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Hullabaloo


Friday, September 27, 2013

 
Mad Men (and I'm not talking about Don Draper)

by digby

In case you're busy with important things, like watching The Real Housewives, and haven't been following the detailed ins and outs of the latest Congressional brouhaha, Ed Kilgore gives you the upshot:
Originally John Boehner wanted to give his charges the chance for an extended temper tantrum about Obamacare timed to conclude when the moment arrived to keep the federal government functioning, perhaps with a bit less money. Nope, that wasn’t sufficient. So the GOP headed directly towards a government shutdown, until Boehner and company looked about two inches beyond their own noses and saw that the public was (tragically) more tolerant towards a debt limit default threat than a shutdown. So the House GOP leaders moved in that direction. But they soon discovered getting the entire House GOP to vote for a debt limit increase would require a measure that incarnated every conservative policy fantasy in sight, and they are still struggling to get the votes. So now they may throw some sand in the gears of the continuing appropriations resolution and perhaps generate a mini-shutdown as a tonic to the troops, and hope that between the appropriations and debt limit measures they can slake the destructive furies of the Republican Party and its often-caustic right-wing chorus, and maybe even mark up a victory or two if Democrats conclude concessions are better than economy-wreaking chaos.
Golly, I wonder what those concessions might be? It's worked out so well before. It is chaos, but chaos can often accrue to the benefit of the crazies, can't it?
Being completely out of control does create some leverage, particularly if the firebug is willing to set fire to himself (“When you are on fire,” Richard Pryor famously observed after nearly incinerating himself in a freebase cocaine accident, “people get out of your way.”). So people start thinking about making concessions they wouldn’t otherwise consider, or contemplating scenarios they wouldn’t otherwise entertain.
Indeed they do. And that's from a starting point where this offer remains on the table.

This whole thing brings to mind this article about the Madman Theory from a few years back:
One of the starting points for Cold War game theory was President Eisenhower's proposed doctrine of "massive retaliation": Washington would respond viciously to any attack on the US or its allies. This, the thinking went, would create enough fear to deter enemy aggression. But Kissinger believed this policy could actually encourage our enemies and limit our power. Would the US really nuke Moscow if the Soviets funded some communist insurgents in Angola or took over a corner of Iran? Of course not. As a result, enemies would engage in "salami tactics," slicing away at American interests, confident that the US would not respond.

Cluster bombs, designed with "submunition" ordnance to set off a chain-reaction of explosions, became an important part of the US conventional military arsenal in the 1960s. In Southeast Asia, cluster bombs allowed the US military to inflict widespread damage on the enemy from the air, without resorting to nuclear weapons.
Video: The National Archives

The White House needed a wider range of military options. More choices, the thinking went, would allow us to prevent some conflicts from starting, gain bargaining leverage in others, and stop still others from escalating. This game-theory logic was the foundation for what became in the '60s and '70s the doctrine of "flexible response": Washington would respond to small threats in small ways and big threats in big ways.

The madman theory was an extension of that doctrine. If you're going to rely on the leverage you gain from being able to respond in flexible ways — from quiet nighttime assassinations to nuclear reprisals — you need to convince your opponents that even the most extreme option is really on the table. And one way to do that is to make them think you are crazy.

Consider a game that theorist Thomas Schelling described to his students at Harvard in the '60s: You're standing at the edge of a cliff, chained by the ankle to another person. As soon as one of you cries uncle, you'll both be released, and whoever remained silent will get a large prize. What do you do? You can't push the other person off the cliff, because then you'll die, too. But you can dance and walk closer and closer to the edge. If you're willing to show that you'll brave a certain amount of risk, your partner may concede — and you might win the prize. But if you convince your adversary that you're crazy and liable to hop off in any direction at any moment, he'll probably cry uncle immediately. If the US appeared reckless, impatient, even insane, rivals might accept bargains they would have rejected under normal conditions. In terms of game theory, a new equilibrium would emerge as leaders in Moscow, Hanoi, and Havana contemplated how terrible things could become if they provoked an out-of-control president to experiment with the awful weapons at his disposal.

The nuclear-armed B-52 flights near Soviet territory appeared to be a direct application of this kind of game theory. H. R. Haldeman, Nixon's chief of staff, wrote in his diary that Kissinger believed evidence of US irrationality would "jar the Soviets and North Vietnam." Nixon encouraged Kissinger to expand this approach. "If the Vietnam thing is raised" in conversations with Moscow, Nixon advised, Kissinger should "shake his head and say, 'I am sorry, Mr. Ambassador, but [the president] is out of control." Nixon told Haldeman: "I want the North Vietnamese to believe that I've reached the point that I might do anything to stop the war. We'll just slip the word to them that for God's sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about Communism. We can't restrain him when he is angry — and he has his hand on the nuclear button' — and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace.
The problem is that the Tea Partiers really are mad.


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