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Iraq Poker
Renounce your hubris!


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George Bush is gone but the Iraq War lingers. President Obama wants to expand the war in Afghanistan with an Iraq-style surge. We will be thinking about these things a while longer, and we might as well think thoughtfully.

That requires abandoning the sloganeering and false certainties that have disfigured our debate. To try to show you what I mean, I will try to show you the complexity of a particular view of Iraq, namely my own. I won’t be able fully to defend it, but that’s all right–first because I hold it quite tentatively (this will be part of my point), and second because my purpose is not to persuade you to accept my view so much as to offer an evaluative framework from which you might arrive at many views.

When I hear people talking about Iraq, what strikes me is that they just know they’re right. What’s more, they can prove that they’re right in a few sentences. Our nation, founded by geniuses and statesmen, has evolved to the point where every third person is a genius and a statesman. It is impressively democratic.

My message to every third person is: Renounce your hubris! Foreign policy is not a matter of making obviously sound inferences after examination of incontrovertible facts from a temporally fixed viewpoint. It’s not a science. It’s not even a social science.

What it is is a poker game.

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Consider the following about poker games:

Your view of important facts is blocked. You don’t know which cards the other players hold. You don’t know which cards are still to be dealt. You work with the information you have, and it’s always changing.

You have to do psychological guesswork. “Was that a bluff or does he have pocket aces?” “What will he do if I make a big bet?” “If I re-raise, will he go all-in?” You can be better or worse at reading other players, but even the pros make mistakes.

You can’t take counterfactual analyses too seriously. “If I’d raised instead of called, would he have folded?” “If I’d drawn for that flush, would I have made it?” You have no idea; such are the uncertainties of poker. Besides which, poker is not an event but a series of events; change one and you have to rethink all the ones that followed.

You assess risk relative to reward. Say you’re pretty sure you’d win if you made a flush, but you have to draw for it, and that means calling another player’s bet. Whether to call depends not only on the odds of making the flush, but on the size of the pot in relation to the size of the bet. The more chips you stand to win, the more you’re justified in risking (but of course you should not take risks from which you can’t recover if things go badly).

Your risk/reward assessment must take stock of all possible outcomes. If you have a high pair and are pretty sure it’s the best hand, this justifies a certain kind of betting; if on top of it you have a flush draw and a straight draw, this justifies a more aggressive kind of betting.

You play as long as you think you can win. You’re going to suffer losses in any game, and sometimes they’ll be large. But if you’re in a position to recover, it would be dumb to walk away.

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Now let me describe how Iraq looks to me, with reference to these principles.

Your view of important facts is blocked. That is the nature of intelligence. Analysts take the available facts, which are far from a complete picture, and write a story about them. The story about Saddam Hussein, written collectively by the world’s intelligence agencies, was that he had large stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons and was trying to build an atomic bomb. The story turned out to be wrong. It wasn’t just Bush who believed the wrong story; it was most politicians, most journalists, most of the world’s governments, and most Americans.

That the story was wrong does not mean the war did no good. You must take stock of all possible outcomes. We now know that Saddam Hussein wasn’t in the WMD business after the Gulf War, but there is good reason–as reported by the Iraq Study Group; remember, though, theirs is only another story–to think he planned to restart his WMD programs after the lifting of U.N. sanctions, which were already crumbling.

On the other hand, you can’t take counterfactual analyses too seriously.


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