The Cost-Benefit Analysis of Compassion

If you believe than US foreign policy should serve moral and humanitarian goals, then Afghanistan might be the worst place to start.

Time’s new cover represents an outstanding example of how a picture is worth a thousand words.  It’s hard to look at Aisha and consider withdrawing from Afghanistan.

But let us think about it another way.  Consider the hundreds of millions of people around the world living in horrid, oppressed, degraded conditions.  27 million people are enslaved; millions of women suffer from forced prostitution, female genital cutting, fistulas, honor killings, and worse.  Millions in Africa die each year from malaria and AIDS.  And as bad as this is, it overlooks the seemingly more prosaic, but similarly horrific condition of grinding, miserable poverty, living on less than one dollar a day.

The United States could fight these problems in countries where it would not require fighting a protracted, bloody, brutal, probably-unwinnable war, perhaps where governments either care about their population or at least simply neglect them.  And if it did so, it could save, improve, and empower tens of millions of people brutalized just as much as the woman on the cover of Time.

If we are serious about empowering women and fighting poverty — and we should be — we should use all the money and effort we are expending in Afghanistan, and turn toward other severe problems that do not demand the lives of thousands of American young people.  If fighting in Afghanistan derives from genuine geopolitical concerns — a case that has simply not been made yet — then of course that is another story.  But to support the Afghan war on the basis of humanitarian concerns misses the larger picture and runs the risk of making a mockery of humanitarianism.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

22 thoughts on “The Cost-Benefit Analysis of Compassion”

  1. An argument that I have come to agree with more and more. I feel for women in Afghanistan, but they aren't the only women in the world who need help and more importantly, there are places where our help will not be undone 10 minutes after we depart, and yes, where Americans will not be continually targeted for execution.

  2. That is exactly what I take away from the Time magazine cover. Any chance Zasloff can get appointed to an influential post at State, or perhaps Senate Foreigh Relations Committee?

  3. <> No, it isn't, unless one is entirely bereft of resistance-to-manipulation circuits. Victims of hideous crimes exist in every country on earth, with or without American invasion forces. Putting this victim on Time's cover is ipso facto a powerful argument for an otherwise stupid and wasteful war? Let's grow spines.

  4. I'm going to leave aside the larger issue of what our goals and strategy should be in Afghanistan — I happen to lean towards what I understand Vice President Biden's proposal to have been — to focus on two things. First, that the picture reminds us of the nature of our enemy. Second, and more abstractly, that situations involving clear acts by goal-directed agents are different than other sorts of situations. There is grinding poverty in the world. But grinding poverty, unlike cruel people, isn't emboldened by a lack of response, and cannot be deterred by punitive actions.

  5. Larry, that's a good point. But why aren't Afghanis also enraged by this? And if they're not, what on earth can we do for them? I don't think it's possible to morally prop up another country. How long could it take to "train" police if they really wanted to be trained? It's been eight long years. What was the point? Is it or is it not ridiculous to think that everything there will be okay if we could just build them enough infrastructure to, I don't know, make them give a sh**??? Decide that women are people?? If there is a silent majority of humane Afghanis, then where the bleep are they???

  6. Don't you mean something like "It’s hard to look at Aisha and consider anything but immediately sending another half million troops to Afghanistan"? This kind of atrocity is what happens regularly at our current troop levels. If it's unacceptable, then we should be doing more. If we're quibbling about the number of atrocities, then staying makes very little sense.

  7. Larry:

    It's not that good a point. There are civil wars going on in Africa where the forces are deliberately raping and maiming (cutting off limbs with machetes) civilians. Those are "clear acts by goal-directed agents" that are emboldened by a lack of response, and can be deterred by punitive actions.

    How about we move our forces from Afghanistan to there? Or does the victims's geopolitical significance somehow enter into our response?

  8. Folks,

    If we brought out all the women and men in Afghanistan who would face immediate death or retribution for cooperating with the US, resettled them in this country (or somewhere in SW Asia), it would still be a FRACTION of what we're spending there each month. Afghanistan is a wretched place not worth another US dollar or life, except to bring to safety those who worked with us in the hope that their country would become a better place to live. Link up with the major tribes that want nothing to do with the Taliban, arm them, and then leave. When things settle down in these tribal areas, look at some development projects that can improve the lives of their peoples, but not until they're ready. We have millions of people in this country that are in dire straits. Look up an organization called Rural Area Medical; they do good work, but it's sobering that they're needed at all.

