Wednesday, April 4, 2007

previous entry | main | next entry | TrackBack (0)

In the matter of Hobbes vs. Schelling....

Nancy Pelosi's trip to Syria, along with the showdown over timetables for withdrawal from Iraq, have annoyed the president. Reuters reports Bush's frustration with Pelosi's visit:

President George W. Bush said on Tuesday visits by U.S. officials like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Syria send "mixed signals" and do nothing to change the behavior of a country the United States accuses of sponsoring terrorism.

The White House has spent days criticizing Pelosi's visit to Damascus to meet with President Bashar al-Assad, saying it just provides the Syrian leader with a photo opportunity to exploit.

"We have made it clear to high-ranking officials, whether they be Republicans or Democrats, that going to Syria sends mixed signals," Bush said to reporters at the White House.

Meanwhile, the Boston Globe's Susan Milligan reports on how Bush is reacting to Congressional activism on Iraq:
President Bush declared yesterday that the military may suffer quick and devastating cuts if the Democrat- controlled Congress does not submit a war funding bill to his liking by mid-April, warnings that deepened a standoff between the White House and Capitol Hill over the Iraq war.
Bush would find a kindred spirit in Thomas Hobbes here. Bush, like Hobbes, believes that a state can and should have only one center of power. In the Hobbesian formulation, the emergence of competing voices implies division and weakness, which outsiders can exploit.

There's something compelling to this logic. If one analogizes international relations to poker, then surely no one wants the strength or weakness of their hand revealed by someone else.

However, this is not the only logic that one could apply to international relations. As Thomas Schelling pointed out in The Strategy of Conflict -- and as Robert Putnam elaborated in "Diplomacy and Domestic Politics: the Logic of Two-Level Games" -- there are times when domestic weakness can be translated into international bargaining strength.

Leon Panetta makes this point in his New York Times op-ed today:

What has been particularly frustrating about the debate in Washington over Iraq is that everyone seems to be fighting one another and forgetting the fundamental mission of the war.

Whether one is for or against the war, the key to stability is to have an Iraq that, in the words of the president himself, can “govern itself, sustain itself and defend itself.” Achieving that goal is largely dependent on the political reforms that Iraqi leaders have promised but failed to put in place in their country....

Instead of dividing over the strategy on the war, the president and the Congress should make very clear to the Iraqis that there is no open-ended commitment to our involvement. As the Iraq Study Group recommended, Iraqi leaders must pay a price if they continue to fail to make good on key reforms that they have promised the Iraqi people.

In calling for a specific withdrawal date, the House and Senate versions of the supplemental spending bill send a clear message to the Iraqis (even if they do face a certain veto). The worst mistake now would be to provide money for the war without sending the Iraqis any message at all about their responsibility for reforms. Both the president and the Congress at the very least must make the Iraqi government understand that future financial and military support is going to depend on Baghdad’s making substantial progress toward the milestones Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has publicly committed to.

Of course, for the Schelling strategy to work, Congress needs to bend -- they would have to agree that if the Iraqis completed a set of reforms by a given date, then complete withdrawal would not be necessary. Bush would also need to bend -- sometimes mixed messages are a good thing.

The really interesting question going forward is whether, in their diplomatic initiatives, both Bush and Pelosi will be more concerned with Hobbesian questions of authority or Schelling questions about signaling. Unfortunately, I share Panetta's frustration -- domestic politics will trump any gain that can be leveraged from these policy disagreements.

posted by Dan on 04.04.07 at 09:04 AM


From Panetta's op-ed it appears that Iraqi politicians are missing deadlines or target dates because of their domestic politics. I wonder, for Schelling's theory to work, do all the players have to be playing the same game? Who gets the advantage when one person plays "chicken" and the other plays "domestic pol"?

posted by: Bill Harshaw on 04.04.07 at 09:04 AM [permalink]

Bush had six years to work in a unipolar domestic political evnvironment. How did that "game of poker" work out for the american public?

