Bryan Caplan  

Mueller on Iraq

Capitalism, Democracy, and Pol... Surveillance and Terrorism...

John Mueller's been very busy since I last looked. Here's one of the most interesting things I've seen about Iraq in months:

The public gave substantial support to the military ventures in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq as the troops were sent in. In all cases, support decreased as casualties -- whether of draftees, volunteers, or reservists -- mounted. In each case, the increase in the number of people who considered the venture to be a mistake was steep during the war's early stages, as reluctant supporters were rather quickly alienated; the erosion slowed as approval was reduced to the harder core. (The dramatic early drop in support for the war in Korea reflected the large number of casualties suffered in the opening phase of that war.)

The most striking thing about the comparison among the three wars is how much more quickly support has eroded in the case of Iraq. By early 2005, when combat deaths were around 1,500, the percentage of respondents who considered the Iraq war a mistake -- over half -- was about the same as the percentage who considered the war in Vietnam a mistake at the time of the 1968 Tet offensive, when nearly 20,000 soldiers had already died.

Hawks don't want America to look weak. The problem is, America looks a lot weaker when it fights and quits, than if it hadn't fought at all. Before calling for war, the honest hawk has to ask himself: "Keeping in mind how gutless my fellow Americans are, what are the odds that we'll actually stay the course?"

P.S. Also check out Mueller's "A False Sense of Insecurity."

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COMMENTS (29 to date)
Randy writes:

It is important that we demonstrate a willingness to stay the course, but it is of even greater importance that we demonstrate a willingness to fight. A potential attacker should understand that our response to aggression will be immediate and devastating - whether we stay the course or not.

We should stay in Iraq because it is a strategic position from which to devastate Iran and/or Syria if necessary. And we should stay as long as the threat persists.

Cyberike writes:

There are a couple of things that might explain the public lack of support besides that we are "gutless". One is that we were deceived about the premise of the war, and continue to receive misleading statements to this day.

However, the primary problem is that we are losing, and our current strategy does not appear to be working. I basically support the war, and (to some degree) agree that we are in a war with extremest fanatics, but our strategy needs to change. We are fighting in a way that strengthens our enemy, as we see with hezbollah. We are creating enemies instead of destroying them.

As long as we have blind, unquestioning support for this administration's strategy we will continue to lose. It is not enough to say we told you so, there must be a change in the war effort. Since this administration does not seem able to see a way to fight differently, we have to force a change.

Randy writes:


I just don't see that Hezbollah is any stronger or that Israel is any weaker because of the recent action. Israel was living under the threat of the missiles shipped into southern Lebanon from Iran and Syria over the past 6 years, and they still are. But they have now demonstrated the will to bomb the holy hell out of Lebanon if those missiles are used. It is true that Hezbollah may have increased its political power in Lebanon, but only because many of the Lebanese people are complete fools. What exactly has Hezbollah done for Lebanon or its people? In what way have they made anyone's life better? In what way are they any closer to destroying Israel? They haven't accomplished anything. Yes, perhaps their hate is stronger now, but it won't do them any good.

Barkley Rosser writes:


And just how serious was that threat of aggression from Iraq that supposedly justifies(d) our failing venture there?

Randy writes:


"Justified" is an interesting word, don't you think?

I mean, its possible to follow the path of "just war theory" to the point of complete immobilization. Fortunately, no such complicated theorizing is necessary in the real world. Iraq was and is an opportunity to obtain a strategic advantage. We'll work out the justifications later.

Lord writes:

And America looks a lot more foolish and and becomes that much weaker when it can't admit its mistakes and cut its losses.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

The problem is in the framing of the war.

The US "won the war" a long time ago. The war to was to depose Saddam Hussein (done), eliminate weapons of mass destruction (turns out there were none) and eradicate the capability to create weapons of mass destruction (no one is building anything industrial in Iraq now, much less nuclear reactors and high speed centrifuges).

