(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2014: 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.