Economists, sophists and calculators

by Henry Farrell on July 18, 2003

“The Economist”: gives us a rather longwinded editorial today, explaining why it was right to support the war, even if it turns out that George and Tony indeed were telling porkies. The piece makes some (apparently) good arguments. First, Saddam had repeatedly failed to comply with UN sanctions, and had lied about what he was up to. The UN needed to carry through if its threats were to be considered credible. Second, any delay in following through on the threat would possibly have led to divisions among the allies. Third, America and its allies are doing their best to make the country and the region more peaceful and less threatening.

So why is the _Economist_ wrong? Let’s take each of their arguments in turn.

First, the credible threats claim. According to the _Economist_

bq. Given that, by 2002, [Hussein] had flouted 16 binding UN resolutions, how best to persuade him to allow inspectors to return? By making a credible threat that the measure promised by such resolutions, the use of force, would be carried out if he didn’t. That required the stationing of troops on his border and the passing of a further UN resolution in November stating what he had to do to comply.

Sadly, this argument doesn’t work at all. You see, the thing about credible threats is that they have to be _conditional_ if they’re going to be effective. In other words, you threaten to do something nasty to someone, unless that someone does whatever it is that you’re telling them to. Presumably, then, if your threatened punishment is severe enough, and is credible, the offending party does whatever it is that you wanted him to do. And if you’re a game theorist, you can describe this as a nice little subgame perfect equilibrium (the Nash equilibrium concept allows for incredible threats too, but that’s a different story).

But this isn’t what the US and its allies were up to at all. They weren’t using the threat of invasion in order to make Saddam cough up his WMD. Instead, they were making it quite clear that they were going to invade anyway, regardless or not of whether Saddam started to make nice. They didn’t go through the UN in order to enhance the UN’s credibility, but rather to daub a thin patina of legitimacy over the course of action that they had decided to take anyway. The threatened invasion of Iraq was not intended to deter Hussein, it was intended to depose him. Nor is US policy likely to deter other dictators from building up WMD; when they look at the lily-livered US attitude towards North Korea, they may reasonably draw the conclusion that going nuclear is the best way to stop Uncle Sam from sending in the troops. Ergo, the credible threat argument is bogus.

Second – the claim that the allies had to take action, as delays would lead to further divisions, and Hussein could emerge again after a couple of years. This is a slightly stronger argument, but still not a very good one. On the Economist‘s side of the equation is the behaviour of the French, which certainly didn’t inspire much confidence that they were taking the problem of proliferation seriously. But taking action, as the US and Britain did, without the sanction of the UN, is arguably more damaging still. First of all, the _Economist_ glides over the unfortunate fact that there is zero evidence _ex post_ that Hussein posed a serious short term threat, as US and UK officials claimed, and that many of these officials’ arguments have been rather brutally falsified. But more damningly – does the _Economist_ really think that the potential long term threat that it’s worried about – proliferation of nuclear weapons to unstable or dangerous regimes – has been mitigated by the decision to go in at short notice, all guns blazing? If anything, it’s worsened – the US and UK are in the uncomfortable position of the boy who cried wolf. If they try to claim in future that they have evidence of proliferation happening in nasty regimes, they’re probably going to be laughed down. And it’s becoming increasingly obvious from the Iraq debacle that they can’t remake the world on their own.

Finally, the question of whether US and UK efforts in Iraq are increasing regional stability. Here, the _Economist_ claims

bq. What can be said, though, is that so far the picture is mixed but on balance moderately encouraging. President Bush has certainly begun a serious effort to persuade Israel and Palestine to make peace, and that process has inched edgily forwards. …In Iraq itself the Americans made an appallingly bad start. Their reasons for having had no post-war plan are almost as incomprehensible as Saddam’s reasons for having neither complied with the UN resolution nor deployed any banned weapons. They have also failed, so far, to beat back or deter the guerrilla tactics being used against them. There are, though, some encouraging signs too. Chief among them is the establishment during the past week of the new 25-member Iraqi Governing Council.

