Kagan's Definition of Success in Iraq


When it comes to theoretical justifications for the continued occupation of Iraq, the gold standard is the Weekly Standard. Bill Kristol and Fred Kagan must be extremely intelligent and gifted writers, because whenever I read their work or hear them speak, I’m halfway to killing 30 foreigners before suddenly snapping out of it. Kristol and Kagan are quite simply masters at making their reckless positions sound eminently reasonable and "conservative."

The latest case in point is Kagan’s article, "How We’ll Know When We’ve Won: A definition of success in Iraq." (Note that it’s titled when, not if.) As usual, he lays out what at first glance seems to be a perfectly plausible case for allowing the current strategy to play itself out, since we are already well on the way to victory. Yet as we’ll see, Kagan commits the same fallacy that every leftist do-gooder on the home front does: He simply lists the benefits of his proposed plan, rather than explaining why its benefits outweigh its costs.

Ironically, even if one agreed with every single factual assessment in Kagan’s article, the case would still be wide open as to whether US troops should remain in Iraq. This doesn’t prove that Kagan’s answer — the troops should stay!! — is wrong. But it makes one wonder how seriously Kagan really entertained the idea that he could possibly be wrong.

Kagan’s Criteria for Success

Kagan lists five different criteria for success in Iraq: (1) A stable state. (2) A representative state. (3) A state that controls its territory. (4) A state oriented toward the West. (5) An ally in the struggle against militant Islamism. Once Iraq has satisfied all five of these objectives, we can declare mission accomplished (for real this time).

Before proceeding with the more fundamental objection, I just want to point out that even on his own terms, it’s possible that Kagan might have to admit that thus far the invasion of Iraq has been a failure. Under Saddam’s (admittedly brutal) rule, Iraq was certainly stable. (Remember, there weren’t bi-weekly car bombings until the US liberated the Iraqis.) It was also a state that controlled its territory, except for the occasional attack from coalition jets enforcing the no-fly zone. Since the US invasion, Iraq is not only trivially at the mercy of foreign forces from the US, Britain, etc., but it also can’t repel attacks from Turkey and (we are told) can’t protect itself from Iranian influence.

Finally, Iraq was certainly no home for radical Islamism under Saddam — his deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz was the highest ranking Christian government official in the region. Since the invasion, Iraqi women have complained of harassment for not dressing modestly, and many Christians have felt persecuted. Moreover, al-Qaida has a much stronger presence in Iraq now than it did under Saddam.

So of Kagan’s five criteria, Iraq is arguably worse off on three of them, and better off on two of them (a representative state and a state oriented toward the West). Now Kagan didn’t give us a means of quantitatively combining the different criteria, so in the absence of a weighting mechanism, I think he just unwittingly proved that leaving Saddam in power would have been better for Weekly Standard objectives than the last five years has proven.

The Real Problem: Kagan Ignores Costs

As I mentioned in the beginning, the real problem with Kagan’s definition of "success" is that he completely ignores the costs of continued occupation. Since I’m an economist, I’m sure some readers will think, "Jeez, you bean counters reduce everything to money, even something as important as national security!!"

But I’m not talking about money (though the incredible financial outlays are indeed relevant). Rather I’m talking about something much more elemental: American and Iraqi lives.

Suppose for the sake of argument that we achieved all five of Kagan’s criteria to his satisfaction, by the year 2013. Does that mean we would have had success in Iraq? What if I told you that over the next five years, in order to achieve those objectives, an additional two million Iraqi civilians, and an additional 80,000 American military personnel, were killed? Would that make you reconsider whether staying in Iraq was worth it?

My purpose here isn’t to predict that US or Iraqi casualties will reach such horrifying levels. Rather, I’m just pointing out that Kagan doesn’t even discuss this aspect of the occupation. He simply lists his hopes for what the occupation can achieve, and then explains why those objectives really are good things. In other words, he is explaining why, in Kagan’s opinion, it would be better if each of those five criteria came true, than if they didn’t come true. He has nowhere showed how many people should be prepared to die to achieve those five goals.

Taking Up Kagan’s Challenge

At the end of his article, Kagan declares:

Here is a gauntlet thrown down: Let those who claim that the current strategy has failed and must be replaced lay out their own strategy, along with their definition of success, criteria for evaluating success, and the evidentiary basis for their evaluations. Then, perhaps, we can have a real national debate on this most important issue.

Sure thing, Mr. Kagan. First, I stipulate your own criteria, except I add one more: (6) A state where thousands of American military don’t lose their lives every year. The method for evaluating success on this last point is simple: We look at the number of Americans killed in Iraq, and if the number goes down, that is "progress." The evidentiary basis is also simple: We keep track of how many Americans go over to Iraq, and how many are still alive. Then we subtract.

Okay, so now I’ve offered my own definition of success, along with criteria for evaluating it, and the evidentiary basis for such evaluations. Now the really brilliant part: What’s my new strategy, in contrast to your strategy of continued occupation?

Are you ready? I propose that we ship every Muslim in the world to Mars. If you run down your list of criteria, I think you’ll see that my strategy is far superior to yours. My strategy also does better on my sixth criterion, namely saving US lives.

Of course, some naysayers (no doubt whiny liberals) will complain that it would cost many trillions of tax dollars and take decades to implement my strategy. Some really hardcore critics (maybe Noam Chomsky) would go so far as to say my strategy is physically impossible.

But these types of considerations — cost, time frame, and achievability of the goals — are irrelevant. After all, Kagan literally doesn’t discuss cost (whether in dollars, lives, or other foregone opportunities) or the time needed for his own strategy to work. And when it comes to whether his goals are actually achievable, Kagan does things like point out that fewer people are dying now in Iraq than before the surge, and that the Iraqi government controls more neighborhoods now than it did last year. By extrapolation, then, we are to assume that the violence could eventually fall to zero, and the control of the Iraqi government could grow to include the entire country. By the same token, I point out that space travel is getting better and cheaper all the time; we are even sending private tourists up there. We are definitely making measurable progress towards the establishment of space colonies.

On his own terms, I have outdone Mr. Kagan: The world would be a lot safer for US interests if we shipped all of the Muslims to Mars. I hope the writers at the Weekly Standard will stop with their half-measures and embrace a truly bold plan.