Monday, October 04, 2004

You Gotta Know When to Fold ‘Em

The player with the most chips can win a lot of hands by betting on everything, but eventually the table gets wise and the bluffs have to be larger and larger to be impressive. Once and a while, the cowboy will get very lucky indeed and survive his recklessness; but most nights end predictably with a ridiculous showdown where we learn once again that a pair of sevens isn’t a very good hand. I’ve played against macho types who kept raising me in a stud game even though no possible hole card would beat what my hand was already showing. “I guess you weren’t buyin’ it,” says Tex and one politely allows that you can’t beat Lady Luck.

The poker example is a pretty good allegory for a common historical pattern. A nation frustrated by its inability to secure a military victory against an elusive or inaccessible foe reacts by intensifying or widening the conflict as when Germany invaded Russia because it couldn’t invade England and France and later the United States invaded Cambodia because they couldn’t win in Vietnam. Sometimes the bluster and bluff involves an increase in barbarity rather than a geographical extension of the conflict as when the French became increasingly brutal as they lost ground to the insurgents in Algeria or we lose more and more of our inhibitions about bombing civilians in rebel-controlled cities in Iraq. All these moves have the flavor of the last despairing raise in a losing game. In the present case, unfortunately, there may be cards left to play. You often read that the administration will not be able to repeat its strategy of preventative war against Iran or even Syria because the cost of such an action has gone up drastically and our military resources are already dangerously drained. That optimistic thought ignores the routine irrationality of desperate militarists for whom folding is unmanly. Of course it would be dumb to pick a new fight. How smart do you think these guys are?

By the way, the best advice about international politics doesn’t come from poker but from chess. The fundamental error of the Bush administration was to ignore that cardinal Tartakowerism, “A threat is more powerful than its execution.”

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