Notice that the _Economist_ leads off with an irrelevancy, hardly a sign of confidence in their argument. US efforts to jump-start the Israel-Palestine peace process are laudable, if belated. However, they have almost nothing whatsoever to do with the merits or defects of the US invasion of Iraq. And as the _Economist_ itself admits, the US record on the matter at hand, the reconstruction of Iraq, is far from impressive. “An appallingly bad start,” as the unnamed author of the editorial puts it, and while he does his best to puff up the Governing Council, he includes caveats all over the place. Among others: the lengthy delays in setting up any sort of Iraqi authority, which the _Economist_ thinks were justified (I disagree), but which “sowed doubts about America’s intentions.” Doubts about America’s willingness to stick with it; “will America really remain committed, especially in the face of daily casualties?” The administration’s previous statebuilding efforts in Afghanistan, which have left the country in “far too vulnerable and disorderly a state.”

Towards the end, the piece reads to me like the beginnings of an effort to extricate the magazine from a rather sticky position. Clearly, the editors realize that they’ve been sold a pup; they’ve toned down their previous assertions that Saddam presented an imminent threat to world peace, without explicitly abandoning them. But they’re also setting themselves up to say “I told you so,” if the US occupation of Iraq goes awry. The final part of the article is all about what could go wrong if the US fouls it up by withdrawing too soon or not putting enough into reconstruction. It points to the risks of civil war with outside involvement by Iraq’s neighbors, and the possibility of a “huge stain on America’s reputation, not only for justice but also for effectiveness.” I suspect that the _Economist_ is beginning to shift from unqualified support for the US case, to a class of an each-way bet, so that they can opinionate to their smug and magisterial heart’s content, no matter what happens.



Pathos 07.18.03 at 8:48 pm

1. The argument can only be seen as “non-conditional” because there was no chance that Saddam would actually disarm.

Condoleeza Rice made the argument very compellingly here, comparing Iraq to the countries that did voluntarily disarm:

It was not about FINDING weapons, it was about their showing them to us. That included digging up the parts under the rose bushes and stuff like that. By not doing what Kazakhstan and South Africa did, Iraq was failing to actively comply with U.N. resolutions.

Yes, we know Iraq would never comply. That knowledge doesn’t make the resolution non-conditional, however.

2. Delay. The delay had been going on since the first of the 16 binding resolutions. This hadn’t just been going on a few months, even though most of the world wasn’t thinking about it in the 1990’s.

Delay would have just led to a few more hundred or thousand dead and tortured Iraqis. If there was no movement toward real disarmament (see #1), waiting doesn’t do any good.

3. Israel/Palestine is not a non-sequitur. Saddam was providing funds to suicide bomber families. That was one less ally for the terrorists. The threat of the U.S. actually taking terrorism seriously caused the Palestinians to lose other allies (although Europe still refuses to consider Hamas a terrorist group) and increase pressure on them to come to the bargaining table. Knowing the U.S. will back up its promises (see #1 again) brings stability to the region.


Reg 07.18.03 at 8:54 pm

Too bad we didn’t just leave Saddam alone, eh? We wouldn’t have to deal with this ‘debacle.’

Isn’t it a bit silly to say the threat from WMD proliferation is greater after getting rid of Saddam? How so? Because the US has less credibility now? In whose eyes?
The only ones that count when limiting WMD proliferation are the bad guys, and it is hard to see how this war will increase their ability to obtain WMDs.


Mark 07.18.03 at 9:05 pm

There’s an easy scenario under which the invasion made things worse. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that Bush and Blair, etc. were correct about Iraq having WMDs. _Where did they go_? We sure as hell haven’t secured them, and it’s not like we have a great idea where they may be found. _If_ Bush was right about WMDs existing in Iraq ca. 3/03, then they must have gone somewhere, no? Who has them now? _We don’t know_. That sound like a good scenario to you?


BJ 07.18.03 at 9:09 pm

With respect to the issue of flouting UN resolutions — that’s no mark of a rogue nation. Many states have done so without retribution from the mighty US military, or anyone else for that matter. To use that as a justification for a full-scale military invasion is arbitrary at best. At worst, it’s low-grade political cynicism.

Moreover, the tactic as employed implies that there is no room for any sort of measured progress between “inspections” and “serious consequences.” It’s as if you discipline your unresponsive child only by two methods — sitting in the corner, or beatings with a wire coathanger. There existed a wide array of possible options for the UN to increase pressure on Hussein, without the need to invade a sovereign nation (no matter how disgusting its ruler might be). The fact is that Bush and Co. simply chose not to employ any of the alternatives, or indeed to admit their existence.

