Friday, September 19, 2014

Policies Don't Just Have Benefits. They Also Have Costs

When people are evaluating a policy sanely, they instinctively know to weigh the benefits *and* the costs. Which is how you can identify the policies some people are so attached to they value them for their own sake. Drug prohibition is one; war is another. How can you know? Watch for people discussing those policies as though they offer only benefits and involve no costs. For example, you'll see a huge amount of the "no costs, only benefits" tendency now with regard to war with ISIS.

To me, it's really a question of applying common sense, imagination, and our understanding of human nature to try to divine what makes sense. Seeing how the attacks of 9/11 incited America into an orgy of retaliation that continues to this day, I surmise that being bombed causes humans to crave revenge. Then I try to imagine what it's like to be Iraqi, for example, and to have my country invaded and occupied by foreigners who kill over 100,000 of my innocent countrymen and turn another four million into refugees (out of a population of about 33 million)... and what it must be like to live under the shadow of flying robots that have killed thousands of my innocent co-religionists... and I think, "Well, if these people are anything like Americans and not instead innately wired for pacifism, they now probably crave revenge for what we're doing to them as much as we craved revenge following 9/11. And look what that caused..."

And even if the GWOT has solved some problems (I'm sure it has; what policy can't meet that low a bar?) there's the question of what those benefits have cost us and whether they could have been achieved more cheaply. I'm inclined to believe that with the risk of dying in a terror attack anytime in this century lower than that of drowning in a bathtub, we could probably handle The Very Scary Terrorists in a way that didn't end the lives of something like six thousand American military personnel; that didn't burn, blind, maim, cripple, and brain damage tens of thousands of others; that didn't kill tens of thousands of innocent foreigners (that's a lot of "collateral damage" for a policy to have to justify, no?); that didn't add $3 trillion to the national debt and siphon off money that could have been invested at home to blow it up over seas; that didn't lead to the rise of ISIS; and that didn't embody so much of what James Madison warned of when he said:

"Of all the enemies to public liberty war, is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded because it comprises and develops the germ of every other."


"The means of defence against foreign danger have been always the instruments of tyranny at home."


"No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare."

I think it would be reasonable to require politicians to point to some pretty astonishing benefits from a policy to justify costs like those.


Frank Lloyd Wrong said...

I am conflicted when it comes to the case for 'War' against ISIS. On one hand, continuing the cycle of bomb, rebuild, repeat, seems like digging in sand (no pun intended). Some experts say, such as a few Glen Greenwald recently referenced on The Intercept, that we are simply creating more recruits for ISIS, playing into the 'trap' it has set for our government. At the same time, it seems as if looking at history that America's definition as an enemy would remain unchanged regardless of our foreign policy. The destruction of America = the destruction of Israel, end-of-story. The bombing may accomplish, however, a diminishing of our enemies' ability to make war on us, or additional barbaric acts on it's neighbors. Managing a problem instead of solving it is not a long term solution, but until a better one presents itself, ignoring them altogether seems like a bigger risk. Ignoring Al Qaeda was a massive mistake pre-9/11 and ignoring ISIS could be equally fatal in the long run. Bombing is a risky move. Inaction carries its own risks as well.

Barry Eisler said...

Thanks Frank. May I ask, why do you assume the only two choices are war/ignore them?

Frank Lloyd Wrong said...

I don’t believe those are the only two options, though I understand my comment presents it unintentionally in terms of that dichotomy. Still, hobbling or disabling ISIS through what means are realistically available seems a wise course of action. (Calling on others to stop them hasn’t helped, and I’ve seen no evidence to suggest that announcing a new foreign policy banning military intervention in the region would result in anything other than even larger scale war. There seems to be no realistic diplomatic option available.) Bombing ISIS could accomplish many things: It destroys a percentage of ISIS’s violence-making capabilities and could commit a significant chunk of their money into trying to rebuild it, tying up resources in the interim. If donations start coming in internationally to rebuild, it could give forensic accountants a trove of additional funds to track and cut off. It would give their natural enemies in the region a window of opportunity to keep them occupied. The hobbling of their capabilities might make them a less romantic option for would be recruits considering joining up. It is a tactic, which if followed up intelligently could prove helpful in tempering ISIS’s clout in the region. There are risks, and as Greenwald suggested, it could make ISIS seem more appealing to those looking to enlist in the cause. I believe the possible benefits outweigh that risk, not as a rule, but in this case.

