Howard's lost year?

It’s been another horrendous week in Iraq. To make matters worse, amidst it all came confirmation that Saddam Huessin didn’t have any WMD, that the war was illegal, and US intelligence agenices are as pessimistic about the future of Iraq as Chatham House (read here, here and here). As close readers of the IA blog will know, there’s a sharp difference of opinion within the team about the war in Iraq. In a post the other day, Mac rolled out the now well rehearsed lines of those on the left who supported the war, including the feeble “but everyone thought that Saddam was an imminent threat”, and “we didn’t realize the Bushies would make such a mess of it”. (This last line of defence is particularly galling — exactly what was it about the Bush administration that inspired confidence that they could pull this off? Was it their detailed understanding of the region and its history? Perhaps it was their “success” in Afghanistan?)

One of the disturbing trends since 9/11 has been the perceived need of some on the left to “out-hawk the hawks” to show that they are taking the threat of terrorism seriously. This was of course one of the dynamics in the debate about the war in Iraq. Unlike their counterparts on the left, liberal hawks understood just how serious the threats were in the post-9/11 world and what was required to address them. Arguments that invading Iraq was not the best way to address terrorism and that there were other threats graver and more pressing than Iraq were contemptuously dismissed.

As more and more American resources are sucked into trying to get a grip on the situation in Iraq and the nightly news becomes a better al-Qaeda recruiting advertisement than even Bin Laden could have hoped for, liberal hawks would do well to ponder James Fallows’ excellent essay in the October edition of The Atlantic Monthly (click here – subscription required, but well worth it). In “Bush’s Lost Year” Fallows examines the opportunity cost of going to war in Iraq. For those who gave this any serious thought in 2002/03, the findings will not be especially surprising: Afghanistan was left to fester; Bin Laden got away; North Korea and Iran became serious nuclear threats; no progress was made with Israel and the Palestinians; dependence on foreign oil increased, there was no broad long-term strategy developed to address Islamic extremism…the list goes on.

What is perhaps most powerful about Fallows’ essay is his sources. Fallows draws almost exclusively from people at the working level of America’s anti-terrorism efforts. His conclusions are disconcerting.

As a political matter, whether the United States is now safer or more vulnerable if of course ferociously controversial…But among national-security professionals there is surprisingly little controversy. Except for those in government and in the opinion industries whose job it is to defend the administration’s record, they tend to see America’s response as a catastrophe. …about the conduct and effect of the war in Iraq one view prevails: it has increased the threat America faces, and has reduced the military, financial, and diplomatic tools with which we can respond”. (emphasis added)

There is a now an increasing body of evidence about what a hash the Bush administration has made on the war on terror, and on homeland security (for an excellent overview click here ). Economists understand well the concept of “opportunity cost”, and foreign policy “experts” would do well to pay more attention to it. The reality is that it is difficult for governments to do many “big things” at the same time. (We have noted this before in the context of international trade—it is hard to help lead the way on multilateral trade reform if you are scurrying around trying to cut bilateral deals the whole time).

In the midst of an Australian election, it is high time some journalists and analysts asked some similar questions of the Howard government that Fallows has asked of the US government. In particular, what was the opportunity cost of Howard’s focus on the war in Iraq? Did Howard — like Bush — lose a year in the fight against terrorism?

As I noted in this post (before the bombing in Jakarta), it is not at all clear to me that Howard should automatically be voters’ choice on national security. As the Jakarta bombing should have reminded everyone, we have some serious issues with terrorism in our own backyard. And if anyone was to do a proper analysis of our national security preparedness, like this, they’d find that telling people to “be alert, but not alarmed” is not quite good enough. Like his counterparts here in the US, Howard has talked a good game on the “war on terrorism”. But talk is one thing — understanding the issues and making the right choices is another.

[Posted by David Madden]

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2 Responses to Howard's lost year?

  1. Andrew Leigh says:

    Dave, thanks for the Fallows reference. I’ll look at it later today. However, I did while the Americans are grappling with the concept of an opportunity cost, perhaps the French – and others who opposed the war and are now doing next to nothing to help Iraq’s transition to democracy – could learn the concept of a sunk cost.

  2. David says:

    There’s no doubt that, regardless of Powell’s “you break it, you own it” mantra, it’s in the interest of the whole world to get Iraq right. That said, if the Bushies want to get some allies on board they’ll have to recognize that countries–like people–respond to incentives. No-bid contracts, US only chain-of-command etc are not strong incentives. Realpolitik dictates that they’d have to be a dramatic shake-up of the current arrangements, otherwise it would be electoral suicide for any major ally to pile in on this situation.

    In the meantime, it looks like it may be the Americans who first apply the doctrine of sunk cost. Prominent US columnist Bob Novak reported on the weekend that: “Inside the Bush administration policymaking apparatus, there is strong feeling that U.S. troops must leave Iraq next year. This determination is not predicated on success in implanting Iraqi democracy and internal stability. Rather, the officials are saying: Ready or not, here we go”. Read the full article below.

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