The American people signed up to free Iraq from Saddam and set up a democratic government. That happened. They did not sign up to support a Sunni/Shia civil war, which is what is now happening. At least hopefully the Kurds end up better off in the end. I think the Sunnis, despite their boldness, will in the end all be killed.

So we leave, in the process potentially setting up another Rwanda-like genocide. But is that really the U.S.'s problem?

Dezakin writes:

Warfare and welfare are policy brothers however. A prudent political economist should consider how much the gains are from empire versus the parasitic losses of the inevitable welfare state that goes with it.

If the US has any gains from empire at all. It seems the US policy is a schitzophrenic mixure of naive idealism and realpolitik in just the wrong doses of either. Stay the course is all fine and well if you actually have any idea where you're going, and despite all of the claims of the administration, the endgame seems to be far murkier. The only clear winner in the adventure is the state.

Randy writes:


Your reference to "real politik" is on target, but your use of "empire" is not. This is a pursuit of Pax Americana and our national interest, no question about it - but it is not a pursuit of empire. We don't want subjects, but neither will we tolerate beligerence.

Glen writes:


Pursuit of Pax and national interest through the use of aggression and government, DEFINE empire. If the government is pursuing these goals, there is no question that they are pursing empire.

Randy writes:


- the domain ruled by an emperor or empress; the region over which imperial dominion is exercised
- a group of countries under a single authority; "the British empire"
- a monarchy with an emperor as head of state

All nations pursue their national interests. Most find it necessary to use agressive methods from time to time. This does not make them empires.

RogerM writes:

Before calling for war, the honest hawk has to ask himself: "Keeping in mind how gutless my fellow Americans are, what are the odds that we'll actually stay the course?

At Valley Forge, George Washington looked at his starving, poorly armed and clothed troops and wondered rhetorically where the yeoman farmers who started the revolution were. He knew where they were. They had started the fight, then went home to tend their farms. At Valley Forge, Washington was left with the underclass of poor young men who had no other options. Even the state legislatures who were so eager for war refused to pay the financial costs of it, causing Washington's troops to freeze and starve.

It seems as though not much has changed. Today, many Americans are eager to go to war, but they don't seem to understand that troops and civilians, especially women and children, will die. When they see that happen, they lose the stomach for war and want out, just like the yeoman farmers of the revolution.

TDL writes:

The Yeomen farmers of the revolutionary war period were worried about their families starving to death, that is why they went back to their farms. They were not cowards or lost the nerve to fight (they were anything but.) Furthermore, all Washington had to do was keep any army in the field in order to win against the British. Also, the lack of sufficient troops, supplies, and money lead Washington to innovative thinking.

Hezzbollah is stronger. Their objective was to start a fight with Israel and remain standing after the fight ended. Hezzbollah achieved its objectives. Israel's objectives were to root out Hezzbollah and destroy its capability to launch its rockets into Israel. Hezbollah remains and its capabilities remains. Hezbollah achieved its objectives and now has gained increased support from the Lebonese people.


TDL writes:

Another Israeli objective that I forgot to mention, retrieving the two kidnapped IDF troops. The Israelis failed here as well.


DHBerger writes:

Wow Bryan, you are SO STRONG, sitting at a computer in your air conditioned office on an idyllic college campus and having the spine to stay the course of the war. Really, you're a tough guy, unlike all those GUTLESS citizens, some of whom have actually been fighting on the ground in the 118 degree heat and chaotic, hellish conditions in Baghdad. I'm really impressed with your resolve, Bryan, keep it up.

RogerM writes:

TDL:The Yeomen farmers of the revolutionary war period were worried about their families starving to death, that is why they went back to their farms. They were not cowards or lost the nerve to fight (they were anything but.)

I think they were cowards. When the cost became too high, they quit. Had Washington and his army of misfits not defeated the British, King George would have hanged all of the yeomen farmers who started the rebellion. Those farmers, and their state legislators, who started the fight had a moral obligation to finish it and pay for it. Neither fulfilled their obligations. Luckily for both the farmers and state legislators, Washington pulled off a miracle and they enjoyed the fruits of his labor at very little expense.

