As the threat ISIS poses to the rest of Iraq rises, so does the debate in Washington about what the United States should do in Iraq and whether military force should be used. On the whole, this is a good thing. For all the talk about how President Obama is simply following American public opinion on foreign policy, the fact is that his foreign policy has grown increasingly unpopular. This is precisely the moment when a president needs to forcefully articulate why partnering with Iran over Iraq makes more sense than not, and the moment when the opposition should explain why the president is wrong.
In the midst of this open debate, however, might I suggest that three useful ground rules be put in place? Really, they’re not hard to implement, and they could help eliminate extraneous questions from the debate going forward.
1) Honest op-ed biographical taglines: I’ve written about honest taglines before. As architects of Operation Iraqi Freedom emerge to criticize the president, they should totally exercise their freedom to criticize existing foreign policy. Maybe, just maybe, though, their taglines should acknowledge their role and errors in judgment in previous policy fiascoes.
In fact, let’s use Dick and Liz Cheney’s Wall Street Journal op-ed Wednesday as a useful case study. Their actual bio tagline reads, “Mr. Cheney was U.S. vice president from 2001-09. Ms. Cheney was the deputy assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs from 2002-04 and 2005-06.” Perhaps it would have been more accurate to have written, “Mr. Cheney was a chief architect of the 2003 invasion of Iraq that failed to find any weapons of mass destruction, cost trillions of dollars and thousands of American lives, and helped to create the very instability that now threatens Iraq. Ms. Cheney helped him.” That puts their entirely predictable essay in the proper context.
2) No sunk cost fallacies: This past week I’ve seen variations of arguments like this one:
Boehner spox @michael_steel: “Too many Americans sacrificed too much to allow Iraq to slip back into chaos.”
— Zeke Miller (@ZekeJMiller) June 16, 2014
Nope, that’s a completely bogus argument. It’s the classic expression of the sunk cost fallacy. It’s like waiting in a long line for a seat at a good restaurant, and deciding that even if it looks like it will take another hour to get a seat, you should stay because you’ve already waited an hour. But that hour you wasted is gone, and nothing can bring it back. So it shouldn’t factor into your decisions going forward. The question about what to do in Iraq from here on in has to be divorced from the costs that have already been borne.
Note, however, that the sunk cost fallacy cuts both ways. Arguments like, “We can’t give up in Iraq; that would dishonor the sacrifice of American soldiers there” don’t fly. Neither, however, do arguments like, “We’ve already sacrificed too much in Iraq to send military forces back in now.” If there’s a compelling argument that the use of force could advance U.S. interests in the region, then the waste of American blood in the last decade cannot be a reason to refrain from action.
3) No murmurs of disapproval from allies: From the Cheneys’ op-ed:
On a trip to the Middle East this spring, we heard a constant refrain in capitals from the Persian Gulf to Israel, “Can you please explain what your president is doing?” “Why is he walking away?” “Why is he so blithely sacrificing the hard fought gains you secured in Iraq? Why is he abandoning your friends?” “Why is he he doing deals with your enemies?”
Really? Middle East allies complained about the lack of U.S. reassurance and a fear of U.S. abandonment? So it’s a day ending with a “y,” then? Did any of these capitals explain why they’ve been helping to fund ISIS in the first place?
As someone who thinks that the reassurance of allies is an important task, my eyes nevertheless glaze over when I read these sorts of laments. There’s really very little cost to these countries complaining about the United States pursuing policies that are at variance with their preferences. The United States could re-occupy all of Iraq… and the Gulf allies will then complain about American imperialism. The sooner that U.S. policymakers realize that there is no way to make the Gulf states publicly happy about U.S. policy in the Middle East, the sooner the focus can be about advancing and preserving American interests.
Readers are strongly encouraged to offer their own ways to improve the debate over what to do in Iraq.