The Toy Model of Iraq

It’s now been five years since the invasion of Iraq. I was going to post about it earlier this week, but something in my essay bothered me. I’ve now been able to unravel what was wrong.

Everyone and their uncle is contemplating their belly button, trying to figure out what we can learn from Iraq. But the more we parse, the more we break the issue down, the more I think we miss the basic point, a very fundamental point.

Let me back up a moment. One of the things we do in astronomy is construct models. Models of stars, models of galaxies, models of the whole damned universe. Models are good tools for understanding complex phenomena. You plug in some basic physics and input parameters and see if the model reproduces what you observe. If it doesn’t, you revise the model or replace it with one that works. Really simple models are known as toy models.

This isn’t unique to my profession, of course. Everyone tries to construct toy models to help them understand the basics of complex phenomena. Whether it’s historians trying to figure out the rise of Hitler or sociologists trying to figure out why men like football, we construct paradigms for reality so that we can peek behind the mess of life and glimpse the underlying engines of the world.

It’s easy to forget — especially with models that tell us what we want to believe — that they are necessarily imperfect. They are useful for understanding phenomena in general but can be problematic when applied to specific situations. Little factors you’ve ignored in the big picture can become very significant when dealing with messy reality.

Moreover, models work best in a *passive* sense. I would never presume to construct a star based on our very sophisticated models. It’s almost certain that we’ve missed something and the star will fail to ignite or explode. Models are useful for insight, not guidance of future action.

So what does this have to do with Iraq?

A principle reason I’m conservative that I distrust toy models of society. Leftist ideology — or more precisely, Hagelian ideology — posits that bright people can construct toy models of society and use them to improve the world. Marxism, for example, is nothing but a toy model that assumes the government can create an egalitarian economy.

Unfortunately, these models tend to run into the harsh complexity of reality with devastating results. The model predicts communism should work, but the model’s imperfections condemn millions to the gulag. A toy model of “let’s give people money to erase poverty” runs into the harsh reality that you can create more of something you subsidize. A toy model of “the government should give people medicine” runs into the harsh reality of rationing and stagnation.

Some of the most frustrating and persistent problems in our world are the result of smart people coming up with big ideas and refusing to believe that those ideas aren’t working. It was underfunded; it didn’t go far enough; it was sabotaged by special interests; something, anything has to be at fault. Because our beautiful ideas for remaking the world can’t be wrong.

In 2003, we bought a particularly shiny toy model. We were assured by various egghead theorists that they understood Iraq. Their theories told them that Iraq wouldn’t blow up in our faces; that ethnic strife would not appear; that all we had to do was boot out Saddam and democracy would bloom. Their toy models said so. Even worse, we supported this toy model of society with a toy model of the military in which Don Rumsfeld assumed that he was so smart that he could make one American soldier do the work of five.

And now, 4,000 Americans and 100,000 Iraqis have experienced the grim failure of yet another sophisticated social experiment.

That’s the failing of Iraq. We listened to a bunch of smart people with smart theories assuring us that they could make democracy bloom. It is the same intellectual fallacy that gave rise to marxism, fascism, the welfare state and the run-and-shoot offense. As conservatives, we should have known better.


Now — all that having been said, I still wonder if it could have all worked out if only we’d had more competent management. A 500,000 strong occupation force, competent leadership and reconstruction duties given to people who knew what they were doing might have soaked up a lot of the slop for our failed model of Iraq. But you only get to roll the dice once.

And I worry about the movement to get out of Iraq now. It seems to me that the desire of many on the left is not to do what’s best given the current situation. What they really want is to un-invade the country. They cling to the illusion that if we pull out now, it will be as if we never went in. They will have been right, Bush will have been wrong and they can crow about their rightness for the next few decades (witness how many leftists view our withdrawal from Vietnam).

The debate we need to be having from this point is not whether we should have invaded or not. Issues of WMDs and NIE’s are of academic interest. The debate is that Iraq is one step from chaos. What responsibility do we have to the Iraqi people? What is within our ability to do? Let’s let historians judge the decision to invade and focus on what’s going on today.