Letter to the Editor: Know When To Fold 'em

Our president seems to suffer a normal, human confusion. The kind that keeps casinos in business.

We face daunting odds in Iraq. Many professional soldiers say that we lost this war some time ago, and that we’re just trying to accept this fact now.

But anyone who’s ever watched the television show Deal or No Deal knows that people don’t always approach uncertainty with a clear head. Something about the tiniest promise of reward can motivate a naive gambler to hold ‘em way too long.


An article entitled Why Hawks Win, by Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Renshon in the January/February 2007 issue of Foreign Policy Magazine, looks to science to explain why, when facing nearly certain loss, decision makers so often choose to risk even more. Their explanation:

“Option A: A sure loss of $890.

Option B: A 90 percent chance to lose $1,000 and a 10 percent chance to lose nothing.

In this situation, a large majority of decision makers will prefer the gamble in Option B, even though the other choice is statistically superior. People prefer to avoid a certain loss in favor of a potential loss, even if they risk losing significantly more. When things are going badly in a conflict, the aversion to cutting one’s losses, often compounded by wishful thinking, is likely to dominate the calculus of the losing side. This brew of psychological factors tends to cause conflicts to endure long beyond the point where a reasonable observer would see the outcome as a near certainty. Many other factors pull in the same direction, notably the fact that for the leaders who have led their nation to the brink of defeat, the consequences of giving up will usually not be worse if the conflict is prolonged, even if they are worse for the citizens they lead.”

The bi-partisan Iraq Study Group advised, after thoroughly evaluating our dilemma, that this conflict could not be resolved with military might. Diplomacy, perhaps, but not military might.

After a few frenzied weeks of investigation, our president has decided to ignore reasonable advice and up the ante, saying that we absolutely must win, that failure is not an option.

Every experienced gambler knows that when failure is not an option, it becomes an imperative. As Kenny Rodgers said, “You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em.”

Time to fold ‘em.
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