Weighing the Risks

There's no invisible hand to protect us.


I argue that Iraq is a serious threat—to the surrounding region and to us. John Mueller disagrees. I contend that toppling the current Iraqi regime will aid in the broader campaign against Islamist terrorism. Mueller worries that an invasion of Iraq will backfire.

Risks of action, risks of inaction—which are greater? Solid facts are few and far between; we're forced to make our way on the basis of hypotheticals and maybes and historical analogies. How can we have any confidence that we are weighing the risks intelligently?

One point in my favor is that I am actually weighing the risks. That's why I support military action against Iraq: I believe the risks of inaction outweigh the risks of action. I am not a reflexive hawk: I opposed our recent military adventures in Panama, Haiti, Somalia, and the Balkans. I would not support military action against, say, Burma, merely because its government is despicable. Odious as it is, the Burmese regime poses no significant threat to its neighbors or to us. I would not have supported making war on China in the 1960s, even though its rulers were wildly anti-American and seeking to develop a nuclear arsenal. Despite the threat China posed to us, the risks of acting were far too great (especially the possibility of an escalation with the Soviets) and the price of victory against such a formidable and fanatical adversary would have been far too high. In that situation, deterrence and diplomacy (in particular, playing the Chinese and Soviets against each other) were the better options.

So on the general question of preventive war—whether to make war now in order to avoid a worse war later—my position is: It depends on the circumstances. The decision whether to go to war should turn on a pragmatic assessment of relative risks. Sometimes the balance will tilt in favor of action, sometimes not. In the particular case of Iraq in 2002, I believe the balance tilts strongly toward action.

Many who oppose invading Iraq (I won't ascribe this view to Mueller, since he did not spell out his general position clearly) reject the kind of pragmatic assessment that I think is called for. They believe that preventive war is just a bad idea, period—that it's wrong, or at least reckless, to fire the first shot unless you're absolutely sure the other guy is about to squeeze the trigger.

So when I'm debating the Iraq question with someone like that, we're talking past each other. I'm explaining the reasons that led me to my conclusion. He's marshalling evidence in support of a predetermined conclusion.

Not that there's anything wrong, in general, with predetermined conclusions—they're called principles. But all principles aren't created equal. Some are sound, some are iffy, and some are downright worthless.

What about the principle of no preventive wars? Specifically, what is the basis for assuming that preventive wars always make matters worse? In economic policy, there are extremely solid grounds for the principle of no government meddling with markets. Market competition has enormous advantages over government action in making use of and coordinating dispersed information, in encouraging innovation, in supplying appropriate incentive structures, etc. Accordingly, anyone arguing that government intervention in the marketplace can improve economic performance has an extremely difficult case to make.

Many libertarians slide easily from noninterventionism in domestic affairs to noninterventionism abroad, and believe that they're on equally firm footing with both positions. But they're not, because the fact is that there's no invisible hand in foreign affairs. There are no equilibrating mechanisms or feedback loops in the Hobbesian jungle of predatory dictatorships and fanatical terrorist groups that give us any assurance that, if the United States were only to stand aside, things would go as well for us in the world as they possibly could.

Accordingly, it seems to me that a no-exceptions policy against preventive war rests ultimately on an untenable assumption—on the implicit belief that unrousable passivity on the part of the greatest and most powerful country that ever existed will somehow yield the most favorable achievable conditions in the world. That, in an intricately interconnected world, leaving everything outside our physical borders to the wolves will ensure that everything turns out for the best.

I don't buy it. Hostile regimes bent on relentless expansion and pursuing weapons of mass destruction are a threat to global security. Hostile regimes that could put weapons of mass destruction into the hands of terrorists are a direct threat to the lives of Americans. If regimes fitting either of these descriptions don't change their ways, military action against them should be an available option.

Iraq's current regime fits both descriptions. It is not going to change its ways. The risks of war are real but manageable. Let's act before it's too late.