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September 17, 2007

motives and incentives in the Iraq war

I'm generally against imputing motives to political leaders. I don't think we can know what they want; there are too many screens and interpreters between them and us. Motives don't necessarily matter, because a leader can do the right thing for bad reasons, or the wrong thing with good intentions. Finally, looking for motives encourages us to rely on the wrong criteria of judgment. For instance, a change of position looks like a "flip-flop," suggesting that the politician's motive is to attract votes. Consistency over time looks like evidence of sincerity. But we should want leaders to change their minds as circumstances evolve, not show that foolish consistency which is the hobgoblin of small minds.

Although I generally resist inferring motives, it is a different matter to analyze the incentives that apply in a given situation. Once we understand the incentives, we may be able to change them. And changing the incentives is worthwhile, because over time, on average, all else being equal, institutions will act in accord with the incentives.

It has been widely noted that the Bush Administration has an incentive to prolong the Iraq war until the next administration, which will then take the heat for the withdrawal. This does not prove that George W. Bush wants to "run out the clock." He may want to win and he may believe that some kind of victory is either possible or probable if we stay in Iraq. But the incentive structure probably influences and distorts administration policy in favor of staying the course.

Likewise, several commentators (e.g., Tom Friedman) argue that the United States should consistently and loudly denounce each major terrorist attack that kills Muslims, thereby contesting the false notion that we kill Muslim populations whom terrorists defend. But the incentive for the Bush Administration is to minimize all mass killings in Iraq, in order to argue that our troops are keeping the peace. Rep. Steve King (R-IA) says that civilians in Washington, D.C. are at "far greater risk" of violent death than "average civilian[s] in Iraq." I don't know why he and his colleagues say such things--maybe because they believe them. But the incentive for the administration and its allies is certainly to downplay mass killings in Iraq, even if the result is a lost opportunity for public relations.

Of course, the Democrats in Congress face incentives, too. If they do not shorten the war, there will be considerable disillusionment in the country, especially among new voters on the progressive side. But disillusionment by itself doesn't cost incumbents elections. Prolonged war will be much worse for Republicans than for Democrats. Democrats will have an antiwar presidential ticket, and in most of their districts, their candidates (incumbents or challengers) will be less hawkish than the opponents. If the war continues unabated, turnout may be low because of disillusionment, but I suspect that the Democratic margin will be enormous--a landslide. On the other hand, seriously challenging the president and shortening the war carries all sorts of political risks for the Democrats, who then become responsible for what unfolds in Iraq.

More incentives: To borrow $1 trillion to fight the war and let our children pay it off later with interest. To push our volunteer forces to the limit without expanding their numbers with any kind of draft. To remain in a state of high fear and antagonism toward several foreign countries, justifying all kinds of expansions in federal power and spending. To import carbon fuels from some of those same countries to burn in the atmosphere.

In short, the incentives line up to promote disaster. Even if one imputes somewhat decent motives to some of our leaders, we are in trouble.

September 17, 2007 8:13 AM | category: Iraq and democratic theory | Comments


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