Monthly Archives: May 2015

Epistemology of the Iraq War

An interesting development in the Republican presidential field over the past week or so has been the hasty emergence of a consensus, following Jeb Bush’s interview fumble with Megyn Kelly, that the invasion of Iraq was retrospectively a mistake, having been predicated on faulty intelligence.

For Iraq War cynics with an interest in the Republican Party, this is a positive development. But it is also a rather superficial one, in that it does not go so far as to reassess the decision rules which are used to implement foreign policy in a world of limited information.

Consider the faulty intelligence. With respect to the 2003 invasion, it is not enough to note that the intelligence failed regarding WMDs, for the possibility of intelligence failure is something which must be considered a priori. On the one hand, intelligence which suggests the existence of an active WMD program in Iraq could be a false positive; alternatively, intelligence suggesting there is no ongoing WMD effort may be a false negative. This potential for intelligence failure attenuates the correspondence of intelligence conclusions with real-world truth, and so any concomitant foreign policy decision needs to be humbled by this.

Similar considerations follow from other factors. For one, the Iraq War has testified to the reality that nation-building is laden with pitfalls, especially in such a volatile and fractious region of the world. Another is the potential for the incoherence of future foreign policy decisions to diminish the benefits of the invasion. Examples arguably include (1) the Bush Administration’s 2003 refusal of negotiations with Iran, (2) NATO’s 2011 air campaign against the Libyan regime which had relinquished its WMD program months after the Iraq invasion, and (3) the Obama Administration’s failure to extend a Status of Forces Agreement, unlike what the Bush Administration had anticipated.

Considering all the ways in which the hypothesized net benefits of an invasion and occupation of this sort are easily depreciated, the real question that ought to be asked is not what Megyn Kelly asked Jeb Bush about “what we know now.” It’s about the decision rules that, in hindsight, ought to have been applied given what was believed then, because in a world of limited information, we will likely not know everything that we will come to know and will prefer to have known before.

Instead of justifying the invasion because “the intelligence says active WMD program,” the possibility of erroneous intelligence deserved stronger consideration then.

Instead of justifying the invasion because “it will promote non-proliferation of WMDs,” the possibility of this benefit being stymied by future foreign policy decisions deserved stronger consideration then.

Instead of justifying the invasion because “we can maintain a troop presence for long enough,” the possibility of troops being withdrawn out of political fatigue deserved stronger consideration then.

Now, it’s possible that these objections were considered at the time, and they ultimately did not weigh enough against the factors which motivated the Bush Administration to wage war in Iraq. And indeed, it is in part the experience of the past twelve years that has persuaded me to conclude with as much confidence as I have that these merited more consideration then. (Of course, let’s not forget there were those who had enough foresight to have disapproved of the war before it unfolded.)

The crucial distinction here is between particulars and priors. It may seem subtle, but it’s important. You see, it is not enough to say that in reflection, the particular prevailing beliefs in 2002 were in error. Those who steer foreign policy need to go beyond that to updating their priors, such that the same particulars being confronted today would be processed through new criteria to meet an updated decision rule.

Ultimately, it is the experience of the Iraq War which suggests that the decision made in 2002 was quite arguably inappropriate, not just based on today’s knowledge, but based on the information promulgated back in 2002. It’s not that the intelligence just so happened to be wrong; it’s that the intelligence had the potential for error, nation-building in the sectarian Middle East is an inherently arduous exercise, and so on. Learning from this experience compels reasonable people to conclude that, through the lens of our updated prior beliefs of the world and revised decision rules for making war, a different decision today based solely on information resembling what was believed then could very well be preferable.

And it is this consequential point which most Republican candidates are failing to address.

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