Rationality and the Iraq War

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.

5 Responses to Rationality and the Iraq War

  1. Mihai Martoiu Ticu July 31, 2013 at 4:57 pm #

    I always enjoy scholars begging the question. A rationalist framework would rather explain the Iraq invasion as just another move to gain more power and money.

  2. Scott August 1, 2013 at 11:13 am #

    Definitely a Graham Allison question – I think the bureaucratic politics model (I think it was model 2 in Allison’s piece, though I forget exactly) is way, way more convincing than the realist-rationalist model. Seems to be a pretty clear deficit of information-sharing in the bureaucracy (too many parallel info-processing channels being filtered excessively without interacting) coupled with biased gate-keepers at the top of the hierarchy. That’s as a explanatory approach. Most people seem to approach this morally (war is bad) or politically (war is bad when it’s not my party in charge and we don’t win quickly) anyway, so all the modeling is a moot point.

  3. The Fool August 1, 2013 at 5:01 pm #

    I don’t think you can really separate the rational and the irrational completely so that an explanation has to appeal to one or the other. The irrational is always at work and it was clearly at work in the run up to the Iraq War when otherwise intelligent people completely lost their ability to objectively process information or detect liars.

    Anyone who was conscious at the time could see you had a bunch of hyper-aggressive warmongers, overstimulated by 9/11 and the aftermath thereof, operating on a largely emotional level.

    I’m sure any decision can be construed as “rational” in a behaviorist sense where you ignore the actual operations of the mind and look only at behavioral outputs. Change enough of the background conditions and any behavior can be redescribed as “rational.” But you’re kidding yourself if you think there wasn’t a lot of amped up emotional thinking going on in the run up to the Iraq War, however you want to construe the resulting behavior.

  4. Michael Haas August 1, 2013 at 11:47 pm #

    Why are political scientists trying to make the Iraq War decision rational? Surely they know that Cheney and others wanted war in Iraq upon entering office in 2001, so the sales pitch to the American people was a ruse, using such social science nonsense that wars are rarely fought by democracies against democracies as a justification to turn Iraq into a democracy by force.
    And the fact that the media have been intimidated (e. g., Frank Caferty’s retraction) from identifying war crimes committed by the aggression, the conduct of the war, the treatment of prisoners, and the occupation indicates the irrationality of the entire enterprise.
    Instead of finding rationality where there is none, the writers should be telling Washington to stop turning the United States into an illiberal state, no longer admired throughout the world.

  5. Ronan Fitzgerald August 2, 2013 at 6:12 am #

    Wouldn’t a rationalist explanation require the 1% doctrine to be a rational way of making policy?