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Small Stakes Ensure the Mimimum Credibility


A very important point made by GFR:

No one wants to admit this. But Josh is right. If our future were truly at stake — if we really, really had to win in Iraq — we would never stand for the president’s piddling surge proposal, because it’s just not going to be enough to fix the situation. To really stabilize the situation on the ground in Iraq would require a military draft and sending several hundred thousand more troops to Iraq for a period of years. After four years of botched plans and incompetent leadership, no one, left or right, wants to entertain such an idea. Heck, we did not want to entertain a commitment of that scope before we went to Iraq in the first place, because it was a war of choice, not of survival. Another radical proposal that’s been floated calls for dissolving the military war colleges for a few years and putting all those strategic minds into the war effort, instead of teaching. We will never do that, either.

Why? Because America’s failure in Iraq is not an existential threat to the United States. It is a horrible outcome for U.S. power, prestige, and authority, and it is a disastrous outcome for the Iraqis, to say the least, as well as a destabilizing outcome for the region, and for America’s regional allies.

This is exactly correct. When evaluating assertions of great importance, it’s always useful to see whether people talking hysterically actually act in ways consistent with their rhetoric. I’ve said many times that I’ve never found the ethical questions surrounding abortion particularly troubling, for a central reason: I won’t take the “pro-life” moral position seriously until its supporters do. The anti-choice lobby uses lots of language that suggests a moral issue with stakes large enough to override a woman’s fundamental rights–“life,” “killing babies,” etc.–but this given that most American pro-lifers (among many other inconsistencies) think women should face fewer legal sanctions for obtaining an abortion than for spitting on the sidewalk, there’s no reason to take their moral claims seriously. (And given that abortion laws on the books were essentially unenforceable against doctors who stuck to performing abortions on the right kind of women, there’s little reason to believe that most citizens in states where abortion was formally illegal believed this either.) When high-stakes language is combined with small-stakes, obviously incommensurate policy objectives, there’s no reason to take the former seriously. As Garance says, the same is true of the Iraq War. Many of its dead-end supporters will talk about how we can’t afford to lose–with the implication of existential threat–but given that most of them (including, most importantly, the President, who seen through his policy sees success in the war as less important than upper-class tax cuts) don’t act in ways that reflect such a belief when it comes time to actually make tradeoffs and sacrifices. In the context of the policies actually being advocated, high-stakes claims about the Iraq War are propaganda, nothing more. And, relatedly, someone should ask the few people willing to advocate actual high-stakes policies–like Max Boot–why they support the war despite the fact that the policies they consider essential to accomplishing a desirable outcome have never had any chance of being implemented.

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