Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Prosecuting Torturers: A Game Theory Perspective

Following a torrent of criticism in the past days, President Obama has expressed an openness to moving forward with possible prosecution of Bush Administration officials over torture practices. This reversal has been attributed to pressure generated by human rights advocates and Congressional Democrats. In many ways, this seems to be the logical source of causation. However, I offer a more nuanced perspective...

Applying game theory to the situation, I have concluded that the President's reversal was rather a move of tactical genius, regardless of whether or not the intention was there. Here's why:

1) When Obama states that he will not prosecute, he expects an outcry from the left and from moderates who hold him to campaign promises.

2) By shifting his position after such a reaction, he empowers his decision to go forward with investigations and prosecutions. After all, the people expressed their fervent views. Right?

3) If the President had decided to go forward before stating that he would not, the support for his actions would be less intense and audible. If he was unable to get any actual prosecutions, people may hold him accountable for failing.

4) Therefore, by making this switch, the President has empowered the voice of the left on one hand, and strengthened the legitimacy of his decision on the other.

In game theory, a first mover can choose to change the basic parameters by using a screening device. The screening device is essentially the opening bet (after the blinds) in poker. It does not say that much about what cards the first mover has. It does, however, force the second mover (or 3rd, 4th, so on) to reveal more information. By calling the raise, the second mover has given a signal, telling the first mover, at minimum, that the second mover has a decent hand. Of course, this isn't a guarantee, but it is much more difficult to call a raise than to begin the betting by placing the first bet. In this case, the President uses his initial stance as the first mover to raise the pot. In reaction, the liberals and human rights activists called his bet and raised him. Finally, by changing his stance, Obama admits that he was bluffing and didn't have much of a hand, meaning he intended to fold all along.

In the end, Obama succeeds in exhausting very little political capital, he empowers the voice of the left, he comes across as someone who will listen to the cries of the people, and he buffers himself from further criticism.

Conservative Observer columnist/partisan hack Christie Pesavento tried to argue that Obama's motives are political and goes on a strange and ethically fragile rant about why torture is not a big deal. I encourage you to read her viewpoint and see just how ridiculous the right can be.


Bill said...

I was under the impression that the people expressed their views when they elected Obama in the first place. This is an issue he campaigned on. I don't see a whole lot of tactical nuance on Obama's part in this case. I just see a lot of fence-sitting until he realized just how much his constituency won't stand for a massive backpedal on such a core campaign issue. Even know, I'm tentative to heap praise on him, as his new declaration of a policy shift is essentially "Well, maybe we can prosecute some of the authors of the torture policies, but I'll leave that up to my Attorney General

Bill said...

And Christie Pesavento is a class clown. Here's my favorite quote from her.

"Shoving prisoners into a wall. My friends and I used to do that to one another all the time while walking down the hallways in high school."

This process, known as "walling" is the act of tying a collar around a prisoner's neck, yanking him forward and then pushing him back hard up against a wall, repeatedly, to simulate the act of breaking the prisoner's shoulders. I don't know where Christie went to high school but this certainly wasn't commonplace in mine.

ShamRockNRoll said...

Christie Pesavento is a joke. Every column of hers is just a hyper-partisan rant and intentionally leaves out critical pieces of information to distort the truth to support her argument. (I'm just assuming it's intentional, maybe she's just embarrassingly ignorant).

On another note, I'm glad to see Obama back off from where it seemed he was at on Sunday. I think the pressure on him to do the right thing here is making a difference.

Bill said...

Exactly. Give credit where credit is due. Obama was put into office by progressives. Obama caved into pressure from progressives to change his position on this. Let's not give Obama credit for pulling mind games that we can't prove he ever did. This is a victory for the progressive movement.

Henry James Vasquez said...

I was hoping this line would be read- "regardless of whether or not the intention was there"- to illustrate that this isn't necessarily about Obama playing some genius mind game. It's the point that regardless of whether or not he planned it this way, it has worked out in a way that shields him from blame and exhausts less political capital. Hence the "regardless" part.

ShamRockNRoll said...

It will be interesting to see how this continues to play out. I would like to think Obama crafted the situation this way, but I think he would much rather just not have to deal with it.

As pressure mounts and the public learns more of what went on under the Bush admin. hopefully there will be even more support for prosecution. Although I've seen some polls which show that there already is.

I think he should appoint a special prosecutor and keep this out of the Congress, because lord knows the Republicans aren't going to go along with it and it will just taint a necessary investigation with partisanship.