Team Obama: Game Theorists

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 The Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions” and as The Optimistic Conservative.  She writes a weekly column for Patheos.