I’m watching the Sunday morning news shows, and of course, the Iraq crisis is a major source of conversation. One thing I’m hearing over and over again is hand wringing about how much blood and treasure we (the US) have already spent in Iraq. The reasoning appears to be that all that suffering and sacrifice shouldn’t be allowed to count for nothing, that one of our “vital interests” in Iraq are the costs we’ve already invested.
We may or may not have vital interests in Iraq. If we do, our leaders should be required to articulate clearly and specifically what those interests are before we engage again in that country. Personally, I’m not sure we should accept vague statements about terrorist threats or spreading chaos. There are too many areas in the world like that where we don’t intervene.
I think most people would admit that we have at least some political and economic interests there, but whether those interests rise to the level of requiring new American military intervention is a very different matter. For instance, I doubt most Americans would be willing to sacrifice any more of our soldiers to insure a $0.50 lower price per gallon of gas.
Regardless, how much we’ve already spent and sacrificed there should have no relevance to this decision. The fact is, sunk costs are sunk regardless of what happens. What we have to decide is whether this situation is worth new future costs and sacrifices. Anyone with any experience in management, investing, or strategic decision making will tell you that you don’t make decisions on past costs. If you’re wise, you make them based on future costs, future threats, and future benefits. And that’s where our decision making toward Iraq should be oriented.
I do sympathize with the agonizing powerful sentiment of those who lost loved ones in Iraq, that their sacrifice not be in vain. What we have to ask is whether satisfying that sentiment is worth the cost of possibly losing additional loved ones. History shows that even interventions like airstrikes will have long term American costs.
5 thoughts on “Iraq and the fallacy of sunk costs”
Sunk costs are a fallacy, even if those “costs” are the lives of soldiers. Not an easy thing to say, but true.
There is a moral dimension to this argument however – America removed Saddam Hussein from power, but then withdrew its forces and left the country to its fate. This is a different argument for intervention, but one that perhaps gets mixed up in people’s minds with the sunk costs argument.
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That’s a good point. I think most of us now realize that going into Iraq was a tragic mistake, despite the misery of most Iraqis living under Hussein.
But we did it. (And we had accomplices 🙂 )
And the moral question is, how long does our resulting moral obligation last to help Iraq keep a functional society? 10 years? 20? 100? When does the balance of responsibility for the stability of Iraqi society shift to the Iraqis?
It should be remembered that, when we left, most Iraqis were eager to see us gone.
Not that I think there shouldn’t be a UN mechanism to prevent the humanitarian disaster of a failing state, but it should be based on a UN vote, and with the burden proportionately shared among member nations.
The Sunk Cost Fallacy has got to be one of the hardest things to truly get yourself to accept, considering that we’ve also got Loss Aversion and the Endowment Effect in our psychology. I still have trouble with it, because you’re never really sure if this is something that you should keep working on because it still might be viable, or whether it’s a loss and you should move on.
It is a tough one. And the fact that we’re often working with limited information, and through a cloud of misinformation, doesn’t help.