Streetwise Professor

October 9, 2012

Sunk Cost Fallacies: Obama Foreign Policy Edition

Filed under: Military,Politics — The Professor @ 6:35 pm

Obama blasted Romney on Middle East policy, most notably Iraq:

President Barack Obama charged on Tuesday that Mitt Romney favors a foreign policy that “gets us into wars with no plan to end them” and that if the Republican had his way American combat forces would still be in Iraq.

“Governor Romney said it was tragic to end the war in Iraq. I disagree. I think bringing our troops home to their families was the right thing to do,” Obama told some 15,000 cheering supporters on the campus of Ohio State University.

“If he’d gotten his way, those troops would still be there. In a speech yesterday, he doubled down on that belief, he said ending that war was a mistake. After nine years of war, more than $1 trillion in spending, extraordinary sacrifices by our men and women and their families, he said we should still have troops on the ground in Iraq,” Obama said.

Regardless of what you think about the prudence-or even sanity-of invading Iraq in 2003, if you are rational you have to understand that sunk costs are sunk.  You can’t undo the past.  You can’t bring back those who died in 2003-2008.  You can’t retrieve the hundreds of billions spent.

So when becoming president in 2009, the arguments for or against invading Iraq and fighting the insurgency in the years following should have been beyond irrelevant in determining the correct policy going forward.  By 2009, post-surge, Iraq was relatively stable.  It was-is-the keystone of the Middle East.  It borders Iran.  It is vulnerable to Iranian influence, and has represents a threat to Iran.  It has large oil production, but its reserves are immense, making its future potential even greater.  So even if the cost of invasion and fighting 5+ years of civil war were not worthwhile in retrospect, those costs were sunk in 2009.  The cost of maintaining a military presence going forward would have been relatively modest, and the potential geopolitical and strategic benefits would have been great.  Perhaps not so great as to justify the expenditures in life and treasure 2003-2008, but those costs were sunk by 2009.

But Obama was so obsessed with Iraq that he made withdrawal-on any terms-a priority.  So he bugged out, leaving a vacuum in Iraq.  A vacuum that local radicals and Iran have filled.  So now Iraq permits overflights of Iranian weapons to Syria, and supplies fuel to Syria.  The country is being pulled into the Iranian orbit.

And Obama thinks this is a marvelous accomplishment.  A major part of his legacy.

So, evaluated rationally, Romney has a valid point.  A very valid point: he is looking forward not backwards.  Obama, conversely, is an ideologue obsessed with the past, and is proud-proud-of succumbing to the sunk cost fallacy.

Another comparison is apposite: Afghanistan.  Afghanistan is a strategic backwater, and a logistical nightmare.  If it is worthwhile to maintain 100,000-and until recently, 130,000-troops in Afghanistan, it is a no brainer to maintain 10,000-30,000 troops in Iraq.   The cost in Iraq is lower.  The logistical burden is lower.   The intensity of the conflict is lower-now.  The strategic benefit is far greater.  But Obama persists in fighting in a half-assed way in Afghanistan: too few troops to achieve anything, and there’s not a lot to achieve in any event, but more than enough troops to consume billions of dollars and risk many lives.

Obama blasted Romney for advocating wars with “no plan to end them.”  Well, what’s his plan in Afghanistan?  His plan, such as it is, is a strategic purgatory.  It is a recipe for pointless, purposeless deaths of American (and other NATO) military personnel.

No rational person can justify abandoning Iraq and continuing the slog in Afghanistan.  But Obama can.

But this is just a piece with the bizarre and inane Obama foreign policy, especially in the Middle East.  I have few illusions about Romney, but I know he can’t be worse.  At least he isn’t proudly in thrall to the sunk cost fallacy.

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  1. Unconscionable rules of engagement and Karzai (amongst others) treats him like a lap dog. It is disgusting. Turn the Seals loose on Karzai and all the His Excellencies in Iraq. They need to get the memo personally.

    Comment by pahoben — October 9, 2012 @ 7:31 pm

  2. And as Abu Muqawama notes…President Obama had no part in the signing the decision to leave Iraq anyway (the change to the SOFA was signed in Dec 2008-famously remember for when President Bush had a shoe thrown at him).

    Comment by Blackshoe — October 9, 2012 @ 8:54 pm

  3. as usual an rant by the idiot Pirrong which is full of crap.

