Just wait till next year

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Mark Kleiman argues against the arguments against a fast withdrawal from Iraq:
More Iraqis will probably die of violence just after a U.S. withdrawal than are dying violently now. That will hand the pro-war forces a rhetorical "I told you so." Anyone who can blame what happened in Cambodia on U.S. doves is clearly shameless enough to blame the civil war in Iraq on the people who opposed the invasion rather than those who carried it out and then bungled the occupation.

But that's not a good enough reason to hang around, unless at some point it stops being true: that six months, or a year, or two years, or five years from now we would be able to withdraw and not have civil war and massacre follow. If all we're spending blood and treasure on is postponing a catastrophe we can't prevent, the "humanitarian" argument against a fairly rapid withdrawal collapses.

I don't have a good enough understanding of the situation to do a real cost/benefit analysis, but this general form of reasoning is clearly untrue. You wouldn't tell someone with a treatable but otherwise fatal illness that there was no point in treating him because he'd die of old age eventually anyway. Cost-benefit decisions need to be made at the margin and if in any given year vastly more people in Iraq would die if we withdraw than if we didn't then all other things being equal, there seems to be at least some humanitarian argument for us staying that year, even if there's no reasonable possibility that the situation will ever improve. After all, that's another year of life that those people who are not dead got to enjoy.

Obviously, this is just the beginning of the analysis, not the end, since you then have to ask where else we could be spending our bloor and treasure and would that other place have, as seems likely, a better cost/benefit ratio? But the simple argument that we're just postponing the inevitable doesn't seem to do the job.

5 Comments

Hm.

I don't agree, and I think the comparison with a fatal illness is faulty.


The comparison would work if the argument were that when we leave, Iraq will collapse totally and, essentially, permanently (its illness is fatal). Then, yes, it would make sense to try to hold it together for as long as possible to delay the collapse.


But the battle that will happen when we leave will likely (so the argument goes) happen whenever we leave, and delaying our departure only delays that battle, but doesn't mitigate it. Maybe a more apt comparison is having foot surgery that you need, which will keep you away from running or cycling for six months. Do you do it now? Do you wait a year? In general, you look at what's coming up and you eliminate some particularly inopportune times... but then at some point you go ahead and schedule it, because it needs to happen and you might as well get it done.


So yes, if we really do think that it's inevitable and that it will be essentially the same whenever it happens — some think that, and some don't — then the simple argument does, I think, do the job.

Here is a framework for crude analysis. A large number od assumptions are thrown in for free.


A iraqi deaths per year with us there.
B american deaths per year with us there.

C iraqi deaths when we go.
D american deaths when we go.

E iraqi deaths per year after we are gone.
F american deaths per year after we are gone.

cost of next 20 years if we leave in X years

X(A + B) + C + D + (20 - X)(E + F)

cost of leaving in X years instead of Y years

(Y - X)(A + B) + (20 - Y + X)(E + F)

in iraqi life-years (Y - X)(A - E)
in american life-years (Y - X)(B - F)

I think you're leaving out a number of relevant factors, assuming you aren't arguing for a permanent occupation [1].


Let's say we stay for five years to stave of this inevitable disaster. In those intervening years, new Iraqis will come into existence (or reach an age that they gain an understanding of their surroundings sufficient to grasp what is going on to a keener degree). I presume that, like most of the rest of the world, Iraq is replacing residents faster than they die, so you're adding more people to the unavoidable massacre than you are removing from it.


In other words, with a growing population, delaying an inevitable catastrophe will necessarily expose more people to that catastrophe.


One can also assume that life on the other side of the disaster will eventually reach some level of stability -- which is very unlikely to happen during US military occupation. If you're just considering Iraqi quality of life as an aggregate, trading the years of simmering violence for relative peace with an unavoidable intervening period of extreme bloodshed sounds like a net win the faster it can be made to happen. (I recognize that this is simply a recasting of Barry's argument, but I think it's important to emphasize it in the context of a growing population).


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[1] Which you very well may be, even if you don't realize it. Apply mathematical induction to the statement: "[I]f in any given year vastly more people in Iraq would die if we withdraw than if we didn't then all other things being equal, there seems to be at least some humanitarian argument for us staying that year, even if there's no reasonable possibility that the situation will ever improve".

p.s. The preview function for comments renders text quite differently than the final display -- my initial preview showed all my paragraphs collapsed into an unreadable wall of words. To compensate, I inserted HTML paragraph breaks, which previewed just fine. The final rendering, however, includes huge gaps. As far as I can see, the preview function leaves out automagic HTML "br" elements that are inserted in the final rendering...

Basically, you are arguing that it is preferable to suffer tomorrow than to suffer today. Hard to argue against that :^).

However, when the pain comes not from something mechanistic or impersonal, but from human choices, then of course moral philosophy gets dragged in.

Is it better to suffer less, but have less freedom/autonomy? Maybe General Petraeus should arrange a showing of Roddenberry's "The Menagerie", which was all about this question. Funny how when Pike thought his future would be a pleasant, healthy one he was all for freedom. When it turned out badly for him, his view changed.

Of course, it was Pike who made the ultimate decision, though, wasn't it?

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