Thursday, May 15, 2008

Gaming Iraq

I don't usually get annoyed when I come across pieces where the author simply sees no hope at all for Iraq, so I was surprised at myself when this Matt Yglesias post punched my buttons. Maybe I'm just feeling pissy today.

Look: I can't predict the future any better than Matt can. But I can quantify some outcomes and maybe even assign some probabilities to their likelihood. Matt should be able to do that, but maybe he's just not good at arithmetic.

There's a pretty simple payoff matrix for Iraq. At its crudest, there are to options: stay or go. In either case, one of three things will happen:
  • Things will get better enough that Iraq will become stable.

  • Things will get worse, but not so bad that the security of the head of the Gulf is threatened.

  • Things will get so bad that Gulf security, and consequently the ability to transport oil, will be threatened. This last outcome will require that the US either reinvade (if we've left) or escalate (if we're still there).

If we stay, it costs more militarily. If things improve fairly quickly, it doesn't cost a lot. If things deteriorate, it costs more. If we leave, it costs less militarily but, if we get into the Gulf security threat scenario, it costs more than if we'd stayed to begin with.

Military costs are important, but they're somewhat less important than a good political outcome. If we stay and things get better, we score a huge political victory. Not as big a victory as we would have if we'd won quick, but still it's the best political outcome available to us going forward. If we leave and things get better, we'll earn fewer political points because everybody's going to know that we bugged out and merely got lucky. If we stay and things get worse, it's bad, but not as bad as if we leave and things get worse. And let's not kid ourselves: a Gulf security threat scenario is so bad that nobody will care whether we stayed or left--our standing in the world will plummet.

Finally, we can assign rough probabilities to each scenario. If we stay, we have a better chance of making things better, less of a chance of making things worse, and a considerably reduced chance of winding up in the disaster scenario. If we leave, we have very little chance of making things better, an increased chance of making things worse, and a moderate chance of the disaster scenario coming to pass.

If you weight the political stuff a bit higher than the military stuff, add the payoffs together, and multiply by the chance of the scenario occurring, you get a weighted score that can assist in making some hard decisions. Here's my version:

The results from this little exercise are interesting. The "stay" option is markedly better if things get better or if things go into the disaster scenario. However, the "go" option is better if things get worse without making it all the way to disastrous. I wonder if this is what most war opponents focus on? If you have rationalized leaving, you're prepared to acknowledge that things won't get better, but you naturally think that the consequences of your actions won't lead to disaster. Once you've convinced yourself of this (and probably convinced yourself that there's no way for things to get better), then it's easy to discover that getting out is the only thing to do. Of course, this is a lot like saying, "I con't care about Iraq, I just want it to go away, and you can't make me think about it any more."

This analysis is isn't quite kosher from a game theoretical standpoint, but it's close enough for government work. (If anybody knows how to probability-weight payoff matricies properly, please let me know.) Whether you're opposed to the war or not, you should be doing this kind of exercise to clarify your thinking.

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