Don Bay said...

Unfortunately, Congress has just adjourned after approving USA's slide into perpetual war without argument., without even discussion: "We gotta bomb those killers before the ISIS flag flies over the White House."

There are options other than doing nothing or bombing the bejesus out of them. And guaranteed that American "boots on the ground" will follow as surely as night follows day.

Two of the options include negotiating with threatened nations in the vicinity to convince them that they have more to lose than we do. Let those nations carry the load of opposing ISIS. Chelsea Manning suggests that ISIS will implode if everybody fights them rationally with the same tools ISIS is using to goad us into wasting lives and treasure.

As pointed out by Mr. Eisler, drones, bombs and, certainly, American boots on the ground will only result in needless tragedy for everybody and arouse even more hatred for the "foreign invaders."

Why does war have to be the only answer?

Philippe said...

The fact that Israel doesn't seems alarmed by ISIS is quite telling about the threat they pose...

They must be so soft hearted!

NWA said...

Mr. Eisler,
I would challenge your notion that being bombed causes humans to crave revenge. Germany and Japan became fast allies after WWII. N. Vietnam didn’t declare a vendetta after we dropped more steel on that country than we did in Germany. N. Korea isn’t serious about a fight. The Serbs are over it. Sudan isn’t pissed off about those ‘milk powder’ factories we bombed. Yemen and Somalia don’t seem to care when a hellfire missile lands on some terrorist’s face.
Are there a few people radicalized by this? Sure, but there are some people who are incensed we eat bacon and let our women drive. Outliers that exist regardless of stimulus.
Does bombing make Americans crave revenge? Absolutely. Best not to project that aspect of cultural relativism on the rest of the world.
Pretending to be an Iraqi leads into a post hoc ergo proctor hoc fallacy and more than one non-sequitor fallacy. Americans didn’t kill 100,000 civilians during the war, Iraqis did that to themselves. Americans didn’t drive four million refugees out of the country, Iraqis did that to themselves. I spent 30 months in Iraq and the Iraqis I met were fully cognizant as to who was murdering civilians and why people fled their homes. The Iraqis never blamed America for their sectarian conflict or tried to shirk that responsibility. The underlying causes to all those deaths existed long before we Americans ever showed up, and the problems persist even when we aren’t in the country to get all the blame.
I take exception to your accusation that Americans killed 100,000 civilians. The United States military does not target civilians. The deaths of civilians were avoided whenever possible, but it was a war and the enemy chose to hide among civilians, making their deaths inevitable. By the laws of land warfare, those deaths are the responsibility of the illegal combatants and not the US. Your assertion is insulting, misleading and rather sad.
Iraqis were never that worked up over civilian deaths, so long as blood money was paid. Amazing, and disappointing, that a few thousand dollars could soothe over relations with the bereaveds’ tribe and family. Again with that cultural relativism.
As for the ‘flying robots,’ Iraqis knew that if we were bombing someone, there was a damn good reason for it. Only the wicked were afraid. If the missile hit the wrong house, see above.
Let me tell you something about the Middle East: they all hate each other, and the only thing they can agree on is to hate Israel the most. Iraqis really didn’t care what happened to anyone beyond their tribe. For an Iraqi to care about some mud hut blown up in Afghanistan would beggar belief.
Yes, there are the radicals who scream about the Muslim ummah and how one attack on a Muslim is an attack on all Muslims. Again, outliers that exist regardless of stimulus.


NWA said...


Funny story. I was in Iraq when the news about all the abuses at Abu Gharaib broke out. My job was to train the Iraqi National Guard in Diwaniya (Shi’a city) and I worked with Iraqis on a daily basis. After seeing all the pictures and reading the articles, I thought the Iraqis were going to eat me the next time I showed up at their base.
I rolled in to work and everything was perfectly normal. No shaking fists or threats. After a few hours of waiting for the other shoe to drop, I asked one of the Iraqi officers about Abu Gharaib and what he thought about it. His response was “Those are Saddam’s guys. Do whatever you want to them!” That was the last we spoke of it.

One of the hardest things to prove is the value of prevention. We major events happen, sometimes we can point back to how inaction led to that event. But we can’t point to events that didn’t happen because we took preventative action early on.
Here’s a metaphor for dealing with ISIS, killing ISIS in the crib is like giving your children vaccines. But no one dies of polio anymore! Who needs all those shots that aren’t causing autism? That kind of thinking has led to the rise of childhood diseases in First World nations.

