Friday, February 8, 2008

What the Democrats Need to Know About Finite State Machines

I'm gonna geek out for a moment. When you design automatic equipment of any sort, you often use a technique based on a finite state machine. FSMs assume that any piece of machinery can be driven from any given state (i.e. set of current conditions) to another, based on a well-defined set of events. If you can define all the states and all the events, you can completely describe the operation of the gadget.

But there's one other hidden assumption built into FSMs: an FSM doesn't care about the past. It only cares about its current state and any events that occur in that state.

This morning, I happened to be watching the MSNBC Morning Joe program (yes, I know how sad that sounds), which had David Shuster subbing for Joe Scarborough. In response to a replay of Mitt Romney's statement that he can't let his campaign "be a part of aiding a surrender to terror," Shuster nearly exploded, immediately stating that the Republicans must then have already surrendered to terror for starting the Iraq war in the first place. (I will leave for another day the irony of Shuster pretending to be a reporter and making public statements like this for another day.)

Now what, you ask, does that have to do with FSMs? I'll tell you: We got into Iraq. You can agree or disagree whether getting into Iraq was "wise" or "worth it" or "the worst foreign policy disaster of the last century." You can't dispute the fact that we're there. That's the current state. The past simply doesn't matter.

Now, here's somebody who thinks that the GOP might win the Presidency, based on Clinton and Obama's inflexible vows to evacuate Iraq as soon as possible.

Now, from the current state of "we're in Iraq," there are two possible next states: We're either leaving, or we continue to be in Iraq.

I can only think of three sets of events that will result in leaving Iraq, and none of them have anything to do with whether being in Iraq was a good or a bad idea:

  1. You believe that evacuating Iraq without stabilizing it won't be disastrous for American foreign policy AND that the cost of stabilizing Iraq is too high.

  2. You believe that evacuating Iraq without stabilizing it will be disastrous for American foreign policy BUT that it's impossible to stabilize it.

  3. You believe that Iraq has been stabilized.

Now, there are probably a few people that hold with condition #1. But, since the Democrats have been harping about what a foreign policy disaster Iraq has been, presumably most people think that leaving without stabilizing will be very bad.

There are a large number of people who used to believe that condition #2 was true. They thought the war was unwinnable, so we might as well take our lumps and cut our losses. However, it seems more and more likely that stabilizing Iraq will indeed be possible, albeit at some sizeable expense in blood and treasure. So, if you believe that leaving an unstable Iraq would be a disaster, you must ultimately decide to stay until the situation is stable.

Virtually nobody thinks that condition #3 is true today. But if you can't abide condition #2, then you must decide to remain until the job is done. Full disclosure: I supported going to war in 2003. If I knew then what I know now, I wouldn't support it any more. Going to war was probably a mistake.

But I think that the only way out is condition #3. The Democrats have bet everything on condition #2. If they can't convince a majority of the electorate that condition #2 is true, they're going to lose.

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