Today’s Lesson in Economics: How to Think about War

David Henderson writes at EconLog about “Noah Smith on the Islamic Civil War“:

Noah Smith has a beautifully numerate discussion of wars being fought by radical Muslims. He does it in the context of analyzing Trump advisor Steve Bannon, and that analysis is not bad.

But what really struck me was his response to this claim of Bannon:

[I]t’s a very unpleasant topic, but we are in an outright war against jihadist Islamic fascism. And this war is, I think, metastasizing far quicker than governments can handle it…
. . .I believe you should take a very, very, very aggressive stance against radical Islam…If you look back at the long history of the Judeo-Christian West struggle against Islam, I believe that our forefathers kept their stance, and I think they did the right thing. I think they kept it out of the world, whether it was at Vienna, or Tours, or other places… It bequeathed to use [sic] the great institution that is the church of the West.

Smith then reports on the numbers on deaths from some Islamic groups fighting others. H writes:

Let’s look at the main wars currently being fought by radical Islamic forces. These are:Syrian Civil War (~470,000 dead)
2nd Iraqi Civil War (~56,000 dead)
Boko Haram Insurgency (~28,000 dead)
War in Afghanistan (126,000 dead)
Somali Civil War (~500,000 dead)
War in Northwest Pakistan (~60,000 dead)
Libyan Civil War (~14,000 dead)
Yemeni Civil War (~11,000 dead)
Sinai Insurgency (~4,500 dead)

Smith adds:

This is a lot of dead people – maybe about 2 million in all, counting all the smaller conflicts I didn’t list. But almost all of these dead people are Muslims – either radical Islamists, or their moderate Muslim opponents. Compare these death tolls to the radical Islamist terror attacks in the West. 9/11 killed about 3,000. The ISIS attack in Paris killed 130. The death tolls in the West from radical Islam have been three orders of magnitude smaller than the deaths in the Muslim world.Three orders of magnitude is an almost inconceivable difference in size. What it means is that only a tiny, tiny part of the wars of radical Islam is bleeding over into the West. What we’re seeing is not a clash of civilizations, it’s a global Islamic civil war. The enemy isn’t at the gates of Vienna – it’s at the gates of Mosul, Raqqa, and Kabul.

And radical Islam is losing the global Islamic civil war. In Syria and Iraq, ISIS is losing. In Nigeria, Boko Haram is losing. In all of these wars except for possibly Afghanistan, radical Islamic forces have been defeated by moderate Islamic forces.

Sometimes that’s because of Western aid to the moderates. But much of it is just because a medievalist regime holds very, very little appeal for the average Muslim in any country. Practically no one wants to live under the sadist, totalitarian control of groups like ISIS. These groups are fierce, but their manpower is small and their popular support is not very large anywhere.

How tragic it would be if Steve Bannon’s innumeracy helped cause the U.S. government to embroil itself in the Middle East even more than Bush and Obama did.

Henderson’s counsel to avoid “embroilment” overlooks Iran.

There sometimes comes a point at which it makes sense to become embroiled in a distant war. Take World War II, for example. FDR’s economic policies were disastrous for the U.S. — of that there’s never been any doubt in my mind. But I give FDR credit for his ability to see that if Germany and Japan gained dominance over Europe and the Pacific, the U.S. would eventually be squeezed into submission, economically and militarily. My point is that not all “embroilments” are necessarily bad.

Which brings me to the Middle East. If the U.S. allows Iran to develop nuclear weapons — which seems to be certain given Obama’s supine attitude toward Iran — disaster will follow. Iran will be able to control the region through nuclear blackmail, and given its reserves of oil and the willingness of its leaders to accept economic isolation, it (meaning its leaders) will be able to disrupt life in the West because of its ability to shut off the supply of oil to the West.

To paraphrase Andy Granatelli, the U.S. can stop Iran now, before it has done what Obama is allowing it to do, or the U.S. can stop it later, after it has done great economic damage, which the U.S. won’t escape inasmuch as the market for oil is unitary. Nor will the U.S. escape human damage if the U.S. doesn’t act until after Iran becomes capable of attacking the U.S.

It doesn’t matter who did what to cause Iran’s leaders to view the U.S. as “the great Satan.” (Sunk costs are sunk.) There’s no longer an option to butt out of Iran’s affairs. Given the fanatical enmity of Iran’s leaders toward the U.S. (which isn’t dispelled by superficial cordiality), it’s beyond belief that Iran isn’t steadily striving to acquire the ability to strike the U.S. with weapons of mass destruction — nuclear missiles, perhaps delivered from off-shore vessels instead of by ICBMs; “suitcase” bombs; coordinated strikes on the power grid, oil-production facilities, and water supplies; and much more that the U.S. intelligence apparatus should but may not anticipate, and which the U.S. government’s leaders may in any event fail to prepare for.

I may be wrong about all of this, but it’s the kind of thinking that should be done — even by economists — instead of latching onto Noah Smith’s superficial numeracy.

2 comments

  1. Good Day, Thomas,

    Having spent an inordinate amount of time stomping out flaming ducks, I finally got around to my mail. This, I assess, is fine analysis. It says, simply, “Determine who your real enemy is and then focus narrowly on how to stymie his intentions. If deterrence is the product of capability and will, you must work on both in order to deter. Since we have pretty much abandoned the field with respect to Iran’s capability, we must then concentrate on affecting their will–or intentions. “Abandoned the field,” I believe, is not too stark an assessment, for where were the strategists during the negotiations with Iran? Driven aground by the politics–of providing the President with his “signature accomplishment.” Nevertheless, as Jonah Goldberg quipped: “I think it was Orson Welles who said, ‘If you want to tell a story with a happy ending, it all depends on where you stop.’ To put it another way: every story is a tragedy, if you tell it to the end.”

    I’m enjoying reading your posts; they resonate with me. Thanks.

    Roger

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  2. Thanks, Roger. Your characterization of Obama having abandoned the field couldn’t be more apt. His “signature accomplishments” seem to have been surrender abroad, weakened armed forces, a screwed-up health-care system, heightened racial tensions, bass-ackwards energy and environmental policies, and an astronomical government debt. Am I leaving out anything big?

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