Needless to say, that final conclusion is open to debate. But it is true that leaders are susceptible to policies of escalation if they believe that victory can be achieved. That is because, as in Iraq, the potential rewards of victory outweigh the consequences of guaranteed defeat. Still, psychological errors are neither the lone nor the most important cause behind policymakers’ reluctance to “cut their losses.” Considerations of honor also play a factor, as do aspirations to glory—two concepts that go unmentioned in our social sciences (because they are difficult to quantify) and in our foreign-policy debate (because they are out of intellectual fashion).
But these two ideas, along with power, ideology, weakness, morality, and interest, are central to any comprehensive understanding of international relations. And they are key to understanding whether hawks or doves triumph in a given policy debate. That Kahneman and Renshon mention none of them in their essay only undermines its persuasiveness. That they restrict the scope of the biases they identify to hawks suggests their piece is less a work of social science than it is a polemic. One might even go so far as to say they exhibit clear biases of their own. ~Matt Continetti, Foreign Policy
This conclusion of Mr. Continetti’s response to the Kahneman/Renshon FP essay (on the relationship between psychological biases and hawkish tendencies in foreign policy decision-making) reminded me of J.H. Elliott’s masterful biography of Olivares, the early seventeenth-century privado to the king and effective head of government of Habsburg Spain at the beginning of Spain’s slow, centuries-long decline from hegemon to second-rate power. This is not just because Elliott’s biography is an outstanding portrait of how men in government can help bring greater ruin on their nation through activist foreign policy undertaken for the sake of reputacion above all else, but because it emphasises the centrality of reputacion in the considerations of 17th-century “policymakers.” Its lessons can be applied to our current predicament.
Honour and glory are relevant in any discussion of the administration’s refusal to withdrawal from Iraq–which is not to say that men in the administration are honourable men or that they have brought anything but disgrace upon our country. Perhaps they believe they are keeping their word to Iraqis, such as it is, or perhaps they think that the only honourable thing in a war is to see it to its bitter end, no matter what. It is, of course, precisely this confusion of insane pigheadedness with honour that has helped bring the very notion of honour into disrepute over the decades; it is the inability to distinguish selfish pride from the desire to have a clean and respectable reputation that made the idea of a “war for honour” appear to be the most horrible, meaningless kind of war. It was because of such perversions that dulcet et decorum est became a ringing indictment of treacherous governments everywhere rather than an admirable expression of patriotic love. Nonetheless, some distorted idea of honour lives on in high government circles that compels them to persist in the Iraq folly.
No one in his right mind believes, for instance, that withdrawal from Iraq would constitute a strategic disaster for the United States. It would lead to many ugly things, most of all for the Iraqis, and there would be damage in the short term to our credibility and our ability to project power (for those of us who see few occasions when we need to project power, this is less disturbing than it is for the hegemonists), but the damage would be done quickly and could be repaired relatively easily. What many believe is that the appearance of the withdrawal will deal a powerful blow to national prestige. The people worrying about this are usually the same people who cavalierly spat upon the opinion of the world only three and half years ago and declared that what the world thought of America was irrelevant when our “security” was at stake. (Perhaps if our security had been at stake, world opinion might well have been irrelevant.) Still, it is fascinating all the same to watch the people who practically only yesterday loathed the very idea of being in any way governed by concern about international reaction now start screaming about the damage to our reputation if we should now abandon Iraq to its fate. Those who gleefully mocked any government, ally or no, that dared question the wisdom of the invasion are now terribly concerned that the same governments they once ridiculed as irrelevant will think less of American strength. Trust me, folks, in some of these countries it is impossible to worsen the reputation of the United States, because there is nowhere for it to go but up. Fears of further wrecking American prestige are misplaced–it is not possible to sink a wrecked ship a second time.
There is something elemental and primal in their newfound concern for national reputation: no one wishes to appear to be a fool, and no one wishes to suffer the “humiliation” of having to acknowledge his limits. Withdrawal from Iraq highlights the limits of what Americans are willing to tolerate and support for the sake of ambiguous, shifting or meaningless goals, which means that Americans have no stomach for wasteful expeditions of empire or hegemony or whatever you would like to call it. This is embarrassing, most of all for those who think that the United States guarantees world stability. Withdrawal would also be an admission of national folly and recklessness, which would vindicate to some degree the international critics and make the bulk of our foreign policy establishment look like a gang of idiots (the truth hurts, doesn’t it?).
No one in or near that establishment really wants this to happen, which is why we now have the growing consensus that the Iraqis failed to make proper use of the glorious gift we gave them: why couldn’t they make more of their untidy freedom? The idea that most of the political class and almost the entire professional foreign policy elite botched the biggest policy question of the last 15 years is too terrible for them to consider. That is why they think we must keep fighting in Iraq: to help save their reputations long enough to shift the blame to the miserable people of “liberated” Iraq, all in the name of preserving the good name of the United States, in spite of the fact that they have already trashed our good name and made our nation’s name a curse in the mouths of the people who have “benefited” from our intervention.
Reputacion is always the concern of people in government, concerned as they are as much with the appearance of things as with anything of substance, and it does drive policy decisions. Unfortunately, as happened with Olivares’ costly and ultimately failed campaigns in the Netherlands and against France, wars fought for reputacion, not unlike wars fought for ideological or other intangible reasons, are wars that tend to go on for much longer than the state of affairs suggests they should and they tend to be much harder to terminate because calling off a war fought for the sake of reputacion is to put something as paltry as the good of the actual country and people ahead of the airy prestige of the government. Few governments are willing to do that. Democratically elected governments are among the worst in this regard, because they can, with some plausibility, claim to be acting out the will of the people, which can make concluding a war seem to be an act of betrayal of the nation (an accusation nationalists from 1918 to 1975 to today and forever after will always make about the end of wars they and people like them helped to start). Sadly, only too many nations are willing to allow their governments to value reputacion more highly than those governments value the well-being of their peoples. Reputacion does drive decision-making, but it is not at all clear that it should or that the importance of reputacion should be anything but a black mark against the policymakers who follow the imperatives of maintaining reputacion. Some conception of honour is something we should keep in mind when we try to understand why governments go to war, but we must also remember that the government’s so-called honour usually comes at the expense of the people’s well-being, whereas the real honour of the nation is usually served when its government does not foment or seek conflict.