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Most intriguing game-theoretic comment of the year thus far

Friday, September 20th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — at the intersection of zero-sum and non-zero sum games ]

And the hands-down winner is — opening today’s Washington Post to the op-ed page — President Hassan Rouhani of Iran, who says:

The world has changed. International politics is no longer a zero-sum game but a multi-dimensional arena where cooperation and competition often occur simultaneously. Gone is the age of blood feuds. World leaders are expected to lead in turning threats into opportunities.

I think he’s right, though I’ll leave the question of whether he means it TBD — but if he does, that’s a.. that’s a.. that’s a Major Game Changer — and verra interesting in any case:

  • What’s the non-zero-sum strategy when there may be one or more zero-sum players in the game?
  • **

    For your further edification, here’s what a genuine game-changer, in both literal and metaphoric sense of the phrase, looks like:


    The court is a tennis court, the game in play is revolutionary politics, the event is the Tennis Court Oath, where the members of the National Assembly gathered to swear “not to separate, and to reassemble wherever circumstances require, until the constitution of the kingdom is established” — the drawing is by Jacques-Louis David.

    Should we Laugh or Cry?

    Friday, September 13th, 2013

    [by Mark Safranski a.k.a “zen“]

    Throughout the past half century or so, it became commonplace for high level officials to speak to reporters cloaked in anonymity as “sources in the White House” or who were “close to the Oval Office” in order to pass along slightly harder truths or acidic observations to the public without attribution. Generally, these comments, however troubling the format, were usually smarter and more honest than the ones that could be heard extolling the administration line at official briefings or press conferences.

    Well, the Obama administration is working hard to reverse that impression. In a little over a week, we have had these gems from senior officials regarding Syria and Russia:

    A second senior official, who has seen the most recent planning, offered this metaphor to describe such a strike: If Assad is eating Cheerios, we’re going to take away his spoon and give him a fork. Will that degrade his ability to eat Cheerios? Yes. Will it deter him? Maybe. But he’ll still be able to eat Cheerios.

    This is actually the less disturbing of the two examples. While inane as a choice of metaphor, it did at least correctly indicate the strategic insignificance of doing a “protest bombing” of Assad narrowly targeted to punish for chemical weapons use. That’s something.

    This next one is truly amazing:

    “Putin is now fully invested in Syria’s CW (chemical weapons) disarmament….

    He put this proposal forward and he’s now invested in it. That’s good. That’s the best possible reaction. He’s fully invested in Syria’s CW disarmament and that’s potentially better than a military strike – which would deter and degrade but wouldn’t get rid of all the chemical weapons. He now owns this. He has fully asserted ownership of it and he needs to deliver.”

    Yes, I’m certain Putin will put that right at the top of his to-do list now that he has finished submitting his ghost-written op-ed spiking the ball and doing a five minute celebratory dance in the White House end zone.

    Let’s hope that was cynical posturing and not an expression of the administration’s operative geopolitical power calculus because it sounds remarkably like a political consultant type trying to import the effects of domestic political spinmeistership into foreign policy making. It is at best an exercise in wishful thinking unhinged from the cold and cruel realities of international relations.

    If it represents the quality of thinking on foreign policy surrounding the President of the United States, then we may all be in big trouble.

    More on Strategy

    Friday, March 30th, 2012

    Two posts worth your attention:

    Gulliver at Inkspots continues the strategy convo between myself and Jason Fritz with a major post of extended commentary:

    Let’s just be up front with each other: this is a really long rant about strategy 

    ….I’m willing to concede that the line between civilian and military reponsibilities in strategy formation and the associated operational planning is a blurry and unstable one, and that what I’ve laid out as the normative standard isn’t always the way things play out in reality. You certainly shouldn’t take anything I’ve written above as an exculpatory argument for our elected officials. But more on this a bit later.

    As for our man Carl: Jason’s choice of Clausewitz quote is simultaneously interesting and surprising to me. Committed students of the sage will recognize it from perhaps the most remarked-upon pages of On War: Book Eight, Chapter 6B. (If it were an episode of “Friends,” they’d call it The One With the Politics By Other Means.) The language Jason excerpted is from the 19th-century Graham translation; just for the purpose of clarity, let’s look at the somewhat more fluent Paret/Howard version:

