Global War on Terror - sympathize with Matt but kinda disagree

Yeah, it's really hard to tell whether the GWOT making things better or worse. But for much of the twentieth century it was really hard to tell whether capitalism was doing better than communism.

The persistance of this disagreement should be setting off alarm bells no matter where on the spectrum you find yourself: If we can't even come to anything remotely resembling a broad consensus

Capitalism versus Communism

Even smart guys like Samuelson were fooled. From an account:

In very early editions, Samuelson expressed skepticism of socialist entral planning: "Our mixed free enterprise system ... with all its faults, has given the world a century of progress such as an actual socialized order--might find it impossible to equal" (1:604; 4:782). But with the fifth edition (1961), although expressing some skepticism statistics, he stated that economists "seem to agree that her recent growth rates have been considerably greater than ours as a percentage per year," though less than West Germany, Japan, Italy and France. (5:829). The fifth through eleventh editions showed a graph indicating the gap between the United States and the USSR narrowing and possibly even disappearing (for example, 5:830). The twelfth edition replaced the graph with a table declaring that between 1928 and 1983, the Soviet Union had grown at a remarkable 4.9 percent annual growth rate, higher than did the United States, the United Kingdom, or even Germany and Japan (12:776). By the thirteenth edition (1989), Samuelson and Nordhaus declared, "the Soviet economy is proof that, contrary to what many skeptics had earlier believed, a socialist command economy can function and even thrive" (13:837). Samuelson and Nordhaus were not alone in their optimistic views about Soviet central planning; other popular textbooks were also generous in their descriptions of economic life under communism prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The superiority of capitalism to communism is one of the most important realities that it would be civilizational suicide to ignore, and yet for much of the twentieth century, among the smartest people there were sharply conflicting views. In fact if one could say that intelligentsia had "come to anything remotely resembling a broad consensus", it was the wrong consensus.

Surely it's uncontroversial to say that if we must spend money, it should be spent on projects where we can easily tell if they're having the desired effect or not.

We spent money checking Communist expansionism, which protected capitalism. And yet, as we can see, it was not easy to tell if capitalism was superior to communism. And so it was not easy to tell if we were making things worse or better for ourselves by keeping the communists at bay.

The bad news is that, empirically, it's really hard to tell much of anything at all about the wide world, because it is just too complex. So what do you do? You think. You carefully combine a lot of observation and a lot of thought. And that, of course, is not enough to create consensus, for a variety of reasons. Adam Smith saw the world, he thought hard, he came to some (presumably we agree) mostly correct conclusions. But he did not create anything like a broad and lasting consensus - not enough to keep Samuelson from being bamboozled by communist propaganda (I presume that's what got him fooled).

The same can be said of war. When you start a war, it's not at all clear whether you'll win. I'm looking for a saying on war, it goes something like, "a successful war is a series of catastrophes followed by victory". That is, it looks just like you're losing until you win.

That is almost necessarily the case: if there were a clear consensus on which side will win, the losing side would quickly cave. War keeps going about as long as each side thinks it has a decent chance of winning. But in that case, it also probably looks as though the other side has a decent chance of winning.

So I would say that it is in the nature of war that it's commonly not clear which side is winning. Not clear whether your side's efforts are weakening your own side or the other side faster.

Another saying that I can't find, but goes something like, "both sides f-- up constantly, and who wins depends on which side f--s up the least." That more or less dulls even the criticism that our war on terror is utterly f--d up. (I'm not saying you should agree with a saying - I'm just trying to give vague credit where credit is due, though I can't actually trace the origins. I think these thoughts just seem intuitively right, I think war must be like this, it must be SNAFU and then you win.)

I'm not trying to defend the war. I am just saying the issue is harder than it looks.

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Capitalism versus

Capitalism versus Communism

It was very much in the interest of the powers responsible for Communism to not let out how very poor the economic performance was in relation to the rest of the world. It was impossible to get good data from outside (and probably from almost anywhere inside) by *design*. Governments with this one-sided incentive had clear control over access to the relevant data.

In the iraq war, it's a bit different. True, we have almost no access to good data about Al-Queda itself, and your point about wars in general is a good one (that as soon as it is possible to be fairly certain of an outcome, one side is already looking to deal/withdraw/surrender) -- but it seems that control of the data is in different hands with different incentives, so there is not as clear a bias as there was with Soviet russia and communist china.

Also, your model of war confict doesn't map quite as well to insurgencies like this. The real question now is not whether we "win the war". In some sense the military war was already won when we took Baghdad.

the problem with the insurgency isn't that it is unpredictable so much as that insurgents don't require victories.

I can predict many outcomes of this insurgency with a fair bit of confidence. Here, let's have a go.

1. There will be no serious assault on American military supremacy wherever American armies are massed in reasonable quantity.

2. There will, however, be a potential for civil conflict anywhere that we do not have covered with actual soldiers in a ratio of 1:50 or so.

lather, rinse, repeat until we can either convince enough iraqis that we are their friends (yeah, that'll happen after our blunders in the first 3 years), go home (which may lead to a poor outcome, but *will* stop the cycle we're stuck in), or commit enough soldiers to cover the whole country with the 1:50 ratio.

If we actually took the *last* action, then we'd have a conflict like you're talking about, one that we *could* "win" (in the sense of pacifying the insurgents and dampening civil war), though it would be in some doubt.

And then even if we won that conflict, there would more doubt about whether we could establish a state that let us withdraw our military and leave the Iraqis autonomous without leading to similar problems as a withdrawal now. If we'd have to stay on as indefinite occupiers with a large military presence in order to keep the peace, it wouldn't look like much of a win to me. In fact, it would remind me gravely of the Soviet occupations of Eastern Europe, even if we might hope to be somewhat more benevolent.

Good points, Michael

Just as an explanatory note of no great significance, my comments were directed more broadly at the war on terror, of which the main and most expensive component is of course the war in Iraq. In any case your points here are all well taken.