Whoops I forgot where I'm where I'm posting...I bound to be hit was a barrage of the latest WSJ/WS/NR(the places hitting .000 over the last 6years) talking points about "freedom", "progress",not seen through "filter of the media".

posted by: centrist on 04.04.07 at 09:04 AM [permalink]

Worth noting division in Iran is given a Hobbesian spin over here - signaling Ahmadinejad's weakness -, and one suspects they'll interpret this similarly.

posted by: cerebus on 04.04.07 at 09:04 AM [permalink]

Not to take away from your larger point about Hobbes v. Schelling, but I wouldn't assume the truth of the proposition "Nancy Pelosi's trip to Syria ... ha[s] annoyed the president." It is politically advantageous for the President to claim that he is distressed; whether he actually cares one way or the other is another question.

posted by: alkali on 04.04.07 at 09:04 AM [permalink]

Silly me -- I thought the Hobbes principle was rejected by the Founders, way back when.

posted by: Anderson on 04.04.07 at 09:04 AM [permalink]


"Bush had six years to work in a unipolar domestic political evnvironment."

Perhaps you can enlighten me when that unipolar domestic political environment existed.

Bush couldn't even get Bolton approved to the UN.

He can't get judges approved either.

And certainly the media has waged a war against this administration.

Bush has been forced to fight this war with one hand tied behind his back. If what you said was true this war would be over and we wouldn't have suffered so many deaths. The actions of many in this country only encourage the enemy and get our guys killed.

Even today the media doesn't know the difference between the word "sought" and "bought"

Bush has had to work with liars like Harry Reid.

"Now he's the commander in chief, and we're not going to do anything to limit funding or cut off funds, even though there are some on the outside who suggest that,'' House leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has said. "I think we want to make sure that the troops have everything that they need." -- Harry Reid, November 30, 2006

"Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said yesterday he will try to cut off funding for the Iraq war if President George W. Bush rejects Congress's proposal to set a deadline for ending combat." -- The Globe And Mail

posted by: anon on 04.04.07 at 09:04 AM [permalink]

Interesting analysis of international affairs. Since the focus of our new research is on foreign affairs, I thought you'd be interested in the rise in public anxiety. While the war is definitely a driving force, the public's uneasiness spills over into the entire range of challenges facing the United States. Overwhelmingly, the public embraces diplomatic measures, with 44% of those surveyed favoring diplomacy with Iran and an addition 28% backing economic sanctions. Favor for military action is in the single digits. Our anxiety indicator is currently at 137 on a 200-point scale, edging toward the 150 point mark that we would consider a crisis of confidence in government policy. Go to to check out the fourth edition of our “Foreign Policy Index.”

posted by: William on 04.04.07 at 09:04 AM [permalink]

William, your anxiety indicator is a load of hooey. Ridiculous. Ill-informed. Founded of shaky priciples and worthless pseudo-data. It's people like you who make me anxious, not North Korea, Iran, IRaq, and certainly not the president.

posted by: Useless Sam Grant on 04.04.07 at 09:04 AM [permalink]

The hard cop-soft cop approach can work, but not if the two sides publicly form a consensus of the kind Panetta calls for. The suspect must think that giving the soft cop what he wants is the only way to avert the wrath of the hard cop.

I have two problems, however, with the Schelling analysis in this case:

a) I don't think the Iraqi government is stalling on very much because of our support. Their domestic political knots will be at least as tangled under a conditioned threat of withdrawal, because some of the players benefit from our withdrawal and so will deliberately stonewall.

b) Waverers who are trying to decide whether to stand up to al Qaeda in Iraq will be disheartened by the prospect of an early withdrawal, which will increase the difficulties of combatting the enemy. Only if the Iraqi Army were strong enough to take our place more completely would such an imminent withdrawal not hurt the prospects for an acceptable Iraq.

posted by: srp on 04.04.07 at 09:04 AM [permalink]

Sure we need consensus for good-cop/bad-cop to work, but who is demonizing the other side here, and who refuses even the niceties of bilateralism?

If Reid is a liar when he declares he will work with the administration, maybe Bush should get the blame for making him a liar. Four months have passed and what does Reid get for his olive leaf of 11/30/06? He gets Bush ignoring the Iraq Study Group, and in its stead deciding on the surge strategy which goes in to force the day he announces it. A big middle finger extended to Congress, "Go 'F' Yourself" all over again.