    In making use of war, policy evades all rigorous conclusions proceeding from the nature of war, bothers little about ultimate possibilities, and concerns itself only with immediate probabilities. Although this introduces a high degree of uncertainty into the whole business, turning it into a kind of game, each government is confident that it can outdo its opponent in skill and acumen. (606)This is a pretty difficult passage (especially as I present it here, mostly out of context) but I take it to mean that governments are little interested in ruminations on war’s escalatory momentum in the direction of its absolute form, but rather in how violence may be used to achieve concrete political goals. But the paradoxical reality is that addition of violence to politics – violence that is fueled in part by hatred and enmity, violence that is fundamental to war’s nature and sets it off as distinct from all other human activity – actually re-shapes the character of the political contest. War’s essential violence pressures the political contest to take on the character of a duel or a sporting event; without the harness of policy, war risks becoming a self-contained competition conducted according to its own rules, one where victory is not the mere accomplishment of political objectives but rather a revision of the relationship between the two competitors such that the victor is free to enact his preferences. 

    The “high degree of uncertainty” that Clausewitz concedes is introduced “into the whole business” is produced by divergence between the things we do in war and the things they are meant to achieve. In limited war, our actions are conceived as violent but discrete and purposive acts of policy, while as war moves toward its absolute form our actions are increasingly divorced from discrete political objectives short of the destruction of our enemy. To put it simply, shit gets crazy in war. [….] 

    In a different strategic venue, Matt Armstrong at MountainRunner analyzes  The President’s National Framework for Strategic Communication (and Public Diplomacy) for 2012 :

    It should be common knowledge that the “information consequences of policy ought always be taken into account, and the information man ought always to be consulted. This statement, from 1951, is reflected in Eisenhower’s dictum of the next year that “everything we say, everything we do, and everything we fail to say or do will have its impact in other lands.” It was understood then that words and deeds needed more than just synchronization: public opinion could be leveraged to support and further the execution of foreign policy.

    What was true then is more so in a modern communication environment of empowerment. The interconnected systems of Now Media, spanning offline and online mediums, democratizes influence, and undermines traditional models of identity and allegiance as demands on assimilation fade as “hyphens” become commas. What emerges is a new marketplace for loyalty that bypasses traditional barriers of time, geography, authority, hierarchy, culture, and language. Information flows much faster; at times it is instantaneous, decreasing the time allowed to digest and comprehend the information, let alone respond to it. Further, information is now persistent, allowing for time-shifted consumption and reuse, for ill or for good. People too can travel the globe with greater ease and increased speed.

    It is in this evolving environment that the President issued an updated “National Framework for Strategic Communication” for 2012 (3.8mb PDF, note: the PDF has been fixed and should be once again visible to all). This report updates the 2010 report issued last March that was little more than a narrative on how the Government was organized for strategic communication. The report is required under the National Defense Authorization Act of 2009.

    Some highlights from the 2012 Framework: [….]

    Major General Fuller is Right

    Saturday, November 5th, 2011

    Major General Peter Fuller lost it yesterday and committed an unpardonable political sin – spontaneously telling the truth to reporters:

    US general fired from Afghan training job

    ….Referring to Karzai’s recent assertion that Afghanistan would side with Pakistan if Pakistan got into a war with the U.S., Fuller was quoted as calling the comments “erratic,” adding, “Why don’t you just poke me in the eye with a needle! You’ve got to be kidding me . I’m sorry, we just gave you $11.6 billion and now you’re telling me, I don’t really care?”

    Fuller said the Afghans have at times made unreasonable requests for U.S. assistance.

    “You can teach a man how to fish, or you can give them a fish,” Fuller was quoted as saying. “We’re giving them fish while they’re learning, and they want more fish! (They say,) ‘I like swordfish, how come you’re giving me cod?’ Guess what? Cod’s on the menu today.”

    Fuller also said the Afghans don’t understand the extent to which the U.S. is in economic distress or the “sacrifices that America is making to provide for their security.” He said the Afghans are “isolated from reality.”

    Allen said the “unfortunate comments” don’t represent the solid U.S. relationship with the Afghan government….

     The relationship of the Karzai’s regime to the United States is a lot like that of a 32 year-old drug-addict living in his parent’s basement. The parents keep muddling through life, hoping their son will suddenly wake up one morning and decide to clean up his act, get a job, move out, get married and have 2.5 kids, a dog and a house with a white picket fence. The parents cling to that hope and cherish it but the reality is that the son staggers out of bed every day, sometime in the afternoon, only to go find their dealer, score some heroin and get high.

    Karzai’s egime has less chance of governing Afghanistan effectively than the average heroin addict does of kicking their habit. And the reason is a) far and away Hamid Karzai and, secondarily b) Most Afghans fear a strong central government. The US has managed to do two things at the strategic level that a nation should never do in fighting a counterinsurgency war – support a government  that will not take sensible measures even in the interest of it’s own survival and permit insurgents a sanctuary and third country sponsorship.

