Under-Debated Wars

Those that like policies tend to extol the politics that produced them. Praise for the marketplace of ideas or the wisdom of crowds rarely comes from serial losers of policy debates. They are more likely to consider systemic problems that mar debate, like informational asymmetries, special interests, and elite bias.

It shouldn’t then come as a great surprise that we in Cato’s foreign policy department, who oppose most U.S. wars, hosted a panel last fall at the American Political Science Association conference to consider the question of why there isn’t there more scholarly evaluation of U.S. wars. Underlying that question is a sense that U.S. wars, at least lately, follow from rationales that offend political science, or even economics, and that more scholars, whether in the academy or think tanks, should say so. Call it a cry for help in making our case.

Upon invitation, several panelists, me included, recast their remarks in the most recent International Security Studies Forum, a publication of H-Diplo. The contributors agree that scholarly evaluation of war is flawed, though not in short supply. Christopher Preble, in his introduction, argues that journalists and defense experts considering wars defer too much to those that served in the military. But military officers, even once retired, stick to a professional ethos that prompts them to leave strategic issues–why to fight–to civilians and to focus on operational questions of how. Jon Lindsay points to the difficulties scholars face in understanding modern military technologies and the dearth of publically-available information about military operations. Alan Kuperman questions academics’ objectivity, seeing them as captives of dovish or hawkish biases.

My take, which follows from an as yet unpublished essay I wrote with Justin Logan, focuses on Washington’s analysts, as opposed to academia. I argue that defense analysis here generally serves a hawkish, bipartisan consensus. Professional incentives encourage analysts to avoid questioning the consensus’ key tenets, including war rationales. Analysts adopt an “operational mind-set.” Washington’s analysis of its wars is voluminous but shallow.

The underlying problem, to me, isn’t that politics affects analysis. That’s the nature, even the virtue, of pluralistic debate.  The problem is insufficient politics—a lack of competing interests. Because U.S. military power makes war feel cheap, the public and their representatives are often indifferent to the wisdom of wars. The historical exercise of national power meanwhile entrenched a belief among foreign policy elites that U.S security depends on global military exertions. As long as costs stay diffuse, the disinterested majority lets the elite minority have its wars without much fuss about costs, benefits, checks, or balances. Debate improves when costs gather, as in Vietnam or Iraq. That’s a limited consolation. When it comes to U.S. wars, the wisdom of crowds comes late and infrequently.