Saturday, April 09, 2005

The Sorest Loser: Was it right to invade Iraq? Don't Look to the Middle East for Answers

Hey kids,

I'm really excited to announce that Dumpster Bust has added a Guest Columnist to the roster: The Sorest Loser. TSL, as I like to call him, has been producing some of the best political writing in the blogosphere for some time now, and I'm thrilled that he has agreed to share his work over here.

Check out The Sorest Loser's home website here.

Without further adieu...


Recent elections abroad have transformed the political debate at home. But the most profound transformation has not been to people’s minds but to their arguments. Elections in Iraq, Palestine, and the Ukraine have compelled both the president’s critics and his supporters to embrace the arguments of their opponents. A year ago, many of the president’s critics felt vindicated by the chaos in Iraq while many of his supporters pleaded for time and patience before passing final judgment on the wisdom of the Iraqi invasion. Today, many of the president’s supporters feel vindicated by recent events while many of his critics insist that it’s still too early to pass final judgment. In short, the president’s supporters and critics have switched arguments without necessarily switching sides.

In addition to being interesting in its own right, this argumentative flip-flop reveals a crucial point of consensus among many of the war’s critics and supporters. While the president’s critics and supporters disagree about the wisdom or rightness of the war in Iraq, they both agree about how the war’s wisdom or rightness should be determined. Both sides agree that whether the war was justified depends on the war’s actual outcome -- a stable and democratic Iraq would justify the war while a chaotic and barbaric one would not. So they look to the Middle East to see which description Iraq more closely resembles. But this is a grave error. As I’ll explain, the war’s justification rests not on its actual outcome but on its expected outcome. Or, more precisely, the war was wise, right, or justified only if the expected benefits of going to war outweighed its expected costs. Accordingly, what actually happens in Iraq does not affect the war’s justification.

To see this, suppose that I sink all of my money into the State lottery in the hope of winning big, and that the drawing is tomorrow. Is this wise? Am I doing the right thing? If an act’s wisdom or rightness depends on its actual consequences, then we can’t answer this question until tomorrow. To know whether sinking all of my money into the lottery was wise or right we’d have to wait and see whether I actually win or lose. But this is absurd. Since state lotteries are not rational gambles (the expected costs exceed the expected benefits), I am making a poor choice. There is no wisdom in going for broke in the state lottery. Whether I actually win or lose doesn’t affect my decision’s justifiability. Unfortunate outcomes don’t make wise gambles any dumber, and fortunate outcomes don’t make dumb gambles any wiser.

Like many gambles, the war’s eventual outcome will be at least partly determined by factors beyond our control. In part, Iraq’s fate hinges on the character and the ability of its emerging leaders, on the civic engagement of its citizens, on the cooperation of its neighbors, and on how well its leaders are able to massage simmering ethnic tensions. Indeed, for all we know Iraq’s future may hinge on something as unpredictable as the weather. Bad weather could lead to a season of poor crops, which could lead to unemployment, which could lead to unrest, instability, and ultimately to civil war. My point is merely that the invasion of Iraq was a gamble, and that a gamble’s wisdom is determined by its expected value rather than by its actual outcome.

If I’m in the market for a new house, and someone offers me a fantastic deal, I ought to take it. The wisdom or rightness of buying the house is not challenged if, say, it is later destroyed by a falling meteor. In a manner of speaking, George W. Bush has bought us a house. For the first two years his critics insisted that it was dilapidated while his supporters begged for more time. Now his supporters are singing the house’s praises while his critics are asking for more time. Both sides, however, assume that the actual condition of the house determines the rightness of the decision to purchase it. But it doesn’t. If we want to know whether the war was justified, we should look at the available information at the time the decision was made and determine whether it was reasonable to believe that the benefits of going to war would exceed the costs. Looking at the actual state of Iraq and the greater Middle East tells us little about the war’s wisdom or rightness.

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