Friday, December 17, 2010

Long game theory

Andrew Sullivan, admitting that Obama has been known to make a mistake or two and is not "some kind of guru" or "a Jedi president," takes what you might call long game theory to a new level:
My point is rather that he has a clear pattern of behavior that is acutely tuned to the longterm. He lets things take their course. Rather than tipping his hand early and decisively, he tends to hang back, aloof, distant, watching. Only when events have occurred that have proven the pointlessness of options he doesn't favor does he forthrightly present his own. And quite often, he almost seems intent on orchestrating such public failures of others' (and his own apparent) options - even at his own short-term cost.
Well, that is creative. Success via demonstrative failure. Set up Plan A for failure so you can proceed with Plan B, which is really your own Plan A.  The Platonic ideal of Churchill's American: do the right thing after you've exhausted all the alternatives -- deliberately.

Give Sullivan points for consistency. After Obama announced his AfPak strategy last December, Andrew opined:

By giving the military a chance to inflict maximal damage on the Taliban and the CIA lee-way to do the same to al Qaeda within Pakistan, Obama means to achieve maximal weakening of foes before a strategic withdrawal.

Any withdrawal will be met with Romney-Palin-style accusations of weakness, treason, irresolution. But a withdrawal after a big surge is less likely to be successfully targeted in that manner. And after ten years, will Americans really want to keep 100,000 troops in a lunar landscape run by a kleptocracy because that's where al Qaeda used to hang out? The more I think about this, the smarter it is - both militarily and politically.

But that tends to happen with Obama decisions, doesn't it?
There is in fact one semi-verified instance of the Obama administration setting up Plan B by orchestrating the probably failure of Plan A.  So suggests the Times' presentation of the WikiLeaks cables concerning Iran:
[The cables] also offer new insights into how President Obama, determined to merge his promise of “engagement” with his vow to raise the pressure on the Iranians, assembled a coalition that agreed to impose an array of sanctions considerably harsher than any before attempted.

When Mr. Obama took office, many allies feared that his offers of engagement would make him appear weak to the Iranians. But the cables show how Mr. Obama’s aides quickly countered those worries by rolling out a plan to encircle Iran with economic sanctions and antimissile defenses. In essence, the administration expected its outreach to fail, but believed that it had to make a bona fide attempt in order to build support for tougher measures.
I suppose I suggested something similar in speculating that Obama long ago saw at least in outline something like the tax cut bargain he struck this month -- that he preferred buying some real stimulus with "the only currency he had" to winning the sunsetting of the Bush cuts for the top 2%.  What's known is that he quite pointedly refused in September to promise to veto any bill that extended those cuts. 

What's fair to say, I think, is that Obama will go quite far to keep his options open -- so far, his critics would say, that he often forecloses on the best option, most famously by not pushing long, hard and early for a public option in the healthcare reform bill.   Some -- e.g., Krugman -- might call his approach a preemptive salvage operation: give away the store, then buy back what you can.

I don't think that's fair. In the case of healthcare, Obama's approach gained far more than he gave up -- in fact I think he got the best plan politically possible. Tax policy? Too early to tell.

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