Thursday, January 18, 2007

The US engagement in Iraq as a behavioural quirk

I have no dispute with the idea that agents have optimism biases and an aversion to cutting one’s losses and that these insights may have application to military conflicts and the proclivity to be a hawk as Daniel Kahneman and Daniel Renshon have recently argued.

Optimism biases make sense in optimistic positive-thinking societies where ‘having a go’ is important. Also ‘not admitting mistakes’ is important in organisations where you are punished for making them. Optimism biases can also arise because those prosecuting wards ignore the opportunity costs of staging a war as William Nordhaus and others (most recently David Leonardt) have pointed out.

But applying this analysis to the specifics of the war in Iraq, as John Quiggin and Kahneman-Renshon have done can amount to dressing up your own political views with a bit of jazzy behavioural economics. Maybe the US went into Iraq because it believed in the existence of potentially enormously dangerous WMDs and because it sought to get rid of Saddam. Maybe it believed this would be a straightforward process that would involve few casualties. That these beliefs tuned out to be in part false has little to do with the strength of ex ante convictions at that time. Even the Nordhaus paper approvingly intriguingly quote on the possible enormous costs of nuclear and biological weapons by Iraq:

‘In spite of some defector claims, it seems doubtful that Saddam has even one nuclear weapon. The same, however, is probably not true of biological and chemical weapons and a radiological weapon is possible. Iraq may also have enough components to assemble as many as 25 Scuds, has shorter range missiles, can modify drones and combat aircraft to act as “cruise missiles,” and has significant capability to smuggle weapons of mass destruction out of Iraq and deliver’. (Anthony H. Cordesman, Iraq’s Military Capabilities: Fighting A Wounded, But Dangerous, Poisonous Snake (Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 3 December 2001), 8).

While one can assume the worst about George Bush’s intentions in sending in an additional 21,500 troops it is not clear that this amounts to a ‘double-or-nothing’ bias. It may be that the actual loss of US prestige in accepting defeat in Iraq would be a serious cost to the international fight against terrorism – what signal would it send?- and Iraq would descend into a violent bloodbath even more serious than the current dire situation.

It’s a cunning way of advancing your political agenda of opposition to the war but logically invalid to argue that the Iraq intervention derived from some quirk in making decisions in a risky situation.


Anonymous said...

I can believe these biases exist (though their importance can be argued). I guess if someone is going to argue that they have been significant influences on the conduct of the Iraq war, they are a potential risk for any large scale govt intervention (I guess for the private sector too, but then it is the shareholders problem). So we should be very wary of any large scale intervention by government without appropriate checks? Can this explain the repeated cost overruns of building projects in Victoria?

derrida derider said...

Harry, be fair - Quiggin was trying to explain more generally why we go to war much more often than rationality would dictate. And the Iraq debacle was given as just one instance - though IMO a very obvious one.

And anonymous, there's no doubt these cognitive biases influence big government people, though it also does for small government people too (privatising prisons has not been a happy experience, f'rinstance, but people keep saying the answer is to do more of it).

I'm a left-liberal in my aims, but very much a Burkean conservative in policy innovations. We all consistently overestimate our ability to control events, and are slow to acknowledge mistakes.

civitas said...

Kudos to you Harry, for detecting John Quiggin's attempt to disguise his own political biases by pointing at the alleged biases of others. I always find him disingenuous.