May 18

On the surface, the last few years have been terrible for the so-called “head in the sand types” like me who don’t understand that…

1. There are truly evil people in the world.

2. Wars are a fact of life.

Since 2010, in part because of the Arab Spring and its multiple revolutions, insurgencies and general instability, the world has never seemed so violent. More importantly, the U.S. can’t stop intervening in warzones. In addition to trying to wind down wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the media/politicians have seriously discussed starting wars (“intervening militarily” in newspeak) in Libya, Iran, North Korea, Egypt, Syria and the Ukraine. According to some Republican politicians, only Obama’s weakness has prevented the U.S. from fighting in these places, er, making the world safer.

This seems really bad for liberalism in international relations. Apparently, war isn’t becoming less likely, as Stephen Pinker, John Horgan and others have argued. We almost started six wars in just the last three years!   

Except for that pesky word “almost”. The U.S. avoided wars in North Korea, Syria and Iran, and looks set to both stop Russia from invading the rest of Ukraine while avoiding a nuclear war with Russia. We are close to signing an historic deal with Iran.

I give almost all the credit to liberalism in international relations. Liberal foreign policy--promoting free trade, democracy and international institutions--has accomplished its goals: to further economic growth, create peace and expand liberty across the globe. Along the way, it also prevents unnecessary wars. Here’s how:

1. Democratic politics constrain the executive.

In the case of Syria, the battle between the executive and the legislature stopped a full-blown war.

In the original writings of Enlightenment thinkers, the whole concept of a President was supposed to mimic a monarch. In other words, a dictator. Since the presidency of George Washington, America has always restrained the power of the executive with the checks and balances. Since the Civil War, the power of the presidency compared to the legislature has grown, even under President Obama, who promised to limit executive power. When this happens, disastrous wars like Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan have been too easy for the executive branch to pursue.

Syria seems to have reversed that trend. The American people refused to let one man--President Obama--decide to start another war. So did the British government. (Again, anyone who defines cruise missile strikes as “not war” needs to look in the mirror and ask, “What is war?”) Most of the arguments for a war with Syria--based on credibility, based on deterring Iran, based on avoiding making President Obama look “weak”--are the arguments for maintaining an executive branch that can declare war unilaterally, like a dictatorship.

Instead, we saw the legislative branch restrain the executive. (And the same thing happened in England.)

I’d add Iraq to this discussion too. Though, arguably, Iraq is in worse shape than any point during our occupation, Obama really, really, really doesn’t want to add ground troops to the conflict. In this case, though some conservatives/liberals and media types are pushing for war in Iraq through hyperbolic ISIS coverage, Obama won’t put boots on the ground without Congressional approval.

2. Economic disincentives discouraged Russia and Iran.

After their invasion of Crimea, the Russian economy went in a tailspin. Their main stock market plummeted. The ruble fell precipitously, forcing the Russian Central Bank to raise interest rates. Foreign investment plummeted next. The markets only calmed down after Vladimir Putin promised no further military action.

Iran experienced similar damage when the P5+1 imposed sanctions, which helped bring them to the negotiating table. Iran remained at the table, and agreed to the terms of a deal as well, because those years of crippling sanctions stalled reasonable economic growth.

The problem that neo-conservatives and unrealistic realists can’t understand is that war isn’t profitable anymore. If Putin continues to push on Ukraine, the result won’t be a war (which could escalate quickly into a nuclear conflict), but greater economic isolation. Removing a huge economy like Russia from the global economy wouldn’t just hurt Russia; it would hurt the entire globe. In short, everyone would lose much more than Russia would stand to gain from “expanding its sphere of influence”.

Of course, Putin could choose to do so anyways and watch as his economy spirals further. It’s not like a Russian ruler has ever been deposed for completely mismanaging a war.

3. International institutions are now the norm.

They help restrain powers. The U.S. and Israel both rely on the U.N. Atomic Energy Commission to investigate Iranian nuclear power. Suspending Russia from the G8 hurt Russian power. A host of international institutions help restrain war with North Korea by coordinating responses to North Korean aggression.

