Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Odd Paucity of Hope

Matt Yglesias really nails the disparate ways that the policies put forth by the two main Iraq policy camps (withdrawal vs. indefinite occupation) are treated by much of the media/commentariat when gamed out. In the context of criticizing Michael O'Hanlon's recent attempts to devise an Iraq benchmark scorecard based almost entirely on O'Hanlon's opinions, Yglesias observes:

O'Hanlon is trying to introduce a spurious sense of precision to an inherently subjective judgment. Try to ask a coherent question like "is there a broadly based government that enjoys legitimacy across sectarian divides for us to support in Iraq?" and the answer is clearly "no."

O'Hanlon concedes as much, but counters that it's not hopeless to think that such a government might emerge if we keep sticking around and trying to cajole them. I would counter that, on the one hand, hope is not a plan and, on the other hand, that there's nothing stopping us from "hoping for the best" in a withdrawal scenario. The tendency in the U.S. policy debate has been to assess dovish options in terms of worst-case scenarios (regional war! genocide! al-qaeda base!) and hawkish options in terms of best-case scenarios (reconciliation! a new democracy!) but this is completely arbitrary. It's not clear that the presence of a large U.S. military force in Iraq alters the incentives facing Iraqi political actors in favor of reconciliation.

Right. Neither camp's "best case scenario" is likely to come to fruition. Both "happy endings" are rather remote possibilities at this time, but one version of Operation Hope for a Pony is dramatically less costly - not just in terms of financial resources, but across a broad range of categories. That is a crucial factor that is almost always neglected in these discussions. It's like one side gets to put forth a cost-benefit analysis that leaves out the "costs" while calibrating the benefits on a scale that goes up to 11 out of 10.

[UPDATE: Come to think of it, there is one big reason that the public discourse on Iraq is skewed in the direction of this myopia that O'Hanlon is afflicted with: the public discourse on Iraq is dominated by...O'Hanlon! Weird.]

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