    Comment by asd — October 10, 2012 @ 12:53 am

  4. […] Sunk cost fallacies: Obama foreign policy […]

    Pingback by Further reading | FT Alphaville — October 10, 2012 @ 1:15 am

  5. Hey, your sunk costs theory is plausible except that it lacks sound deduction: which is the egg or chicken between Iraq and Afghanistan? I’m not sure if America will not be back in the trenches (a la past George Bush etc), if an Obama government is ousted from the White House! Much of what I sense of the Republicans’ interest is about getting into the White House.

    But, the question is: what will Republicans make of the prevailing distressed economic conditions that even the best economists cannot beat his/her chest about its recovery or end date?

    What is clear is this: the republicans strategy is to strangulate the Obama government that appears not informed on its escape route.

    It’s a shame that the world will shortly be spectators of global war drama that is certainly going to be initiated by Mitt Romney,going by his grandstanding posture foreign policy agenda, so far.

    All the best to Americans and the not-too-cheery decisions before them.


    Comment by David Saula — October 10, 2012 @ 4:57 am

  6. @asd. “an rant.” ‘Nuff said.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — October 10, 2012 @ 5:56 am

  7. Articles like this make me glad I don’t live in America. The main reason people give for voting for either candidate is that the other would/might be worse.

    Both have poor policies, but one looks slightly worse than the other.

    Comment by DVWilliams — October 10, 2012 @ 7:24 am

  8. An alternative reading is that Obama & the left don’t believe in chasing sunk costs, they just don’t weight the ‘potential geopolitical and strategic benefits’ with the same sign that you do.

    For example, because he doesn’t want the United States to accrue ‘geopolitical and strategic benefits’ in the first place. That is invalid and immoral. Meanwhile, Afghanistan – with no conceivable geopolitical or strategic benefits – is therefore a noble cause. Especially if it can provide domestic political cover (against being a ‘wimp’.)

    See also: Kosovo.

    Comment by Sonic Charmer — October 10, 2012 @ 10:56 am

  9. @Sonic Charmer. 1. I really like your blog, BTW. Thanks for the links you’ve directed my way. 2. You could be right that he doesn’t want the US to “accrue ‘geopolitical and strategic benefits’ in the first place.” What you describe is pretty consistent with the prog mindset: things that benefit the bad US are bad, and costly things that don’t are noble. It gives a rather discomfiting interpretation to the Obama banner ads that annoyingly crop up to encourage us to help him finish what he started. 3. Even though I grant that he is likely to have a benefit function that assigns a zero or negative value to anything that enhances US power, his explicit statements which focus on the past costs of the intervention in Iraq are clearly focused on sunk costs.

    And what a choice, eh? A POTUS that commits such a fundamental logical error (something that is often the first subject covered in intro microeconomics courses), or one that is hostile to strengthening the nation’s geopolitical and strategic position.

    But perhaps not a choice after all. I think the real answer is probably “both.”

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — October 10, 2012 @ 11:11 am

  10. [email protected] “an rant.” ‘Nuff said – Ayn Rand? I guess he forgot to refress the old tin foil hat and our evil mind projection rays are starting to work!

    @sonic Charemer and Perfesser, re our wonder wimp POTUS, have you discounted applied stupidity? This guy is like an Orchid – can grow and flourish ina closed environemnt but outside, wilts.

    @David Saula – trust me if their is a global war, everyone will be affected….if You are in Urine er Europe, see how long you last with the swea lanes unprotected by the USN.

    Comment by Sotos — October 10, 2012 @ 11:24 am

  11. @Sotos-I was thinking the exact same thing re Ayn Rand . . . but early in the AM couldn’t think of a suitably clever way to make that wordplay.

    @DVWilliams & @David Saula. Yeah, the US is pretty screwed. But I defy you to identify who isn’t. The Euros? LOLOLOL. The UK? They’re a few steps ahead of the US on the road to hell. The Japanese? The US has a chance to draw an inside straight and survive. The others don’t even have that chance.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — October 10, 2012 @ 11:56 am

  12. “The cost of maintaining a military presence going forward would have been relatively modest,…”

    The main Iraqi requirement for permitting a continued US military presence past the end dates GWB agreed to was making US troops in Iraq subject to Iraqi law and liable for arrest by Iraqi law enforcement personnel in the event they are accused of crimes.

    Interesting that a Jacksonian like yourself thinks submitting US troops to Iraqi laws and law enforcement is “relatively modest”

    Comment by wanderer — October 11, 2012 @ 10:42 am

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