The Usual Suspects

Friday, August 18th, 2006

Wretchard looks at Thomas Schelling’s game theory and its implications for modern policy, using an illustrative example from The Usual Suspects:

First described is the basic notion of commitment, which communicates to the enemy that you will do what you undertake. Commitment makes deterrence credible and credibility is the essential problem. “The most difficult part is communicating your intentions to your enemies. They must believe that you are committed to fighting them in order to defend” what you say you will defend for them to take you seriously. As Verbal Kint put it “to be in power, you didn’t need guns or money or even numbers. You just needed the will to do what the other guy wouldn’t.” To accomplish it no matter what. Schelling taught that threats are more credible if you “burn your bridges or ships” thereby making it clear that you have only one option: fight. When the Hungarian mob invaded Soze’s home to intimidate him into submitting, he simply killed his family first, illustrating Schelling’s point that to truly be believed “you must get yourself into a position where you cannot fail to react as you said you would”. Such is this power that when the fictional Kaiser Soze demonstrated absolute commitment he ceased to be simply a man and became a force of nature.

Tom Schelling’s key contribution was to establish on a sound mathematical basis the role of will — expressed as commitment — in war. Deterrence was not simply a matter of possessing advanced weapons. That was only half the equation. The other half was to establish that you were absolutely ready to use those weapons to your purpose. And given a choice between superiority in weapons and ascendance in will, weapons always came in second. Die Welt relates the experience of an Israeli officer who fought Hezbollah during the early 1980s. Israel had artillery, tanks, airplanes to Hezbollahs guns and knives. But Israel was a liberal democracy and Hezbollah a ruthless criminal organization. The overmatch in will made knives were more powerful than tanks because Hezbollah was willing to use them unhesitatingly. “Hezbollah’s barbarism is legendary. Gen. Effe Eytam, an Israeli veteran of that first Lebanon war, tells of how — after Israel had helped bring “Doctors without Borders” into a village in the 1980s to treat children — local villagers lined up 50 kids the next day to show Eytam the price they pay for cooperating with the West. Each of the children had had their pinky finger cut off.”

None of the weapons in the IDF arsenal could level this disparity in will.

Wretchard then goes on to cite Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who made this comment in his speech to the Harvard class of 1978:

No weapons, no matter how powerful, can help the West until it overcomes its loss of willpower. In a state of psychological weakness, weapons become a burden for the capitulating side. To defend oneself, one must also be ready to die; there is little such readiness in a society raised in the cult of material well-being. Nothing is left, then, but concessions, attempts to gain time and betrayal.

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