Team Obama: Game Theorists

Banal fail.

There are days when you wonder why they bother.  In two paragraphs, the New York Times – by helpfully conveying Team Obama’s message exactly as intended – inadvertently demonstrates why the Obama policy is a self-cancelling exercise:

“Qaddafi has lost the legitimacy to govern, and it is time for him to go without further violence or delay,” Mrs. Clinton told reporters after a special meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council. “No option is off the table,” she said, adding “that of course includes a no-fly zone.”

But officials in Washington and elsewhere said that direct military action remained unlikely, and that the moves were designed as much as anything as a warning to Colonel Qaddafi and a show of support to the protesters seeking to overthrow his government.

It’s the last sentence that bears examination.  “Direct military action remained unlikely.” “The moves were designed as much as anything as a warning to Colonel Qaddafi.”  If the, er, cognitive dissonance hasn’t registered with you, I recommend reading it over three more times.

A warning is about something you will actually do.  When you tell the “warnee” that you’re probably not going to do it, that you’re “just” giving him a warning, he doesn’t take that as a warning.  He takes it as a bizarre, perhaps annoying exercise in irrelevance on your part.

It gives him hope that he’s got time.  It gives him reason to think you aren’t, after all, going to do anything soon that could reshape his conditions.  It gives him a reason to wait, to keep making his own plans.  To push your envelope, which he has good reason to think might be squishy.

Only a person with the soul of a game theorist could imagine that Qaddafi will take something as a warning that has been tipped to the entire world as an empty threat by the New York Times.  Does Team Obama seriously think Qaddafi will hear Hillary Clinton’s words but not get wind of the throbbing-neon caveat being issued by Washington officials on background?  It’s 2011 now, not 1964 in Robert McNamara’s Pentagon office.  No one is that isolated from the global infosphere.

Even having to discuss the issue in these terms is a sign of Team Obama’s peculiar, quasi-academic insularity.  In its foreign policy dealings, Obama’s Oval Office cohort reminds me more every day of a treasured passage from Thomas Schelling’s once-seminal 1960 treatise, The Strategy of Conflict.  This work, built around game theory, sought to illuminate the “negotiating” behavior of the nuclear-armed great powers of the Cold War.  As with all game theory, its premises survive only by ignoring the numerous alternatives available to negotiating parties in the real world.  This passage is a memorable example:

The sophisticated negotiator may find it difficult to seem as obstinate as a truly obstinate man.  If a man knocks at a door and says that he will stab himself on the porch unless given $10, he is more likely to get the $10 if his eyes are bloodshot.*

Or, in Oklahoma, he is more likely to find himself facing the barrels of a .12-gauge shotgun. It is fine to deal away consideration of realistic alternatives for narrow analytical purposes; scientific disciplines do this all the time.  But it is, by definition, unrealistic to do it when the purposes are policy and action.

Muammar Qaddafi is not bound by the rules of a game to be persuaded by mechanistic “warnings,” as if other rules in the game somehow prevent him from knowing that the warnings are a ruse to probe his will.

If the warnings get more teeth, that will become obvious with time.  But the question is why we would want to waste time with pointless fake warnings.  If we’re lucky, we’ll just get, well, lucky, and Qaddafi will have breathed his last or have exited the country within days.  But this clearly won’t be because he found the Team Obama seminar solution – warnings with a wink – impossible to withstand.  He already knows, after all, that he can silence President Obama by taking hostages (another point NYT obediently, if unintentionally, makes again in this piece).

Interestingly, Obama couldn’t get away with this if the newspaper of record had a more critical approach to his “information” themes.  The spectacle of NYT conveying the Obama themes just as they are intended – so different from its behavior during the Bush years – is growing more like something from The Onion every day.  Any four-year-old can parse the “I’m warning you! (But I’m not really going to do anything)” dynamic – but apparently the New York Times can’t.


* Thomas C. Schelling, The Strategy of Conflict (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts. 1960.)  Quote from 1980 paperback version, pp. 22-23

J.E. Dyer blogs at Hot Air’s Green Room and Commentary’s “contentions.”   She writes a weekly column for Patheos.


26 thoughts on “Team Obama: Game Theorists”

  1. On a point of information: The statement from the Obama administration did not say or imply ” …but I’m not really going to do anything”. The statement was that “no option is off the table”. It has also been unofficially stated (probably, accurately) that direct military intervention (by the US and other NATO countries) is unlikely. This is an accurate statement of the current strategic reality. We know it. Our allies know it, and Ghaddafi, (unless he is an even bigger idiot than he appears) knows it too. If you knew anything about game theory you would know that stating something which your opponent knows to be fanciful is counterproductive to your own position. You would also know that the creation of an uncertainty in the mind of your opponent has a strategic value in itself. This is what the statements put out, officially and unofficially, by the administration are intended to do. These statements are also designed to allow the administration (and our allies) the maximum freedom of action. They also enable a discreet but protective distance to be maintained from the insurrectionists where it is in our interests to leave the Libyans retain ownership of their own insurrection.

