“Good money after bad” in Iraq

It seems awfully close to Christmas to be posting on Iraq. Surely we have happier topics to think about!

I’m doing it anyway because Doug posted on Iraq a couple of days ago and it seems that people (at least, Americans) never lose their enthusiasm for talking about this topic. And Doug raised an issue I want to address.

But if no one comments on this post, I’ll know it was ill-timed.

Doug was responding to an article in the New York Times:

Military planners and White House budget analysts have been asked to provide President Bush with options for increasing American forces in Iraq by 20,000 or more. The request indicates that the option of a major “surge” in troop strength is gaining ground as part of a White House strategy review, senior administration officials said Friday.

Discussion of increasing the number of American troops, at least temporarily, has coursed through Washington for two months, as a possible way to reverse the deteriorating security situation in Baghdad. But the decision to ask the Joint Chiefs of Staff to specify where the additional forces could be found among overstretched Army, Marine and National Guard units, and to seek a cost estimate from the White House Office of Management and Budget, signifies a turn in the debate.

Here’s Doug’s take:

The only result of sending twenty thousand more troops to Iraq is going to be more dead and maimed Americans as more troops go on patrol and are available to shoot at. Dear God, didn’t anyone in the Bush Administration study the Vietnam war? …

This Big Push is not a “change in strategy.” This is “putting good money after bad.” Doesn’t Bush even know how to play poker?

I want to pick up on that phrase, “good money after bad”. This is a psychological phenomenon with a formal label: escalation of commitment. Psychologists identified it while analysing how people make decisions. Wikipedia provides a succinct explanation:

Escalation of commitment is the phenomenon where people increase their investment in a decision despite new evidence suggesting that the decision was probably wrong. Such investment may include money (known informally as “throwing good money after bad”), time, or — in the case of military strategy — human lives. The term is also used to describe poor decision-making in business, government, information systems in general, software project management in particular, politics, and gambling.

There are two variables here:  (1) A particular course of action has been shown to be (probably) a mistake; and yet (2) The decision-maker not only stays the course, but invests increased resources in that course of action.

Why would any decision-maker behave so irrationally? The answer is, to justify actions already taken.

Imagine a scenario in which you invest money in an invention. There is no return on your initial investment, but you decide to invest a little more money in it. At this point, the decision to increase your investment may still be reasonable. One setback doesn’t prove that your initial decision was a mistake.

But if you continue on that course, one day you may discover that all your savings are gone. What now? Do you admit that you’ve exhausted your savings on a foolish, impractical dream? Such an embarrassing admission would be rather hard on your ego!

Instead, you take out a second mortgage on your house. You hope that ultimately you might at least break even. But now you’re on a path to personal bankruptcy.

In sum, ego begins to skew the equation. That your initial decision was a mistake is already tough to swallow. But then it was compounded by a series of subsequent recommitments. Thus you increase your investment in a foolhardy attempt to justify actions already taken.

Wikipedia provides the following example of an irrational escalation of commitment:

After a heated and aggressive bidding war Robert Campeau ended up buying Bloomingdale’s department store for an estimated 600 million dollars more than it was worth. The Wall Street Journal noted that “we’re not dealing in price anymore but egos”. Campeau was forced to declare bankruptcy soon afterwards.

bush.jpgIs the USA about to escalate its commitment in Iraq, as the New York Times reports? Will that escalation of commitment be rational or irrational?

Will Americans be sent to die in a futile cause for the sake of the President’s ego? It looks like a distinct possibility to me.


4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. reportcard
    Dec 20, 2006 @ 00:58:47


    Excellent post, please allow me to explain exactly how I see a troop level increase succeeding, without irrational escalation of commitment. First, before any action is taken, the President must address the nation and the world and admit mistakes were made. If he does not pass this first test prior to committing more forces, I believe your irrational escalation of commitment theory will be proved accurate.

    Why commit more forces if not to prove the original action correct. Perhaps, as an eventual way out…after stability is achieved. Should the U.S. pull out prior to a stable government, estimates put the loss of Iraqi life between 1 and 3 million civilians in a genocidal civil war that would make current conditions look like an afternoon at Chutes Coulange.

    Between Iraqi insurgent forces, Iranian, and Saudi Arabian interests a civil war may easily evolve into a regional conflict. Sunni’s and Shiite’s in open warfare over the country formerly known as Iraq. Assuming no one wants to see this happen, and knowing our present situation, is there a better alternative to increasing troop levels?
    I recently wrote a post on the potential Sunni / Shiite conflict. It can be found here .


  2. Stephen
    Dec 20, 2006 @ 03:34:28

    Thanks, reportcard. I certainly accept there may be other explanations for committing more troops than the one I have proposed here.

    I wish I could be confident that President Bush now realizes he made mistakes. Getting rid of Rumsfeld (belatedly) seemed like an admission of error in the Iraq policy. But Rumsfeld’s departure could also be standard politics at work — offering up a scapegoat.

    And then I read a report of the comments Colin Powell made on CBS. The Washington Post observes:

    “[Colin Powell’s] low-key departure from office in January 2005, after Bush’s request for his resignation, stood in contrast to Friday’s ceremonial farewell to Rumsfeld, whose retirement festivities at the Pentagon were attended by Bush and Cheney.”

    It sounds like Bush still regards Rumsfeld as the one who got it right, and Powell as the one who got it wrong. If so, the President still has his head screwed on backwards.

    You raise a much bigger question: What will happen when the USA pulls out its troops? I fear that the invasion of Iraq is going to have terribly evil consequences for a long time to come. And I’m not sure there’s anything that the Bush administration can do to prevent it, now that Pandora’s box has been opened.

    But I sure hope you’re right — something can still be done, and the new Secretary of Defense is the right person to do it.


  3. 49erDweet
    Dec 20, 2006 @ 10:58:04

    I would be more comfortable over the ‘uptick’ in troop strength thing if it were Karl Rove that would be leading them in the field, rather than Gates, et al. Sort of poetic justice, IMHO. To his possible credit GWB has seemed to be one of the last to embrace this extremely risky tactic.

    If it were up to me I would have prepared two “hardened” super-compounds, one in the west and the other ‘tween the Kurds and the rest, and simply withdrawn my forces into them – letting the ‘two devils’ of sunni and shiite fight it out until they either made peace or settled it betwixt themselves. Any attempts against my compounds would have resulted in huge universal retalitory bloodbaths that would have been instructive as to the advisebility factors against disturbing sleeping giants. Eventually, one tribe or another would have sued us for ‘peace’, paving the way for some sort of workable compromise.

    But that’s just me. Even though I thought that a year and a half ago. Others may have better ideas, but it seems quite obvious that if we weren’t prepared to provide some form of governance over the bulk of the country in the first few weeks, then we really weren’t ready to invade when we did. Simple conclusion, but basic to getting back to reality.

    Good questions, stephen. Sorry the answers are so murky.



  4. Stephen
    Dec 29, 2006 @ 13:26:07

    • 49er:
    If it were up to me I would have … let the ‘two devils’ of sunni and shiite fight it out until they either made peace or settled it betwixt themselves.

    An interesting perspective, as always. Your view of the USA is of a disinterested third party: like a marriage counsellor presented with a belligerent couple who don’t share the counsellor’s goal of marital harmony! Definitely a no-win situation for the counsellor.

    I’m not sure the USA can claim to be as disinterested as all that, but it’s still a good insight. It certainly appears that these parties want civil war; and you can’t make people live at peace with one another if they won’t have it.


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