Monday, December 18, 2006

War Isn't Like Poker (and Life Isn't Like a River)

For this week's column, I'm not sure the headline is right. My suggestion wasn't much better, but isn't the Bush administration's belief that you play for victory--unless it jeopardizes (not requires) tax cuts? That if raising taxes would guarantee victory in Iraq, well, we'd take our chances in Iraq? Well, it's weird either way. My original suggestion was "Iraq is the most important thing -- except for tax cuts" but this is how it got translated into newsprint.

You can click on links to some of the "double down" neocon articles, if you want to see the poker analogy in its natural habitat. It doesn't make any more sense in context.

East Valley Tribune, Dec. 17, 2006

By hiring a new football coach, Arizona State University has let the terrorists win.

That’s a pretty stupid theory, but it’s being pushed by the neoconservatives and other Bush administration enablers about Iraq. They claim that our enemies are banking on the American public’s weakness of will. Victory depends on the enemy knowing that we’ll do whatever it takes to win, that our capacity to inflict and absorb pain is so much greater than theirs.

The terrorists are supposedly media-savvy, designing their activities mainly based on how they’ll play in the U.S. press. We’re allegedly too susceptible to fretting over bad news and too fearful of casualties. We don’t understand that it’s absolutely vital that once the Bush administration decides on a course of action, no matter how seriously wrong-headed, the nation simply cannot turn back. Under their military theories, you don’t ever dare stop throwing good money after bad; instead, you keep increasing the bet. War, they say, is like poker; if you raise the stakes enough, you can win.


Did I say this theory was stupid? The poker analogy is particularly pathetic, because winning by raising the stakes depends on the other players not throwing good money after bad, to save their chips for the next hand. It’s also, as Matthew Yglesias notes, bad poker strategy because of the difference between the U.S. military -- which can leave Iraq -- and the Iraqis, who can’t. How do you bluff a player who’s already "all in"?

It’s also stupid because who, exactly, in Iraq is the enemy we’re trying to impress with our strength of will? Is it al Qaeda in Iraq, a marginal foreign presence? Former Ba’ath party officials? The Sunnis? Muqtada al-Sadr? The Iranian-backed Shi’a political parties, like the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI -- whose leader, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, met with President Bush earlier this month? It’s hard to know which group upon which we must train our superior mental powers to make sure they understand the firmness of our resolve.

But the usual analogy isn’t that war is like poker (now there’s a slogan for McCain 2008: "Iraq -- a good bet at the time!") Instead, it’s football that’s like war. And if you win wars not by having the right leadership, strategy, and personnel, but rather by having enough willpower and resolve, then why did ASU bother hiring a new coach?

Shouldn’t ASU instead have demonstrated its superior strength of will by keeping Dirk Koetter, thus proving to our enemies that we simply won’t admit defeat, that our ability to absorb punishment far exceeded their ability to dish it out, and that our resources are inexhaustible and our resolve implacable? Isn’t replacing an underperforming coaching staff simply a distraction from demonstrating the willpower needed to triumph over our opponents? If wars are won and lost over the other side’s perceptions of our strengths and weaknesses, why not football games?

You’d never send a football team, at any level, out on the field armed solely with a bizarre theory that victory depends solely on "will." You also don’t tell them we want "victory" without first giving them a scoreboard and a game plan, two subtleties still eluding President Bush. You’d want some recruiting, preparation, and execution, then you’d try to pump everybody up at game time with pep talks about wanting it more than the other guys. Otherwise, we’d choose coaches based on oratory, not recruiting skill.


The most laughable part of the "willpower" theory is that even the most dead-end Republicans don’t really believe that the war in Iraq is the absolutely most important issue our country faces. Just ask what they’d do if winning the Iraq war depended on (gasp!) raising taxes.

With more money, we could pay more soldiers and reservists and reconstruct Iraq. We even could bribe more Iraqis. But if winning in Iraq wouldn’t make Republicans willing to reinstate the tax rates on the wealthiest we had during the 1990’s boom, then why, oh why, would we consider sending even more troops on this undefined mission, with no good ending possible?

1 comment:

Hansonius said...

You’d never send a football team, at any level, out on the field armed solely with a bizarre theory that victory depends solely on "will."

That's because a football game is a limited "conflict" where both sides play by the same rules. A conflict with terrorists is essentially different: it has no fixed period of time in which the conflict must resolve itself and one side (i.e. the terrorists) is by definition exempt from certain rules. What you call a "bizarre theory" may work in the one case but not in the other.

...who, exactly, in Iraq is the enemy we’re trying to impress with our strength of will?

Isn't that the point of a war on "terror"? You're impressing whomever may be plotting terror with your firm resolve to resist them and their despicable means and goals?