Bryan Caplan  

Agnostics for Pacifism

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Free the Children... New York Times Admits to Being...
A striking observation from my childhood friend Ghassan Bridi:
Had we never invaded Iraq, we may have seen the people of Iraq today take to the streets and topple a despotic dictator in the second most populous Arab country on this planet... and not one American life would have been lost, no where near 1 million Iraqi lives lost, not one dollar spent, and AT LEAST a fourth of our national debt would have been non-existent.
Three months ago, almost everyone - especially Iraq War supporters - would have mocked Ghassan for wishful thinking.  Now they're eager to claim credit for events in Tunisia, Egypt, and beyond. 

Are they right to claim credit?  I don't know - and neither do they.  The hard truth is that predicting the effects of war is extremely difficult.  If one man's suicide can topple multiple Middle Eastern governments, Ghassan might be right about Iraq.  In foreign policy, sometimes you sit back and problems solve themselves.  Sometimes you act and create a massive domino effect.  And sometimes the dominoes fall the wrong way.

By itself, I freely admit, extreme uncertainty is a double-edged sword.  The consequences of war might be worse than you thought; they might be even better.  But as I've argued in my common-sense case for pacifism, pacifists just need to add the weak moral premise that "before you kill innocent people, you should be reasonably sure that your action will have very good consequences."  This plausible premise, combined with the uncertainty of foreign affairs, creates an almost insurmountable presumption against war.

Of course, if you think you've got world politics all figured out, I'm happy to bet you about what happens next in the Middle East.  But since you're claiming confidence, and I'm pleading ignorance, you'd better offer me a lot more than even odds.


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COMMENTS (27 to date)
Charles writes:

Does anyone seriously doubt that Saddam would have crushed any rebellion the same way he did in the early 90s?

SpotCash writes:

Or on the other hand we may not.

John Thacker writes:

The Iraq War supporters however made their claim prior to, during, and in the immediate aftermath of the invasion, not just now... for which they were mocked too when revolutions didn't happen immediately or the results weren't perfect.

It is striking that around 40 years of nearly uninterrupted autocracy in virtually all these countries has now been met with many upheavals, and that this occurred after a shift in policy. I think that does put a burden on people who advocate that it was better to continue the policy that was pursued for many years and was accompanied by lack of revolution and change. Of course there are significant changes, such as the end of the Cold War, the rise in universal access to media and information, and Al Jazeera, among others.

Your weak moral premise is no different from the "precautionary principle" either. I see no moral distinction between that and the assumption that all change be prevented unless you can be reasonable sure of all consequences, which in the end, as with your principle, provides an almost insurmountable objection to any technological change or advancement.

John Thacker writes:
Three months ago, almost everyone - especially Iraq War supporters - would have mocked Ghassan for wishful thinking.

Of course, before the invasion, it was Iraq War supporters who argued that Iraqis were so ready to overthrow Saddam that they would welcome us and the consequences wouldn't be that bad.

The biggest objectors to Ghassan's opinion three months ago would not be Iraq War supporters, but rather "realists" like Walt and Mearscheimer.

Although I suppose by this point they would have moved on to Stage 3 or Stage 4 of the Foreign Office's 4 Stage Strategy, as detailed in Yes, Prime Minister.

keepster33 writes:

It IS true that Saddam would have killed many more people if the U.S. and the rest of the world hadn't intervened.
But, then the forces overstayed their welcome and incited more violence.

David R. Henderson writes:

Bryan,
I couldn't find the statement you quote from Gus Bridi at the URL you link to. It did link to a great denunciation of Bill Maher's bigotry, but not to that statement. Please provide the correct link.

fundamentalist writes:

One could argue with as much credibility that the "democracy" enjoyed by the Iraqis after the war spurred the demand for greater freedom in other countries.

Colin K writes:

Saddam made Mubarak look like Jimmy Carter by comparison. Mubarak and his cronies lacked either the will or the power to crack down like the Iranian mullahs did last year. Saddam would not have lacked for either, especially with the embargos fraying as they were. I think it's possible to conclude Iraq War II was a bad idea but I think it's the height of unicorns-and-butterflies naïveté to imagine Saddam going down softly. Heck, it's still an open question where Egypt will end up and whether the liberals will come out any better than they did in Iran 20 years ago.

twv writes:

Prof. Caplan:

Your "common-sense" pacifism looks a lot like a central provision of just war theory, which states that (as nicely summarized on Wikipedia) one may not go to war unless

  • the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
  • all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
  • there must be serious prospects of success;
  • the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.

From what I can tell, few modern advocates of America's recent wars deal honestly with these concerns. Instead, they offer fantasy instead of knowledge, power-lust instead of caution, and play up fear in a rather one-sided set of what-if scenarios.

Ray writes:

Those are some big "ifs" in there and could just as easily be turned around.

