Is It Cheaper for the US to Lose in Iraq/Afghanistan?: Costs and Benefits of Hegemonic Retrenchment


This was originally written in the fall of 2007, but it applies to Afghanistan today as well.

Douglas MacArthur famously suggested, ‘there is no substitute for victory.’ War involves high costs, and victory is to redeem those costs. In rationalist terms, war should pay. Victory implies that payoff, and states should invest in success to achieve it. The benefits need not be material, such as territory or resources; they may be ideological, ideational, or in prestige. Hegemons and great powers particularly place great stock in victory because of perceived credibility and stature threats.

But the populist logic of MacArthur’s statement misses the shifting ground of costs and benefits in wartime. Sunk costs in lives and treasure expand; perceived benefits may wither; perceived costs to defeat may decline. In the history of US foreign policy, the rise and closure of the Vietnam War illustrates these shifting sands of costs and benefits. The domestic costs of lives lost, money spent, inflation, and domestic unrest rose dramatically. The benefits of victory became increasingly ethereal; South Vietnam was clearly a weak ally with little to offer for increasing high American costs. Conversely, the costs of defeat sank as US foreign policy makers realized that Vietnam’s loss would not in fact knock over many dominoes. Australia, Indonesia, and Japan would not ‘finlandize.’ The USSR’s experience in Afghanistan is similar. At some point, it simply is cheaper to lose.

Now apply this model to the current Iraq War. The cost-benefit analysis is (probably) turning against US involvement:

1. The costs of victory are skyrocketing. Estimates of the war range from one to two trillion dollars. Claims of a ‘broken’ army feed fears of imperial overstretch. A steady stream of American casualties from an unwanted nation-building mission has deeply divided and soured American public opinion. America’s global reputation and legitimacy are at record lows.

2. The benefits of victory are increasingly insubstantial. Iraq is back in OPEC. Maliki and the Iraqi religious leadership are no accommodating more of Israel than other regional states. No MWD were found. Iraq will likely be a failed/quasi-state, hardly a reliable or durable ally in the war on terror. Long-term US bases there would be controversial and attacked constantly.

3. The costs of defeat are lower than the US leadership believes. None of Iraq’s neighbors wants Iraq to become an Qaeda sanctuary; it is unlikely to be another Afghanistan. Small cross-border raids with drones and gunships (as in Somalia or Pakistan) will be possible should al Qaeda persist. The US has no clear national interest in the outcome of the Sunni-Shia civil war. Regardless of the outcome, the regional American alliance network will not likely change. Where else can the gulf emirs, Israel, Egypt, etc. realistically go for support beyond the US?

Yet hegemonic states figure in credibility as a cost particular to their status. US prestige concerns likely lengthened the Vietnam war by several years through the Nixon administration, as Soviet fears prolonged the Afghan conflict through the Gorbachev presidency. Both Nixon and Gorbachev promised to end the war but took years to do so. The current Iraq War again suggests that the hegemons will carry punishing cost/benefit equations for prestige. The question I propose to investigate is at what point do the non-prestige costs overwhelm hoped-for, yet hard to calculate, credibility gain.

One thought on “Is It Cheaper for the US to Lose in Iraq/Afghanistan?: Costs and Benefits of Hegemonic Retrenchment

  1. Pingback: Does the US Need a Long-Term Exit from the Middle East?: 3. When is it Ok to Lose a War? « Asian Security & US Politics Blog

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