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Hi Noah, this is a great post: very clarifying. I think utilitarianism (which is what I think you’re offering here) is underrated as a way of debating what we should do and I like your focus on outcomes rather than just actions or feelings. But of course, you conclude by saying that it is legitimately possible that the outcomes others may want are just different outcomes (preventing genocide versus keeping America insulated from Israel’s actions versus damaging Israel). I think there is another point: this kind of cost-benefit analysis that focuses on outcomes you carried out in the post (which I really like) does not seem to me to be the kind of analysis that can be articulated publicly; it’s essentially analysis that’s either to be done privately by an entity or disclosed privately between entities. Joe Biden cannot say that it’s important to support Israel now so we can extract concessions later; that would dissipate any goodwill he’d generated among Israelis (it’s a gift relationship so while Israelis clearly know that they have been given a gift they will have to return someday, making that explicit destroys the gift relationship). Would you agree? Anyway, all of that said, I do wish more people are thinking about outcomes more (especially all the American leftists who have worked themselves up into a frenzy).

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The trouble with the Rwanda counterfactual is that we had 150,000 troops in Iraq, at the peak, and one of the explicit jobs that they were there to accomplish was peacekeeping. The country was torn apart all the same. And I think people are much too cavalier when it comes to simply assuming that we would have been able to meaningfully arrest the slaughter in Rwanda too.

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Dec 12, 2023Liked by Noah Millman

Here in Britain, we recently went through this exact argument playing out between different factions in the Labour Party. I wish Keir Starmer had been half as clear as you in drawing a distinction between "a ceasefire would be good" and "calling for a ceasefire is a good idea".

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Nov 18, 2023Liked by Noah Millman

Thanks for the article.

Focusing on outcomes is incredibly important. Most arguing for either a cease-fire or the destruction of Hamas have not articulated what the anticipate or even hope will happen next.

How though should we evaluate proposed actions when the outcomes of a conflict are so difficult to predict? Especially since conflicts aren’t just one action, one strategy, but many actions, many strategies, that change over time in unpredictable ways.

Moreover as Kelkar noted, some positive (or negative) outcomes we are aiming for may depend on other actors not knowing those are the outcomes we are trying to achieve.

Humility and uncertainty don’t make for good sound bites or slogans. A focus on outcomes might require explanations like this, “we think that X will make Y more likely, if everything goes right may even lead to Z, has a side benefit of making A less likely, but may also increase the likelihood of B which means we’ll have to continue to work with our partners over the next months and years to push towards Y and avoid B and A. But without acting, we think A is the most likely outcome so we believe we must take the risk of X.

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Nov 17, 2023Liked by Noah Millman

With respect to the advisability of pressure on Israel, I think the question of "efficiency" has to be addressed. That is, if Israel shows itself to be efficient in the operation, it can earn more leeway from outside forces, primarily the United States. If it quickly degrades Hamas forces and proves the accuracy of its intelligence -- such as by showing significant use by Hamas of hospitals as command centers etc -- then it should face less pressure to shut down operations. But if it meanders along, destroying civilian infrastructure and killing more and more civilians without showing provable military gains, then the calculation of outside pressure changes.

Consider Ukraine. I'm delighted at the strong support Ukraine has gotten and continues to get, if the speed of weapon deliveries is not to my satisfaction. But Ukraine has to show progress to ensure that continued support; its backers have to believe there is some reasonable chance of Ukraine achieving its aims. In that regard, the recent offensive was a failure. It gave no indication that Ukraine will be able to achieve most of those aims. And to the degree that this resulted from poor choices by the Ukrainians -- e.g., devoting most of their efforts to fighting the most heavily defended area (around Tokmak) and not changing strategies even when it became more apparent that the defenses were too difficult to crack -- then one can start to wonder what the chances of total success will be in the future.

Both Israel and Ukraine have a moral right to follow their courses of action. But the way they carry them out -- their "efficiency" -- is a major factor which outside supporters can take into account.

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"A Rwandan miracle is exactly what President Paul Kagame’s regime delivered: soaring economic growth, plunging poverty, remarkably little corruption, and substantially improved state capacity, all of which earned him Western plaudits and investment. At the same time, however, Kagame has cemented his rule by disappearing his political opponents, crushing dissent generally, utterly hollowing out the forms of Rwandan democracy, overseeing revenge killings numbering in the tens of thousands"

There's a typo here. You meant to write 'because', but you accidentally wrote 'however'.

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