By Abe R. Emile
Presidents Donald Trump and Woodrow Wilson have lots in common. They both campaigned on keeping us out of war. And yet, both men ended up dragged into military action within the first 100 days of their administrations. On Thursday, April 6th, 2017, President Donald Trump ordered the U.S. military to launch 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles against a Syrian air base. And though his actions may seem surprising, they are predictable by the lessons learned in game theory. First, we’ll contextualize the dilemma.
The six-year Syrian Civil war has at least 700,000 trapped in besieged areas, 4.9 million living in hard to reach areas, 6.3 million internally displaced, and more than 465,000 Syrians dead. On April 4th, 2017, the Syrian government, led by President Bashar al-Assad, was strongly implicated in the use of a chemical weapons to attack the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhun, a rebel-held province of Idlib. Almost four years ago, during President Obama’s term, the Syrian government carried out a deadlier chemical attack on the outskirts of Damascus, leaving more than 1,400 people dead.
To understand President Trump’s behavior, consider some lessons from game theory. Economists often cite the classic prisoner’s dilemma, a game of strategy in which two people make rational choices that lead to a less-than-ideal result for both players (whether two people, organizations, or nation states). It is assumed that people behave in a rational manner when they look at the trade-offs they face and are incentivized to pursue their goals in a way that provides the most benefits to themselves. Economists Dean Karlan and Jonathan Morduch identify three key features of these dilemmas. Rules are the actions that are allowed in a game. In real life, people’s behavior is constrained by laws both legislated and natural. Strategies are the plans of action that players follow to achieve their goals. Finally, payoffs are the rewards that come from actions. It is important to define the term “game,” not as a recreational activity, but instead as real-life situations in which players pursue strategies designed to achieve their goals.
What rules constrain the President? The Constitution grants conflicting powers. Congress is given the power to declare war while the President has the power to initiate hostilities without consulting Congress. In 1917, President Wilson was granted authorization by Congress to enter World War I. In 2001, President George W. Bush was granted authorization by congress for the War on Terrorism: Iraq and Beyond. In 2013, President Obama sought authorization to attack Syria in response to Assad’s initial use of chemical weapons, but was denied. Three week ago, President Trump violated those constraints domestically and internationally.
What strategies does President Trump have at his disposal? The ability to maximize your payoff (strategy) is dramatically lost when the game goes on and there are no agreed upon commitments by which actors agree to abide. In other words, it would have been ideal in President Trump’s calculation if his 59 Tomahawk missile launch destroyed all the chemical weapons or manufacturing infrastructure. However, less than 24 hours later, the Syrian government proceeded to attack its civilians with more bombs.
One is then forced to ask: what was President’s Trump military objective? What was the payoff? As a civilian in 2013, Trump tweeted at President Obama not to attack Syria. Three years later, on the campaign trail, he called President Obama weak for not acting decisively on Syria. Even 75 days into his presidency, with investigations into his campaign’s possible collusion with Russia gaining steam, President Trump stated, “I am the president of the United States, not the world.” The very next day, the Syrian government attacked Syrian children again with chemical weapons. Given his history, why would Trump suddenly be moved to intervene?
President Trump’s payoff could be categorized in three ways. First, the narrative of suffering children should prevent Russia from meaningfully retaliating on behalf of the Syrian government because Russia’s failure to decommission the chemical gas legitimized his rationale to attack. Secondly, the attack makes Trump look more “decisive” compared to his predecessor. Finally, his defiance of Russia encourages public perceptions that he could not possibly be hiding anything pertaining to Russia and its involvement in the U.S. elections.
President Donald Trump’s ideal objective was not military but political! Five days after the U.S. strikes, his son, Eric Trump, told the daily Telegraph that his father’s decision to launch a cruise missile attack on Syria proved he is not in league with Russia and will not be pushed around.
While President Trump seeks strategies to maximize his payoffs, there are no winners in Syria, only increased death tolls. Nor are there winners in America, only the loss of public faith in a president to do what is right. A game neither nation can afford to play.