And they helped stop a war in Syria. Sure, the U.N. couldn’t stop a war with Iraq, but it sure stopped one in Syria. Having witnessed the debacles of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the inherent difficulty in controlling Libya, most of the world simply refused to fight another war in the Middle East. Thus, President Obama faced the prospect of going to war without the support of the U.N., NATO or the Arab League, or even staunch allies like the United Kingdom. Sure, you could condemn Obama’s coalition building skills, but the more important point is how much weight nations around the world--and even Americans--now put on international institutions. This won’t prevent all inter-state wars forever, but it will help to make them less likely.

(As with all my articles on foreign policy, I have to again clarify that I am referring to liberalism in international relations—which means advocating the principles of international institutions, democracy, and free trade, among other ideals—as opposed to political liberalism—which is an entirely different thing altogether. International relations liberalism holds that as democracy spreads, international institutions strengthen and free trade increases, the number of wars occurring around the world will decline.)

Apr 06

For the last two weeks, Michael C and I have been trying to publish an op-ed. (Actually, two different pieces, but we’re still waiting to hear back on one of them.)

This particular op-ed was about war with Iran.

As long time readers know, a few years ago we wrote a paper for the Small Wars Journal outlining the risks of a potential war with Iran. (We also wrote a gigantic, 27 post series, "The Drums Beat Again: The Case Against War with Iran".) Back in 2012 when we wrote the paper, America really seemed to be seriously considering going to war again. Michael C (and myself) did a ton of research and wrote up “War with Iran: An Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield.

At the time, we considered this one of the true pieces of value we could add to the conversation. Plenty of pundits could (and did) speak about going to war; few could (or did) speak about the consequences, especially in terms of lives lost.

But potential war with Iran was replaced by possible wars with Syria, then Russia, and finally Iraq. Again.

Yet the possibility of war with Iran never seems to go away. As anyone following the news knows, many right-wing pundits and neo-conservatives have, in recent weeks, been arguing (once again) that America needs to go to war with Iran. Forty-seven senators wrote an open letter trying to ruin the chances of a nuclear deal, explaining divided government. (Fun tidbit: the Iranian foreign minister has a PhD in International relations from...the University of Denver, so he probably knows how the American government works.) Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to Congress urging America to do more to stop Iran. Finally, Joshua Muravchik wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post titled, “War with Iran is probably our best option” which bluntly stated what many conservatives had only hinted at:

America needs to bomb Iran.

So we dusted off an op-ed we originally wrote three years ago. Our thesis? That too many pundits advocate for war with Iran without outlining the potential costs. We sent it to the New York Times on March 24th. Two days later, the Times published “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran” by John Bolton. No surprise, he didn’t outline the potential costs of war.

This is really unfortunate. As I wrote in January about America’s third potential war in Iraq, the media seems awfully pro-war (or pro-intervention) at times, at least before a war begins. And we believe our op-ed really explains a topic that most journalists ignore in the coverage: what would a war with Iran cost in terms of lives, both U.S. and Iranian?

What’s the worst case scenario?

Fortunately for world security--and unfortunately for us as writers--America, Iran and four additional countries agreed to broad outlines of a framework deal on Iran’s nuclear program. With this, our op-ed has been rendered obsolete. That’s fine by us.

So we’ll be publish the whole op-ed this week on our blog. We still consider the core argument valid: as a country we need to discuss the potential costs of future wars in realistic terms. Considering the deal with Iran still requires final agreements to be reached by the end of June, a war with Iran could still be in our future.

And we should know the potential costs.

Mar 26

(Spoiler Warning: I basically spoil everything in the book and movie of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.)

On Monday, I (Eric C) wrote up a review of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, both the film and book. Today, I want to cover some of unique thoughts it inspired.

