Sunday, January 21, 2007

The Sunk Cost Fallacy and the Iraq war

Via Atrios, Lieberman explains what we'll do if the mini-surge/escalation in Iraq doesn't work:
Yeah, well, you know, we will then look at the situation and decide what we can do, and the alternatives are limited here. The other alternatives–the main alternative that the opponents of what the President has done are offering is to simply begin to withdraw. And the theory there is that somehow if you with– I mean some people want to withdraw because they just want to get out. They think the thing–They want to give up. They think the thing is not winnable. I'm afraid they don't agree with me that the consequences of pulling out would be a disaster for everybody, including most important, us. But some say if you begin to withdraw, then Maliki and the other Iraqis will say 'Oh, my God, they're leaving. We got to get our act together. I don't think so. I think what is more likely is that the Iraqi politicians will begin to hedge their bets, and the militias and the Al Qaeda terrorists will just hold back until the day we're gone, and then chaos will break out, and unfortunately as McCain says, we'll probably be back there in a larger war, you know, two, three, four, five years from now. I think this is our chance, so I'd guess I'd say to you in war–There's a famous old saying that war is a series of catastrophes that ends up in victory for one side, and right now I'd say this plan is the best next step we've got. Let's hope it works, pray it works, and if it doesn't, then we'll figure out what we're gonna do then.
It's funny but - in stringing together a bunch of half-truths and misconceptions - Lieberman managed to be so wrong that he's right again. All the crappy things that will probably happen when we pull out of Iraq really aren't a consequence of pulling out. They're a consequence of the original invasion.

Leiberman employs the sunk-cost fallacy in order to take losses already incurred - losses to Iraqi stability, safety, and to American military readiness - and shift their responsibility from his poor decision to invade to the option which cuts our losses. This is classic "chasing" gambling behavior at it's best. So long as we don't leave the roulette table, we haven't really lost all our money. We always have the (slim) chance of winning it all back!

Given the instability Bush (aided by Lieberman) caused in Iraq the question is how best to fix it. If you think staying (or mini-escalating) will work then it makes sense to stay in Iraq. If on the other hand you don't think that'll work, than you should oppose keeping the troops in harms way for no reason. It's telling that many Iraq war supporters have given up on arguing that we can achieve victory and are reduced to arguing that we should keep soldiers in harms way to merely delay the bad consequences of their poor choices.

Bonus unrelated Ass-hattery quote!:
FRIEDMAN: Look, I understand people who opposed the war. Some opposed it for military reasons, because they’re against war, some opposed it because they hate George Bush, some opposed it because they didn’t believe Arabs are capable of democracy. I wasn’t in that group. I really believed that finding a different kind of politics in collaboration with people in that region was a really important project.

27 comments:

Aaron said...

Is there more than one way to withdraw from Iraq?

Tommaso Sciortino said...

Yes. When I say "redeployment" (or "withdrawal") it should be understood that there is a wide family of options described. However, even if one hasn't decided which member of the family you prefer you can still say you favor redeployment.

Aaron said...

Well, but then it also doesn't make any sense to suggest that all repercussions of the Iraq war are a result of the original decision to invade; so long as difficult choices remain to be made, consequences can obviously still follow.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

Different redeployment plans can mitigate the consequences of invasion to different degrees and in different way, yes. But in the broad sense there are certain bad things which are probably going to happen regardless of what we do at this point. The reason they are probably going to happen is because of the invasion - not because of any choice we have left.

Aaron said...

well, but:

1. plenty of mistakes were made after the decision to invade, do those not matter now? that's part of my critique of the "competence dodge" critique -- it grossly underestimates how badly the war was prosecuted.

2. how far back do we get to go? bill seems to be having some trouble with this concept, but the initial invasion was one major decision point in a pretty long line of policy decisions, after all.

Aaron said...

I mean, you could really make the case that "certain bad things [were] probably going to happen regardless of what we [did]" after the Carter Administration basically greenlighted the Iran-Iraq war.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

1. I understand that many errors in execution were made. It it my personal judgment that none of them hurt the project more than the initial decision to invade which was based on ideas of preemption and unilateralism. If you disagree so be it. I will just have to keep that in mind next time you support a war.

2. I agree that the decision to invade wasn't the only poor decision and that many errors lead up to it. I don't however buy that war was inevitable (like some have argued).

However I do take your point: what we are seeing now isn't just a consequence of invading but also the bad choices that went before. I think however, that there is more than enough blame to go around.

Aaron said...

well the only footnote that I'll add is that you go to war with the international community that you have, not the one that you wish that you had.

also I wish that you would stop using that casino metaphor for the reasons I've already outlined to you.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

None of the reasons you outlined seemed relevant. The casino metaphor seems to me to be a particularly powerful logical tool. I won't give it up without good reason.

Aaron said...

Seemed pretty relevant to me, not least because you seem to agree with some of the points in this thread. I'll reiterate:

1. Unlike the decision not to enter a casino in the first place, all of the options that the United States faced in 2003 vis a vis Iraq carried substantial risk.

2. Unlike at a casino, the decision to "just walk away" at any time also carries substantial risks if done badly and may in fact trigger worse repercussions than staying.

