Against determinism

Was it foolish to expect a less awful result from invading Iraq?

Kevin Drum thinks that people who were doves before things in Iraq went sideways ought to be nicer to people who were hawks but have now seen the light. Well, I’m all for keeping peace in the family, but I’d go a little further than Kevin does in disagreeing with Brad DeLong on this one.

Just because something happened in a particular way doesn’t mean that it was destined to happen in that way. A sample size of one doesn’t really tell you much about the underlying distribution.

Perhaps the Iraqi intervention was foredoomed to failure, either because it was inevitable that the Bush crew would $#@! it up or because it was inevitable that Iraqi opposition would prove stiffer than anticipated or both. But it’s also possible that the extent of the $#@!-up and the extent of the resistance were contingent events that could have come out otherwise.

In my view, the resistance was unexpectedly tough in part because the $#@!-up was unexpectedly profound. The decision to dissolve the Iraqi Army, for example, could have gone the other way without forcing a fundamental re-evaluation of the operating style of the Bush Administration. Had the Iraqi Army not been dissolved, the security situaiton would have been better, and therefore the economic aspects of the reconstruction would have proceeded much faster. Given tolerable security and a reliable supply of electricity, Iraqis might have been far more tolerant of the other shortcomings of the occupaton.

Similarly, it might have occurred to the Mayberry Machiavellis that the gain from using the CPA as a patronage dump would be swamped by the losses from the resulting disasters.

So it’s fair for opponents of foreign adventures and advocates of the theory that the Bush Administration is the greatest collection of bunglers since Harding’s crew to use the Iraqi result as evidence — based on this result, a reasonable person’s guess about the outcome the next time we occupy another country or the likley results of four more years of Texan rule of our own ought to be more pessimistic — the actual result doesn’t really prove that people who expected a less awful result were foolish.

And, it might be added, since we don’t know the results of not invading Iraq, it’s not absolutely certain that the outcome we got was the worst among those available.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

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