...all Washington had to do was keep any army in the field in order to win against the British.

You must be reading about the revolution of another country. Washington came very close to losing several times. His brilliance, luck (or Divine intervention), and French aid pulled off a miracle against the strongest military in the world at that time.

I just wish the American people would learn not to start wars if they can't stomach the televised images of dead women and children that wars cause.

Randy writes:


Re; Hezbollah's capability remains".

Capability to do what? Before the war, they had the capability to achieve some political standing in Lebanon. It remains to be seen whether that capability will be increased or lessened. But even if it is increased, so what? If Hezbollah wants to be a political party, that's just fine. It is only their military capability that is of concern. And their ability in this areas has been shown to have limited effectiveness, and far greater consequences than they had imagined.

Randy writes:


Re; "I just wish the American people would learn not to start wars if they can't stomach the televised images of dead women and children that wars cause."

That's an interesting point. What I'm seeing is that these images don't bother most Americans as much as some would have us believe. More precisely, they bother us, but we either tune them out or handle them rationally. If you hang out on blogs or in left wing coffee shops, you may get the impression that the anti-war movement is enormous. But what I notice, having grown up during the Vietnam era, is that it is actually very small.

The reason, I believe, is that there is no active draft. I think that the all volunteer force has proven to be a highly successful experiment. The anti-war folks would have us believe that there is no diffence between a volunteer and a non-volunteer, but most of the public knows that there is.

Cyberike writes:

The threat to the US is not military, it is terrorism. We make the threat of terrorism increase when we make our enemies hate us more, and that is exactly what happened.

Hezbollah has been weakened... temporarily. Because they now have more political and popular support, they will come back even stronger. We cannot eliminate this hatred through warfare, trying to do so increases the number and strength of our enemies. We have now created an enemy equal to (if not stronger than) Al-Qaeda. Because we are "fighting terrorism" this is the definition of losing the war effort.

The only way to win is to change our strategy. Blind, unquestioning support for this president and the current administration is exactly the opposite of what we need if we want to actually win.

TDL writes:

Hezobollah has gained approval in Lebanon, it has not lost approval. Hezbollah can still launch rockets into nothern Israel. Hezbollah's financing is still intact. Hezbollah is still intact. Israel has capabilities that could have dismantled Hezbollah, but Israelis decided take out the organization by air. The Israelis might be the strongest military force in the region, but they have lost a military engagement for the first time in the history of the country. A major setback. Hopefully more capable strategists will take over and truly weaken Hezbollah in the future. Only the Israelis can do this, not the U.S., certainly not the Lebanese military, and most certainly not an U.N. force.

I most certainly am not reading the revolution of another country. I am certainly not saying that Washington was mediocore. Washington was able to accomplish a historic feat, he took on the most powerful nation earth with the most experienced and disciplined military and won. The ability to field an army in his circumstances was nothing but amazing. The fact remains, in order win against the British, Washington had to field an army. By fielding an army for extended period of time Washington demonstrated that the British were incapable of reconquering the colonies.

Furthermore, the longer Washington fielded an army the better his chances of engaging the British on his own terms. Once that opportunity presented itself, the Americans and French were able to achieve a decisive victory (Yorktown.)


Randy writes:


Re; "Israel has capabilities that could have dismantled Hezbollah..."

Says who? And at what cost? Only by driving out the entire population of southern Lebanon, and the international community would not have allowed them to hold the territory anyway.

Re; "...but Israelis decided take out the organization by air."

Perhaps. Or perhaps they just wanted to do some damage - to demonstrate the logical consequences of Hezbollah's aggression.

Personally, I think the Israelis played this quite well. They have focused world attention on the problem presented by Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah, with minimal cost to themselves, while dealing out a harsh lesson to the Lebanese people on the consequences of allowing Hezbollah to operate in their midst. True, they haven't made any friends on the "arab street", but they've never had any friends there anyway.

spencer writes:

Maybe the hawks ought to ask what if we get a President that loses the war because of his incompetence.

