Using game theory to defeat ISIS

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(Note: the following was excerpted from a longer essay by Dr. Brock)

By Dr. Woody Brock, Strategic Economic Decisions, Inc.

Dr. H. W. Brock
Dr. H. W. Brock

The importance of the culture war underlying the Jihadists’ hatred of Westerners cannot be understated. In their eyes, we are modernist devil worshippers. Women should be kept at home, devoid of any rights. They should be virgins when they marry. Adultery is a sin punishable by death, as is homosexuality. The fact that many citizens of Muslim nations do not share these views does not seem to matter.

Consider the words of the eminent Simon Schama in a recent March 26 Financial Times Op-Ed piece:

“We are not talking fine points of Shia-Sunni theological controversy here. By every means possible ISIS is at pains to let us know they will kill as many of us as it takes to sow such mayhem in the heartland of the kaffir world that it will be impossible to resist mobilizing the ‘Crusader’ army for the promised apocalyptic showdown out of which the Caliphate will emerge forever victorious.”

In game theory, there is a fundamental distinction between positive-sum bargaining games, and zero-sum games. In bargaining games, it is assumed that both sides can be better off by agreeing on a way to “divide the pie” instead of playing their optimal threat strategies and ending up with no pie – or worse. All such games are positive-sum in nature.

In a zero-sum game, however, there is no pie to divide, and no bargaining compromise is possible.

Most of the analyses of how the West should confront fundamentalism fail to make this all-important distinction. Analysts implicitly assume that negotiation strategies exist, strategies that will somehow end up with an acceptable compromise.

President Obama’s stance towards Iran, Russia and China offer examples of this approach. In all three cases, he turned the other cheek, and attempted to “reset” relations with these nations expecting they would reciprocate. All would end up better off. But his antagonists ended up taking full advantage of his weakness, reneged on many agreements, and made Obama look as incompetent at bargaining as he has proven to be.

Professor Schama is right in his comments above. He is stating that, in effect, we are playing a zero-sum game. ISIS wants nothing from us in exchange for something. They simply want to destroy us. Analogously, Iran has no intention of settling with Israel. Its stated goal is the elimination of Israel.

In such cases, the optimal strategy (for the West) is to identify the enemy’s vulnerabilities, and having done so, to sow as much grief and pain as possible. The fact that the enemy are scattered and that some of their recruits are happy to blow themselves up does not relieve us of the responsibility to hit where it hurts: recruits that do not wish to die (the vast majority), all training camps (we know where some thirty of these are located), family members, etc.

We must pursue such targets both on their home ground, as well as within the EU and the US. There is also the question of how to extract intelligence from terrorist murderers who are captured. Just as an intelligent economist does not believe in free trade for a nation unless other nations follow suit, likewise enemies should be treated in accord with the Geneva Conventions only if they themselves adhere to them, adherence enforced by, say, an effective United Nations if one ever exists. Saying this is, of course, politically incorrect in the extreme. But reality beckons.

The currently fashionable suggestion that what is needed is “for Europe to better ‘integrate’ immigrants” is as vacuous as the citations above assert. Most immigrants want to and are able to integrate over time. They end up great assets of the nations they immigrate to. But as a matter of faith, the bad guys will never integrate into that world of sinners they hate.

The West needs a coherent, broad-based, long campaign dedicated to destroying every aspect of terrorist operations. This need not imply a decade with large numbers of troops on the ground. But there will be phases requiring such a presence. Just consider what Russia achieved in its recent and relatively mild strategy against the opposition to the Assad regime.

Within Europe, security must of course be tightened, but not at the expense of the crippling day-to-day economic life of people – precisely the outcome ISIS seeks.

Dr. Horace “Woody” Brock, is the author of the book, American Gridlock – Why the Right and Left Are Both Wrong, Commonsense 101 Solutions to the Economic Crises. As the founder and president of Strategic Economic Decisions, an economic think tank, Dr. Brock has spent more than 25 years counseling global corporations and other institutions about the global economy. Dr. Brock earned his B.A., M.B.A. and M.S. from Harvard University, and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Princeton University (mathematical economics and political philosophy).

1 COMMENT

  1. Why not cut off ISIS where it truly hurts? The strategy of continuing as things are won’t work. The radicals will keep attacking. Treating Muslims as enemy number 1 won’t work either; it will just radicalize the good ones and push them towards ISIS. Why don’t Christians try to live like Christians? Far too many Christians love to hate Muslims and treat them as subhumans and give into hateful right wing propaganda. The Jesus strategy is to love your neighbors, so much so they start wondering why they hated you in the first place. ISIS will be disproved. Right now the marginalization of regular Muslims is what gives ISIS recruits. The treatment of Middle Easterners as savages helps ISIS declare a holy war.

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