War games: Making sense of the conflict over war with Iraq
Players in this deadly contest taunt and tease, even terrify each other, deftly skirting the edge of ruin in an attempt to intimidate one of the dramatis personae into backing down and consequently accepting defeat.
The theoretically savvy explain this notion in terms of a game of "chicken." Film buffs will recall a popular scene from the memorable 1955 James Dean flick, Rebel Without a Cause, in which two crazed drivers gun their cars and head for the edge of a cliff, with the last to swerve being deemed the winner. Evidently, in this scenario, if one driver swerves and the other stays on course, the result is bad for the loser -- but not near as bad as it would be if both decide to drive on and over the edge.
In a present-day remake of that Hollywood classic -- with a political twist -- a discerning director could easily cast President Bush and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in the roles of the maniac drivers. As war clouds gather over Iraq, the nerve-racking question for a global audience to consider is, who will veer off first?
Rhetoric on both sides suggests that neither leader is willing to backpedal. The Bush administration has been most vocal in its denunciation of Mr. Hussein's Iraq, and it won't let anyone stand in the way of American military justice. The president's latest threats have even forced the United Nations Security Council into a corner. In an address to the General Assembly last month, a visibly incensed Mr. Bush warned the council that if it didn't act decisively to disarm Iraq, the United States would take action on its own. He has since reiterated that warning: "If the United Nations can't make its mind up, if Saddam Hussein won't disarm, we will lead a coalition to disarm him for the sake of peace," he told reporters earlier this week.
The Iraqi side is likewise engaged in its own oratory. One of Mr. Hussein's top advisers said Monday that the Bush administration's failure to threaten tough action against North Korea since its acknowledgment of a nuclear weapons program showed that the real U.S. objective in threatening Iraq was "oil and Israel," not the administration's professed concern about secret weapons programs.
Relentless finger-pointing and speechifying aside, Mr. Bush's threats have, in fact, begun to perturb Iraq's ruling Baath Party, or so it would seem. Since the mudslinging began several months ago, Mr. Hussein has consented to allow U.N. weapons inspectors to return to Iraq, where they haven't been permitted to set foot since December 1998. While requesting a comprehensive review of the disarmament file to assess the degree of Iraq's implementation of its obligations, Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri told U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan that he hoped the "review session" in Baghdad would serve "to establish a solid base for the next stage of monitoring and inspection activities," indicating Iraq's willingness to cooperate with inspectors. Also, in what amounts to a landmark shift in policy, Iraq, for the first time in 23 years, began freeing thousands of political prisoners a few days ago under an unprecedented amnesty by Mr. H! ussein. The move is seen as an attempt to rally Iraqis behind his leadership against a possible U.S. attack.
From these latest gestures, one thing is clear: Mr. Hussein is squirming. He isn't necessarily about to comply with the United Nations after more than a decade of defiance, but he¡¯s definitely signaling a readiness to resume dialogue on outstanding issues in an effort to ward off mounting U.S. pressure. One might infer that the Iraqi dictator is well versed in the game of chicken. He sees the edge of the cliff looming ominously and is beginning to feel rather uneasy. The mathematics of game theory would confirm his suspicion that there is no optimal way to play the game. The least drastic strategy for both sides is to swerve -- resulting in a draw, and this is probably what he's hoping for.
However, Mr. Bush isn't letting up on the gas. In the latest round of coercive diplomacy, an obscure caveat has been added to the administration's previously stated policy of "regime change." Now, according to government sources, Mr. Hussein can stay if he meets "all the conditions of the United Nations."
"That in itself will signal the regime has changed," the president told reporters recently.
The ridiculousness of this stipulation is immediately apparent. But before you dismiss the administration's course of action as unreasonably hard-line, think for a moment about what Mr. Bush's ostensibly irrational bullying has achieved thus far. We are seeing sweeping changes in Iraq largely as a result of the president's threats, and while I do not endorse them, I have to admit, they've been pretty darn effective!
In fact, there is ample international precedent for the use of intimidation to achieve an ultimately stable and peaceful balance of power. Take the case of Northern Ireland. Political scientist and game theorist Steven Brams of New York University has been studying this hot spot among others to explain his "Theory of Moves," a powerful extension of game theory now attracting much interest among experts in conflict resolution.
The Irish struggle is a dispute between the Irish Republican Army (IRA) -- determined to make Northern Ireland part of the Irish republic -- and the British government and Ulster Unionists, who are just as determined to see the province remain in the United Kingdom.
In this scenario, standard game theory predicts that the most plausible result is for the British government to maintain an uncompromising approach, while the IRA yields. However, this does not explain why the British agreed in 1998 to the power-sharing accord of the Good Friday agreement, when the IRA had already called a cease-fire.
According to an analysis based on the Theory of Moves (ToM) and published last year by Brams and Jeffrey Togman, a political scientist at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, the answer to that conundrum lies in the evolution of the Irish conflict over time.
Robert Matthews, a physicist at England's Aston University, writing in WorldLink, the magazine of the World Economic Forum, explains the Brams-Togman analysis: "After it flared up in 1969, the conflict remained locked in hopeless stalemate for 25 years, with neither the IRA nor the British government conceding an inch. Then in 1994 the IRA called a cease-fire --apparently in the belief that a conciliatory move would prompt the British government to soften its position.
"But the IRA's move had a rather different effect -- and one predicted by both standard game theory and ToM: it put the 'game' into its most stable state, with the British government -- having got the cease-fire it had always wanted -- having no incentive at all to soften its position. And according to standard game theory, that is where the conflict should have remained to this day.
"Events refused to follow this simple script, however. In February 1996, the IRA broke its cease-fire with a devastating explosion in Canary Wharf, a prestigious commercial area in east London. For a year it seemed as if the game was back in stalemate, with peace as far away as ever. But then, in July 1997, the IRA sprung another surprise and resumed its cease-fire.
"According to standard game theory, this made no sense, as it just put the game back into the state where the British government had won a cease-fire without making any concessions.
"As Brams and Togman point out, however, things weren't the same at all: the game had evolved, and memories of the Canary Wharf bomb were still fresh in everyone's mind. The IRA had, in effect, demonstrated that it would not allow the British government to stay in the stable state predicted by standard game theory. In the jargon of ToM, the IRA possessed "threat power" -- and with it the ability to force the game out of the supposedly stable state and into one more favorable for itself."
There are parallels in Mr. Bush's stand on Iraq. Despite Mr. Hussein's efforts at peace-making, the president refuses to let the situation rest in its present state. He is cannily leveraging America's threat power to force a regime change in Iraq -- a state more propitious for the United States. And with a little luck, the administration might just get its way.
Mr. Hussein's latest move -- throwing open the doors of his gulag-like prisons, the very mechanism used to stymie dissent for more than two decades -- might come back to haunt him. In announcing his policy of "glasnost," or openness, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev hoped that candidness about the state of the country would accelerate his "perestroika" program for economic reform. Instead it crumbled the hold of the government over Soviet society and ultimately led to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Similarly, in an attempt to revitalize his revolutionary movement in 1957, Mao Zedong loosened restrictions on free speech using the slogan, "Let a hundred flowers bloom, and a hundred schools of thought contend." He hoped the campaign would target inefficiency within China. Instead it launched widespread criticism of Communist policies. Several months later, the government began an anti-rightist campaign, purging or jailing those who spoke out.
Mr. Hussein has opened his own Pandora's box. Whether he goes the way of Mao or Gorbachev now remains to be seen.