Second Thought: Wednesday, January 24, 2007
Risk Is Not a Game

Claiming victory may be the better part of valor.


When American military leaders advised President Bush against escalating our troop presence in Iraq, he responded by, in essence, purging them — and then going ahead with plans to send another 21,500 troops over. This decision is yet another example of this administration’s failure to evaluate risk and heed the lessons of the past.

I started thinking about Bush and his blindness to risk in the waning days of 2006, when former President Gerald Ford died. His death renewed the discussion about his pardon of Richard Nixon, which was controversial at the time. He weighed the advantages and risks before granting the pardon — and in the end it helped our country to move on.

As a professional mediator, I look at history and see the effects of times when our leaders made similar clear-eyed risk assessments at crucial points — and of the times, usually to our great sorrow, when they did not.

Nixon himself, for all his scandalous political behavior, also weighed risks and benefits, including the risk of reaching out to China and the risk of “Vietnamization,” which would decrease U.S. troop involvement in Vietnam.

Before that, President Lyndon Johnson, in getting our country further into that conflict, had a tough time adequately assessing risks. His administration decided that thwarting the perceived threat of Communism’s spread was worth the cost of escalation in Vietnam — and failed to heed clear signs that the effort was failing. In December 1967, with more than 485,000 U.S. troops in Vietnam and almost 16,000 Americans having been killed in action, the United States and South Vietnam still had been unable to turn back the enemy. And the CIA reported that bombing in the North would neither break the will of the North nor change the ability of the South to win. That’s when the U.S. should have withdrawn. But instead, more troops were sent — and over the next five years, more than 40,000 U.S. troops were killed in action. As then-Defense Secretary Robert McNamara said later, the administration strayed from the fundamental principle that South Vietnamese had to win the war themselves, and thereby we “built a progressively more massive effort on an inherently unstable foundation.”

Why revisit this history now? Because, as always, it might limit our mistakes this time around. Can the U.S. withdraw from Iraq now? Yes. We can find a way to let the decision-makers save face: We can just say we won, and leave.

The U.S. faces an Iraqi government both unable to win the war and resenting increasing American intervention. The Bush administration should be weighing the relative risks of staying or leaving. Instead, the vice president has repeatedly refused to assess the risks of terrorist attack in this country if we leave Iraq. When it comes to terror, our vice president has a mental barrier against weighing risks And the president seeks advice from only those who will agree with his course of increasing troops. He is not a risk-assessor.

This is not stubbornness. It is not some manly resolve or honest politico-military assessment. This is a psychological problem of immense proportions — a me-centered child’s view that mediators often see in negotiations involving powerful people accustomed to limitless resources. Thus, a potential problem of which there is only a tiny risk receives the resources that a clear and present 95- or 100-percent-likely problem deserves. In the child’s mind, the first problem deserves all attention, all resources at hand, with the child’s Pollyanna-ish optimism that more resources will always be available. Such leaders are also usually reluctant to reassess when conditions change. Childlike, they see reassessment as admitting a mistake.

What would a mediator recommend?

First, get the attention of the decision-makers. In the political world, this means polls, news media coverage, and the hammer of withholding contributions. Political activism, answering those phone calls from pollsters, voting, and voicing your opinions in the media are not fruitless endeavors, as so many people assume.

Second, give them a way to save face. If Bush doesn’t wish to admit mistakes, don’t make him. Let him decree that conditions have changed, so the risk must be reassessed, or let him subtly shift his goals so he can declare that they have been met.

In other words, let’s just say we won and withdraw from Iraq. Declare that Iraqi WMDs are no threat. Trumpet the idea that successful democratic elections were held and that a deposed leader was convicted and sentenced.

Then, as we leave, the United States can bring together the potentially powerful coalition and partners who’ve been calling for our withdrawal.

This is a lesson we must teach our children and grandchildren. They must recognize that the world has been forever changed by millions of people affected by our invasion of Iraq. Let’s teach them that resources — lives, money, our prestige around the world — are limited, and the spending of those precious things must be based on assessing risks and benefits. The rest will follow — a generation that makes ethical, rational decisions on what America should do at home and abroad.

Barbara Ann Radnofsky is a professional mediator from Houston and former Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate.

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