The article “Known Unknowns,” by Alex Debs and Nuno Monteiro (DM), newly released electronically by International Organization in advance of its publication this fall, is an important addition to the bargaining theory of war and adds new insights to the causes of the Iraq War of 2003. Since DM challenge several points in my International Security article (PDF) on bargaining theory and the Iraq War, let me respond briefly.
The key innovation in the model is that investments in military capabilities by the Target (T, Iraq in the case) produce changes in the probability of military victory only with some lag, thus openning a window for the Deterer (D, the U.S.) to launch a preventive war. The lower the costs of war, the more uncertain D is about T’s program, and the more effective the war is likely to be in eliminating the threat to D, the greater the chance of preventive war and the greater the likelihood that the war will be mistaken. This is a nice addition to the basic bargaining model with important implications that go beyond the Iraq case on which the theory is based.
From the outset, I want to clarify that we agree far more than we disagree, including about the central tension between Iraq and the U.S., the effects of 9/11 on the timing of the Iraq War, and the difference between Iraq and North Korea. Debs and Monteiro engage in the product differentiation usual in academic scholarship — highlighting differences rather than commonalities — but the latter are large and overwhelm the points of disagreement, in my view.
By endogenizing the decision to invest in new military capabilities, Debs and Monteiro convert the problem of credible commitment (on which I focus) into a problem of asymmetric information (on which they focus). In their model and empirical interpretation, the problem was not that Saddam Hussein could not commit not to develop WMD in the future, but that the U.S. was uncertain about whether a program existed and might provide an opportunity for a “breakout” that would adversely change the probability of victory in a future war. This makes a lot of sense and captures something of decision-making within the Bush administration in the run-up to the war. But it remains a puzzle why Saddam could not demonstrate that he did not have active WMD programs underway. DM argue that it is hard to prove a negative, which is true. But the point is that Saddam did not try but, rather, intentionally obfuscated both his intentions and his actions throughout the 1990s and through the return of the United Nations weapons inspectors in December 2002. Given the clear intention of the U.S. to launch a preventive war by fall 2002 (see below), one might think Saddam would have had every incentive to come “clean,” but he did not. My argument, following much of the literature on the Iraq War, is that Saddam was speaking to multiple audiences including Iran and his potentially rebellious Shite majority and hoped to deter the latter by promoting continued uncertainty over his weapons programs. DM argue further than their model does not require obfuscation from the problem of multiple audiences – and this is true, analytically – but it misses a central feature of the actual bargaining failure.
Even if the Bush administration was “fixing” the intelligence around the policy, it remains true that nearly everyone and certainly everyone in the administration was absolutely convinced that Iraq was developing WMD.
Second, the model hinges on uncertainty about T’s military program. But where was the uncertainty about Iraq in 2002-2003? Even if the Bush administration was “fixing” the intelligence around the policy, it remains true that nearly everyone and certainly everyone in the administration was absolutely convinced that Iraq was developing WMD. Given this belief, we are back in a world of “full information” – even if that information was wrong. What mattered in the final decision was not the facts but the belief that Iraq was engaged in weapons development. In turn, given the Bush administration’s belief and the publicity surrounding this belief, we are still left with the puzzle of why Saddam did not capitulate in the face of almost certain war. As I argued in my essay, why the Bush administration held this mistaken belief – one not shared with the earlier Clinton administration – and why Saddam did not capitulate at the final hour remain unexplained by bargaining theory.
Finally, for preventive war to be rational, DM correctly deduce that it cannot be “too expensive” and must be “effective” in removing the threat. But here the Bush administration grossly erred in deeply consequential ways. In particular, it defined effectiveness purely in terms of removing Saddam from power and did not consider the possibility of internal anarchy that followed. The failure to consider the costs of governing Iraq after regime change may have been intentional – to realistically estimate the costs would have made plain that the war would be expensive and less likely to be effective in removing future threats to the U.S., and thus would have received significantly less support from the American public. Or it may have simple stupidity, though I remain suspicious of this interpretation. Nonetheless, this failure to consider realistically the costs of the war and postwar reconstruction was clearly “irrational” but hugely consequential. DM are correct to focus on costs and effectiveness, but unfortunately ignore how and why the Bush administration utterly failed to produce accurate estimates of these key variables.