The opposition to the war has had no significant impact on the way the war has been fought.

The Republicans seems to be doing a fine job
competely on their own of making the US look weak and ineffective.

RogerM writes:

Randy: What I'm seeing is that these images don't bother most Americans as much as some would have us believe.

You may be right about the American people. But fear of watching TV images of dead women and children has hurt us in military strategy. I believe the make-or-break moment of the Iraqi war came with the first battle for Fallujah. Up until that battle, we had followed a strategy of killing the enemy. Had we continued that stragegy, the war may have ended soon after we had subdued Fallujah. But the US government caved to fear of civilian deaths and Iraqi pressure and began to negotiate with the insurgents after pulling the marines back. I realized at that point that we had lost the battle for Iraq.

We eventually went back into Fallujah and ran the insurgents out, but at a much greater cost in American deaths and destruction of the city than would have been the case had we not allowed the insurgents many months of preparation. Essentially, we returned to the failed Vietnam strategy in which we made many targets, such as mosques, off limits, and severely restricted the rules of engagement.

Since Fallujah, we have followed a stragegy of half-hearted battles in a limited number of cities while negotiating with the insurgents behind the scenes. Soldiers on army bases take daily mortar and sniper fire without being allowed to respond. That's why the war has dragged on relentlessly. The insurgents are confident we will get tired and leave eventually, and I think they're right.

Randy writes:


You could be right that the voters will force the issue, but I seriously doubt it. Not with Iran looming on the horizon. It is too strategically valuable to have forces in place. And I don't care who wins the election, this is what their advisors will tell them.

P.S. Iraq is not lost. It is simply unfortunate. We recognized the possibility of chaos and did what we could to try to convince the Iraqis not to go there. They went there anyway. Its unfortunate. But it doesn't override the strategic value of having forces in place. Its up to the Iraqis to pull themselves out of the chaos - it always has been up to them.

RogerM writes:

Had we crushed the Iraqi insurgency while it was still small, I think Iraq would be peaceful now. But instead of crushing them, we tried to co-opt them by enticing them with power in the transitional government. Bremer embarassed me with his obsession for pleasing the Sunni leadership, which also led the insurgency, and forcing the Kurds and Shia to give them power.

Anyone who has lived among them knows that Arabs don't think like Americans. They're much more collectivist in decision making and far more risk averse. They're willing to die for Islam and family, but not abstract ideas such as liberty. In the early days of the war, I believe most Iraqis waited to determine which side would prove most dangerous to them personally. The terrorists won that competition because they were willing to kill anyone to get their way. Americans demonstrated a reluctance to kill terrorists and an inability to protect civilians from terrorist reprisals. As a result, Iraqis decided to support the insurgents and not help the Americans or the new Iraqi government for purely practical reasons of personal survival.

The future of Iraqis is certainly in their hands now. We refuse to take any action to help them.

TGGP writes:

I've never bought into the "less safe because we are making them angry" idea. Haven't we been the Great Satan for a really long time now? It seems to me the marginal harm caused by doing something to make them angry has to have dropped near zero by now. Even if the governments tried to watch themselves things like the Muhammad cartoons or the false rumors of Koran flushing will ensure shit keeps hitting the fan.

Dezakin writes:

"Haven't we been the Great Satan for a really long time now?"

Some will allways hate the US, but this assumes that the whole population has a monolithic attitude to the US. Theres a great deal of difference between resenting a country and having a furious rage so overwhelming that one will die and kill to have it satisfied.

Security depends at least partly in keeping the number of individuals willing to destroy themselves in a strike at the US to a minimum.

Randy writes:


Good point. But even more important is getting their leaders to understand that their beligerence may well result in the destruction of their people, their nation, and themselves. Not an easy task - but an important one.

And if perhaps you're thinking the same could be said of us - you're right. But being the big dog has its advantages.

hanmeng writes:

"Keeping in mind how gutless my fellow Americans are, what are the odds that we'll actually stay the course?"

That's why from the beginning, my support for the war was minimal.

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