    General Fuller’s career is now effectively over. Too bad we cannot say the same for Mr. Karzai.

    The Limbaugh Rush to Erroneous Judgment

    Saturday, October 15th, 2011

    [ by Charles Cameron — Limbaugh, “Christianity” of the Lord’s Resistance Army, Uganda, sectarianism, RJ Rushdoony ]



    flag of the Lord’s Resistance Army — Wikipedia

    Matt Yglesias trumpets “Rush Limbaugh Endorses The Lord’s Resistance Army” on ThinkProgress today, and goes on to say:

    I don’t have a really strong view on whether or not it’s advisable to dispatch a small number of US combat troops to help fight the Lord’s Resistance Army. My instinct is to be skeptical. I want to see less military intervention, not more. But Rush Limbaugh’s instinct is to embrace brutal murderers…

    That last sentence is an over the top ad hominem attack, if you ask me. But Limbaugh himself is so far over the top he’s almost reached the bottom.

    Limbaugh may not be embracing or endorsing Joseph Kony‘s Lord’s Resistance Army, but this is some of what a transcript of his show has to say about them:

    Lord’s Resistance Army are Christians. They are fighting the Muslims in Sudan. And Obama has sent troops, United States troops to remove them from the battlefield, which means kill them.

    The transcript shows that Rush draws at least some of his knowledge of the subject from a report by Jacob Tapper of ABC News, which is mentioned in Limbaugh’s second sentence with a link provided at the end of his transcript.


    The Limbaugh transcript ends after a caller has apparently updated Limbaugh on some of the facts:

    Is that right? The Lord’s Resistance Army is being accused of really bad stuff? Child kidnapping, torture, murder, that kind of stuff? Well, we just found out about this today. We’re gonna do, of course, our due diligence research on it. But nevertheless we got a hundred troops being sent over there to fight these guys — and they claim to be Christians.

    Due diligence? Isn’t that something you do before you blurt?

    If Limbaugh had continued to the end of the 12 paragraph ABC report he referenced, he’d have read this quote from the 2010 Statement by the President on the Signing of the Lord’s Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act of 2009:

    The Lord’s Resistance Army preys on civilians – killing, raping, and mutilating the people of central Africa; stealing and brutalizing their children; and displacing hundreds of thousands of people. Its leadership, indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, has no agenda and no purpose other than its own survival. It fills its ranks of fighters with the young boys and girls it abducts. By any measure, its actions are an affront to human dignity.

    Is Limbaugh in need of an intern to do some fact-checking, perhaps?


    Here’s Limbaugh again:

    Now, up until today, most Americans have never heard of the combat Lord’s Resistance Army. And here we are at war with them. Have you ever heard of Lord’s Resistance Army, Dawn? How about you, Brian? Snerdley, have you? You never heard of Lord’s Resistance Army? Well, proves my contention, most Americans have never heard of it, and here we are at war with them.

    I know I’ve been tracking them for quite a while myself, because I quoted the estimable Helena Cobban‘s JustWorldNews piece announcing a “second-stage peace accord” between the Ugandan government and LRA in May 2007 — but I also have a 2002 article from the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) magazine Developments, buried in among the files I brought over from an older computer, which contains one striking piece of evidence that I’d love to follow up on.

    In this article, no longer available at the DFID site, but which can now be retrieved from the Internet Archive — DFID Media Fellow Maya Deighton reports as though it’s common knowledge that Kony at one point converted to Islam:

    The rebels’ leader is a religious fanatic called Joseph Kony, who hides out for most of the time in southern Sudan.

    Kony manages to combine a heady blend of occultism, born-again Christianity, and most recently, a much-proclaimed conversion to Islam, with his campaign of terror and child abduction.


    Muslim, Christian, spiritualist, shamanic, syncretistic, tribal, or merely incoherent in belief, the LRA has long been known for its brutality. Deighton continues:

    Known as the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), the force of 10,000 recruits is a rag-tag one. It is made up of highly powerful commanders, who roam in the vast, wild bushlands of northern Uganda and southern Sudan, with bands of abducted children, forcing them to take part in brutal raids on their own communities.

    The commanders instruct the children to take part in arcane rituals, including smearing their bodies with shea nut oil, which they claim will magically protect them from enemy bullets.

    In sprees of frenzied violence, the children burn and loot whole villages, raping women, abducting more children of both sexes and killing men, as they rampage through.