The Odd Criticism of “Western Decadence”

At the end of the book--massive spoiler warning--Bill Haydon reveals why he became a double agent for the Russians, “He spoke not of the decline of the West, but of it’s death by greed and constipation.” From the film, “It was an aesthetic choice as much as a moral one. The West has become so very ugly.”

Oddly enough, I recently heard a similar thing from a reporter on an Economist podcast, explaining the the Hungarian Prime Minister opposition’s to America and the rest of Europe. In the Prime Minister’s mind, “The West is a bit past it, a bit decadent.”

Russian leader Vladmir Putin feels the same way. From The American Interest, “Putin believes that the West is decadent, weak and divided.” According to the Economist, ISIS recruits are inspired by the same thought, “Boastful combatants post well-scripted videos to attract their foreign peers, promising heaven for those who leave their lives of Western decadence to become ‘martyrs’.” Some Westerners believe the same thing.

It’s an odd idea: that being rich and powerful makes a country “decadent”, a synonym for weak.

Not that I should spend time debating communist or extremist ideology, but this argument is absurd. Prosperity tends to defeat poverty. Wealth creates advantages, not weakness. Perhaps some of the super-wealthy become weak and feeble. Poverty almost always guarantees that someone will become weak and feeble. You just don’t have the resources.

In terms of security, the argument is especially absurd. Prosperity, ironically, creates a better military. It’s like poker. If you have a larger stack of money, you can take more risks, take advantage of opportunities. For example, spending resources--time and money--to train your military. You have the freedom to allow people to spend time training in the Special Forces, and after Israel--another wealthy nation--America has the best special forces in the world.

Or you can spend gobs and gobs of the world’s largest fortune on technological advances for your military. Your country can fly unmanned, small planes over any other country and bomb them.

Wealth, instead of causing weakness, actually makes people harder working, more productive members of society. From David Brooks’ op-ed on Charles Murray’s The Great Divide:

“Republicans claim that America is threatened by a decadent cultural elite that corrupts regular Americans, who love God, country and traditional values. That story is false. The cultural elites live more conservative, traditionalist lives than the cultural masses…

They have low divorce rates, arduous work ethics and strict codes to regulate their kids.

Murray’s work can be really controversial--especially his work on race--but I agree with this particular argument. To me, the educational opportunities afforded to the rich, well, it clearly gives them a leg up in America. And the world.

Intelligence can be so Pointless       

At some point near the end of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the British discover an operative pretending to be a double agent to a Russian embassy worker who is also pretending to be a double agent to the British. Both sides deliver fake or meaningless information to the other side, pretending that they’re giving them gold. (Meanwhile, one British spy is delivering real intelligence to the Russians.)

It all seems so incredibly pointless.

I didn’t arrive at this conclusion on my own. Doing the aforementioned research on intelligence, I came across two Malcolm Gladwell articles in The New Yorker--both reviewing books on intelligence by Ben Macintyre--that make a very good case for the futility of intelligence. Because both the Germans and the British knew the other side was trying to send them bad intelligence, they ignored good intelligence, then acted on the bad intelligence they wanted to avoid acting on.

It’s a refreshing read. Andy Rooney prepared me for this after reading My War. He has a whole sub-chapter on his distaste for spy craft and its pointlessness. In short, spies spend much of their time looking for other spies. Both sides feed each other disinformation. Even when you get intel, you can’t use it much of the time because it reveals your source.

Sigh.

Jan 28

At the end of the August 22nd episode of KCRW’s Left, Right and Center, former journalist and Canadian parliamentarian Chrystia Friedland pissed me off.

She was describing how America had hoped for a “peace dividend” following the fall of the USSR, and then after the drawdown in Iraq. However, she used this history to caution that America “can’t withdraw from the world” (min 15:30), and (therefore) must be prepared to go to war with countries like Russia, Syria and Iraq.   

“Withdrawing from the world” is a familiar criticism of President Obama/Democrats when they don’t want to start another war. In June, Congressman Paul Ryan accused President Obama of “withdrawing from the world” by refusing to bomb ISIS or send troops back to Iraq. John McCain has said this too, in regards to Syria.