  9. retr2327, I was first simply making the point that the equivalence Jonathan is drawing has a significant logical defect. Second, the fact that we can't do everything doesn't mean we shouldn't do some things. Third there is the possibility that retaliation while imprecise and haphazard has some deterrent impact in other spheres.

  10. "situations involving clear acts by goal-directed agents are different than other sorts of situations. There is grinding poverty in the world. But grinding poverty, unlike cruel people, isn’t emboldened by a lack of response, and cannot be deterred by punitive actions."

    I don't think this is true. Just because many problems in the world are diffuse, and not perpetrated by some particular group, responding to them isn't necessarily harder. Has defeating the Taliban been a walk in the park? Just looking at numbers, there are policy responses to problems in the world that are causing 10x the suffering, and that could be done for a fraction of the cost of the Afghan war. Poverty – or more specifically, the breakdown in state that many countries face – is often indeed emboldened by a lack of response, and can indeed be deterred. Remember how much money we are talking about.

    I think it is obvious that any humanitarian argument is secondary to the original, self-interested response: to take out the Taliban before they allow terrorists to attack us. If that 1st argument is gone, the second is incredibly weak. For instance, could we have invaded for humanitarian purposes?

  11. It seems to me that Larry is concerned about drawing an equivalence between extreme poverty and, say, being a victim of genocide. That seems right to me, but I'm not sure it works with the Taliban example. The Taliban are evil, but they aren't Nazis or even the janjaweed. They are engaging in brutal violence against women and against freedoms of all sort. But lots of governments and organizations do that around the world, and in fact, lots of private groups do it, too. If the US put one-tenth the effort into fighting, for example, sexual slavery that it does against the Taliban, we would emancipate and empower far more women than we do now.

    It's also not as clear to me that the Taliban are "evil" whereas extreme poverty merely "happens." One reason why so many of impoverished around the world is the decisions of their governments either to do or not to refrain from doing something. (And no — that isn't a covert attack on free trade, which I generally support). There is indeed a difference between evil and tragedy, but in the Global South the two come together more often than we would like to think.

  12. Excellent points. But can I just whine for a minute? As to fighting sex slavery, what kind of world is it that we have to actually *tell* men that going to a prostitute is wrong (ie, working on the demand side)??? What kind of dumb cluck do you have to be to not know that???

    And how much are we in the West to blame for our profoundly f–ked-up popular culture??? Much of it made right here in LA. Portrayals of prostitution are completely routine in our culture.

    I had the amazing and eye-opening experience of hearing someone I thought was a friend tell me about his "happy ending" at a massage place. (Apologies if this is too graphic for folks here.) This was someone from the same background as me — middle-class Orange County Catholic. The idea of sex slavery had literally *never* occurred to him. How could it happen in the good ol' US? He thought it was okay if he left a big tip. Unbelievable. And the sad part is, as men go, I would say he's above-average as to ethics. Really really sad.

  13. Sir:

    The author assumes Africa or any other place needing "improvement" is a pliable place, ours to improve, and which will do our bidding and "improve", as we borrow from the Chinese to go deeper in debt to "improve" Africa. Its a nice thought, that sounds all to much like a British colonial administrator for the 1800's with all that entails.

    It also assumes that Africa's problems can be traced to a lack of money. Can they? Or are they based on foreign money and meddling? Since at least the mid 1960's the US, the UN and a horde of aid organizations have tampered with Africa trying to "improve it." They've imported food, assuring the destruction of agriculture in Africa, since there is no benefit in farming when foreigners dump tons of grain and food on the populace. To appease our own view of the world, we don't subsidize or allow use of DDT, the only effective anti-malarial agent in the world and the one we used all over the West to eradicate malaria. And then we banned it. The author of "Silent Spring" was doubtless happy, but the Africans are probably not so thrilled. Does the author wonder what the African's might buy if given the choice? Nets or DDT? We use our money to underwite dainty mosquito nets while Africans die for lack of DDT.

    Then there is the corruption issue: governments siphon off millions and to stop it you'd have to virtually take over the place and hold it for at least 2 generations, trying to build up institutions–wait! The Brits did that! And the Africans hated them, because they were foreigners trying to run their country as if they owned it. They would hate us too.