But 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.
The nub of the matter is that I emphasize factors that fall outside the bargaining model: the multiple audiences of Saddam that complicate the standard two-party bargaining game, the skewed beliefs of the Bush administration and their origins in psychological dispositions, and the failure of the U.S. to consider the likely postwar governance costs. DM present a fully rationalist model that can explain the origins of the Iraq War. But 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. As someone often portrayed as a rationalist and defender of rationalist theory, this is an admittedly unusual and possibly ironic position for me to take. Non-rationalists have always complained that the discipline privileges any rationalist explanation over other possible explanations, a stance I have often taken and for which I plead guilty. In this case, however, strict adherence to rationalism and the bargaining model as currently construed – even with DM’s important extension – still misses essential aspects of the politics and decision-making that led to the most disastrous and mistaken war of our time.
Editor’s Note: This post responds to an article published in International Organization by Alex Debs and Nuno Monteiro. Their post on the subject appeared yesterday.
It makes sense that he would obfuscate the weapons program during a period that the United States was reluctant to fight (Clinton years) but then gave in as it became clear that war would start otherwise. From what I remember about Hans Blix’s book, Saddam pretty much gave in to the weapons inspectors in the last month or two before the war started, as would be expected. Is my memory hazy here?
The fact that the weapons inspections program was completely riddled by spies and CIA opperatives didn’t help either
David, I share your bottom line and I think the following quote from your piece sums up the fundamental challenge for rationalist approaches: “DM are correct to focus on costs and effectiveness, but unfortunately ignore how and why the Bush administration utterly failed to produce accurate estimates of these key variables.” The problem is the ubiquitous confluence of uncertainty and complexity in assessments of both. In fact, we have very few cases where decision makers have made accurate assessments of either costs or effectiveness of the use of force. There is plenty of literature on why decision makers get these so wrong so often. Yet, in DM we are once again left with a number of post hoc claims that serve as the basis (assumptions) for analysis of rational action.
Inspections failed to settle the matter because inspections were stopped by the invasion.
Any theory that fails to take into account the willful ignorance of one side (the “Deterer” in the rather value-laiden parlance above) is absurd. Fortunately for academics, the market for absurdity in support of land wars in Asia hasn’t flagged since the Phillipine-American War (1899).
“Even if the Bush administration was “fixing” the intelligence around the
policy, it remains true that nearly everyone and certainly everyone in
the administration was absolutely convinced that Iraq was developing
WMD. Given this belief, we are back in a world of “full information” –
even if that information was wrong.”
Really? Doesn’t this amount to saying that the decision was pretty rational as long as you ignore all that irrational stuff? How is this different than saying that once you allow for the irrational way they formed their beliefs, their subsequent decision was rational?
I find these arguments persuasive though as your original IS article notes, the behavioral and bargaining theories are complementary. In my own argument about Iraq (see chapter 6 of Leaders at War), I argue that different leaders make different cost-benefit calculations about military interventions depending on their causal beliefs about the origin of threats. One leader looking at a potential conflict may believe that the problem can only be fixed by transforming the target state’s domestic institutions, and thus his options
effectively narrow to a transformative intervention (e.g. nation-building) or
staying out, and he will evaluate the costs and benefits of an intervention
using that strategy. Another leader viewing the same situation through an alternative set of beliefs—namely, that institutions do not matter much—will evaluate the costs and benefits of a more surgical approach, compared to staying out. The Bush administration took the latter route: Bush disdained
nation-building, and a thorough transformation of Iraq (as opposed to a
decapitation of the regime that left its institutions largely intact) was not the original aim of the Iraq war. So the post-war phase was simply not part of the original cost-benefit calculation, as a direct result of Bush’s beliefs (and his choice of advisers who shared those beliefs), even though such a calculation was made. Another president with different beliefs might have seen nation-building as a necessary component of any war in Iraq—and since the post-war phase would then have been part of the cost-benefit calculation, such a president might have ultimately concluded that the war was too costly to undertake in the first place. This is the heart of my recent post arguing that Al Gore might have stayed out of Iraq precisely because he believed nation-building to be an essential component of the war.