I'm no fan of how Iraq was handled, but I am convinced that a response to international terrorism after 9/11 that was perceived as "mild" by the radical factions would have led to not just more attacks - which they were attempting anyway - but it would have given those radical elements a certain cache with the Muslim street. They would have been able to present themselves as winning against the infidel and I think that would have generated more support for them overall.

Steve Sailer writes:

Good post.

Colin K writes:

Just War theory seems very well suited to a world of nation-states with regular combatants armed with rifles and battleships. Eschatological suicidal cults armed with nuclear weapons pose a much harder problem.

Personally, I think that preventing a nuclear terror attack is worth a lot of collateral damage not just because of the lives that would be lost in the initial attack, but because I believe the Western response to same could become near-genocidal.

I said to friends recently that if UA 93 had gone into the White House or the Capitol, I think the US might well have "gone Roman," i.e. Carthago delenda est and all that. Europe may be in decadent decline but her legions are still substantial and well-equipped, and citizenship there much more racially rooted than in the US.

When the Iranian mullahs shout about destroying us, we laugh at their chutzpah, because it is *we* who hold the power to erase our enemies from the map of the world in our hands. Europe is less bellicose, but deep down, I think, not so much less confident of itself. But I think there is a tipping point in these things, where at some point the civilian population reverts to a more basic and primitive us v. them mindset, at which point anything becomes possible. The US, which treated WWII POWs with great care and due process, also engaged in firebombing of entire cities, and had the Japanese not surrendered, we would have gassed them from the air like bugs. It's us or them, right?

Now maybe building a nuclear weapon and setting it off in a city is vastly harder than it seems like based on what I know about the engineering of such things, which is limited. But the short is, I think the risk of a genocidal response to a truly large terrorist attack is very high, particularly if the target is in Europe, which would otherwise function as a brake on a US response.

Downsize DC writes:

If both chambers of Congress agree to declare war, we at least have a baseline for judging whether a war is just. When the President has the discretion to "use force," i.e., start a war, it is done without legitimate, Constitutional authority and is therefore unjust.

Richard writes:
It is striking that around 40 years of nearly uninterrupted autocracy in virtually all these countries has now been met with many upheavals, and that this occurred after a shift in policy. I think that does put a burden on people who advocate that it was better to continue the policy that was pursued for many years and was accompanied by lack of revolution and change.

So there's 40 years with only autocracy, then the invasion of Iraq, then nothing good happens for 8 years and without any direct link we're supposed to credit the Iraq war? What if these regimes fell 15 years after the Iraq war began? Would you say "40 years of nearly uninterrupted autocracy in virtually all these countries has now been met with many upheavals, and that this occurred after a shift in policy"? Is anything good that happens in the Middle East (and we have no idea how this will turn out, mind you) after 2003 automatically due to the Iraq war?

Evan writes:

@John Thacker

Your weak moral premise is no different from the "precautionary principle" either. I see no moral distinction between that and the assumption that all change be prevented unless you can be reasonable sure of all consequences, which in the end, as with your principle, provides an almost insurmountable objection to any technological change or advancement.

There is a significant difference between Bryan's premise and most uses of the precautionary principle. When using the precautionary principle against something like GMOs or nanotech you have an instance of a technology that has large obvious benefits (better crop yields, higher quality materials, etc.) and vague theoretical costs (ecosystem damage, grey goo, etc.).

War is the exact opposite, you have huge obvious costs (civilians getting their internal organs shredded by bombs) and vague, theoretical benefits (possibly the new government put in place will be better than the old, and maybe it will deter terrorism, etc.).

So it isn't really like the precautionary principle at all. In fact, it's nearly the opposite. I think it's totally reasonable to be hesitant at an endeavor that has huge costs and vague benefits. For instance, if someone tells me castrating myself will increase my lifespan (I'm not making that up, I've heard it before) I think that it's logical to be hesitant of doing so.

MWG writes:

As someone who supported the war when I considered myself a conservative, I think its extremely naive to think Saddam would have left relatively peacefully the way Mubarak did in Egypt. Regardless of what you think about the war (I now believe it was a mistake of epic proportions), Saddam Hussein was, hands down, the most brutal dictator in a neighborhood full of dictators. Libya would pale in comparison to what Saddam would have done to protesting Iraqis.

Jean writes:

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Finch writes:

> Is anything good that happens in the Middle East
> (and we have no idea how this will turn out, mind
> you) after 2003 automatically due to the Iraq war?

The null hypothesis has got to be to credit the war. This was an expected outcome.

But I agree with the other thought in this sentence: it is not at all obvious that the recent uprisings are changes for the better. Time will tell.

eccdogg writes:

Thanks Evan you made my post for me.

You know for certain that war will kill many people, some of them innocent (our soldiers, civilians, enemy conscripts).

If you want us to sign up for these horrific known cost. You better be pretty darn certain of the benefits.

I would say willing to bet your own life on the outcome would be a reasonable test since you are betting others.