    During the attacks, the rebels leave their unmistakable trademark by cutting off their victims lips, ears and even legs.

    If Limbaugh is so far over the top as to be close to bottoming out, Kony is crazed enough for me to forgo my usual scruples and apply the nauseating term, batshit.


    And hey – even JR Rushdoony‘s Chalcedon Foundation has known about this for ages. Their magazine featured an interview by Lee Duignon with Uganda’s Ambassador to the US, Edith Ssempala, in May 2005, titled Uganda’s War with ‘the Devil’. I don’t think Rush Limbaugh or his people had read that piece, either.

    It begins by setting the time-frame – and remember, this was published in 2005:

    “We need your prayers” to bring an end to “a spiritual war” that has ravaged northern Uganda for 19 years, Uganda’s Ambassador to the United States appealed to American Christians.

    It’s not every day you see the “spiritual warfare” meme more readily associated with C Peter Wagner and the NAR cropping up in a Rushdoony publication…

    In an exclusive interview with Chalcedon, Ambassador Edith Ssempala discussed her country’s war against the Lord’s Resistance Army – a terrorist organization that has, in the name of God, murdered tens of thousands, driven more than a million people from their homes, and abducted many thousands of children to be slaves or “soldiers.”

    “I prefer to call it the Devil’s Resistance Army,” the ambassador said. “It’s blasphemous to call it ‘the Lord’s.’ All those atrocities in the name of God.”

    [ … ]

    Self-proclaimed “General” Joseph Kony, who claims he has supernatural powers conferred on him by the Holy Spirit, created the LRA and still leads it. The government has tried many times to negotiate with him, Ms. Ssempala said – but it’s impossible to negotiate with a madman.

    “Those who’ve met with him say they can’t make any agreement with him,” the ambassador said. “He always says he needs to consult the spirits.”


    Okay, here’s another interesting bit:

    Publicly, Kony says his mission is to impose the Ten Commandments on Uganda as law. Uganda’s Christians, of course, already believe in the Ten Commandments.

    “He says he wants to establish the Ten Commandments as the nation’s law, and he violates every one of them,” Ms. Ssempala said. “Nobody knows what he really wants. He’s motivated by pure evil. He maims, he murders, he rapes. He makes children do these things as their initiation into his army. It’s demonic.”

    Also of interest is the LRA’s statement of intent, which Limbaugh quotes approvingly:

    Lord’s Resistance Army objectives. I have them here. “To remove dictatorship and stop the oppression of our people.” Now, again Lord’s Resistance Army is who Obama sent troops to help nations wipe out. The objectives of the Lord’s Resistance Army, what they’re trying to accomplish with their military action in these countries is the following: “To remove dictatorship and stop the oppression of our people; to fight for the immediate restoration of the competitive multiparty democracy in Uganda; to see an end to gross violation of human rights and dignity of Ugandans; to ensure the restoration of peace and security in Uganda, to ensure unity, sovereignty, and economic prosperity beneficial to all Ugandans, and to bring to an end the repressive policy of deliberate marginalization of groups of people who may not agree with the LRA ideology.” Those are the objectives of the group that we are fighting, or who are being fought and we are joining in the effort to remove them from the battlefield.

    Nothing much to argue with there.

    But hey, Rushdoony must have felt a little confused by these guys.  His massive Institutes of Biblical Law is dedicated to the proposition that now and for ever, Old Testament law should be the foundation of civil law – on page 18 he writes that “one God, one law” propounded in Deuteronomy 6.4 (the Shema Yisroel) is “the declaration of an absolute moral order to which man must conform”.  Joseph Kony as quoted above seems to be pretty much in agreement with that.


    But then in the LRA’s own official presentation, A Case for National Reconcilation, Peace, Democracy and Economic Prosperity for All Ugandans, we find:

    3.4. Propaganda by the Museveni regime and the media that the LRA is a group of Christian fundamentalists with bizarre beliefs whose aim is to topple the Museveni regime and replace it with governance based on the Bible’s ten commandments are despicable and must be rejected with all the contempt it deserves.


    Then again, we’re talking about Uganda here, which also gave us the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God – the Catholic splinter group which set fire to its church with four or five hundred adherents locked inside on March 17, 2000 – after their December 31st 1999 end of days had been postponed in a vision by the Virgin Mary.

    So perhaps it’s understandable if Kony’s emisary seeks to distance himself from the associations brought up by mention of the “Ten Commandments” in a Ugandan context, and sets forth a list of LRA objectives that sounds passable enough that Limbaugh can quote them with approval.


    And Rush, we’re still waiting for that overdue diligence

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