Is he right, or just a victim of heuristic thinking? Photographer: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg
Is he right, or just a victim of heuristic thinking? Photographer: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg

My instinct on Syria is to say that we shouldn’t do it because hey, look at Iraq! Not such a brilliant idea, was it? This sentiment doesn’t seem uncommon, judging by the number of people complaining that folks who got Iraq wrong are once again out there supporting the idea of attacking Syria, and why the hell are we listening to them when they've been wrong about everything?

This reasoning is tempting, but it is not good decision-making. You see this all the time in markets -- the guys who’ve had a stellar year, or five, get anointed as geniuses who foresaw all that has come to pass. Their trading strategy is touted as unparalleled brilliance. If their method is public, it soon spawns countless imitators.

Five years later, those guys are quite often out of the business. It turns out that their trading methods were very, very good for the particular market conditions of the era when they enjoyed their smashing successes…and disastrous for the conditions that followed. Their temperament (optimistic or pessimistic) or their strategy (value, momentum, etc) was right for the time. But when the market turned, they lost their shirts.

Any heuristic, from “buy tech stocks” to “don’t take military action in the Middle East” will work out some of the time. The simpler and bolder the heuristic, the more spectacularly it may work out. But that doesn’t tell you it’s a good heuristic -- in the sense of one that you should rely on consistently. It only tells you that it got the correct answer in one situation.

Or as grandma says, “even a stopped clock is right twice a day.”

Just because Iraq was a bad idea doesn’t mean that Syria is also a bad idea. Nor can you prove that proposition by noting that the people who supported Iraq also support Syria. After all, one of the people pushing for Syria is famous Iraq War opponent Barack Obama. Meanwhile, some of the people who supported Iraq oppose Syria. For instance, me.

Even if I don't think we should reflexively oppose Syria merely because Iraq turned out to be a bad idea, I still don’t think we should go in. I understand the arguments for it: Obama put the nation’s credibility on the line by saying the use of chemical weapons would be a “red line.” And even apart from that, using chemical weapons is a morally abhorrent war crime that should be strongly discouraged by the international community.

But I don’t see how the limited strikes the president is proposing will actually punish Bashar al-Assad, the person who actually ordered the use of chemical weapons. He will still be in power when they are over; it is ordinary Syrians who will be dead. Nor do I see us escalating to take Assad out of power -- not that I favor scaling up our intervention, a course that offers the potential for real Iraq-style disasters. But even if I did favor it, I don’t think that either our military, or the American public, is ready for another Middle Eastern invasion. And as horrible as Assad is, it’s not clear that his opposition is an improvement.

All-in-all, a Syria invasion seems like a bad idea. But not because a simple heuristic tells us so.