Finch writes:

I don't get the asymmetry expressed here. People seem to be saying that to go to war is to bet the lives of others, but that to not go to war is to not bet.

But this is just wrong. There's a bet either way. Prior to the Iraq War, one could reasonably have argued about the expected death toll from going to war and that from not going to war. You can argue about which way the ratio of expected value estimates should have turned out, and you can argue about the expected variance in either estimate.

I am not offering an opinion about the morality of any specific war. I am suggesting that it is a trade-off, and that action is not obviously wrong just because it's action.

Most people here would decry reasoning that ignores trade-offs if it was raised in the context of vaccinations or nuclear power, where cries of "Any risk is unacceptable!" are met with derision as innumerate nonsense.

eccdogg writes:

I agree Finch,

But in general we can be pretty sure about what the cost of war will look like. The number of deaths will be uncertain certainly but we know that some of our soldiers will be killed, and that some civilians will be killed, and that we will kill some involuntary participants in the enemy army. We know the sign if not the magnitude.

But the benefits of may wars are wildly uncertain and possibly the other sign. Were their WMDs in Iraq? Would Saddam use them? Would Saddam be replaced by a democratic ally? Would Iraq become a breeding ground for terrorism? Would the war galvanize the world against us or with us. Or take Vietnam. Would losing Vietnam alow a domino effect? Would Vietnam become a non hostile country on its own even if we lost the war? If we win would their be more or less net deaths?

The issue is that supposed benefits of going into non-defensive wars are usually extremely uncertain and possible negative. When we don't go to war we avoid pretty certain cost.

Ray writes:

Or, perhaps that toppling of the Iraqi dictatorship, creating the first semblence of democracy in the Arab world, led to the an Arab awakening that will see all Arab dictators humbled.

N. Joseph Potts writes:

New boss, same as the old boss.
- Frederic Bastiat

WHO shifted WHAT policy, and WHEN?

Dallas Weaver writes:

In the information age where physical assets like land and resources make up only a small % of a modern economy, the benefits of war are becoming even more marginal. Their hasn't been a profitable war of conquest in the last half century, including Iraq, Panama, Haiti, Afghanistan, So. Sudan, west bank, Gaza, Southern Lebanon, etc. To produce economic wealth in todays world, you need the corroboration and creativity of the people and you can't get that by occupation.

It is still profitable for an internal subgroup to take over a country and shift benefits to themselves but this is also an overall looser for the country as a whole.

War is now only beneficial to a subgroup of a nation that can use it as part of the bread and circuses of ruling and for transferring wealth to themselves. The days of colonization and conquest benefiting the nation as a whole are long over.

To bad the ruling classes around the world haven't figured out that the world has changed. Keeping in mind that we haven't killed Ben Laden and have spent enough money (about a trillion dollars) to have created enough alternative energy sources to become totally independent of oil, both Iraq and Afghanistan have been a wasted and counterproductive effort. Without energy as a factor, we would care as much about the middle east as we do for central Africa -- if they want to kill each other, tut tut isn't that a shame.

Finch writes:

The Iraq war was a choice for moderate costs with low uncertainty, rather than the alternative, low expected costs from not going to war, but high uncertainty. Specifically, with not-going-to-war, there was a small chance of a really terrible outcome.

I guess I think having the Iraq war when we did was a consequence of the shifting risk aversion of the median voter, post-September 11th. I also think this is the real source of conflict in arguments over whether it was a good idea. People differ in their risk aversion. Bryan has, in the past, revealed that he has very, very low risk aversion.

eccdogg writes:

I am not sure I buy the risk aversion stance on the Iraq war because there were huge risk with both the do nothing and the go to war scenario.

Some huge possible negatives that could have but did not come out of the Iraq war.

1)Iraq dissolves into chaos (kind of did happen) and we are not able to regain control creating another terrorist breeding ground in the hear of the middle east and increasing the likelihood of attacks on US soil.

2)Supposed WMDs are lost during transition period and fall into even worse hands than Saddam.

3)Fighting spills over into a nuclear armed Iran who uses nukes agains US troops promting a nuclear attack agains Iran.

4)Saddam is able to draw Isreal into the war promting wider middle east war.

I think people just focused on the bad potential bad scenarios that the could imagine in the do nothing case (mainly Saddam supplying terrorist with WMDs to be used on US soil)and the rosy projection of how the war would transform the middle east and stopped there.

In the case of Iraq I think we faced pretty radical uncertainty on both the mean and the distribution of possible outcomes.

Alex Nowrasteh writes:

"While demonstrations in other Middle Eastern countries have focused on overthrowing the government, the protests in Iraq have centered on corruption, the country's chronic unemployment and shoddy public services like electricity."

http://apnews.myway.com/article/20110225/D9LJOCNO0.html

Interesting. But it doesn't the counter factual presented by Bryan's friend.

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