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March 01, 2007

Salsa Dancing, Cut and Run and the "Optimism Bias"
Posted by Shadi Hamid

Americans have a built-in optimism bias, and this may help explain both our successes and failures. We have trouble taking no for an answer, no matter how many times we hear it. This, I suspect, is why it’s very difficult for us to admit defeat and leave it at that, particularly when we’re so invested in victory. With that in mind, let’s look at the two ways of approaching the Iraq debacle:

Outlook #1. We can accept that we have lost, cut our losses, and admit, however reluctantly, that some battles simply cannot be won. In doing so, we stem the bleeding and prevent making a bad situation worse.

Outlook #2. If we continue pouring blood and treasure in Iraq, there is a 5% chance things will better. There is a 95% chance that things get worse. Let's see if we can actually make the 5% probability a reality.

The two outlooks do not differ in their assessment of the facts. I have no way of proving this, but I think whether or not someone ascribes to outlook #2 is a direct function of a variety of psychological, often personal, dispositions. Leaving that aside, there are a lot of people who would argue, with some justification, that outlook #2 is the better one because it’s the only one that provides even the slightest hope for a positive outcome. I think this is why it took so long for liberal interventionists/hawks/idealists to come to grips with the deteriorating situation in Iraq. It's why many, including myself, still have trouble accepting outlook #1. You are aware that the "facts" are not on your side. But you still want to believe, and the disorienting power of faith, whether it be religious or political, is something which should not be underestimated.

This optimism bias can be a good thing, because it drives us to go beyond our means, to take risks, and come up with creative solutions to longstanding problems. However, it’s called a “bias” for a reason – because it creates a larger gap between what one may call “want formation” and “want satisfaction.” Appetite exceeds ability. This gap is, fundamentally, a disorienting one. It produces high levels of cognitive dissonance which may provoke a series of psychological coping behaviors which separate us from reality and disengage us from "facts." And so it becomes much more difficult to draw red lines our own conduct and to know our own limits and, more importantly, the limits of American power and idealism.

Again, the personal is political. Off an on, I’ve spent the last two years trying to become a respectable salsa dancer. I like salsa and can do a passable job if my partner is relatively inexperienced. I did, however, realize at some point that my salsa skills were stagnating. I kept on taking lessons, thinking that out of sheer determination I could become really, really good. The possibility of failure didn’t even enter my mind. Moreover, I reasoned that I had already spent hundreds of dollars trying to learn salsa. If I stopped now, then all that money, time, and effort would go to waste and I’d have little to show for it. So I plodded on indifferent to the unavoidable fact that not everyone is cut out for salsa. I remained under my illusions until only recently. Then I made a decision: I am good at some things. I am not, however, particularly good at Salsa. It is time to accept defeat. So I cut and ran. It wasn’t easy.   


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It is not a matter of cut and run Mr. Hamid. It is not a matter of optimism or realism.

You wanted to learn to dance and you did. That is individualism. Self-determination. You aren't satisfied with the results? Your responsibility and no one else's.

The American People, vis-a-vis Congress, gave President Bush authority to fight the people who attacked us. HOW DID WE END UP IN IRAQ?

THIS is the question that makes heads hit walls. How did we allow ourselves to get so scammed by our leadership and why aren't we taking RASH measures to address it?

It is not like the Republican party and the extreme right neocons have not given every indication that lies and scandal and manipulation were afoot. It was obvious. Their PR sucks! Transparent BS.

It is time for Americans to suck it up and admit we got scammed, side-tracked, our whole country is serving a few profiteers and a small country in the middle east who has HUGE lobbying power in Washington right now.

And we have to, in unison, light a fire under all of that and watch it burn to the ground. And then salt the earth there so it never grows again.

America and the world cannot afford these kind of mistakes and manipulation any more. Stakes are too high. We are human beings, not animals. We have to address fear with our intellect, not our guns and our criminal opportunists.

Think of the billions of dollars and the thousands of lives wasted in Iraq.

The taliban are resurgent in Afghanistan. Osama Bin Laden is a free man.

How does this not infuriate every single American man and woman?

Impeachment is off the table?

This is not optimism or idealism.

What else can you call it? STUPIDITY...

I think that's a workable metaphor Shadi, but there's one serious flaw: you're not paying enough attention to your salsa partner.

Occupation can't adequately be represented by a single person's investment. Both the occupier and the occupied have a choice to make.

So look at Salsa dancing but say you're taking the lessons with a consistent partner. Moreover, you've got a fairly disfunctional and often mutually abusive relationship with this partner. You're hoping the partner will be ready, sooner rather than later, to stake out on his/her own. However, you think that if you split now, you'll lose you've already invested in these lessons.

So, do you try for the 5% chance that this partnership can be saved or breakup and cut your losses?

Whether you're optimistic or not should only be half the equation. The other half is not how you calculate your partners interests, that matters but it isn't sufficient. The other half is how your partner judges his/her interests.

Obviously, the fact that our partner is millions of Iraqis makes that trickier even if there weren't sectarian divides. However, this complication does not lessen the necessity of treating this as a multi-player game.

I think it's fairly universally acknowledged that even the simplest models of war need to incorporate the fact that the enemy also gets a say in things. I think the same is true of an occupation. The fact that the occupation is attempting to setup a democracy and regularly uses elections doesn't change that fact.

You wouldn't have cut and run if you had been making big bucks failing at salsa.

I don't see why we should not give the "surge" policy say 4 months to make a positive difference, after spending 4 years in Iraq already. I believe that the administration has horribly bungled the post-war, but now that they are doing what so many had previously asked, it is worth seeing if the new approach works. Of course this approach is not risk-free. However, were we to leave now, the risks of a major civil war and/or ethnic cleansing are to me much greater, with the possible loss of life much greater. And the negative implications of the US leaving under pressure are huge; that's after all, the enduring impression that our leaving Somalia had upon al Qaeda and gave bin Laden's arguments credence.

