Monday, October 11, 2004

Happy Columbus Day
Hindsight or Not?
Every now and again I feel compelled to comment on a wider topic. Assessing the quality of past decisions has become a major political issue this year, and it has relevance in many other applications, including energy projects. The release of the final report of the weapons inspections in Iraq and the political reaction on both sides makes this discussion especially timely.

I don't recall the source of the following taxonomy of decisions and outcomes (I leave it to you to Google for it.) It goes something like this:
1. A decision that was made well and turned out well.
2. A decision that was made poorly and turned out poorly.
3. A decision that was made poorly but turned out well.
4. A decision that was made well but turned out poorly.

It's clear that type 1 is a good decision and type 2 a bad one. The outcome of type 3 is the result of other factors, often summed up as luck. But it's #4 that gives us the greatest difficulty. We're often tempted to call it a bad decision, instead of a bad outcome. But that's not really right, unless we believe that all factors can be fully anticipated, and that decision science should have eliminated all bad decisions by now.

And so we come to the reaction to Mr. Duelfer's conclusion that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction at the time the Administration decided to go to war. How should the finding of an 18-month inspection process that had unfettered access in a prostrate country bear on the quality of the decision to go to war in 2003? In my view, and given the taxonomy above, not at all. (It's highly relevant, though, to how we assess US intelligence at the time, but that's another issue.)

This argument doesn't get the Administration off the hook for either the quality of their decision or the outcome, but it frames our assessment of the decision in terms of the information in the their possession at the time, along with the context in which it was made. At this point, it is possible to look at the evidence and legitimately differ on how well that decision itself was made.

With regard to the outcome, while it's tempting to compare it to the road not taken, an exact alternate outcome is inherently unknowable and can only be guessed at through a sort of reverse scenario process. For instance, is the world in which sanctions remained tightly in place--in spite of growing international criticisms about the cost to Iraqi civilians--and in which Saddam was contained in perpetuity, more or less credible than the world in which the consensus in the Security Council collapsed following an ambiguous completion of the UN inspections headed by Dr. Blix, leading to the end of sanctions and containtment?

So where does this leave us? Voters who see the decision to invade Iraq as a Type 2 (bad decision/bad outcome) would probably vote for Senator Kerry. Those who see it as, at worst, a Type 4 (good decision/bad outcome), are likely inclined to give President Bush another four years. Unfortunately, the whole debate distracts us from questions that I find more urgent and important today: which candidate has the better and more credible plan for turning the current situation in Iraq into something good, and which candidate is better equipped to make robust decisions with the imperfect information he is likely to have in future aspects of the war on terrorism? I don't think we've heard enough about either of these areas, from either candidate.

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