The Frontal Cortex

Harry Reid and Admitting Defeat

So Harry Reid announced that the Iraq war is lost, that there is no military solution to the crisis. He’s being denounced, of course, by lots of right wing pundits, who are clamoring for his resignation. Regardless of whether or not you think the war is lost, I have trouble understanding how saying the war is lost is a bad thing. As I noted earlier, I think President Bush is suffering from a serious case of loss aversion. I believe that admitting defeat is simply be too painful a decision for Bush to make. Losing sucks, especially when the loss is entirely of your own making.

Psychologists have a name for this phenomenon: loss aversion. First identified by Kahneman and Tversky in the late 1970’s, loss aversion is best illustrated with a simple bet. When offered a gamble on the toss of a coin in which they might lose $20, most people demand a payoff of at least $40 if they win. (Most people would also refuse a bet in which they have an 85 percent chance of doubling their life savings and a 15 percent chance of losing it.) In other words, the pain of a loss is approximately twice as potent as the pleasure generated by a gain.

How does this bias relate to Bush? No president wants to lose a war. As Kahneman himself noted:

U.S. policymakers faced this dilemma at many points in Vietnam and today in Iraq. To withdraw now is to accept a sure loss, and that option is deeply unattractive. The option of hanging on will therefore be relatively attractive, even if the chances of success are small and the cost of delaying failure is high.

This is why I have no problem with Harry Reid admitting defeat. I don’t know if the war has already been lost, but any reasonable military strategy for the future must take into account the fact that the war might be lost. Failure is always an option, and when we pretend that it isn’t we are simply indulging our irrational aversion for losses. We are letting our wishful biases dictate our reality. Sometimes, it’s better to take a painful loss than keep on pretending that there’s something left to win.


  1. #1 AgnosticOracle
    April 20, 2007

    One interesting thing I noticed is that Victor Davis Hanson (the guy from the national review you linked to) doesn’t try to argue that the war isn’t lost. He only tries to argue that admitting it is bad.

  2. #2 Coin
    April 20, 2007

    Harry Reid Admits that Emperor is Naked; Nation Outraged

  3. #3 The Ridger
    April 20, 2007

    Surely failure isn’t always an option – well, maybe it is, but few choose it. Failure is indeed always a possible outcome, though, and refusing to admit that – or insisting that it is an option, that one can in fact choose not to fail – is extremely dangerous. (Unless we just “declare victory and go home”, of course.)

  4. #4 Clark Goble
    April 23, 2007

    At this stage, given that even a lot of conservatives think this, it’s hard to be too critical of Reid. On the other hand this is politics. His words are targeting his political constituent and setting up his political aims. It’s hard to be that critical of those criticizing Reid along the same vein.

    I personally felt and feel that the surge should be given a chance to work. However if it fails then I think Republicans need to take seriously a pull back. And unfortunately while I don’t think it the failure some portray it as, it is also hardly the success it needs to be. While I’d advocate waiting through the summer, I’m pessimistic enough to think Reid may be right.

  5. #5 tekel
    April 24, 2007

    Atrios says this regularly: for Bush, leaving = losing. If that’s the way we judge success, then as long as we don’t leave, we can’t lose! Your point about loss aversion has some merit, but the argument about winning vs. losing has a much more basic flaw.

    This flaw emerges from a mistake in framing the debate. It is a mistake for people to talk about “winning” this war without any good definition of what winning means.

    Societies have traditionally gone to war to claim territory, seize natural resources, or defend their way of life from a coherent external threat. When those are the justifications for war, it is easy to see when you’ve “won” because you’ve gained the territory (and killed or enslaved its defenders), or seized the natural resources (and killed or enslaved their defenders) or destroyed the external threat (by killing or enslaving the threatening army).

    Bush and his generals have never openly admitted to any of those traditional goals. But perhaps Bush has been keeping secrets from us (ya think?). What if the first two traditional goals of war, conquest of territory and natural resources, are really why we went to war all along?

    There was never anything for us to win, really, short of killing all the people and stealing their oil. It’s not as though they have anything else that we want. Nobody gives a shit about spreading democracy or nation-building, least of all America. As George Bush sees things, since we’re still there, killing people and working to establish a permanent military presence so that we can steal their oil, arguably we could still “win.” It’s just that he’s never shared his secret definition of “win” with the rest of us.

    I’ll share it with you now: In order to “win,” George Bush plans to kill all the Arabs in Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan – all of them – and secure the oil production rights in those countries for western oil companies. That’s why we’re still there. That’s what American soldiers are dying for. That’s why all other western nations have pulled their soldiers out already- they have nothing to gain. But it’s absolutely essential for us to get that oil, or else China will take it from us. This war is about who gets to sell oil to China and the US domestic market for the next 100 years.

    This is why, to those of us who are not an oil company executives, “winning” looks a helluva lot like “losing.”

New comments have been disabled.