On the issue of Israel/Palestine, Pathos cannot seriously believe that funds to suicide bombers’ families have suddenly dried up in Hussein’s absence. Neither Palestinian nor Israeli fighters have ever had _any_ difficulty getting money, guns or moral support. Hussein may have been a convenient source, and it may well have been in his political best interests to see the Israel/Palestine conflict fester, but don’t believe for a minute that his removal has contributed in any measurable way to progress toward peace.


pathos 07.18.03 at 9:23 pm

“There existed a wide array of possible options for the UN to increase pressure on Hussein, without the need to invade a sovereign nation (no matter how disgusting its ruler might be).”

Yes, for example, how about a decade of sanctions. That might have worked . . .


apostropher 07.18.03 at 9:38 pm

“Yes, for example, how about a decade of sanctions. That might have worked.”

Well, given the vast stores of illegal weapons that we have recovered, it seems to me that a decade of sanctions and six years of inspections did a pretty good job after all. He was completely boxed-in and contained, and at a much lower cost to our Treasury, alliances, and troops than this invasion and occupation has proven to be.


Henry 07.18.03 at 9:44 pm

Pathos – a quick response to your points.

Your first point doesn’t really address my argument. I was saying that credible threats have to be conditional – that is, that the threatened party should know that the threat will _not_ be carried through if they behave well. Contrary to what the _Economist_ implies, the US threat was not conditional in this sense. The US made it clear that they were going to invade in any event, and that what Hussein did in response was more or less irrelevant. If you’re right in saying that “we know that Saddam would never comply,” then the _Economist_ is wrong; the UN resolution etc wasn’t about credible threats intended to change Saddam’s behavior. It was about posturing for the benefit of the international community; trying to win support for a policy that the US was going to follow through on anyway. I happen not to think that you were right; but your analysis was obviously shared by the US administration.

On whether or not delay would have had any effects – this again depends on whether or not your argument that Saddam was irreformable is true. If it is, then you’re right – but again, the _Economist_ is wrong. The implication that follows from your argument is that _nothing_ would have changed in Saddam’s behavior, regardless of what the international community did. So again, the credible threat argument falls.

On your final point, you’re attacking an argument that I don’t actually make. What I say is that US “efforts to jump-start the Israel-Palestine peace process” have nothing to do with “the merits or defects of the US invasion of Iraq.” What you seem to think I said is something like – “the collapse of Hussein’s regime has nothing to do with the Israel-Palestine peace process.” Which is actually quite a different claim, and one that I don’t make. I’m making an argument about US policy towards Israel/Palestine, and saying that this policy does not reflect positively or negatively on what it’s doing in Iraq. This is a claim that can be debated, I’m sure, but I do think that it’s a tenable position. But I simply don’t see how your (correct) statement that Hussein supported the families of suicide bombers has any bearing on my argument. What I’m asking is why we should be concerned with US behavior towards Israel and Palestine, when we’re trying to debate the US invasion of Iraq? They’re different matters, which should be evaluated separately.

Reg. I disagree that the only people who we ought to be concerned about with WMD are the bad guys. Stopping WMD proliferation requires a multilateral effort – in other words you need to convince the good guys too. The US is more powerful than any other state by an order of magnitude – but it isn’t big enough to stop WMD on its own. And its credibility with potential allies has been seriously damaged.

But I’d better shut up now, in case my reply ends up being longer than my original post :)


PG 07.18.03 at 10:07 pm

It’s fine for individuals and institutions to support the war, if they think it was the right course of action, whether for humanitarian reasons or otherwise.

But a false case for war, one that claimed Americans were fighting for their own security instead of the freedom of Iraqis, is dangerous to democracy.


cure 07.18.03 at 11:10 pm

Henry, the two strongest reasons for the just Iraq war remain as valid today as they ever were: humanitarianism and regional stability. The 1991 Resolutions made clear that, as terms of his surrender in Kuwait, Saddam had to stop his WMD program as well as stop his internal gestapo brutality. There is no question that Saddam was stilling killing dissidents and those out of political favor straight up until this March, and I see no reason that he would have stopped. As far as regional stability is concerned, positive changes have already occurred in the I/P quandary, Saudi politics, the Iranian democratic movement and the Syrian attitude toward suicide bombers. That is significant. If Iraq becomes a liberal, wealthy democracy, as I believe it will, the Middle East will have reached a turning point the likes of Attaturk’s reforms. As the ME has been an intl. flashpoint for decades, this is significant. Saddam’s WMD program combined with a desire for greater regional control by any means makes the situation even more pertinent – an Iraqi official told the coalition after the war that he didn’t know of any nuclear program then existing, but that Saddam certainly had plans to acquire a nuke and was merely waiting for the beat of wardrums to blow over.

