November 19, 2005

Iraq and Sunk Costs

I am not an advocate of immediate withdrawal from Iraq, but the argument from inertia--that we belong there because we are there or because the costs we have incurred so far would be a high price to just give up--is irrational. It's called the sunk cost fallacy (great Slate article about this here).

I believe, as does Brad Plumer in an excellent post, that there are strong moral reasons to remain in Iraq, but I would say that at this point it's a high-risk tactical gamble--I think we are unlikely to achieve our aims satisfactorily. As a sometimes consequentialist, I think the partiality for American lives over Iraqi lives that is the basis of calls for immediate withdrawal is wrong-headed and morally unreasonable. If our withdrawal results in an overall larger loss of life and debasement of life--any lives--than does our continued presence, I cannot justify going.

However, backward-looking reasons should not be the ones justifying our presence; they are irrational, harmful, and dangerous. If we plan our foreign policy around things we cannot change, we will not be able to change anything, or at least will not be able to change anything for the better.

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