Home/Daniel Larison/The Supposed “Costs of Inaction”

The Supposed “Costs of Inaction”

Philip Stephens repeats a claim that has been recycled many, many times over the last few years:

Mr Obama has disdained those in the foreign policy establishment who could have told him that inaction can impose a higher cost than action [bold mine-DL].

In fact, Obama has frequently ignored the people inside and outside his administration that have wished he wouldn’t act (or react) as often as he has. It is generally only those that always demand a very aggressive foreign policy that imagine that Obama has been too reluctant to “act” (i.e., bomb, sanction, etc.), when the reality is that he “acts” too often and without having thought through the consequences of that “action.” Indeed, Obama has made many mistaken policy decisions over the years because he has felt compelled to appear to be “acting” even when he had good reason to believe that “action” was useless or harmful. Arguing that “inaction can impose a higher cost than action” is a useful rhetorical maneuver for interventionists, but is there normally any truth to it? If we give the question some thought, we’ll see that this is almost always an untrue statement, and it’s usually untrue for all parties involved. There may be very rare cases in which “inaction” (a.k.a., minding our own business) proves to be costlier than “action” (i.e., bombing, sanctioning, invading, arming rebels, etc.) but that almost never happens and in most cases it would be impossible for “inaction” to be costlier.

First and foremost, it clearly is not true that inaction costs the U.S. more than action, especially when the U.S. is the one that normally bears a disproportionate share of the cost of each new intervention. Even when U.S. forces suffer no casualties from a military intervention, there are other costs besides the money spent to fund the operation and the weapons expended during the fighting. Among other things, there are opportunity costs each time that the U.S. starts attacking another state or group. Any military intervention eats up some time, energy, and attention that could be used to address issues, and it causes other issues to be neglected or de-prioritized in the meantime. There are diplomatic and political costs that the U.S. has to pay in order to take military action and to lure other states to participate in the operation, which can squander existing goodwill and create tensions in longstanding relationships that might have been avoided.

U.S. military action typically generates resentment against the U.S. in other countries, and not just in the countries directly affected by the intervention, and that can make it more difficult–and therefore costlier–to gain the cooperation of governments where the U.S. is deeply unpopular. Repeatedly calling on allies to support U.S. military operations can make it more difficult to rely on them in a genuine security crisis, because their governments have already exhausted the patience of their voters with previous commitments. Especially when it takes place in a predominantly Muslim country, U.S. intervention often serves as a rallying point for jihadist recruitment and propaganda, and insofar as U.S. intervention results in civilian casualties it can provide an additional boost to such groups, all of which have the potential to make Americans overseas less secure. In the worst-case scenario, “action” can lead to attacks on the U.S. itself, which certainly would not have happened without “action” being taken.

If “inaction” doesn’t cost the U.S. more than “action,” does this statement apply to others instead? That is somewhat more complicated, but in almost all cases the answer is still no. In order to believe that “inaction” is costlier, one has to assume that U.S. “action” is reliably efficacious and does not end up doing more harm than good. It is tempting to look at a terrible armed conflict overseas and believe that U.S. “action” could have limited or ended it, but in practice “action” would mean taking one side–and it is usually the weaker side in civil wars–and escalating an internal conflict into a proxy war or a direct outside intervention in which the U.S. and/or its proxies inflict substantial damage on the other party or parties to the conflict. In these cases, “action” does not limit the costs of the conflict, but imposes additional costs on some of the people involved in the fighting. Insofar as it is enables the weakest side in a conflict to endure and maybe even prevail in the end, the intervention may “work” in one sense, but only at the expense of the entire country, its civilian population, and the surrounding region. To the extent that “action” succeeds in, say, toppling a country’s government, it imposes a new set of costs on the entire population in the form of lawlessness, violence, and economic disruption that probably would not have been as severe in the absence of “action.”

So it is almost never true that “inaction can impose a higher cost than action,” but many people claim this or something like it to make it seem as if “inaction” is potentially even riskier and more dangerous.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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