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Wednesday, November 05, 2003

War of choice?

Matthew Yglesias has a good recent post called "Division For Beginners" that other people might want to read. He's responding to a post by Cori Dauber on Volokh. Dauber is miffed that the media and politicians emphasize soldiers casualties -- by noting the daily death rate. "The zero casualty policy of the Clinton years," she asserts, is wrong and obsolete in the post 9/11 world:
[This policy] had been discredited both as something which distorted mission planning and which was ultimately unworkable in a war of wills with terrorists....[D]id September 11th change our way of thinking about the risks we face and the way we will face them, or not? I do not mean that as a glib and facile question, but as the most important foreign policy debate we have to face in today's world.
Essentially, Yglesias counters Dauber by arguing that the US public won't tolerate very many casualties in a "war of choice" (such as a humanitarian intervention). That's why Clinton's wars led to the zero casualty mantra. By contrast, if the US is responding to aggression or a "clear and present danger," then some (unknown?) number of casualties should be acceptable.

The casualty question is important because lots of studies demonstrate that public support for military action declines as casualties mount. Cori is frankly worried that Americans won't have the stomach for Iraq. She's right to be concerned because it was the central lesson of Vietnam. John Mueller's research (warning PDF file) shows that even popular wars become unpopular over time as casualties mount.

I agree with Cori that the American public may well be more sophisticated in the post 9/11 world. The polity might tolerate a greater number of casualties if it believes the conflict is central to the "war on terror," on which the Bush administration has attached a war against WMD states. But even that adaptation is probably acceptable.

The rub, of course, is that Iraq was sold as a strategic necessity against a "grave and gathering threat," but the evidence from Iraq very strongly suggests that such a threat did not exist. Thus, administration officials are pointing out post facto humanitarian reasons for toppling Saddam.

As I keep noting here, candidate Bush was opposed to US intervention in Rwanda, even when asked it if would have been worthwhile to save 600,000 lives.

Thus, I think Matt Yglesias is spot on in his critique. If the Bush administration cannot show WMD or al Qaeda ties to Saddam Hussein's Iraq, then support for the war is going to continue to decline. It could collapse.

The new presence of foreign fighters in Iraq is a better justification for war, but this will likely mean that the public will start looking around for someone with a better idea of how to fight the war on terror. After all, those foreign fighters weren't there before the US attacked.

Remember, even Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld is worried that the war may be creating as many terrorists as it kills.

Cori argues that the question of American will to fight in the face of casualties is the major foreign policy puzzle of the era.

Needless to say, I think she's wrong. The foreign policy question of the day is how most effectively to counter, rather than create, international terrorism and proliferation of WMD.

The lesson of the last 12 years in Iraq is that sanctions, inspections, arms control and deterrence worked. So the WMD part of the puzzle can be resolved, at least when dealing with states.

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