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Friday, February 16, 2007

Escalating Commitment

Escalation of the war

In the aftermath of the Vietnam war, social scientists led by Berkeley's Barry Staw undertook a series of investigations to explore the escalation phenomenon, why it occurred, and how it might be prevented. It is time to apply their findings to the current situation in Iraq.

We need a new look. It is a mistake to allow those responsible for creating the situation to have a major role in dealing with the aftermath.

One of the more pervasive phenomena in human decision-making is "escalating commitment to a losing course of action." In general this occurs when early investments in terms of troops, money, resources, energy, and time have been committed to a project. At a later stage, the expected pay-offs from the investment have not materialized and the government, person or organization has to decide whether or not to “cut their losses’ or to make an additional investment. Almost inevitably the government, person or organization “throws good money after bad.’

This occurs for a couple of reasons. People are very good at identifying external causes for the initial failure and do not expect those causes to recur so they can justify an additional investment in the project. Secondly, success in the project becomes inextricably tied up with their desire to prove themselves competent, so the desired outcome has shifted from merely being a successful project to that of being a successful project PLUS a successful government, organization or individual. The initial objective is swamped by the personal objective.

I said earlier that it is “almost’ inevitable for good money to be thrown after bad. The exception occurs when a different person makes the second decision whether or not to make an additional investment. Successful Banks demonstrate this when they turn non-performing loans to a “work-out’ unit rather than have the original loan officer attempt to resurrect the deal with the client – that way you get escalation!

If the President, the decider and Commander in Chief, is to be responsible for our future strategy in Iraq, we run the danger that he will be concerned about justifying his prior decisions and, as he seems to have done, put in a politically acceptable small number of troops rather than making a decision based on the facts on the grounds which would indicate either withdrawal or a massive increase as suggested by the Army's counter-terrorism handbook.

The President and Vice-President, who may be the true decider, should recuse themselves from this decision. It is essential for new eyes, with no emotional commitment to the past decisions, to make the difficult choices.

In fact, we have the necessary information with the Iraq study group's recommendations. Let us adopt them.

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