Saturday, April 19, 2008

A thought about decision making, games, Iraq and the election debates

There have been a large number of decisions by the U.S. government which had major influence in bringing us to the current situation in Iraq, including:
  • The choice to believe Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction in this decade;
  • The choice to believe Iraq was in discussions with and a potential supporter of Al Qaeda;
  • The decision not to wait for the U.N. process to deal with the charge of WMDs in Iraq;
  • The decision not to accept the arguments of the French and other governments in the United Nations about invading Iraq;
  • The decision to form a coalition of the willing;
  • The decision to invade with the size force that was used;
  • The decision not to utilize a larger post invasion force to maintain order;
  • The decision to abandon the post-war planning done by the State Department teams;
  • The decision to install the Coalition Transition Authority rather than to quickly establish an Iraqi caretaker government;
  • The decision to keep Coalition forces in Iraq for an extended period, rather than to withdraw quickly;
  • The decision to conduct a radical de-Bathification;
  • The decision not to quickly reconstitute the Iraqi army and police after the invastion;
  • The decision to staff the CTA in the way that it was done;
  • The decision to seek a "Big Bank" move to a free market system;
  • The decision not to call for multiparty talks with the neighboring countries to Iraq;
  • The decision not to expand recruiting for the U.S. military and not to further expand military spending to reduce the stress on the existing military;
  • The decisions with respect to military tactics, including the battles for Fallujah.and "the surge";
  • The decisions with regard to the sweeps of Iraqi citizens, imprisonment, interrogation techniques, etc.
  • The decisions with respect to the refugeesl
  • The decisions with respect to walling off of Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods,
If we think of a game of chess or checkers, the mental model is of a complex tree of moves. So too we can think of Iraq as a complex tree of decisions. We know the path that actually occurred -- the choices that were actually made and their results. We don't know the paths that would have been taken had different alternatives have been made along the way.

In the aftermath of an important game of chess, experts will analyze the sequence of moves, seeking to see where the eventual winner make key moves, and where the eventual loser went wrong. Chess games start with a player choosing an opening gambit, and the opponent choosing a response. There is an extensive body of expert knowledge on openings, and only the rankest amature would lose a game at the opening, nor would the most expert player usually lose the game choosing the wrong opening.

In the case of the chain of decisions made with respect to Iraq, it may be that our government's decision making should not be criticized as inevitably leading to five years of war and the current situation. Counterfactual paths might legitimately have been considered more likely than the path that actually occurred. Thus it might have been assumed that the U.S. government would have put in more troops, carried out a modest de-Bathification, reconstituted the Iraqi military quickly, established a new, non Saddam led government quickly, allowed the Iraqis to make their own political and economic reforms, negotiated a regional accord, and quickly withdrawn Coalition forces.

In the debates between Clinton and Obama, where neither candidate had much influence over the subsequent decisions of the Bush administration, we perhaps attach too much importance to the position that the candidate took five or six years ago. It seems clear in retrospect, that there were few people in the United States who had a deep understanding of Iraqi society, nor that accurate predictions could be made of Iraqi responses to possible actions of the Coalition. It also seems unlikely that either Democrat could have accurately predicted the way in which the Bush administration would prosecute the occupation.

This blog is not about Iraq. It does deal with decision making. The point of this posting is that it is more appropriate to consider the path that was selected through a decision tree in evaluating a complex history such as that of the war and occupation of Iraq, than to consider a single decision, such as the decision to invade.

The experience in Iraq is also instructive of a significant point of decision making. There have to be "Plans B". It seems very clear that many of the decisions made by the Bush administration had worse results than they had anticipated -- the looting after the occupation of Baghdad, the unwillingness of the Sunnis to participate in the elections, the slow speed of legislation, the failure of the economic reform program to put people back to work and trigger economic growth, the failure of the efforts to rebuild the infrastructure, the length and viciousness of the insurgency. In complex situations, it is wise to prepare for unforeseen or unlikely consequences that are more negative than what is expected.

Finally, chess masters will generally agree in the middle and end games, whether a specific position favors one or the other player. They may well differ as to the quality of individual moves that led to that position. When you are traveling in unfamiliar country it is easier to recognize when you are lost than it is to see exactly where you got off the right track!

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