    Then we have the problem from the aid that always tries to alter things from the top down–no one has ever read the "Ugly American," or if they did, they ignored it. Patience is a commodity the Great International Improvers do not have. So is a realization that real change is not made through an infusion of billions that is drained off into foreign bank accounts.

    Pass for a moment on the morality and efficacy of telling another country what to do, corrupting its officials, ruining its indigenous businesses, and undercutting the pioneering individuals who might improve it by turning the entire place into a welfare state, ("improving" it). The author ignores the rather banal- but to many of us important- issue: what's best for the US? One of those interests is eradicating people like the Taliban who harbor international terrorists on the borders of countries important to us, execute women and gays, and sublet fortified caves to people who plan violence against the US. Do we want another religious dictatorship in the world? It may take time and it may be expensive, but I haven't heard anyone suggest any other way of ridding the world of the Taliban than to have the military there. Running from the problem to "soft" problems like "what to do for the africans today" is not going to solve anything. Its just a flight from reality.

  14. Jonathan,

    I agree with what you say but it's not what I'm getting at. I'm not making a moral distinction here, although I think one is possible. It's "practical logic" that I'm talking about. Fires kill lots of people. But the relationship between specific human decisions and those deaths is pretty indirect. So the mechanisms by which we try to reduce deaths due to fire are pretty diverse… fire codes, smoke detectors, awareness campaigns, fire departments, etc. — are diverse. Deaths during armed robbery are something else. There are lots of things we might do to try to avert these, but in the end there's a tight causal connection between a human decision to commit armed robbery and a death. Because the relationship is clear and direct everyone can see it and we can act in those instances to deter and punish the agents involved. It isn't impossible to do this in the case of deaths due to fire (negligence or malice in ignoring fire codes) but it's harder. So all I'm saying is this: when we see the clear causal connection between human activity and suffering — for example when that suffering is the direct aim of the activity — there's a clear mode of action to prevention and deterrence. That doesn't mean we shouldn't act in other cases.

    Let me put it this way: I don't think there's a "country" called Afghanistan to sustain… I think there are a lot of people there with whose values I disagree profoundly. I don't think there's much we can do about those things. But drones and special forces to kill the fuckers responsible for this kind of thing is absolutely fine with me. It won't solve the problem but I think it will do some good. And I hope it will keep them enough off balance to keep them preoccupied with survival over there rather than attacking over here.

  15. The Taliban never attacked us. As I recall, the Mullah Omar refused to turn over his friend to us, which, from our perspective, was bad. On the other hand, I'm not sure what he believed at the time as to who committed the 9/11 attacks. It seems to me that many people in that area of the world didn't think OBL did it (until he admitted it later). So, putting ourselves in his shoes, would we hand over what we thought was an innocent friend to a bunch of foreigners who probably didn't ask all that politely? I'm thinking no.

    What's a little too bad is that we apparently didn't bother showing the Mullah all the boxes of evidence we had sitting in New York about the embassy bombings in Africa. Hundreds of Africans killed and maimed to get a mere handful of Westerners. I would think that would upset an "average" Muslim abroad, to the admittedly small extent I can imagine what they might think.

    Of course, I could be totally wrong, maybe we showed this guy all the evidence, and he knew OBL was bad and just didn't care. But I don't remember that being made clear anywhere in the press.

    So, as awful as I think the Taliban are, making war against them was not the brightest move in the book, I think. Or at least the rationale should only have been humanitarian. Maybe there was no other choice, but I'm not sure we tried hard enough to change the guy's mind. And maybe we would inevitably have had to fight them to fight Al Qaeda, but again, I'm not so sure.

    I just don't like it when people act as if these two groups were the same. The Taliban never attacked us.

  16. Peter G says: "Sadly, although not fabricated, that Time cover is pro-war propaganda."

    I can't speak to the article underneath the cover, but the cover itself is transparently pro-TIME propaganda. The last time we were talking about a Time cover, it had OJ's darkened face on it, and that also sold more copies and got more press for Time than a less deliberately outrageous cover would have.

    To rewrite the first sentence of this post, Time's new cover represents an outstanding example of how a picture is worth three or four more weeks' existence for Time.

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