I don't believe that we should give the administration a blank check. I only believe that we need to give Petraeus the time he believes he needs (through the summer). After having been unanimously confirmed for his new position, he should be listened to, and given the chance to succeed.

Mark, it's too late.

We can't possibly help but give the "surge" through the summer. Our military is such a vast and slow structure that it would take at least that long to turn it around and start leaving, if Bush decided to do that today.

So, suppose that by the end of the summer Baghdad appears to be partly pacified. What next? The most we get from a "success" for the "surge" is that things deteriorate slower, and we can use that "sucess" to argue that we should stay longer hoping the next step might be a significant success. All it takes is 3 more 6-month wait-and-see's and we're at 2009. My how the time goes by.

So OK, what are we there for? Is it to restore our prestige? We've already lost that, if we can eke out some kind of win over the next 5 years it isn't going to make us look good. and incidentally bin Ladin was encouraged more by the russian failure in afghanistan than by us in somalia. He was happy to spend the years it took for russia to collapse. (And so were we.) Is the world impressed with us that we spent so many years in vietnam? Hardly.

IS it for the oil? We all seem to agree that it isn't.

Is it for the iraqis? Well, the iraqis are saying they know how to heal their country and we've been stopping them from doing it. We've kept the initiative, we've planned the strategies, and our strategies have failed for 4 years straight -- that's 8 six-month plans. Every 6 months we've looked around and said "We see now why the last strategy didn't work, now we have to change and do this next strategy." Our OODA loop is about 6 months. That's why each new strategy comes out around this time of year or around August.

By august we'll have failed with 8 strategies in a row. (The first one was "It's a few thousand malcontents. Kill them." The second was "Get Saddam and the few thousand malcontents will give up." The third was "Get the nerve center in Fallujah and the movement will fall apart." That was delayed for political reasons until after the US elections so we didn't find out it failed until the 4th cycle. Then there was "Elections will do the trick, hold on until the iraqi elections." Then came "Elections aren't enough, they need reconstruction." The next 6 months it was "We can't have reconstruction until we provide security," 6 months later it was "We have to rebuild iraqi forces to provide security." Now we're trying to stiffen the iraqi forces with our own forces because they aren't strong enough to do it themselves but politically we can't afford the casualties.

And our goals are reduced to trying to retake the capital city.

So here's my plan. The iraqi government says they know how to do it. If we're willing to put the US army under the control of the iraqi government, then we should let them try their plan. And if we aren't, we need to get out. We have to start planning the retreat now or we can't do it 6 months from now. Contingency planning, not a certain thing -- after all, things might change and the iraqis might invite us to stay. But we need to plan the withdrawal starting right now, in case we need to use it later. And we need to think seriously whether we're willing to put the US Marines under iraqi orders.

You're being very, very clever about limiting the options to 2: there are more options involved here than you can imagine.

Further, you're begging the question by postulating the surge can only give a 5% increase in positive resolution: what if the figure were postulated to be 50%? Or 90%?

Further, the case can be made that your option 1 isn't even on the board anywhere.

I think rather your lack of imagination is the problem: J Thomas in your comments underscores this, by imagining that there have been 8 strategies that have failed, rather than realizing that there are multiple strategies at work and that the situation is constantly changing, as we are not facing any sort of loose grouping of disgruntled Iraqis, but also a concerted, organized and state-sponsored attempt to ensure that the US effort in Iraq fails.

I think it's clear that you don't know half the story of what is going on in Iraq, as your limitation to merely two options shows. Neither of the two is accurate.

John Opie, you clearly didn't read my message carefully as I discussed 3 options, not 2.

And we may have multiple strategies at work, secretly, but what I've noticed is that just about every 6 months we've announced a new strategy that we say is going to work to correct the fatal flaws in the last strategy. Since the current talk is about the "surge" strategy, this history is worth considering.

We have had a series of strategies *as the problems got worse*. Each new approach has been a result of the *failure of the last approach*. Would you care to argue that thinga haven't continued to get worse?

We've had our victories. We had a shining victory in fallujah. Unfortunately it didn't make things better. And we had a great victory in Najaf. Our best victory during the occupation was Tal Afar, where the local people were turkmen and wanted us to protect them from the arabs. When we'd won and the bad guys had run away and we were ready to pull out the local people begged us to stay there in full force and keep protecting them. I was glad we could rescue that little enclave, but it doesn't look like much of a precedent to me.

So tell us, what's the good news? If this occupation was a stock how many shares would you buy? Sure, I don't know half of what's going on there. Tell us the other half?

Or maybe you want us to hope that what stays hidden from us is better than what we find out about.

So OK, the "surge" is going to happen. After that we can sign up for the next 6 months plan. Or we can leave. Or we can do something else. I have absolutely no faith in the next six months plan because I've seen the public results of the last ones. More of the same is a bad idea.

If we don't follow the best plan our military can provide, though, pulling out is almost the only other option. If they can't do well enough with their own best plan, can we expect them to do better with some other plan? They'll do the best they can with what they've got -- that's why the current plan is to put the rest of the country on hold and focus on just the capital city, rather than something that sounds less desperate but has no chance of working.

But still I propose a third choice. The iraqis themselves have ideas about what's needed. And we've prevented them from trying their ideas. We say we're occupying iraq for them -- so give them the chance. They know their country and their people a hell of a lot better than we do. If we aren't willing to put the US military under iraqi control, then get the hell out.

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I think it's clear that you don't know half the story of what is going on in Iraq, as your limitation to merely two options shows. Neither of the two is accurate.

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