It seems every time the Washington war-hawk establishment gets spun up about another war--by our count, since President Obama’s reelection, it has happened with Egypt, Syria, Iran, North Korea, Ukraine, Iraq and Nigeria--they first trot out the lines about “Munich Moments”, then they try to portray advocates against another war as “isolationists”, and finish by admonishing that the U.S. cannot “withdraw from the world”.

We find these lines of attack, particularly when they come from hardcore conservatives or conservative think tanks, incredibly hypocritical. Take the Heritage Foundation. They host the text of a speech on their website from Walter Lohman, a director on their staff, called “Honoring America’s Superpower Responsibilities”, where Lohman repeatedly admonishes that America must not “withdraw from the world”. Lohman claims he is not just talking about military power, but other forms of engagement as well.

Fair enough. So let’s go to the Heritage Foundation’s website, and see its official stances on a host of international issues: Does it support more foreign aid spending? Nope. Does it support the UN Council on Human Rights? Nope. Should the U.S. honor the Geneva convention when it comes to terrorists? Nope. Should the U.S. pull back funding from the U.N.? Yep. Should it call for less peacekeeping missions to stop on-going wars? Yep.

Most importantly, does the Heritage foundation recommend rejecting almost every treaty placed in front of America? Hell yes.

See conservatives love to “engage” the world, when it means fighting there. Anyone who backs down from a fight is “withdrawing” from America’s superpower responsibilities. Yet when it comes to low cost, simple ways to spread the rule of law--and international norms, which seemed so important to uphold in both Ukraine and Syria--Republicans and conservatives balk. As Kevin Drum pointed out, conservatives in particular hate treaties.

This applies to Senate Republicans particularly. In the last decade or so they have…

- Promised to kill the the Rome Treaty that established the International Criminal Court. (President Clinton signed on to the treaty but never submitted it to the Senate, because he knew it wouldn’t pass. President Bush withdrew from it. (We’ve written before how an ICC for Terrorists, Pirates and Trans-National Criminals would solve about a dozen international issues in one fell swoop.)

- Filibustered or stalled the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which was signed in 1994. (The U.S. does follow its provisions anyways.)

- Failed to sign onto treaties banning cluster munitions, land mines and white phosphorous.

- Rejected an international treaty on Human Rights for the Disabled. The U.S. most recently rejected the UN treaty on protecting disabilities, a treaty styled on US disability law!

- And more!

We’ve written about this before, defending ourselves--and fellow advocates for restraint in military adventures around the world--from charges of isolationism. But it seems important to bring it up again, especially when in Ukraine, the value of “international norms” was brought up again and again as the raison d’etre for intervention. In the words of Fareed Zakaria:

“But beyond these narrow considerations is a larger one: Do these countries want to live in a world entirely ruled by the interplay of national interests? Since 1945, there have been increasing efforts to put in place broader global norms — for example, against annexations by force. These have not always been honored, but, compared with the past, they have helped shape a more peaceful and prosperous world.”

We agree. International norms trump national self-interest, especially in the long run. But the true value of international norms isn’t created on the eve of war, it’s created in the years before conflict. The Senate, which has allowed its minority group to deny any new treaties since 1997, has done more to hurt international norms than not bombing Russia or the Islamic State.

The irony is that refusing to ratify global treaties makes the world more dangerous and free trade less likely.

And that forces the U.S. to go to unnecessary wars.

Now that’s withdrawing from the world.

Jan 26

Back in 2008, Eric C and I used to use the phrase “Munich Moment” fondly. For us, a Munich moment was when Eric C managed to make out with two different girls on the same night.

Ah, Munich.

Unfortunately, our use of “Munich Moment” has been bastardized by our great country’s politicians. John Kerry, in a desperate bid to attempt every single rhetorical flourish possible in pursuit of a war with Syria, described America’s need to launch cruise missiles at Syria as America’s “Munich Moment”.

