Outwitting Ahmadinejad

What will be the result of two seemingly irrational players confronting each other in an atomic life-and-death duel?


By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on October 31, 2006.)

Was this a really a brilliant idea that came from our prime minister, Ehud Olmert, the man responsible for the recent Lebanon fiasco? Maybe this time he really got it right. Appointing Avigdor Lieberman as minister in charge of dealing with the major strategic threat that Israel faces – an Iran that is going hell-bent for nuclear weapons capability and whose prime minister threatens Israel almost on a daily basis.

It doesn’t matter that there is no other country in the world that has a minister for strategy in its cabinet, and that many will consider this as no more than a bad joke or a vain attempt to keep his government afloat. Maybe once Lieberman has established himself in this new job, Israelis, and their many friends around the world, will be able to sleep well at night. Maybe dealing with the major threat facing Israel has finally been put into the right hands. Even President Bush may sit up and take notice.

Dealing with Ahmadinejad is no simple matter. To western minds, he seems completely irrational. Why does he insist that there was no Holocaust? Why does Iran need a nuclear weapon? Is it worth arousing the hostility of much of the world in order to achieve this capability? And if he has already embarked on this course, why threaten Israel daily and make it easier for both the UN to order sanctions to be imposed on Iran and for the U.S. and its allies to begin thinking of last-recourse measures to forestall this development?

But as we know the irrational player, the “crazy one,” has certain advantages in such a situation. Ever since John von Neumann pioneered the game theory, the study of the interaction between parties having conflicting interests, the difficulties of dealing with a non-rational player have been clearly recognized. It is one thing to identify an effective strategy when dealing with a rational player, one who correctly calculates the benefits and penalties of alternate moves, yet quite another to predict the moves of an irrational player. The Cold War, the confrontation between the U.S. and the USSR, two nuclear powers with arsenals big enough to blow the entire world to smithereens, was managed successfully based on the mutual assumption that those controlling the conflict in Washington and Moscow were rational players, and would not engage in suicidal strategies. American experts in game theory contributed to the formulation of U.S. strategy during that period.

But when a rational player confronts an irrational one, the irrational player has a decided advantage. While he is counting on the rational response of his opponents to his moves, they don’t know what to expect of him. Maybe their best bet is just to let him have what he wants, rather than risking his irrational response to their move. Given the reticence of the U.S. and European nations in facing up to the bellicose, adventurous leaders of Iran and North Korea pursuing their nuclear ambitions, one begins to wonder whether they have not decided to revert to such a strategy. Maybe it is better to be at least temporarily safe than sorry.

But what if the irrational player is confronted by an irrational opponent? Now here is a brain-buster. And maybe this is what Olmert had in mind. Let Lieberman act the role of the irrational player, and now let’s see what Ahmadinejad will do. Maybe this is the way to outwit the madman in Teheran. Lieberman’s past statements about bombing Teheran, destroying the Aswan dam, laying waste to Gaza, and stripping Israel’s Arab citizens of their citizenship might very well make Ahmedinejad believe that now he is up against an entirely different type of opponent. There is no telling what this opponent will do. Maybe he better watch his step. But, who knows. Maybe Ahmadinejad is going to surprise us again, and things will get worse rather than better. So now what?

But wait a minute. We have a world renowned Nobel prize winner expert in game theory right here at home. Our very own Professor Robert Aumann of the Hebrew University. Maybe he can help solve this conundrum. Prof. Aumann, can you tell us the result of two seemingly irrational players confronting each other in this life-and-death duel? Who is going to blink first, and how do we get ourselves safely out of this mess? Prof. Aumann, help!

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