    The factors influencing the decision to intervene at situation may yet change according to how the situation in Libya develops. We may yet need to impose a no-fly zone over Libya (not to protect the insurgents from the almost non-existant Libyan airforce, but to facilitate relief and rescue missions). The last thing we want is an armed US landing on the shores of Tripoli. Al Quaeda and its few remaining sympathizers in the Moslem world would just love to see the US and it’s allies invade yet another Moslem country.

    Your analysis and commentary on the position of the administration (no doubt, arrived at in consultation with our allies and our own military and State Department strategists) is merely argumentative and vapid.

    1. Welcome Truebrit,

      Besides wishful thinking, how does Clinton’s statement result in the creation of uncertainty in Ghaddafi’s mind?

      What leverage other than direct military intervention by the US is likely to convince him to step down?

      1. Geoffrey, it’s not Gaddafi’s mind that we’re interested in influencing.

        He has no course but to try to hold fast.

        Other minds around him……………might tack.

  2. Welcome, Truebrit. I’m sure you’ll keep the conversation lively.

    1. More like having a Tea on the deck, and having a guest deliver a lecture on the only acceptable method for making tea; commenting condescendingly on the conversation; describing the cookies as bland; and then offering that in his opinion the tea set is pedestrian…. All while (whilst? perhaps) he helps himself to all the sugar, and pockets the last of the best Darjeeling.

      I am not sure whether I have seen this in on the pages of a Douglas Adams novel, or in a Monty Python sketch.

      Lively, eh? Ok my old friend its your garden… Oh and I prefer my tea in a big piping hot mug… Jasmine mixed with a touch of Darjeeling… maybe a few shreds of zest of orange… no sugar.. no milk…

      Better yet… how about a big mug of good old fashioned hot Joe… cream…. (though my Granddad the old Navy Chief taught me to drink it with condensed milk…) no sugar.

      🙂 – John

  3. The message from the State Department to the Obama administration was, “We have to say something.” But that something had to be meaningless in realpolitik language and for consumption by the media and the public. So this is what they come up with. Maybe somebody in the State Dept. knows whats actually going on in Libya but chances are most Libyans aren’t all that on top of the situation. And if this is the case, how do we know that Gaddaffi’s opposition isn’t just as bad or worse than he is? After all, he took power in a similar uprising. Even more basic, why should the US feel compelled to get in the middle of a typical Arab tribal fracas? What would be the American reaction to foreign support for our own rebels? Would the US government be willing to capitulate to the Aryan Nation if they were encouraged by a segment of the Russian population? Or does there have to be a certain of number of gallons of blood spilled on the streets before an uprising acquires legitimacy?

    1. Taken solely at the level of categorizing the situation in Libya as a tribal conflict, there is no overriding reason for the US to expend blood and treasure.

      But when the regions unrest is considered as it relates to the US oil dependent economy and the importance of stability in that region to Western civilization’s economic viability… things get a bit more complicated, wouldn’t you agree?

      Our ban on oil exploration and development certainly has consequences, does it not?

      1. OK, the world has managed to somehow accommodate itself to the Gaddaffi regime over the past decades. Should he and his allies be overthrown, the new emirs will either be friendly to the west or unfriendly. We have no way of knowing which at this point and attempting to overtly influence the outcome would further immerse the US in a situation that it cannot control. Rest assured of one thing, however. No matter who assumes power in Libya, they will also assume control of the national checking account that is kept in the black by oil revenues. Oil will continue to flow.

  4. In poker, they call it “Limping in”. When you have a bad hand, your ante and first bet tend to reflect the fact that you are dealing with trash.

    Well we are currently Limping in.

    The correct response would have been to have quickly moved Kearsarge and whatever ships that are screening it into position to begin the personnel extraction. Enterprise and her carrier group should have been immediately dispatched to both render refugee assistance but to fly cover for other nation’s extraction operations.

    We are currently not in a position to “invade” nor do I think it either tactically or strategically wise to do so. However, IF we had an actual Commander in Chief, and a functional muscular foreign policy, we might actually have had a chance to stabilize the situation early in the process.

