Friday, December 09, 2005

Game Theory For Dummies

We're finally starting to see the War™ party talk about "victory" in Iraq.

In some ways, this can be really maddening. The typical left-of-center reaction to this kind of talk has been to remark that "victory" in Iraq remains a nebulous and ill-defined concept, and to wonder aloud what the fsck the War™ party is talking about.

The President, his administration, and their supporters have taken great pains and gone to extraordinary lengths to stand on the principle that it would be a grave and terrible mistake to set goals and objectives for the War™ mission in Iraq upon which progress can be measured, evaluated and compared against what was budgeted. (You remember the budget, right? It's that thing that conservatives believe liberals never think about.) Put simply, setting goals and objectives are the last things these people want to do— it would, they insist, signal the terrorists what it would take to force the occupation to concede defeat.

I am, of course, puzzled by the War™ party's approach. To me, as a guy whose résumé includes a stint working alongside professional game designers, the word "victory" is a technical term. The War™ party, however, doesn't seem to use the word with anything near the technical precision I prefer. Victory is a terminating condition when one or more players achieve their game objectives. It is to be compared with Defeat, which is a similar condition when one or more players fails. It's all about whether players achieve their objectives or not. Contrast this with the explanation of Victory as it pertains to the mission of the War™ party in Iraq.

I recently heard the definition of Victory in Iraq explained by a certain nationally syndicated radio talk show host with tens of millions of daily listeners who regularly claims his talent is "on loan" from God. He said, definitively, "Victory... is what we are trying to achieve." (By "we," of course, it should be assumed he means the United States, its armed forces, the President, and their political supporters— even though, he's clearly not any of the first three, and we should all be dubious whether the fourth really has very much to do with it.)

Those of you in the Reality-Based Community who are noticing the tautological nature of this argument are probably suspicious that our unnamed radio host was just vamping, filling space between thoughts with empty blather in order to prevent dead air while he searched for the words to use.


This really is the working definition of Victory in Iraq. "Victory is what we are trying to achieve. Fullstop." Okay, not quite a full stop there— because, immediately after defining Victory as whatever it is that the War™ party is trying to achieve this week, he proceeded to add this qualification: "And, it's what Democrats are trying to undermine." That only adds to the tautology.

The logic is really quite impressive when you unpack it. Not only has the War™ party established how the objectives for terminating the operation in Iraq are the achievement of whatever unspecified conditions they may find politically convenient for, well, terminating the operation, they have also defined the conditions in such a way that whatever the Democrats can plausibly be said to be "undermining," that's what they're trying to accomplish.

It's beautiful, really. Whenever they finally decide it's expedient to terminate the operation, they'll be able to declare it a Victory by choosing the terminating conditions for the Iraq operation from the set of objectives that can plausibly be said 1) have been already met, and 2) were at one time or another discounted as unlikely, unrealistic or undesirable by their political opponents.

If worse comes to worst, they will finally declare the victory condition to have been the comparatively simple task of removing Saddam Hussein from power and rebooting the Islamic totalitarian dictator software. While Democrats and other opponents of the War™ party have expressed basically no objection to the bare fact of Saddam Hussein's fall from power, they have expressed the undesirability of various outcomes, especially the most likely ones. The narrative practically writes itself. Now, the War™ party doesn't want to settle for that outcome as their victory condition just yet, because they're still hopeful they can get a result that won't make them ashamed to look in the mirror every morning— but, mark my words, if they have to settle for that, they will.

Once again, I would remind our friends that the way to challenge these views— that the difference between Victory and Defeat literally is the difference between the President's plan for redeployment of N thousand troops, over a time interval of M weeks and months, tied to event milestones X, Y and Z, and the same redeployment over the same time interval and event milestones proposed by the President's opponents— is to ask what is the pure cash value of the Victory they envision in Iraq over and above the cost of Defeat.

What should we expect to get in exchange for the $XXX+ billion we are spending on the project?

They're supposed to be conservatives. Let them tell us how much insurance we're expecting to have to buy. We're smart people. We can decide for ourselves whether the up front premiums are worth the coverage we're supposed to get in exchange.

If the terminating conditions for the operation are supposed to result in the achievement, rather than failure, of the War™ party objectives— and it's important to keep the objectives secret from the insurgents for fear they might learn ahead of time what conditions will force the occupiers to concede defeat— then we must at least have some idea how much the Victory should be worth in dollars.

That conservatarians can't place a dollar figure on the value of the Victory they insist must be achieved is, I think, a good argument they really don't place any value on it at all. They're more interested in attempting to manufacture a reality in which, whatever the conditions are in Iraq when the operations are terminated, those are the conditions that are declared to be Victory, because the important thing is not terminating the operations— the important thing is being able to declare the end of operations a Victory and have everybody believe that Defeat has been averted.

The one little bug in their process is... for the Victory to be worth something, it has to be worth something.

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