Why One Should Ignore the Hawk Bias

I read “Why Hawks Win” by Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Renshon as soon as I got the latest issue of Foreign Policy (complete with the most dictator-loving cover story in ages), and got more or less what I expected: a cognitive theory of war, stating that human biases toward conflict – acquired through evolution – generate most of it. And, as with most theories of this type, I pretty much disagree. Look, I used to be sympathetic to psychological theories of international relations. I’m a big evolutionary psychology fan, and so melding that and international relations seemed neat. However, much to my dismay, the findings of evolutionary psychology regarding ultimatum games and whatnot just don’t transfer to world politics. The Northern Ireland tournament between Amos Tversky (Kahneman’s former research partner) and Bruce Bueno de Mesquita pretty much ruled out Kahneman and Tversky’s prospect theory as a workable theory of international relations – it still has value, to be sure, just not in international relations. The fact of the matter is that humans are, on the whole, more rational than irrational. There are irrational tendencies in the mind, sure, and they do have effects in some areas, but they are not significant enough to have a profound impact on international affairs.
Want more reasons why the Kahneman-Reshon war thesis is untenable? See Dan Drezner. I for one find the Remnants of War argument most persuasive – if war is caused by human nature, why has it become less and less common as time goes by? Though Rationalist Explanations improves with every reading.

The Fallacies of Liberal Hawkery

Quoth Jacob Weisberg:

[N]othing that went wrong in Iraq, including the Sunni-Shiite civil whatever, was fated or inevitable. The difference between Kosovo and Iraq isn’t between a country that wanted peace and one that didn’t. It was a matter of better management and better luck. To assume that American intervention can’t work ignores the relative success of recent “wars of choice” in Bosnia and Kosovo (leaving aside the more debatable propositions of Somalia, Haiti, and Panama).

I agree that if Clinton had run the Iraq operation with UN support and a UN peacekeeping force with the same troop-to-citizen ratio as the forces in Bosnia and Kosovo, a Dayton-style deal might have been possible and a semi-stable Iraq could have resulted. But this does not mean that any liberal had any business being half-way sympathetic to the war in the fall of 2002.
First off, Bosnia and Kosovo had troop-to-citizen ratios of roughly 1:50. In a country of 25 million like Iraq, that means half a million troops. The US, as should be obvious now, does not have half a million troops at its disposal, and did not in late 2002. If a troop force of that size were to be scrounged together, it would need sizable contributions from other nations. This was simply not going to happen – the French, Germans, Russians, and Chinese all refused, rightly, to buy the administration’s arguments. Thus, a force of the right size to do the job well was not going to be put together. Almost as importantly, this lack of international support doomed the intervention’s chance of getting UN backing, which would have given it the legitimacy in the eyes of the Iraqi people and undermined perceptions of the enterprise as “imperialist” or oil-driven. The fact that internationally respected UN peacekeeping forces are running the show in Bosnia and Kosovo has contributed in no small measure to the success of those two operations. And it is important to note that the fact that Iraq is not a UN operation is not just the result of foreign opposition to the invasion: it is also the result of administration wariness of cooperative war-fighting. Reading James Mann’s The Rise of the Vulcans, it becomes abundantly clear that the prospect of a war-by-committee like Kosovo scared the bejeezus out of Rumsfeld and the rest of the administration; this is why the administration rebuked offers of assistance in Afghanistan. So any Bush-initiated invasion of Iraq was not going to be UN-backed, and thus would have neither legitimacy nor adequate troop levels needed to succeed.
Furthermore, there was no indication in fall 2002 that Bush was anywhere near as competent as Clinton. By that time, he had already botched Tora Bora, as well as countless domestic policy programs. It is especially shocking that self-described liberals like Weisberg would be willing to trust someone who had previously shown such a total lack of ability in all realms of governing with such a delicate task. Weisberg and other liberal hawks assumed that a man they knew was massively incompetent would be capable of invading and pacifying a country of 25 million without much international support or troop contributions. It is hard to see why such silly Panglossian hope should not reflect badly on them.
But most importantly, even if the ideal Clinton-running-a-perfect-Iraq-operation scenario I mentioned above had happened, and even if it had succeeded with flying colors, it would not be as justified as the interventions in Kosovo and Bosnia. The reason is that dictatorship is far more tolerable than genocide by the sheer virtue of its pervasiveness. As the death of Türkmenbashi reminded us, Saddam Hussein was one of many, many atrocious dictators in the world; singling him out for regime change on a humanitarian basis, as Weisberg and the liberal hawks did, is beyond arbitrary. Contrastingly, genocide is fairly rare; whereas there are about 50-60 dictatorships worldwide today, there is only one real genocide that is ongoing (Darfur). Ending all genocides worldwide through military means is an achievable goal; toppling every dictatorship in the world through military invasion and subsequent occupation just plain isn’t. And just as importantly, genocide is far more deadly than mere dictatorship; compare the death tolls of Pinochet – ~3,000 – to that of the Rwandan genocide – ~800,000. So not only is ending genocide more achievable than ending dictatorship, it saves more lives as well.
Weisberg is probably right that a decent president with UN support and the appropriate number of troops could have pacified Iraq. But Bush is not a decent president, he did not have UN support, and he did not have the appropriate number of trops – all of which Weisberg knew when he supported the war in 2002-2003. More important still, brute force dictator toppling is not a worthwhile humanitarian pursuit. Weisberg simply had no reason to believe, even in the fall of 2002, that the war was justifiable or winnable.