That said, the question is: could the above objectives be achieved without as much suffering among innocents? The answer is yes. Civilian casualties are very low for a full-scale invasion of a nation that defended itself with guerrila tactics. Saddam was offered countless opportunities to either cooperate fully with inspectors from the UN or choose exile, but he chose neither.

A last comment regarding the UN Resolutions following the Gulf War. There are different types of UN Resolutions – the two pertaining to Saddam in 1991 laid out conditions of a surrender. Failure to comply with them technically means that Hussein’s surrender is invalid. No one is suggesting that the US invade every country that flaunts UN Resolutions (the US does it all the time; for instance, during the Noriega action in Panama). But countries that violate the terms of their ceasefire are like criminals robbing while on probation – there must be consequences.


Jack 07.19.03 at 3:29 am

Cure, your second paragraph raises an interesting question. If we regard Saddam’s rule as illegitimate, how can we use his actions as justification for killing Iraqi civilians? If it was legitimate, what were we doing invading?


raj 07.19.03 at 6:45 am

This isn’t a joke, is it?

“First, Saddam had repeatedly failed to comply with UN sanctions, and had lied about what he was up to. The UN needed to carry through if its threats were to be considered credible.”

This obviously relates to the portion of Security Council Resolution 1441 (the 2002 resolution regarding weapons inspections in Iraq) that indicated that continued intransigence by the affected party (here Iraq) might have dire consequences. The fact is, however, that most SC resolutions have similar verbiage, and no countries have taken it seriously. Regardless, the fact is also, that, following the passage of Res 1441, the US ambassador to the UN stated unequivocally that a further UN resolution would be required before the UN would be deemed to sanction war against Iraq. That was the resolution that the US sought–and failed to get–in February 2003. So the US’s subsequent actions in Iraq could hardly be deemed to be in defense of the UN.

“Second, any delay in following through on the threat would possibly have led to divisions among the allies.”

I have seen BS, but the fact is that this BS really stinks. Bush’s virtually unilateral attack–without UN approval–on Iraq has caused divisions among the allies. Unless, of course, the (UK publication) Economist believes that “the allies” consist only of the US and the UK.

“Third, America and its allies are doing their best to make the country and the region more peaceful and less threatening.”

Oh, really? And what are the US and the UK doing in regards the region? What are the US and the UK doing in regards, say, Afghanistan, which was known to harbor terrorists? I hate to tell you, but the fact seems to be that the US–in ignoring Afghanistan and virtually unilaterally attacking Iraq–has virtually squandered any international good will that it had.


Dick Thompson 07.19.03 at 1:51 pm

I don’t see how you can have both that the invasion made the worldwide WMD problem worse, and that it has no effect on the Israel/Palestine peace efforts.

The invasion was truly a new thing in the world, and it had its effect on leader’s minds in both cases. The proto nuclear states thought they’d better speed up development, lest they be caught with their pants down like Saddam.

And the calculus of power in the Israeli cockpit was transformed, “confrontation states” lost some of their menace, and that broke a little of the logjam.


Russell L. Carter 07.19.03 at 3:16 pm

“The invasion was truly a new thing in the world”

Utterly wrong, nearly illiterate. It was the oldest thing in the world. Ancient indeed.


Dick Thompson 07.20.03 at 3:15 am

Everything that was old is now new. This is the new world order, and the Iraq invasion wasn’t some old colonial adventure, but a phase in the self-declared war on terrorism. The single nation that spends more on its military than all the rest of the world combined had defied the UN, scorned Europe, and flexed its mighty muscle. No leader of any nation can fail to wonder, what’s next?


John 07.21.03 at 11:28 pm

I don’t understand why the US and Britain did not make the case more strongly that they were already fighting a low-intensity war with Iraq (i.e. the no-fly areas) and, combined with the unintentional suffering caused by the sanctions, had to be brought to a head once and for all. Given that Saddam would surely have attacked the Kurds if they were unprotected, it would have put pressure on the other Western powers to either share the burden (which they wouldn’t do)or let the Allies take the lead.

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