Saturday, January 6, 2007

“Gotta Win” Means You Lose

There’s no bigger fish in poker than the guy who walks to the table with the mentality of “I gotta win!” All through the night he’s going to be bluffing too much, calling bets he shouldn’t, and holding on to a bad hand hoping he’ll hit the inside straight. A good table will make mince meat of such a player. The consummate poker player, on the other hand, arrives to the game confident of his abilities, but humbly knowing he might get a long spate of good cards or a long spate of bad cards. The difference with him is that he is sure maximize his wins and minimize his losses. By the end of the night, odds are he’ll be ahead.

Football is a different matter. Making a tackle, rushing a passer or crunching through a defensive line is a matter of strength, speed, and skill, sure -- but it is also substantially a matter of will and emotion. It is about wanting a particular outcome so badly that an extra notch of force is squeezed out of your body. "Gotta win" wins in football.

The fault of our President and many of his supporters today is that they think the world is a football match instead of a poker game. “We’ve got to win this war,” says McCain. “We got to win in Iraq, and we will win in Iraq,” says Bush. I have no trouble with this as rhetoric – indeed, it would be impossible to run a war without it – but what troubles me is that they seem to think this way too. They see the outcomes as either positive or dispositive, when really there is a range of possibilities from the acceptable to the bad to the outright catastrophic.

For the sake of a thought experiment, let’s imagine a problem with two possible options to address it. The first gives you a 1% chance of ‘winning’ and 99% chance of a catastrophic outcome. The second gives you a 50% chance of a bad outcome and a 50% chance of a catastrophic outcome. The football player will choose the first option – win at all costs! The poker player will choose the second option, try to minimize his loss, and hope for a better hand next time.

This is precisely the sort of question we face in Iraq today, and it looks like we’re poised to take the fool’s choice. I’ve written about the trouble with a surge elsewhere. In order to provide security in Baghdad US forces will have to be much more exposed than they are now. They will also have to engage a new foe on a new front: the Mahdi army. Both these factors will lead to higher US casualties, which in turn will erode domestic support and make it harder to sell the US public on the long-term engagement that is necessary to minimize the chances of a catastrophic outcome in Iraq. The surge will also be deeply unpopular among the Baghdad populace, further deteriorating support for the Iraqi government. And crucially, the Shiites will be further radicalized and factionalized, making the formation of stable government all the more difficult.

This is too high a price to pay for the wildest of hail marys.

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