The TimesNovember 01, 2006Understand Chelsea versus Sheffield, and you will see the Iraq game plan

Daniel Finkelstein, supporter of the War in Iraq

Sheffield United VS Chelsea, October 2006

CLEAR THE AREA, then stand well back. I am about to deal with a very serious subject in a manner that will seem frivolous, self-serving and in defiance of common sense. My job will be to persuade you that I have been none of those things. Wish me luck.

I intend to explain my view of the Iraq war by drawing an analogy with Premiership football. Told you.

I strongly supported taking action in Iraq. I believed that the containment regime established after the Gulf War was breaking down. Experience suggested that every time Saddam began to think that international pressure on him was lessening, he would respond by becoming more aggressive.

I feared that this aggression might at some point involve him using weapons of mass destruction again.

So, after 9/11, I concluded that leaving him in power was too great a risk and that, for various practical reasons, now was the best time to act. Others, of course, reached a different view about the balance of risk.

Many of these were to be found among the MPs calling for an inquiry into “the way in which the responsibilities of government were discharged in relation to Iraq”.

Another of the critics was my colleague Matthew Parris. In these pages a few days ago he made a robust attack on those who supported the war. He declared that he did not believe that current difficulties had been caused by failures of military conduct or planning. “The strategy failed,” he said “because of one big, bad idea at its very root. Your [the neocons] idea that we kick the door in. Everything has flowed from that.”

There are a number of ways of replying to such critics and you’ll be familiar with most of them — the war isn’t over, so we can’t judge its full impact; there have been many good results of removing Saddam as well as bad ones; almost everyone believed there were weapons of mass destruction; the military planning was lamentable and Matthew’s assertion that this is irrelevant is merely that — an assertion. And so on. But I am not going to use these arguments here.

Instead, I intend to make a much harder argument. I intend to make the case that you cannot judge the quality of a political decision by its outcome.

And this is where football comes into it. Last weekend Chelsea (Premier League champions) played Sheffield United (down at the bottom of the table). If I had offered you £5 if you could pick the winner, which side would you have chosen? Chelsea, right?

Now, seven out of ten times this would have been correct and you would have won the fiver. A couple of games might have ended in a draw. But once every so often, Sheffield United will pull off a victory. The pundits will pore over the game trying to work out how it happened, but no one will be completely certain. And you? You might feel mildly foolish.

Yet did Sheffield United’s victory mean that your bet was the wrong one? Of course not. To have predicted a Sheffield victory would have been silly, since most of the time it would have been wrong.

Naturally, the critics will have suggested that you were too quick to assume Chelsea’s superiority in this particular game.

You should have been more careful, looking at Chelsea’s injury list or Sheffield’s morale this month, or whatever. But this would have risked allowing your choice to be influenced by things that are entirely irrelevant. Experience strongly suggests that a cooler, more consistent view is better in the long run.

That’s how professional gamblers can win over time. You were right to back Chelsea even though they lost.

You cannot, in other words, judge the quality of a decision by its outcome.

This football stuff, of course, is only an analogy. Questions of war and peace are deadly serious and there is more at stake than a fiver and mild foolishness. The principle, however, holds.

The outcome of any political decision is uncertain. You use your best estimate of the probabilities of different results and make a choice. Even if you have calculated the probabilities correctly and made a sensible choice, the outcome might still be a poor one. Only an analysis of the results of repeated decisions can provide a proper insight into whether your choice was a good one.

This may seem obvious but, in fact, we rarely look at decisions in this way. Let me use Vietnam as an example. Forests have been cut down printing books about why the decision to prosecute the Vietnam War was wrong. But what if it wasn’t? No one can doubt that the war was a disastrous episode, that it ended badly. But you can’t judge the decision by this one outcome alone.

What if, instead of viewing the Vietnam War as a single episode, you view the decision as one of a long series? America decided to confront Soviet influence aggressively wherever it reared its head. Mostly this strategy was successful but, naturally, sometimes individual decisions produced a calamitous outcome. Luck plays a role as well as error. The Cuban missile crisis is viewed as a great triumph. It is separated by the thinnest margin from being the worst event in the history of mankind.

Apply this to the Iraq war. The critics believe that Mr Blair should have defied the request from our closest ally and chosen to stand aside and do nothing about Saddam.

They reach this point with two sleights of hand that make the decision to go to war seem impossibly stupid. The first is to criticise the known outcome of the course taken without reference to the unknown outcome of the course not taken. Not prosecuting the war would have meant leaving Saddam in power, followed in due course by his mad, murderous sons. If you ignore the possible result of allowing this then, of course, the war becomes difficult to explain.

The second thing the critics do is to consider the Iraq war as an isolated decision, rather than one in a long series. It can’t be looked at like that.

Even if you consider the history of policy towards Saddam alone, the decision to remove him is simply one among many.

But the Iraq invasion also has to be seen as one decision among many in the War on Terror, in the recent history of liberal interventionism and in the long course of the special relationship.

On the whole, I believe that robust partnership with the United States, and a strong military approach to dangerous, aggressive dictators with nuclear ambitions is a better foreign policy than the alternatives.

And on the whole, I think that believing intelligence reports about weapons of mass destruction is a more sensible thing to do than ignoring them. That’s why I supported the war in Iraq. And why I still believe that decision was the right one.