Thursday, February 3, 2011

Lives of Our Leaders: War Games

The prisoner’s dilemma, devised by scientists at the RAND Corporation in the ’50s, and the trolley problem, articulated by the English philosopher Philippa Foot (who also happened to be the grand daughter of Grover Cleveland), are both problems of philosophy frequently used in game theory, a branch of mathematics that attempts to apply abstract thought to moral dilemmas. So take Iraq, with its Sunnis and its Shiites and its ever-dwindling Christian population: let’s say you invent a game called Iraq War. The object of the game is to topple a ruthless tyrant (Saddam Hussein) whose fascist inclinations find their roots in a branch of pan-Arabism that bears some similarity to India’s right wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In the trolley problem, one person is sacrificed to save a larger group. Transposing the problem to Iraq, the challenge becomes that in order to save the country’s Shiite majority, a number of Sunnis will have to be killed. In the prisoner’s dilemma, you have two prisoners that are presented with a variety of scenarios in which they either remain silent or rat each other out. As with the prisoner’s dilemma, the two elements in society vying for power, the Sunni and Shiites, can both rat on each other or make mixed choices in which one rats and one doesn’t. If the Shiites play ball with the invading forces, the Sunnis will be extinguished. If the Sunnis play ball with the invading forces, the Shiites may again find themselves on the wrong end of the stick. If both refuse to play ball with the invading forces there may be a state of peace (the equivalent of the simplest possible outcome in the original prisoner’s dilemma). If both “defect,” to use the original nomenclature of the problem, giving up the goods on each other, then there will be some strife, but not nearly as much as there would have been for any one party if one had talked while the other hadn’t. Would that there were a game called Iraq War, which, while not winnable, might still provide some rational explanations. 

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