Thursday, September 02, 2010

You Gotta Know When to Fold 'Em

In discussing Iraq, David Ignatius presents what is fundamentally an illogical statement:
America has spent so much blood and treasure in Iraq that it would be wrong to walk away completely, however attractive that may seem politically.
Many a gambler has lost his shirt following that philosophy. Painful as it may be to admit, it's important to develop the perspective and maturity to recognize when you're throwing good money after bad. It's not difficult to lay out a case for why we should continue to support Iraq and try to help it become a stable democracy, but "We've lost so much money and blood that it would be wrong to stop gambling" isn't it.

Ignatius comes close to invoking the gambler's fallacy - "After a losing streak this long, I must be on the verge of winning so I have to keep rolling the dice" - but he doesn't actually suggest that continued investment will bring about success. His editorial page boss, using the craven tool of the unsigned editorial, isn't as reticent. President Obama, it's suggested, should make "winning" in Iraq and Afghanistan his "top mission". What does it mean to "win"? How long will it take? What will be the additional cost in dollars and lives? You won't get answers to those questions from Fred Hiatt and his editorial board. But why would you expect them to care about such trivialities - let's throw out timetables and commit blood and treasure until we win, whatever that means.

Meanwhile, Matt Miller offers something of a mea culpa - although he believes the Iraq War would have been justified had Iraq in fact had WMD's (never mind that the Bush Administration chose not to let inspections continue to potentially resolve that question in the negative, and leaving aside the question of how Iraq's WMD's would directly threaten U.S. interests), if he "could turn back time" knowing that no WMD's were present he would oppose the war. His comments highlight how having firm dates for troop withdrawals may help:
Politicians rarely admit they're mistaken (as our surge-opposing president and vice president proved again this week).... I'm hoping for the best, in the spirit the president urged Tuesday night, though he can't admit he fought the surge that's created the chance for a happier ending.
The chance for a happier ending began with the Anwar Awakening. It seems more than fair to say that the surge built on that, and has resulted in a level of stability that has kept the window of opportunity open for considerably longer than anybody expected. But it's not clear that Iraq's factions and political leaders are any more willing or able to take the opportunity now than they were three years ago. On one side are those who benefit from the occupation and have little incentive to negotiate as long as U.S. armed forces have their backs; on the other side are those who expect to benefit from the withdrawal of U.S. armed forces and have little incentive to make larger concessions while the occupation continues when they expect to be able to make much smaller concessions (or make no concessions at all) after the occupation ends. The responsible drawdown of forces, and that seems like a fair characterization of Obama's decisions, may be what it takes to break that stalemate.


  1. I recall an article on called "6 Logical Fallacies That Cost You Money Every Day"

    #3 is "Throws Good Money After Bad" which is the layman's way of the pronouncing the economist's "irrational escalation of commitment."

    What's the primary lesson here? Making up our minds is dangerous!

  2. That's a good article. I have to admit, as often as I catch myself falling prey to those fallacies and attempting a conscious override of my brain's bad instincts, a lot of the examples ring true (yes, I did have a dying car that I spent far too much to try to save, etc.) and it would be hubristic to pretend I won't be caught by any of them in the future.


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