Obviously, comparing every single foreign policy crisis to Munich in 1938 doesn’t make sense. And don’t kid yourself: every single foreign policy crisis in my adult lifetime--stretching from Iraq to Egypt to Iran (here, here and here) to Ukraine (here and here) and to Syria--has had some political leader invoking this terrible analogy.

We aren’t the first writers to bemoan this overused phrase. Tom Schactman in Foreign Policy wrote an article asking to retire the phrase here. Elias Groll piled on here. Geoffrey Wheatcroft in the New Republic argued against it here. And others said it here, here and here.

In Syria’s case, the analogy--especially in hindsight--was particularly egregious. Unlike Hitler, Bashar al Assad hadn’t invaded a single one of his neighbors. Supporting the rebels would have probably (and ironically) strengthened ISIS. (As Fareed Zakaria pointed out--citing Marc Lynch--in civil wars, extremists tend to thrive, not moderates.) Since ISIS later expanded to Iraq, who they kind of invaded, in a way, fighting Bashar al Assad actually would have been like the U.S. siding with Germany in 1938.

So the question for today, and one we don’t have a great answer for, is how do we stop this analogy? Like HYDRA in a Captain America movie, every time we kill one head, two grow back. Here are some ideas:

1. Public shaming. It’s been tried.

2. One of those White House petitions saying President Obama should issue an executive order forbidding this analogy in his cabinet. That would be funny, but either unconstitutional or unproductive.

3. More data analysis on this term. I don’t need to repeat the arguments for why this comparison/analogy is beyond ludicrous. So instead we want to provide something new to the debate. What is the “Munich Moment’s” batting average? In other words, how often have critics who used this phrase been correct? (Probably once, with the original use of the term.)

4. Crush opponents with logic. Especially the growth of international institutions. The Munich conference existed in a world before the UN, NATO, the Arab League, the EU, the G-Anything and countless other international institutions. The world frankly uses diplomacy a lot more than it used to. What is particularly remarkable about all the accusations of “Munich Moments” is they don’t even occur during diplomatic meetings. These are countries with internal troubles, not great powers invading neighbors.

5. Call them real-life trolls? In the future, when anyone says, “Munich Moment” can we immediately say they just violated Godwin’s law, turn off their microphone (if they are on cable television), and move on?

6. Replace “Munich Moment” with “July Crisis” or “Gulf of Tonkin”. There are two other analogies out there. The first--”July Crisis”--is an analogy no one ever uses, but should. One hundred years ago last August, the leaders of Europe had a “July Crisis”, in which every diplomat utterly failed to prevent a senseless world war. The minor assassination of an archduke led to tens of millions of deaths. Instead of worrying about Munich Moments, we should be worried about a July Crisis. Gideon Rachman of FT made this argument pretty persuasively, when also pondering the centennial of World War I.

The second is more familiar in the U.S., but hasn’t been evoked since we invaded Iraq. In hindsight, the Johnson administration used faulty intelligence to escalate in Vietnam, and the quagmire cost 60,000 Americans their lives. Initial data points are often the worst excuses to go to war, not the best.

In short, we should worry about July Crises and Gulf of Tonkins, not fret about Munich moments.

Jan 23

(This is a continuation from Wednesday's post.)

Lesson #3: America needs to focus less on America

Focusing on Ebola in America may actually cause more deaths, because it focuses attention where it actually shouldn’t be (America) rather than where it should (West Africa). Radiolab recently updated one of my favorite episodes of the show, “Patient Zero”, with an update on Ebola. (If you don’t listen to Radiolab, you should.) This line stuck out to me [emphasis mine]:

“I think the most important thing we should be doing is not letting the public health vs. civil liberties issues in the US distract us from West Africa. As the case count gets higher, it has more chances to mutate and therefore, more opportunities to adapt. So we need to end this outbreak in west Africa before this virus learns too much about us.” David Quammen (Min. 52:45)

Ebola could become more dangerous if it, ironically, becomes less dangerous. If the disease mutates in a way that allows more victims to live and live longer, it could become a pandemic by not burning out too quickly. To mutate in this way--the worst case scenario--the virus needs to infect many, many hosts. This outbreak, which has been brewing since December of last year, could have been stopped early on. Since it hasn’t, Ebola has had more opportunities to become more dangerous.