    Needless to say, the Obambi-Carter soft power of perpetual negotiation and deference to adversaries has left us with few viable options.

    That world is 10th century in ethos. Tribal at its core, and ultimately respects only one form of “diplomacy” – brute force.

    The One has squandered the “respect” for an attempt at “love”. What he got is the fact that we are the stalking horse of both sides in this bloody mess, and we are unlikely to have any beneficial effect regardless.

    We Limped into Korea and stalemated. We limped into Vietnam and ground up nearly 60,000 souls only to have our government limp out and betray an ally.

    We should have been in a position to contain the event and minimize the casualties to innocents by evacuating them. We did none of that, and now we are a few days late and they aren’t taking our dollars anymore.

    These are truly dangerous times. Europe will seek to pay tribute… appease… equivocate… negotiate and minimize… like old ladies facing muggers… we hand them our purses, and pray there is enough to convince them to go away.

    They will be back….


  5. Please permit me to make a provincial comment about shot guns and Oklahoma. I live in Oklahoma City. Born in North Carolina. Spent 20 years there.
    Oklahoma is covered in Beta Males, Starbucks, upper middle class snits etc. Not many shotguns in most neighborhoods.
    John (above) has it correct.
    If someone ( nation) ( group) knows at the core level that you mean business and you will back it up with overwhelming force, you rarely have to do anything. That my friends is Gamesmanship.
    I am afraid the art of being chatty in a serious situation simply implies weakness and inate fear. Very bad outcome will follow.
    Happy games to you all.

    1. Welcome, Wreed. Having been born in Oklahoma and spent much of my early life there (and still have a lot of family there), I understand where you’re coming from. I don’t know how much you get out of OKC (northwest, at a guess?), but believe me, there are plenty of shotguns in Oklahoma. Of course, since it’s a concealed-carry state, the armed are more likely to have something tidier about, when they’re away from home. 🙂

      Okies don’t make the noise about it that their good buddies to the south do (they save that for the Red River Shootout and the soon-to-be-annual pummeling of the Longhorns by the OK-State Cowboys).

      Meanwhile: agreed, on how much blather would be necessary if the president had not already frittered away much of his nation’s reputation for meaning business.

      1. Thanks for your comments! My wife (from Virginia Beach) travels quite a bit
        in central Oklahoma.My business is mostly in OKC. I do have many clients in Norman. My son will head to OU in a couple of years.
        I have traveled every part of the state. Black Mesa to Miami. Quartz Mountain (Blair is fun at night) to Hugo.
        I am glad the Cowboys got the best of the Longhorns also!!!!!
        I am 62 years old and have never been as worried as I am now about the office of the presidency. I do not have extremist views and understand the heavy burdens the great office holds.
        My gut tells me the President does not have the best interests of this country in his heart.
        I did not have the same negative feelings during President Clintons term. He was an experienced manager. Understood the office and yielded to reality when the facts were clear to him.

        1. walt reed — (great handle, BTW) — oops, you did the thing that makes your comment require approval again! If you change your user name or use a different email, the comment has to go to moderation. But if you just use one of the two user names that have been “approved” so far, with the same email address, your comments will fly right in. Sorry about that! You wouldn’t believe the spam that piles up.

          I think Obama is waking a lot of people up. I’d say you’re lucky to live in Oklahoma, if you have to be anywhere while this is going on, but of course, I’m biased. Can’t believe your wife is from Va Beach –I’ve lived in the Tidewater area, off and on, for over 9 years. (Not there now, obviously.) I was stationed in Norfolk for three tours, and my dad was stationed in Portsmouth for a year, although we lived in Chesapeake. That was 40 years ago; things are a lot different now.

          Go Cowboys indeed! I’m a lifelong Sooner fan, but both my brothers went to OSU. Except for the Bedlam game, you’ll always find me cheering for the Cowboys.

          1. My wifes’ Mom and Dad were Navy Lifers. She has a brother in VB and another in Raleigh. They all meet at the Outer Banks every June for a Beach Week.
            The very best to you.

    2. BTW — your comments will all post automatically from now on. There’s a one-time “approval” requirement to keep down the spam.

  6. Striking that a population of 6.4 million Libyans hosted 1.5 million foreign workers.

    Is the opposition about Qaddafi? Does not seem to be about jobs or food prices.

    The air routes that France and/or UK take in their announced repatriation airlifts of (tens of) thousands Egyptian migrant workers on the Tunisian border may not require any protection.

    The real tragedy is the one+ million migrant workers from Sub-Saharan Africa who are mostly trapped inside Libya, and reported to be targeted by the opposition as ‘Qaddafi mercenaries’.

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