Sunday, August 27, 2006

Nasrallah Reads Game Theory

Hassan Nasrallah often says that Hezbollah is well read in Israel and military lore. Apparently, his military readings have included Nobel laureate Tom Schelling or other game theorists on the strategic logics of conflict. Today, in an interview on Lebanese television, he said that Hezbollah was not preparing for a second round and he saw Israel why not preparing for a second round, but instead rebuilding the north. These remarks were intended as much for Israeli officials as well as the Lebanese. Nasrallah was following the guidelines for getting to a cooperative outcome in a non-zero sum game: Announce your intention to cooperate and your perception that the second player will cooperate. That way, the second player will not think you will defect because you think he will defect. This explicit move seems intended to reduce uncertainty, rather than deceive Israel, because Nasrallah also acknowledged that he had miscalculated the Israel repsonse to the capture of the IDF soldiers. A wise Israeli government would signal it had gotten the message. Unfortunately, Israelis have a long history of either demonizing the Arab, considering them irrational creatures or, at best, condescending to them. Nashrallah himself took particular offense at Israel hero Moshe Dayan's infamous remark that "I know that Arabs don't read." He emphasized in his autobiographical notes how much he read as child.

Nasrallah's strategic rationality raises questions about the meaning of rationality with regard to religiously motivated terrorism. We tend to call jihadists fanatics and irrational, regardless of the sophistication of their planning and methods. One reason we do is that jihadists suppress their own individual (or group) interests in favor of a distant ideological goal. Another reason is they ignore the humanity of anyone outside their own group. But that does mean jihadists or other fundamentalists are not rational. A psychological study in the mid-1990s compared the personal narratives of Islamic fundamentalists and moderates (in the religious sense). It found that both groups were equally adept at doing cost/ benefit analysis over choices. However the moderate group applied the calculus for choosing among competing goals as well as among the different means for reaching a chosen goal. The fundamentalists, who included Nasrallah as unnamed subject, selected their goals according to the dictates of Islam, as they saw them. Then they applied the rational calculus to select means for reaching these goals. While the moderates considered themselvess individuals with several social identities, the fundamentalists considered themselves examplars of Islam. They believed that Islam was a complete way of life, encompassing their entire being.

Nasrallah's interview today, as well as his management of Hezbollah's war, partly breaks the mold. In employing strategic rationality, he is acknowledging, at least formally, the rationality and, obliquely, the humanity of his opponent. His message indicates that he defines the current conflict with Israel as a non-zero sum game, where both parties can benefit from mutual cooperation, i.e., no second-round. Put another way, he accepts that Israel also wins in a win/ win outcome. Compare this position with that of Hitler, who allocated German resources to kill Jews, when they could have been better used in the German defense effort at the end of World War II. Nasrallah might not have abandoned his fundamentalist vision of a world dominated by Islam or his personal ambition of eliminating Israel. However, he clearly postpones their pursuit. Jihad can wait.


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