The Intention Heuristic Lurking in Iraq

Terrible, worrying news out of Iraq today as the jihadist rebels who have previously been confined to Eastern Syria have spilled over the border and are advancing south through Iraq with lightning speed.  Rather than stand and fight, the poorly organized Iraqi forces are fleeing without firing a shot.  Naturally, there is some concern about this in the halls of American foreign policy, and the usual actors are taking the opportunity to cast blame – the right on Obama’s weakness and his withdrawal from Iraq, and the left on Bush’s invasion in the first place, as well as the tinpot dictator he left in charge.  Beyond casting doubt, people are looking for some way that America can stop this – mostly not through re-invading, but perhaps some judicious application of airstrikes to hinder the insurgents.  After all, we created this paralyzed government and feckless army, surely this is at least partly our responsibility.

This is perhaps the perfect example of what libertarians call the “intention heuristic” – that the best thing to do is that which most makes you feel you are doing something to help.  The intention heuristic critique is central to the more sophisticated conservative critiques of the welfare state – that voters don’t actually care about what is best for the poor, but want to “do something”.  This is a natural human impulse, and what makes the phrase “you broke it, you bought it” seem initially so compelling when applied to situations like Iraq.  It should be consciously acknowledged, and resisted when possible.

The unfortunate truth is that the consequences of American intervention in the Muslim world have proven extremely difficult to predict, and it’s not at all clear that they are positive.  Afghanistan remains in an endless war, the security situation in Iraq has been deteriorating for at least a year, and Libya is hardly well-off.  There’s little reason to believe that American intervention in the looming Iraqi civil war would go smoothly or have unambiguously positive effects.  It’s probably wiser to leave this fight to others.  Iran, for one – their forces are already on the ground.  They are much more motivated to defend their client in Baghdad than we are.

Although I do wonder whether it would benefit nuclear talks to have American drones providing close air support to the Revolutionary Guard…these are strange times.

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