But the news media is focused on Ebola in America rather than helping people in Africa, where the real threat of a pandemic looms. (Though again, I’m not afraid.)

Lesson #4: We shouldn’t use the military.

Of course, when the U.S. finally did decided to respond to West Africa, who did we send? The military! With tents! While we appreciate a U.S. response to the Ebola epidemic, it boggles our minds that the U.S. never has a non-military option. USAID couldn’t have supported this mission? Or someone else in the State Department? And of course, the Pentagon put the price tag at a starting point of $750 million dollars.

America consistently believes that the military can solve all the world’s problems, so we fund the Pentagon to the near exclusion of any other department. This means, in times of crisis, we only have the military. This is probably the wrong response to many problems and it is exacerbated by the worst problem...

Lesson #5: We really, really, really need to start investing in countries in the long term.

What do we mean? Many politicians--let’s be honest, Republicans--are really concerned about Ebola. Despite the warnings of professional medical workers, they wanted to shut down travel from Africa and institute incredibly draconian measures to stop the spread of Ebola to the U.S.

You know what would have been more effective? Spending money (like that $750 million from above) a decade ago (when the economy was strong) to help countries face Ebola now. We should have spent money on foreign aid to develop the medical infrastructure in these countries so they’d have been equipped to handle this outbreak.

You know who hates foreign aid? Oh right, the same people who are afraid of Ebola.

We fight terrorism the same way. We wait until a crisis bubbles up--like ISIS, Boko Haram or Syria--then we lose our minds. Instead of helping these nations build their economies that repel terrorist groups naturally, we wait until a crisis happens, and then overreact.

Jan 21

I know what you’re thinking. “Ebola is a disease; how can it be violent?” Fair point. It’s tough to assign agency to a disease. But the Ebola “crisis” in America (and those quotation marks are firmly planted around “crisis”) shows how poorly America--if not the whole world--handles crises.

Unfortunately, America’s focus on Ebola mirrors our focus on terrorism in all the wrong ways. But if America can learn the lessons for either terrorism or Ebola, we have a chance to fundamentally improve our foreign policy.

Lesson #1: Misusing Statistics

This exchange from the cold open on Saturday Night Live a few months ago, mocking the new “Ebola czar”, illustrates how people don’t understand statistics:

Ebola Czar: If anything, we should be more afraid of the flu. It kills way many more people every year.

Reporter: But .01% of people with the flu die from it. And with Ebola it’s 50%.

Ebola Czar: We could all go throwing statistics around.

Reporter: Such as?

Challenge accepted, fake reporter from a sketch comedy show who, strangely enough, actually described how most Americans feel about Ebola.

As of right now, four Americans have tested positive for Ebola in America. All of the cases came from people who went to Africa or cared for a person who’d been in Africa. Only one person died.

How many people will die from the flu? “...according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average annual death toll from influenza between 1976 and 2007 was more than twenty-three thousand,” as James Surowiecki wrote in the New Yorker. So...we’ll need approximately 46,000 more people to contract Ebola to make it deadlier than the flu.

Oh, and the flu may be deadlier this year than in years past.

Unlike Ebola, the average person can actually do something about the flu: get a flu shot. The more people that get the flu shot, the better America’s overall herd immunity against the disease. (The CDC no longer recommends just the sick and elderly get the flu shot; everyone should.) Which means if we all work together, as a country, we can save ten of thousands lives. (In fairness, early reports indicate this year’s flu vaccine may not be a good match for this year’s flu, but the CDC still recommends getting a flu shot.)

Will we? No, because people don’t understand statistics. Even our comedy shows, instead of parodying America's misguided fear of Ebola, are actually making us more afraid.

Lesson #2: We overhype the threat.

