The Iraq War and Sunk Costs
Listening to conservative pundits, politicians, talking heads and blowhard bloggers in the wake of the November elections, it has become clear that these conservatives suffer from a problem they famously proscribe to liberals: emotional attachment to a policy regardless of its success or lack thereof.
One of the primary sentiments espoused by conservatives is that to give up on Iraq would mean wasting the lives of the 3,000 servicemen and women killed in Iraq, along with the suffering and misery of the tens of thousands injured.
In economic, and therefore unemotional and rational terms, this is a sunk cost problem. Those dead and injured soldiers are going to remain dead and injured regardless of whether we win in Iraq or whether we pull out tomorrow. Therefore, rationally, it makes no sense to consider their loss when deciding what to do about Iraq going forward. This judgement is harsh in it's rationality, but often good policy must put emotional considerations aside to avoid further compounding mistakes. Just as throwing money or other resources into a project that will fail is irrational, so might be throwing more American lives away on a war that by all accounts is doomed to failure.
That conservatives are emotional over Iraq is no surprise. Partisans always have an emotional attachment to their chosen policies, because they view those policies as an extension of their ideology that they in turn view as an extension of their very being. If their favorite policy fails, it means their favored ideology has failed, which means they may have personally failed by believing in something that wasn’t true or successful.
This emotional attachment to the Iraq war manifests itself in another way: we have all heard conservatives complain that anything but what the GOP favors will lead to defeat, and we as Americans cannot allow ourselves to be defeated. The connection is the same as above: a loss in Iraq means that we as Americans may not be able to coerce everyone into believing as we do, which may mean that we are not right to believe that America is superior.
Critics will say this is anti-Americanism or moral relativism. It isn’t, it’s realism. I firmly believe that our culture and system of law is far superior to that of the Middle East. But I do not believe, given the experience of the past four years, that we can successfully export our culture and legal system into other regions – especially the Middle East. We have tried our experiment in Iraq – and I supported it in 2003 – but it has failed. We are, as the bumper sticker says, creating enemies faster than we can kill them. Our foreign policy towards the Middle East has been and is a failure. These statements are not indictments of America, as the partisan hacks would have you believe, they are merely realistic indictments of our recent policy choices. It’s not an attack on someone to admit that they may have made a mistake, is it? That kind of attitude is one held up by fans of hard-core multiculturalism, that any criticism or simple dislike of something expresses hatred that is to be eradicated.
Had we made the right choices from the beginning, perhaps things would be much different now. But there is nothing we can do about that now – the can of ethnic hatred and a degraded society has been opened and it’s not reasonably within our ability to re-close it.