Monday, December 4, 2017

Game theory: how Trump can trump Abbas

Donald Trump has been talking about moving the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem since at least March 2016, some eight months before the November 2016 US Presidential elections. Nineteen  months later, he's still talking about a move.

As Trump has promoted the move to Jerusalem, officials from the Palestinian Authority (PA) have rejected it. Whenever Trump said, let’s do it!’ PA officials threatened some form of "chaos", war, violence or bloodshed if the move was made.

By October, 2017, the Trump plan to move the embassy seemed consigned to the trash heap (Allison Colburn, "Trump-O-Meter: Trump signals step back from Israeli embassy plan", politifact, October 9, 2017). Seven weeks later, however, Trump relit the fuse. In late November, 2017, he called to move the embassy (David Rosenberg, "Report: Trump expected to move embassy to Jerusalem within days", arutzsheva, November 29, 2017).

The Palestinian response was Pavlovian. The PA threatened to scuttle peace (Staff, Eric Cortellessa, "Palestinians to Kushner: peace process ends if Trump backs Israel on Jerusalem", timesofisrael, December 3, 2017).

In response to that threat, Trump again appears ready to back off from the embassy move. US National Security Advisor HR McMaster said it best: Caroline Kenny, "HR McMaster: I'm not sure if Trump will move embassy in Israel", cnn, December 4, 2017.

This is the fourth time in eleven months Trump has said 'yes-no' to moving the US embassy to Jerusalem (see (1) Hank Berrien, "Trump not moving US embassy to Jerusalem", dailywire, January 10, 2017; (2) Tovah Lazaroff, "Trump rules out moving US embassy to Jerusalem--for now", jerusalempost, May 17, 2017; (3) Allison Colburn, "Trump-O-Meter: Trump signals step back from Israeli embassy plan", politifact,  October 9, 2017; and (4) Matthew Lee, "Officials: Trump not moving US embassy to Jerusalem for now", businessinsider, November 30, 2017).

Each time Trump retreated, it appeared as if Palestinian threats had successfully forced Trump to go backwards. Each Trump retreat made the Palestinians look ever-stronger, the US ever-weaker.

It's hard to make sense of what Trump has been doing. Would a sane man behave this way?

The answer to this question might be, yes, a sane man might indeed behave this way.

Trump may not be acting in a 'yes-no', advance-retreat manner on this issue because he's incompetent or mentally unstable (as some suggest). He may be behaving this way because he's using a strategy (perhaps learned as a businessman) that's heavily influenced by a game--something called, 'game theory'.

As I understand it, game theory is no game. It's a serious approach to conflict--or, if you will--competitive situations. This theory looks at how opponents make decisions. It attempts to use mathematics to determine what actions one should take in order to secure the best outcome for himself (Avinash Dixit, Barry Nalebuff, "Game Theory", The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics, no date, retrieved December 4, 2017).

Game theory analyzes both sides in a conflict/competition (ibid). More important for our Trump-Abbas conflict, game theory suggests you can sometimes get the best outcome for yourself when you play your weakness, not your strength (Presh Talwalkar, "Is it better to play your strength or your weakness? Finding the right mix", mindyourdecisions, January 27, 2009).

This could be the key to understanding Trump’s behaviour: you can sometimes win by misleading your opponent into believing you are weak. Such a belief can lead your opponent to become overconfident. That overconfidence can lead to a fatal miscalculation.

Decisions in a conflict are ‘calculations’. In any situation where you face an opponent, what happens is, ‘I take action, you take action. As a consequence, ‘something’ happens. What happens depends upon what you and I do’ ("What exactly is game theory?" bbcnews, February 18, 2015).

For example, there's a game called, 'chicken' ("Hawk-Dove game",, August 12, 2005). In game theory, two actors drive on a narrow road at high speed directly towards each other. The first one to swerve loses face (ibid). If neither swerves, there'll be a disaster. 

Every one of us knows that, in a clash between Trump and Abbas, Trump is the 60-ton truck and Abbas is the 40-pound bicycle. If neither swerves, probability says it’s the bicycle that gets destroyed, not the truck.

I suspect Trump is taking a kind of 'game-theory' approach with Abbas: sometimes you win by playing 'weak'.

In the short run, such a ploy might be working. Right now, Abbas seems to have the strong hand.  He’s trumped Trump four times in eleven months. Perhaps encouraged by this success, he seeks to strengthen his hand further. He wants the Arab League to join him against Trump.

So far, the League isn’t interested (Eldad Benari, “Abbas finding little support for campaign against Trump”, arutzsheva, December 4, 2017). Abbas loses face.

Will Trump trump Abbas by appearing weak? Stay tuned.

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