The FP Debate: Should Hawks Win?

In the January/February 2007 issue of FOREIGN POLICY, Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Renshon argue that foreign-policy hawks are unduly influential due to predisposed psychological biases, almost all of which favor conflict rather than concession. FP asked two young American foreign-policy writers, one on each end of the political spectrum, for their reactions. Kahneman and Renshon responded to the debate here.

Yes - Matthew Continetti No - Matthew Yglesias Continetti responds Yglesias responds Kahneman and Renshon weigh in

Yes - Matthew Continetti

Are hawks more persuasive than they deserve to be? As social scientists, Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Renshon are reluctant to pronounce on the relative value of the facts they analyze. But the clear implication of their essay is that, yes, policymakers find hawks more convincing than they should. Modern psychology suggests as much, they claim. In fact, the bias in favor of hawkish beliefs and preferences may well be immutableafter all, its built into the fabric of the human mind.

Elizabeth Glassanos/FOREIGN POLICY

The claim is grand, but there is a frivolity to Kahneman and Renshons argument. They assert that all of the biases found in their survey of the past 40 years of psychological research favor hawks. Yet they examine closely only four such biases and mention only three experimental studiesand the biases they do describe are exhibited by doves just as often as they are exhibited by hawks.

First comes the fundamental attribution error, when subjects attribute the behavior of others to their nature, character, or persistent motives rather than to the context in which they are forced to operate. What some see as a sensible approach to making decisions, Kahneman and Renshon view as a psychological error that may, in times of conflict, lead to pernicious results such as war. Hawks who fail to understand their adversaries true motives may be too quick to resort to force. World War I is the quintessential example.

Yet why do only the fundamental attribution errors of hawks lead to pernicious effects? Doves share the same bias; it just works in different ways. If hawks treat hostile behavior at face value when they shouldnt, so too do doves treat docility. Those who championed the 1973 accords ending the Vietnam War saw them as a chance for the United States to leave Vietnam while preserving the sovereignty of the south. But to North Vietnamese eyes, the cease-fire was merely an opportunity to consolidate their forces for the final seizure of the south, which happened a mere two years later.

The second hawk bias Kahneman and Renshon identify is excessive optimism, which the authors speculate led American policymakers astray as they laid the groundwork for the current war in Iraq. Yet prior to the war in Iraq, some hawks worried that Saddam Hussein might set oil fields ablaze, as he had done in 1991. They worried that he might launch missiles against American allies in the region, that his removal might be long and bloody, and that post-Saddam Iraq would face humanitarian crises of great magnitude. Doves optimistically argued that Saddam could be contained even as the sanctions against him were unraveling and as Americas military presence in Saudi Arabia became increasingly untenable.

Why Kahneman and Renshon limit the biases they identify to hawks is something of a mystery. Take reactive devaluation, or what was said matters less than who said it. They cite likely American skepticism over any forthcoming Iranian nuclear concessions as an example, albeit conceding that doubt may be warranted in this case. They could have cited a domestic case instead: Just as many Republicans opposed President Clintons interventions in Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo, and at one point even accused him of resorting to force in order to distract from the Monica Lewinsky scandal, many Democrats now oppose Bush administration policies sight unseen because they dont like the messenger. Doves are just as susceptible to reactive devaluation as hawks.

There is one tendency that Kahneman and Renshon correctly identify as a boon to hawks. People prefer to avoid a certain loss in favor of a potential loss, they write, even if they risk losing significantly more. In war, such an aversion to cutting and running may cause a conflict to endure long beyond the point where a reasonable observer would see the outcome as a near certainty. This is the situation America faced in Vietnam, they claim, and it is the situation they believe America faces in Iraq today.

Needless to say, that final conclusion is open to debate. But it is true that leaders are susceptible to policies of escalation if they believe that victory can be achieved. That is because, as in Iraq, the potential rewards of victory outweigh the consequences of guaranteed defeat. Still, psychological errors are neither the lone nor the most important cause behind policymakers reluctance to cut their losses. Considerations of honor also play a factor, as do aspirations to glorytwo concepts that go unmentioned in our social sciences (because they are difficult to quantify) and in our foreign-policy debate (because they are out of intellectual fashion).

But these two ideas, along with power, ideology, weakness, morality, and interest, are central to any comprehensive understanding of international relations. And they are key to understanding whether hawks or doves triumph in a given policy debate. That Kahneman and Renshon mention none of them in their essay only undermines its persuasiveness. That they restrict the scope of the biases they identify to hawks suggests their piece is less a work of social science than it is a polemic. One might even go so far as to say they exhibit clear biases of their own.

Matthew Continetti is associate editor at The Weekly Standard and the author of The K Street Gang: The Rise and Fall of the Republican Machine (New York: Doubleday, 2006).