Iraq, Al Qaeda, and Zero-Sum Games

I always thought that a zero-sum game was a situation where one player’s gain or loss was exactly balanced by the losses or gains of the other player(s). With a hat tip to Josh Marshall, we see that this term is how White House Homeland Security Advisor Frances Townsend dodged a very good question from CNN’s Ed Henry:

We know that intelligence estimates received by the White House prior to the invasion of Iraq warned that the invasion and occupation could give new life to al Qaeda – a boon for recruitment, fundraising and more. Yesterday, CNN’s Ed Henry asked Townsend precisely this question. Weren’t you warned about this in advance of the war and haven’t those predictions now proven out? Isn’t al Qaeda stronger and aren’t we more vulnerable because of the invasion of Iraq. Townsend’s answer is that of course al Qaeda will use our attacks on them for propaganda purposes to further grow their movement. But it’s silly to argue that we should never attack our enemies just because they’ll try to use our attacks against us in this way. It’s not a zero sum game, she argues. Now, Henry didn’t have the perfect follow-up ready for this response. But honestly it’s not always easy to parry this sort of bamboozlement perfectly in real time.

Well maybe. As I was watching Townsend babble about zero-sum games, I was thinking – if it’s not zero, then it must be positive or negative. Josh takes us down the road where this follow-up question might have lead:

But the key point is that Townsend dodges the essential issue. This would be a decent response if people were making it as an argument against our invasion of Afghanistan, because that was after all al Qaeda’s base of operation. We were attacking them where they were. So it would be silly or at least a weak argument to say we shouldn’t have attacked Afghanistan just because al Qaeda would use the attack as a propaganda tool against us. As Townsend’s logic suggests, sure they might use it for their media campaign. But that’s far outweighed by the benefit of destroying their sanctuary. But that’s the heart of the issue, the one Townsend dodges and which Henry unfortunately didn’t press. Iraq wasn’t a sanctuary or recruiting or training ground for al Qaeda before we invaded. This has now been as definitively established as proving a negative ever can be. So, contra Townsend, it really is a zero sum game for us since we did nothing to hurt al Qaeda by invading Iraq – they weren’t there and had no prospect of being there. But we did help them almost immeasurably by giving the whole organization a new lease on life for recruitment, fundraising and more. And the rising unpopularity of the United States in the Muslim world because of the invasion has undoubtedly played a large role in preventing Pervez Musharraf from keeping al Qaeda from reestablishing itself in Pakistan.

While this is a very nice summary of the facts, let me suggest we did not have a non-zero-sum game here after all. Non-zero-sum games are also possible where the aggregate gains and losses is either less than or more than zero. In economics, we often think of trade as a positive sum game. If Townsend was trying to bamboozle the press that invading Iraq was a positive sum game, one would have to be a fool to think that. The truth is that we likely lost a lot more than Al Qaeda gained here. Not that Al Qaeda didn’t gain a lot. Before 3/19/2003, they were on the run and had absolutely no means for trapping us in a quagmire as we occupied a Muslim nation. But then George W. Bush gave them what Osama bin Laden called a “gift from God”. So now Al Qaeda is back with us trapped in the Iraq quagmire, a training ground for new Al Qaeda troops, and some of the best Al Qaeda propaganda that we American taxpayers could ever give them. And did I forget to mention how the decision on 3/19/2003 has put tremendous strains on our military?

No, Al Qaeda gained a lot from the decision made on 3/19/2003 but we have lost a lot more. The sad truth is that this chain of very unfortunate events was predicted by our intelligence but the White House choose to ignore these warnings.

Update: Another hat tip to Josh’s blog with David Kurtz finding out what’s gone wrong with US national security since 2001 in this interview:

MB: Would you consider a position in business or on Wall Street?
Condi Rice: I don’t know what I’ll do long-term. I’m a terrible long-term planner.

No argument here!