Pelosi is giving plenty of room for Bush to position himself effectively here, either by using her as a foil or as someone to reinforce his message (which is what she is claiming to be trying to do). Bush seems more concerned that Pelosi not get any credit than he is concerned about the success of his foreign policy. He comes off as shrill and increasingly irrelevant. That is not Pelosi's fault.

posted by: Xenos on 04.04.07 at 09:04 AM [permalink]

I'd be surprised if President Bush knew who Hobbes was, and think Dan rather misses the point about the unitary executive theory and George Bush's administration.

The point about this theory has always been its role as a intellectual cloak, a nominal justification for things this administration would choose to do anyway for other reasons. This doesn't imply conspiracy or obscure motives; quite the contrary. George Bush's career has been focused intently from the beginning on the permanent campaign, to succeed in which the first priority is clarity of message. Continual interaction with Congress is a threat to message clarity, even when both houses are controlled by members of one's own party.

Congress has over the last six year gotten its share of advantages by going along with Bush's (well, with Cheney's) assertions of expansive executive authority. Bush has never vetoed a spending bill, and only one bill of any kind; it is possible that one factor in Congressional Democrats' thinking about Iraq withdrawal timelines now is that this record suggests Bush's veto threats may not be acted on. But from Bush's perspective a doormat Congress has freed him from a great deal of trouble with the details of legislation (and with oversight, which from the standpoint of message control can be much worse). It has also, perhaps not incidentally for this President, spared Bush from a substantial amount of work.

This isn't to say that some administration officials don't genuinely believe in some variant of the unitary executive theory. David Addington probably does, for example -- which is interesting in itself, because Addington was formerly counsel and now is chief of staff to the Vice President. No President before Bush ever placed his nominal No. 2 in the policy and decision making role in which Bush has placed Cheney; few even considered it, and many would have thought the idea plain lunacy. A strong Vice President with a powerful but unpredictable influence on policy is a much more potent source of confusion about an administration's direction than is a Congress acting on responsibilities and prerogatives that are spelled out, in some detail, in the Constitution and have been exercised repeatedly over the course of more than 200 years.

There is a sour irony here. The most expansive assertions of executive authority made by any administration at least since Watergate have been made on behalf of a President so weak that he has felt compelled to allow his Vice President to play a role greater than any of his 42 predecessors did for their Vice Presidents. Surely anyone who accepts at face value the idea that Bush's administration is applying a unitary executive theory has to account for this.

posted by: Zathras on 04.04.07 at 09:04 AM [permalink]

"I'd be surprised if President Bush knew who Hobbes was"

Sure, he's that stuffed tiger that the little boy thinks is real. Used to be in the funny papers.

posted by: Anderson on 04.04.07 at 09:04 AM [permalink]


Hobbes is that bully in prep school that called Bush: "Nasty, brutish and short."

posted by: Appalled Moderate on 04.04.07 at 09:04 AM [permalink]

The "unitary executive" used to be called "Article II of the Constitution." One of the most frustrating things about modern American government is that many of the pieces of it purport to be independent and unaccountable. This leaves abuses without possibility of redress by the public.

I want the President to have to take responsibilty for the work of the Justice Department, for example; the idea that federal prosecutors get to have a free hand ("independence") is a real danger to the rights of the people. I want the President to be held responsible for the decisions of all Cabinet departments, as well as the intelligence community, which means he must be able to reach in there and make things happen no matter what the career people think.

The independent regulatory agencies are mostly bad ideas and unconstitutional, but at least they have formal structures that make lines of accountability clear. Attempts to separate the President from responsibility even for the actions of the traditional executive branch departments have gone way too far already.

Some of the problems are due to Congressional buck-passing too: I want the Congress to have to vote on whether CO2 and water vapor are "pollutants," not have "independent" scientific panels and life-tenured judges decide that. The results may not always agree with my technocratic inclinations, but an accountable political process is a lot better than an unaccountable one.

Finally, I don't see what the problem with Cheney's role is. He acts like a second chief of staff on certain issues, as far as I can tell, and clearly works under the direct authority of Bush. It was Carter who started the trend by giving Mondale a big role. Clinton gave Gore an even bigger role. I suspect that the constitutional status of the Veep is a handy shield for protecting executive privilege (as well as a source of legitimacy, since the guy was also elected).

posted by: srp on 04.04.07 at 09:04 AM [permalink]

Post a Comment:


Email Address:



Remember your info?