WMDs and How People Make Good Decisions

On Meet the Press, Tim Russert asked President Bush, “But can you launch a preemptive war without iron clad, absolute intelligence that he had weapons of mass destruction?” Only people with no understanding of strategic decision-making could ask such a silly question. 2,500 years ago, Sun Tzu said it clearly: you cannot know the costs of going to war and you cannot know the benefits either. Period. No one in any competitive environment has the luxury of making decisions with perfect knowledge. So how are good decision made? The problem is that most people like Mr. Russet don’t know.
The Art of War describes decision-making simply. You calculate what you think the costs and benefits of action and inaction are. Then, you calculate those same cost and benefits if you are wrong. Then you decide. For example, in the case of Iraq, Bush clearly thought that Iraq had the ability to create weapons of mass destruction and was supporting terrorists. The cost of inaction was an attack on the US that kills tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, or millions and which would cost our economy trillions of dollars. He balanced this against the cost of dethroning Saddam, hundreds of lives, tens of billions of dollars. So far, it is a no-brainer. We go to war. But then we do the second part of the process, what if we are wrong? What if Saddam has no weapons or isn’t tied with terrorists? We still lose the lives and money in war, but what do we gain? The Iraq people are freed from a brutal dictator, an island of democracy is established in the Middle East, and nations supporting terrorists and developing WMDs get a strong message about the risks in involved. America loses some credibility but, overall, this is still a good decision.

Now, imagine if the calculation had been reversed. Suppose we thought Saddam didn’t have WMDs or ties to terrorist and that the only benefit of war would be the liberation of Iraq. We would still have to ask, what if we are wrong? What if millions of American’s die because we miscalculated? Again, the logic leads us to war. Of course, it won’t please people such as Tim Russert who think that you can get perfect knowledge before you act, but there is no pleasing these people anyway.