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Rationality and the Iraq War

- July 31, 2013

The Duck of Minerva is hosting an interesting debate about explanations for the Iraq war based on two recently published articles in International Organization and International Security that the publishers have agreed to make freely available. You should go read the whole thing here and here.

 Alexandre Debs and Nuno P. Monteiro make the controversial claim that:

 Contrary to widely shared views according to which the war was caused by misperceptions and other irrational behaviors on the part of Saddam Hussein and the Bush Administration, we argue that the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq can be accounted for strictly within a rationalist framework.

Their story goes something like this. Rogue states may have incentives to develop nuclear weapons but they also have incentives to hide this because the United States may launch a preventive war. The events of September 11 decreased the trust the U.S. government had in the intelligence community’s ability to detect an Iraqi weapons program. It also increased U.S. resolve to prevent a nuclear Iraq.  Inspections failed to settle the matter and so the U.S. launched the war based on imperfect information. Saddam was unable to credibly communicate that he did not in fact have a nuclear weapons program.

This is a smart theory and their forthcoming article generalizes it although I am not sure why Debs and Monteiro argue that this theory does not also provide a rational justification for invading Iran. They claim that the cost of a preventive strike would be too high. But how could a strike on a few nuclear facilities (with much information) be too costly when invading and occupying a country for nearly a decade is not? Of course, one could argue that the occupation rested on incomplete information or miscalculation. Yet, occupying and democratizing Iraq was part of the plan from the outset. It is not clear how Debs and Monteiro’s theory explains the occupation part of the story.

David Lake,  like me, appreciates the theory but is not convinced that it can really account for what happened in 2003:


[..] that one can pose a rational model that predicts preventive war does not make it the right model or necessarily do justice to the facts of the case.

There are two general issues raised by his response. The first is whether this is the right model for the case? The second is whether even if Debs and Monteiro get the strategic context right, they may have wrongly concluded that the decision-making process was rational. Instead, cognitive biases may have led leaders to selectively sample information, overestimate the efficacy of military occupation, and so on (and not just on the U.S. side).

Note that even if their model is the right one and the decision-making process was rational, the conclusion that the war was rational still depends on assumptions about a particular set of parameter values (perceived cost of Iraqi militarization, impatience, resolve) of the Administration. That is: using the same theory but a different Administration we might conclude that not invading Iraq was the rational thing to do. That is not a critique per se but a qualification of what rationality means in this context. As they say, go read the whole thing.