources to build weapons and cutting off the inflow of petro-dollars) Iraq seems ideal. Not only did it have a recalcitrant leader with parochially flawed strategic judgment, but he was also a crazy murdering S.O.B. About as unlovable a character as they make.

And geographically, Iraq is at the center of things in the Middle East. From there we could not only launch "our vanguard" for liberal democracy, to counter the Salafist vanguard for militant Islamism, but if necessary we could have a launch point for operations against other Middle Eastern threats as they emerged.

By the numbers, from Posner:

Suppose there is a probability of .5 that the adversary will attack at some future time, when he has completed a military build up, that the attack will, if resisted with only the victim's current strength, inflict a cost on the victim of 100, so that the expected cost of the attack is 50 (100 x .5), but that the expected cost can be reduced to 20 if the victim incurs additional defense costs of 15. Suppose further that at an additional cost of only 5, the victim can by a preventive strike today eliminate all possibility of the future attack. Since 5 is less than 35 (the sum of injury and defensive costs if the future enemy attack is not prevented), the preventive war is cost-justified.

A historical example that illustrates this analysis is the Nazi reoccupation of the Rhineland area of Germany in 1936, an area that had been demilitarized by the Treaty of Versailles. Had France and Great Britain responded to this treaty violation by invading Germany, in all likelihood Hitler would have been overthrown and World War II averted. (It is unlikely that Japan would have attacked the United States and Great Britain in 1941 had it not thought that Germany would be victorious.) The benefits of preventive war would in that instance have greatly exceeded the costs.

In the case of the Iraq War the probability isn't really made concerning Saddam, because the larger probability concerns the Islamist movement, as a whole. Having watched the Middle East slowly radicalize over a period of 40-plus years, leading inexorably to the 9-11 attacks... whether Saddam were an imminent or a growing and gathering threat may simply not have mattered.

Consider this analogy: You have reason to believe, with a probability of 0.5, that there's a ticking time bomb in a room of a larger building held by a terrorist gang, and the bomb is capable of destroying the better part of a city that can't be evacuated. (You can't evacuate the world, yet. Nor could we even evacuate a single country.) Your decision is whether to forcefully enter the building, which could endanger some hostages. The fact that the room may also contain fully automatic weapons and other ordnance wielded by thugs is important to your plan of entry, but it matters little to your decision of whether or not to enter if your cost-benefit calculation dictates that you must attempt to defuse the bomb. (I know there are a few problems with this analogy, such as the possibility that the thugs might trigger the bomb themselves if you enter, but in this scenario we assume that for some reason they can't do that.)

I guess the question arises as to whether you consult the public, but lets suppose that the calculations about the bomb involve some specialized knowledge that can't be shared with the public. Not only that, but you don't happen to enjoy a great deal of favor with the public so that they cannot simply take your word for the validity of your prediction. Your assessment of the probability of the larger risk is 0.5, but even after being told of it theirs is more likely to be something like 0.05 or even 0.005.

So, instead of presenting the larger but less familiar threat you present the lesser, but more familiar one... and hope that you can make a good enough case to convince people that the action is necessary.

If one consults the history of the run up to the Iraq War, the Bush administration did attempt to make a case that was concerned with the introduction of liberal government to Iraq, at least as a kind of humanitarian mission coupled to a larger strategic security. This argument sufficiently impressed Paul Berman and Bernard Kouchner that they each wrote eloquent defenses of the pending action on those liberal grounds alone. Neither, however, were widely read. Nor did they generate much of a political groundswell. One must doubt that had the case been made to the public on these grounds it would have had much heft. The lack of interest may simply have been because the case seemed more humanitarian than pragmatic. Even though there is a profoundly pragmatic reason for humanitarian action one is liable to be skeptical of such "unrealistic" naiveté'.

At any rate, the decision calculus of the public is probably a different topic, and in that calculus the issue of Saddamite WMD was the top priority. However, it's important to recognize that a top priority doesn't mean it was the only priority that concerned Americans, though it had been virtually the only priority of either "Old Europe" or the UN itself.

I guess the only point left to make is that if you're convinced of the growing threat of Islamo/fascism as even greater than the short term threat posed by Saddam, then you're also likely to be convinced that there's a greater expected cost to Arab Middle Eastern populations for the "act later" scenario. (See Armed Liberal for that argument.) In terms of Posner's calculus, acting in Europe during 1936 would not merely have saved more allied, but also a great many more German lives. (Few would have been cynical enough to have predicted the deaths of six million Jews .)

(Cross-posted by Demosophist to Demosophia and Anticipatory Retaliation)

By Demosophist at 11:50 PM | Comments |