Thursday, May 22, 2008

Obama's Appeasement Strategy

Barack Obama's indirect acknowledgement that he believes in appeasement has earned him some negative attention in the right blogosphere, but he is not necessarily wrong in his insistence that his approach deserves more respect than it is usually accorded. Appeasement got its bad name from Churchill and his allies who were upset about Neville Chamberlain's Munich Agreement with Hitler in 1938. The agreement was that England would acquiesce to Hitler's lebensraum requirements in Czechoslovakia, allowing him to annex the Sudetenland, or German-speaking portions of that county, in exchange for only a promise. Churchill said it was akin to feeding a crocodile in the hopes that it will eat you last.

Churchill's implicit assessment here is that Hitler was an unreliable partner for any agreement and that his behavior could not be changed in a useful direction by any compromise that was offered. But how did he know that? I'm with Churchill here, but not everyone is. Apparently it has now become fashionable to speculate that World War II was unnecessary, or at least inferior to some possible alternatives. I don't know whether Chamberlain shared this assumption, but there could have been any number of reasons why he adopted the appeasement strategy. The kindest take is that Chamberlain hoped that Hitler was honorable but knew that the British were unprepared to fight. The right strategy in that case would be for Chamberlain to pretend to believe, hiding his fear and guile. Perhaps, Time would be more his friend than Hitler's. Hitler would, for a while at least, be mollified and turn his attentions elsewhere. Unfortunately, Chamberlain squandered the extra time by sticking with cronies and excluding Churchill from power. And in all likelihood, Chamberlain was not faking. He was, at least in my opinion, simply self-deluded, thinking that the best hope for avoiding war was to avoid any appearances of preparing for war. Understanding Hitler as we do at this remove of time, it is hard to forgive Chamberlain. Revisionism aside, it was a mistake … but others havemade the same mistake – with Stalin, with Castro, with Putin, with Arafat. Arguing to the contrary, however, there have been cases where it wasn't a mistake – with Sadat, with Gorbachev … who else? It can happen.

My real concern here is the nature of appeasement, and that brings me to Game Theory. International relationships often correlate well with a peculiar game called the Prisoner's Dilemma. In this game, modeled after the situation of captured criminals, A is paired with a B, a partner in crime. A does not trust B, but depends on B's cooperation. For a given iteration of the game, A is confronted with a single choice. Not knowing what B will do, A can take either a take cooperative or a hostile position with respect to B. The payoffs are these: If both cooperate, both do tolerably well. If they are equally hostile, both do poorly. If the responses are asymmetrical, i.e. under the condition of betrayal, then one prospers and the other does poorly indeed.

A typical strategy of responses can either be blind or triggered. Hitler's strategy was blind. He just took what he wanted. His strategy was blind to the benefits of cooperation. An alternative blind strategy might be randomized choices, where cooperation and hostility are played without regard to the partner's actions. Another blind strategy is to always cooperate. It works quite well in a cooperative world. But in a mixed or hostile world, it could be called by another name – "surrender". Ask yourself this, can an eloquent speech in the House of Commons turn a hostile world into a cooperative world?

The other large class of response strategies is "triggered". That is, you respond to your partner's actions. The actions of your partner, determine your next choice. This strategy could contain a random element, and it could certainly be ineffective or counter-productive. It could be wimpy or punitive. To be effective, your strategy, most likely, will involve some sort of punishment for the partner's previous betrayal. The Grim Trigger strategy, for instance, switches from cooperative to hostile forever once hostility is detected. A modified form would revert to cooperation once the partner had "paid" for the first betrayal by losing every advantage that had been gained. Further modifications involve the number of betrayals before punishment is invoked and the number of gestures of good faith which are needed to get out of the doghouse.

According to game theorists, the optimal strategy, over a wide domain of assumptions and reward schedules, is a triggered strategy called "Tit-for-Tat". This means that you respond to every hostile play with a subsequent hostile response, and every cooperative play with a subsequent cooperative response. This is the method most widely practiced by governments and their tedious diplomats. If you put missiles in Turkey, I'll put missiles in Cuba. If you arrest a spy, I'll arrest a diplomat and call him a spy. The benefit of this system is that two partners playing this strategy will benefit consistently. The trouble with this system is that it can lead to a negative spiral. People can forget who started it and get locked into reciprocal hostility. You have a Hatfields-and-McCoys situation where people have forgotten the original crime and maintain a regimen of hostility for no reason beyond tradition.

This is where appeasement comes in. If sometimes you vary from the algorithm by offering an olive branch, you might be able to break out of the cycle. Turn the other cheek. Give peace a chance. Forgive and forget. … Appeasement strategies might involve ignoring the first hostile move, or even more than one – Tit-for-Two-Tats, perhaps. Jesus suggested that seven times was not enough. It depends on relative costs. It depends on specific situations. And it depends on seeing through the clinical world of game theory for the emotional aspect of the situation, if such a thing can truly be. Can't we be friends, we might ask. These slack, forgiving strategies, in the real world, are probably more effective that Tit-for-Tat, simply because a lot of perceived hostility is simply miscommunication. Good judgment allows us to be more forgiving. And some hostility, for that matter, is mere posturing for the home audience.

So,any strategy more responsive than "surrender", but less rigorous than Tit-for-Tat, can be considered a form of appeasement. That covers a lot of area, and requires a lot of careful calculation based on some true insight.

And that's where Obama comes in. He does not share the widespread assumption that Iran is uniformly and unrepentantly hostile. He might be right. Now, if Iran is actually on some sort of reasonable trigger protocol, how do we convince them to slack off? Do we punish them or placate? Since we don't talk with them, do we even know what they want? It depends on whether you've been watching.

I'm of the opinion that the powers-that-be in Iran are incapable of responding to any peace overtures. Even monumental demonstrations of good-will, such as Israel displayed by ceding Sinai to the Egyptians and Gaza to the Palestinians, will be ineffective with Iran, just as they were with Hamas, just as they were with Hitler. But, I could be wrong. Obama could be right. Unless Hillary can pull a rabbit out of a hat, I think we're going to find out. Let's hope for the best.

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At Tuesday, June 17, 2008 9:21:00 PM, Blogger jj mollo said...

Michael Ledeen has a strong opinion in the Wall Street Journal site about the character of the Iranian regime.


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