Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Social Science and Bush Policy Towards Iraq

I have already posted at the Duck and also at my blog on the spat between Tom Ricks and Peter Feaver.  Today, Feaver responded to Ricks.  I don't want to get into the he said/he said debate.  I just want to raise one point and then develop it a bit:

Feaver is not really doing social science here.  He is seeking to explain why a particular decision happened, but he is missing a huge opportunity to develop a general understanding of Presidential behavior about the deployment of troops.  He is only focused on the surge, and his narrative suggests that Bush was making some good, tough decisions to push the surge even when some (not all) of the senior military leadership opposed it.  The problem here is that Feaver could have asked a slightly different question, which would have been more interesting and more relevant beyond who gets credit for the surge: what explains the variations in Bush behavior from genial, go along, let Rummy mismanage the war to the tough decider?  In the Feaver story, Bush is pretty sharp especially with the implicit comparison to the doofus who got the US into a land war in Asia (at least Obama is getting us into an air war in Africa--no wise aphorisms about that).  So what explains that?

Let me suggest a comparison across cases: Clinton in 1995, Bush in 2006/7, Obama in 2009: all three Presidents faced roughly the same decision: to expend significant political capital to pull out troops (European for Clinton, US for Bush, US and essentially NATO+ for Obama) in a questionable, somewhat failing war effort OR reinvest with additional Americans and effort.  Once Bill Clinton committed to his European pals that he would use US forces to extract them from Bosnia if necessary, the choice of using US troops to enforce a peace became much more palatable.  With Bush facing a huge defeat in Iraq, the choice to invest just a bit further with some new generals (Petraeus and Odierno) and a new SecDef Gates and more troops, the decision was easier.  Obama did not want to send more troops into Afghanistan, but ultimately chose to do so as a last chance to find some success.

What does this scream?  Prospect theory, baby.  Gambling to avoid losses is a basic tendency according to the cognitive psychologists.  We are more risk acceptant when it comes to avoiding losses and more risk averse when it comes to gambling for gains (Jack Levy has several good pieces on this stuff including this one).  I am no expert on psychological approaches to foreign policy and international relations (that's Brian's gig), but it seems to me that we have a fairly simple (dare I say parsimonious?) explanation of Presidents making decisions about the deployment of force that is consistent across continents, economic times (good or bad), uni- or multi-lateral efforts, and so on.

The key is to think about the variation within the Bush Administration (a most similar comparison) or perhaps the similarities across Administrations (most different, more or less).  The spat between Ricks and Feaver is on the details of one case, but we can learn far more by comparing.

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