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We Can’t Get Up from this Blackjack Table


Matt hits the nail on the head:

And reading Pollack & Pascual write about it, on some level I agree with them. As they say, probably if we made a big push for a UN-sponsored diplomatic settlement of Iraq’s internal conflicts and related regional ones, etc., etc., our push would fail. On the other hand, if such a push succeeded, that would be very good. And the costs of trying for such a settlement and then failing would be low.

At the end of the day, though, the whole premise of a discussion like this is that Bush might read a Brookings Institution report and agree to a radical change in direction. That, of course, isn’t going to happen. At the present day, the set of options that might plausibly occur between today and January 2009 are:

1. Bush gets his way.
2. Enough Republicans get freaked out that congress is able to force Bush to start withdrawing troops.

Under the circumstances, the political impact of things like this Pollack/Pascual report seem to me to be mostly pernicious. It mostly serves to obscure the real issues and choices in play. It lets people continue with the delusion that they’re floating off on some worthy path between Bush and Bush’s opponents. This nicely serves various people’s sense of vanity and desire to avoid undue association with dirty fucking hippies, but it’s every bit as detached from realities on the ground in America as Bush’s policies are from realities in Iraq. Either the Bush steamroller is going to plow forward for 18 more months, or else congress is going to muster the votes to shut it down.

Right, and the same could be said for the notion that hey, the Surge may have only a 10% chance of success, but since the gamble is relatively low cost and the benefits very high, we might as well try it. These arguments make a certain kind of sense, but they’re dependent on a logic that fundamentally ignores American political reality. In order for the “one last time, and if we fail we’re out” to work, you need the following:

  1. An administration that agrees that leaving Iraq is a plausible option; in other words, an honest and competent broker in the White House.
  2. A set of clear metrics for analyzing the success of the operation.
  3. An elite political culture with memory; one that could remember the last four “last ditch gambles” well enough to accurately assess the prospects for the latest one.

Unfortunately, none of these conditions hold. We have an administration that doesn’t want to leave Iraq under any circumstances, and that will distort any available data and manufacture new data out of whole cloth in order to “prove” that the latest gamble is working. In part because of this, and in part because of the nature of the beast, we lack clear metrics to tell us whether we’re on the lucky 10% side or the unlucky 90%. Finally, the game just happens over and over and over again; the political/media culture doesn’t seem to remember the last gamble when the next one is offered.

Imagine you and a friend are at a blackjack table, and your friend has been losing all night. He seems to enjoy doubling down on 16s against a dealer 10. But now he insists that he’s “figured the game out” and can win a lot of money. Pollack is telling us that it might be worth it to loan your friend $50 to stay at the blackjack table, on the condition that he’ll leave if he loses it. But your friend is lying to you; he’s so convinced that he understands the game that he’s planning to borrow another $50 after he loses your stake. Moreover, he’s going to do everything he can to obscure his losses thus far, and pretend that he’s doing quite well. Finally, he’s going to use the fact that you’re confident enough to loan him $50 in order to leverage more loans from all of your other friends.

Only a drunken idiot would go for that, which is why casinos give out free drinks. David Petraeus, as far as I can tell, is not planning to let us all drink for free.

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