So we look at ISIS, which even by South Park standards is coming right for us, and we either end the threat now or wait until it is a problem we can’t ignore when innocents start dying.

We’re already well beyond dealing with ISIS quick and easy like. That’s why ISIS rolled through Mosul and Tikrit and controls enough territory to be as large as Jordan. Sitting on our duff now is like deciding to get fit and eat right after a heart attack and double bypass that'll hit in a few years.

What if we hadn’t fought the GWOT? Would UBL have just decided he made his point and take up knitting? Or would he have been emboldened by our inaction (like he was after our meh response to the African embassy bombings and first WTC bombing) to do something even worse? How would the world have reacted to America just shrugging off a terrorist attack of that magnitude? We can look at the Ukraine and see what happens when America decides not to lead.

There are 3,000 dead American civilians that wish we’d taken care of those Very Scary Terrorists well before 9/11.

Ken Prescott said...

In the near term, ISIS isn't a threat.

In the long term, I believe ISIS won't be a threat--or, more precisely, if it becomes, in the mid term, as big a threat as I fear, it won't be a threat any more, it will end up being radioactive air pollution courtesy of (take your pick) the US, the UK, France, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Russia, or some combination of any or all of the preceding nations. Yes, I think we'll end up getting that desperate.

Think Globally, Nuke Locally...

I think we're going to look back on the period 1989-2014 as "the years the locust have eaten," to wax Scriptural. And the reckoning for wasting that time is going to come with a frightful price tag.

editor said...

Richard Fox: Thoughtful comments. I, too, believe that nascent threats should be taken seriously. OUr biggest mistake (or sin) in the past decade-plus was conflating Iraq with GWOT. I believe that was done cynically by ne0o-cons seeking hubristically to reorder the Middle East. We kicked over a bad but stable regime and now reap the consequences. Same in Libya and less directly Syria.
The evil consequences of Iraq should not distort our view of how to respond to groups like ISIS. I reiterate that if the US had taken bin Laden's declaration of war seriously and had treated the attack on the USS Cole as the act of war that it was, we could have derailed the 9-11 attacks.
Suppressing terrorist threats is not the same thing as attempting to reorder the geopolitics of an entire region. One is necessary and doable, the other is imperial overreach.
Jim Cornelius

Unknown said...

Richard Fox: You warn Barry against extending a behavioral trait of one group to other groups, but you do the same thing when you extend to all Iraqis the opinions of the few with whom you worked. Doesn't the fact that those Iraqis were willing to see their political enemies tortured argue that other human groups are as aggressive as Americans?

You're ignoring an elephant in the room: the fact that terrorist groups are composed of non-Americans who hate us so much that they want to travel halfway around the world to kill us. Do you doubt that such people will respond aggressively to aggressive acts?

Do you mean to suggest that Japan, Germany, and South Korea became our allies _because_ we bombed them? That's how your statement reads. Perhaps that's not what you meant, but if you did, I want to point out that we didn't bomb South Korea, and as for your remaining two examples, they can be refuted with North Korea, Vietnam, and Laos, who did not become steadfast friends after we bombed them.

I don't understand your calling your colleagues' callous response to Abu Ghraib a "funny story"; I'll have to put that down to different worldviews. But let's swap out the players in your story to see if your conclusion holds water logically:

If Iraq invaded the USA and captured and tortured American soldiers and civilians, and an office full of American collaborators condoned it, would that make the torture okay with you? If it did, should the rest of America be bound by your personal opinion?

I've addressed a couple of specific problems I see in your posts, but there's a general problem that dwarfs them all: One man's anecdotal evidence and personal opinions cannot stand in the balance against a $4 trillion price tag (2014 Brown University estimate of the cost of the Iraq War). The only way to spend that kind of money is to do what everyone does when they make a large purchase, whether it's done only mentally or with spreadsheets and a team of accountants: take a sheet of paper, draw a line down the middle, and write the costs on one side and the benefits on the other. Then compare them, and invite everyone affected to compare them. And when it comes time to determine the value of the deaths and displacement of hundreds of thousands of human beings and the erosion of America's ethical reputation, the opinion of every person paying (taxes) for that operation must be counted equally.