Aaron said...

Also, while I'm nitpicking, a sober look at the costs of withdrawal is not necessarily an appeal to sunk-cost rationale.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

1. I don't really mean to extend the casino metaphor to arguments for getting into the war int he first place. If you want to discuss that old topic than find someone else. Or if you want, let's say that you didn't quite have enough money to send your kid through college and you were running the risk that you wouldn't have enough money when the time came when you decided to go to the casino.

2. Again, we can extend the metaphor to cover these issues. You may decide to leave the casino on foot or take a cab (for a fee) or you may decide to leave with a recently released convict whose willing to give you a ride. Some of these carry substantial risks and may trigger worse repercussions than continuing to play roulette.

3. Again, I agree that redeployment carries some risk. A sober look at the war will show that there is much more risk (and worse odds) in not redeploying.

Aaron said...

1. sure, I'm happy to drop it if you are, although this is a key reason that the analogy fails; let's note, however, that you seem to have revisited "that old topic" two posts previous to this one.

2. I mean, here evaluating the act of leaving is as important as evaluating the act of staying. If you want to turn the analogy into this baroque construction that also puts due emphasis on the risks of leaving, more power to you, but it does suggest that there is perhaps a better analogy to that end somewhere out there in the ether.

3. I remain unconvinced, not least because I still haven't heard a good accounting for the negatives of withdrawal.

Paul said...

Just because an analogy doesn't apply to an issue you find interesting doesn't mean it "fails" in any meaningful sense. It fails only to the extent that it doesn't apply to the issue it's meant to apply to.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

Well I think it applies very well to the narrow issue of "why are anti-redeployment guys so fixated on shifting responsibility for the instability in Iraq from the decision to invade to the decision to redeploy".


As for Aaron,

2. You're the one who wants to make it baroque. As far as I'm concerned it is easy enough to find a safe means of leaving the casino that it's clearly superior to continuing to play roulette. Just as finding a responsible redeployment plan is easy enough that it redeploying is clearly the superior option.

3. And again I tell you that most of what you consider "negative of withdrawal" aren't really "of withdrawal" at all.

Paul said...

Oh, yeah, I think the analogy works fine. I didn't mean to imply your in particular failed, I was just making a comment about the general criteria for analogies.

Paul said...

Also, "Lieberman" is with an "ie", no?

Aaron said...

guys the problem with this analogy -- the reason that it fails -- is because its scope is so hopelessly limited. I mean, if an analogy for the iraq war has to go out of its way to avoid the casus belli and future repercussions, I'd say that it's a bad one.

as for 3., we can keep going in circles if you like, but go ahead and reread my first post in this thread again.

Aaron said...

Just as finding a responsible redeployment plan is easy enough that it redeploying is clearly the superior option.

Also, I'd be pretty curious to hear you talk more about this in anything other than vague, abstract terms.

Paul said...

See, the confusion is that it's not an analogy for the whole Iraq war, that's just what you'd like. It's an analogy for a certain type of thinking that's opposed to withdrawal.

Aaron said...

paul, you like the analogy because it's designed to lampoon those who propose the "if only we keep going, we're bound to turn this thing around into victory" school of thought. the problem, however, is that there are plenty of people who are skeptical of withdrawal not because they have unrealistically optimistic expectations for the war's outcome, but rather because they think that withdrawal under certain circumstances could actually be even worse than the alternatives.

also, your argument sounds like it can be summarized as "so what if this is reductive?"

Tommaso Sciortino said...

Here's a specific plan from May 2006. A little out of date but it could be modified to fit todays realities.

http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2006/10/sr_highlight.html

I don't think that we should just go with this plan and be done with it. I think we should consult with military leaders first. If any changes need be made, they should be.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

Also Aaron. I agree that withdrawal under "certain" circumstances could actually be even worse than the alternatives. I just think that it is relatively easy to avoid those "certain" circumstances. You have presented no reason to believe otherwise.

Thinker said...

Aaron wrote, there are plenty of people who are skeptical of withdrawal not because they have unrealistically optimistic expectations for the war's outcome, but rather because they think that withdrawal under certain circumstances could actually be even worse than the alternatives.

Who might these people be, Aaron? And, what might be some of the "certain circumstances" surrounding a potential redeployment?

Thinker said...

Also Aaron, as I recall, this has been your argument justifying invasion in 2003 all along, that the alternatives that would/might result from failing to invade were worse than the consequences of invasion.

Aaron said...

Tom, I've already mentioned some reservations to you in a recent email exchange (in which, come to think of it, you tried to extend your casino metaphor, though I see that you've backed off from those additions): 1. do we remove absolutely all troops and if not what do we do with the others? 2. under what kind of a timetable with what preconditions met? 3. what kind of connections (military, political) do we maintain with the iraqi government? etc.

also the CAP outline is exactly the kind of thing that I've been hounding you for ever since I first made the point to you about needing to think withdrawal through. I'll get back to you with a response after I read the whole thing.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

Here's a different, more recent plan. It comes complete with a plan B in case Iraq's neighbors don't care to help. I'm not endorsing this plan. But I'd like to hear your opinion.

http://www.comw.org/pda/0701bm40.html