Die for Your Government

“I have reached the tentative conclusion that a significant portion of this administration, maybe even including the vice president, believes Iraq is lost,” [ Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joe] Biden said. “They have no answer to deal with how badly they have screwed it up. I am not being facetious now. Therefore, the best thing to do is keep it from totally collapsing on your watch and hand it off to the next guy — literally not figuratively.” Kevin Drum’s alternative theory is that they figure if worst comes to worst, Iraq goes through some ethnic cleansing and the United States just backs whoever emerges controlling Baghdad in exchange for a willingness to host some permanent military bases.

Noting Jim Miklaszewski’s report report that “one administration official admitted to us today that this surge option is more of a political decision than a military one because the American people have run out of patience and President Bush is running out of time to achieve some kind of success in Iraq,” Spencer Ackerman wondered “How many lives is a five-point bump in the polls worth, anyway?” Many, many lives, if you’re George W. Bush. As Kahneman and Renshom observe:

Imagine, for example, the choice between:


Option A: A sure loss of $890

Option B: A 90 percent chance to lose $1,000 and a 10 percent chance to lose nothing.

In this situation, a large majority of decision makers will prefer the gamble in Option B, even though the other choice is statistically superior. People prefer to avoid a certain loss in favor of a potential loss, even if they risk losing significantly more. When things are going badly in a conflict, the aversion to cutting one’s losses, often compounded by wishful thinking, is likely to dominate the calculus of the losing side. This brew of psychological factors tends to cause conflicts to endure long beyond the point where a reasonable observer would see the outcome as a near certainty. Many other factors pull in the same direction, notably the fact that for the leaders who have led their nation to the brink of defeat, the consequences of giving up will usually not be worse if the conflict is prolonged, even if they are worse for the citizens they lead.

This, I think, gets at the real truth. It doesn’t matter to Bush and his top aides whether or not Iraq is, for all intents and purposes, hopeless. They don’t pay any downside costs of escalating, so they’re willing to make American military personnel and American taxpayers bear any burden and pay any price for even the vaguest hope that this will in some way increase the odds of something they could plausibly label “success” happening.