Ebola, it turns out, doesn’t pose much of a threat to cause a global pandemic. It “burns too hot”, meaning the disease replicates faster than the host can communicate it. In other words, it kills its victims too quickly. (It poses especially little danger to Western nations, since we don’t clean our own dead like they do in West Africa.)

And Ebola is unlikely to go airborne, as David Quammen told RadioLab, “To get to that point, would require a number of mutations that are infinitesimally unlikely...it would be like mutations that would allow a giraffe to fly.” (Min 52:00)

(Look for Pt. 2 of this post tomorrow.)

Jan 12

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2015: Iraq Redux", please click here.

And click here to read the entire “The (Opportunity) Costs of Security” series.)

Whatever it is about the Middle East, it causes staunch, free-market-loving Republicans to forget their economics. Mention Obamacare, government regulation, the minimum wage or any other social issue, and free-market, libertarian-esque Republicans will extol the virtues of economics. Yet as soon as they begin talking about Iraq or Syria, these lessons disappear. Specifically, these Republicans (and all policy makers in Washington, really) refuse to acknowledge the costs associated with foreign policy.

Specifically, the opportunity costs. (Which we’ve been writing about since I went to business school.)

As we reflect on the reemergence of a civil war in Iraq, it seems appropriate to see how well the U.S.--led by the Bush administration--acknowledged the opportunity costs of the first war in Iraq.

Let’s spell this out with a hypothetical example. You own a pizza shop. (In business school, I swear all the business examples involve restaurants, even though most MBAs work in consultancies or investment banks. Curious.) You have ten stores, each doing incredible business. I mean, you’re slinging pizzas to every wahoo on the block. Obviously, you want to expand. You have about a million in cash, and it costs about a million dollars to open a new restaurant. You have narrowed down your options to three different cities.

So what do you do?

If you are in charge of American foreign policy, you open up a restaurant in every single city and go into massive debt.

But wait, that doesn’t make any sense! You don’t have the cash or resources to do that. You would likely fail at every new city--because you can’t devote the time, energy, manpower and resources to each one--and could cost yourself your entire franchise. (This isn’t purely hypothetical. Many restaurants have over-expanded to ill outcome.)

This is what happened in Iraq in 2003. Despite fighting an ongoing war in Afghanistan and a new “war on terror” (which sucked up huge amounts of capital to build a massive new intelligence and domestic security apparatus) President Bush, Vice President Cheney and all their diplomatic, military and intelligence advisers told America that we had the resources (in business terms, capital) to invade another country.

Except we (America) didn’t.

The business metaphor also shows the incredibly poor return on investment of invading Iraq. As Dexter Filkins recently covered, we basically deposed a Sunni despot for a Shia despot, while radicalizing a population of Sunni Muslims. (Though, Dexter Filkins illustrated in this podcast a fantastic ability to cling to “sunk costs”.) In terms of “what did we get for what we spent”, we blew it.

The biggest opportunity cost is spending what you could call “war capital”, the support needed to wage wars. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan spent most of America’s “war capital”, and spent it poorly. It also meant we ignored the war in Afghanistan for far too long, wasting support for that fight. So when it comes to other possible American wars like...

Enforcing President Obama’s redline in Syria? Can’t, because Iraq made Americans afraid of messy civil wars.

Bombing Iran to stop their nuclear weapons program? Can’t, because Iraq made Americans afraid of mission creep.

Intervening in Ukraine? Can’t because Americans don’t want another war (and Russia has nuclear weapons).

Do something more in Libya, Egypt, Yemen or wherever else Charles Krauthammer or Bill Kristol wants? Can’t because Iraq, Iraq, Iraq and Iraq.

Most Americans, who live outside the confines of Washington D.C., understand that we don’t have the military capital to start another war in those places because we spent that capital (poorly) on Iraq. Nevertheless, despite widespread opposition, America started bombing Iraq anew and even put boots on the ground. Are there opportunity costs to that? You betcha, and we’ll discuss that on Thursday.