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Robert Kagan: World Columnist

Iraq and Averages

By Robert Kagan
Monday, October 4, 2004; Page A23

We all make a common logical error that cognitive psychologists call the "availability heuristic." It means making judgments about the future based not on a broad body of historical evidence but on recent, vivid events that skew our perceptions. My favorite recent example, for reasons that will be apparent, concerns this baseball season and the era's finest sportswriter, The Post's own Thomas Boswell.

In May Boswell wrote a column about the misfortunes of the New York Yankees, particularly Derek Jeter, then in a horrendous slump. Sure, Jeter might come out of it, Boswell admitted, but maybe after eight great seasons the league had found a fatal flaw, namely, Jeter's tendency to swing at too many bad pitches. "Can a hitter completely reverse a characteristic so basic? And once pitchers have recognized it, will they forget?" Boswell also ruminated on other Yankee problems. Gary Sheffield had "a tiny three homers in 43 games," a paucity Boswell attributed not to a bad streak but to Yankee Stadium's capacious left field. Sheffield had averaged 35 homers a year for the five seasons before he joined the Yanks and had boasted, "No park can hold me." But Boswell was dubious: "Big home parks change power hitters' swings." These and other observations led Boswell to contemplate a year when the Yankees, with the biggest payroll in history, might yet miss the playoffs -- and that, he added, would be "delicious."

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Four months and 75 wins later, the Yankees have taken their division for the seventh straight year. Derek Jeter finished the season batting .292, below his lifetime average, to be sure, but with a career-high 44 doubles, 23 home runs (one shy of his career high), and 111 runs scored in what will go down in the record books as a fine season indeed. No one will remember that Jeter was hitting below .200 at the end of May. Sheffield, meanwhile, had 36 home runs and 121 RBI and is far and away the Yanks' most valuable player.

Boswell, being human, fell prey to the availability heuristic, partly because of something I'll call its "rooting interest" corollary. Boswell hates the Yankees. Or rather, he hates George Steinbrenner's fat wallet (and who doesn't, other than me and a few million other Yankee fans?) He was rooting for the Yankees to fall flat on their big, overpaid faces. This affected his normally perfect judgment and led him to imagine that the bad news of April and May could well be extrapolated through the end of the season. But the key Yankees hit close to their lifetime averages, which is sort of the point about lifetime averages, and the team took its $180 million payroll to the playoffs for the 10th straight year. And, by the way, hasn't Boswell seen the typical Gary Sheffield home run? No park can hold him.

Now if Thomas Boswell can make this kind of mistake, imagine the mistakes the mortals who write about foreign policy can make. Few possess the historical knowledge of their subject that Boswell has of baseball. And during an election season, especially this election season, they can't help succumbing to the rooting-interest corollary to the availability heuristic.

And so for the past few months it has become common wisdom that the war in Iraq is lost, based on what any historian will tell you is far too little evidence to make such a final judgment. Not only that, but the entire approach to foreign policy that has been called the "Bush doctrine" is, therefore, finished. Another fine Post reporter, Robin Wright, wrote at the end of June that the Iraq war had undermined or discredited the four central planks of President Bush's foreign policy: preemptive action to "prevent strikes on U.S. targets"; a willingness "to act unilaterally, alone or with a select coalition, when the United Nations or allies balk"; a policy to promote democratic reform in the Middle East, sparked by democratic progress in Iraq; and Iraq as "the next cornerstone in the global war on terrorism." I'm not sure what the last one means exactly, so I'll give it to her. As for the other three, is it really likely that they are dead as principles of U.S. foreign policy?

Democracy promotion? This may come as a shock to many people, but George W. Bush didn't exactly invent the idea that the United States should promote democracy abroad. It wasn't even original with Woodrow Wilson. Anyone looking at the broad sweep of American history would have to say that urging democracy upon other nations, often after invasions undertaken for other purposes, is more the norm than the exception.

As for unilateralism, acting alone or with a "select coalition," that really has been the historical norm. The Cold War system of alliances was an aberration, a welcome one, no doubt, but heavily influenced by geopolitical circumstances that no longer pertain.

And preemption? Not only has this been a prominent feature of U.S. foreign policy for two centuries, as historian John Lewis Gaddis has pointed out, but everyone from Michael Walzer to Henry Kissinger to Kofi Annan to John Kerry agrees that preventive action is an unavoidable part of doing business in a world of proliferating weapons of mass destruction and international terrorism. The question is not whether preventive military actions will be taken but how they will be sanctioned by international bodies.

Now, the United States could conceivably lose in Iraq, just as Jeter could some day hit under .200 for a whole season. But the odds are against it, and it is certainly far too early to make that judgment. And as for the effect of such a loss, the strategic and moral disaster would be enormous, and America would pay a huge price. But the fundamental course of American foreign policy would not change. Over the past two decades, the United States has launched nine significant military interventions abroad, about once every two years. That's a more significant predictor of the future than the events of the past four months. And the United States will remain involved in the Middle East for decades to come, trying to protect its security by promoting democracy. The history of U.S. foreign policy, our "lifetime average," suggests it is a mistake to write off key elements of the "Bush doctrine," especially those that Bush only inherited from his predecessors.

The writer, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writes a monthly column for The Post.


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