Game Theory for Middle Eastern Dictators

Source: Photos from BBC

Towards a Dominant Strategy

In “Saudis Shrug Off Day of Rage: Three Strategies to Suppress a Revolt Before It Starts“, I argued that there are two archetypal models for a dictator to deal with popular revolts in the Middle East: crush them or concede to protestors by leaving office. In the second model, sometimes the ruling class “encourages” a dictator to leave.

I further made the following points:

“On the one hand, using force to suppress revolts appears to be the more effective of the two for maintaining power in the Middle East. Witness Saddam Hussein’s actions against the Kurds, his actions against the Shia after the first Gulf War, Hafez al Assad’s actions in Hama, and Libya’s actions against its rebels, which seem to allow that government to gain more ground with each passing day. Again, I am looking at things from a political rather than a moral standpoint and do not condone these actions.”

Confessors Failed to Maintain Power (and Dignity)

Five months later, the data seems to support these views. When I had written the article, both Tunisia’s Ben Ali and Egypt’s Mubarak, had already stepped down from office.

Ben Ali fled Tunisia amidst intense rioting and pressure from his own people, and with little pressure from the international community.

Mubarak held on for as long as he could until he stepped down on February 11, 2011 amidst internal pressure from his military, and external pressure from the United States, albeit with sharp divisions without President Obama’s foreign policy team. In April 2011, the Egyptian military detained him and his two sons for questioning.

In early August 2011, a visibly ailing Mubarak faced charges earlier this month of “corruption and complicity in the killing of protestors.”

Therefore, in every instance throughout the Arab Spring in which a dictator stepped down either through internal pressure (Tunisia) or both internal and external pressure (Egypt), that dictator became a target of public retribution. While there is nothing wrong with this fact — these dictators were brutal toward their own people — it goes to show that “confession” is a losing strategy for a Middle Eastern dictator focused on political survival.

Suppressors Draw International Scorn, But Still Maintain Power

In stark contrast, those dictators who took the latter approach and brutally suppressed (and continue to suppress) internal revolts are still standing.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad decided to apply the lessons he learning from his father’s brutal suppression of Hama nearly three decades ago in dealing with his own internal revolts. According to The Economist, the Syrian military has killed some 1,500 Syrians since March in an aggressive campaign throughout the country.

Below shows what appears to be a Soviet-style motorized rifle platoon (MRP) in Hama with three BMP-1 armored personnel carriers and what appears to be either a T-55 or T-62 tank.

By using these tactics, President Assad may have earned the condemnation of the international community, yet he still remains in power. Furthermore, no outside power appears to be actively working against him.

Libyan dictator Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi also resorted to crushing his internal revolt. As a result, the international community under the guise of NATO intervened. While the Libyan rebels have steadily gained ground with the aid of NATO air forces, Qaddafi still remains in power.

That said, the rebels appear to be their own worst enemies. It is rumored that the Islamic militia contingent assassinated their defense minister, Abdel Fatah Younis. Younis was capably coordinating a campaigns on three fronts: the western mountains, Brega (the only place where the rebel assault is stalled), and Misrata. Therefore, this self-inflicted wound will not only make it more difficult for the rebels to coordinate the three military campaigns, but also it will sow divisions amongst the various Libyan rebel factions. Ultimately, this is good news for Qaddafi.

Game Theory: Suppression Is the Dictator’s Dominant Strategy

Game Theory is a fascinating field within economics that reached prominence during the Cold War. It involves maximizing a nation’s or an individual’s set of choices based on the choices of others.

Nobel Laureate in Economics Thomas Schelling provided his vision of game theory as a framework for the social sciences in his book The Strategy of Conflict in the late 1950s. He showed that “a party can strengthen its position by overtly worsening its own options, that the capability to retaliate can be more useful than the ability to resist an attack, and that uncertain retaliation is more credible and more efficient than certain retaliation.”

At the beginning of this article, I provided a decision matrix for the run-of-the-mill Middle Eastern dictator in the post-Iraq invasion age (an important distinction because the threat of another American Middle Eastern land invasion is much diminished after the Iraq War).

The vertical axis represents the dictator’s rational choices: confess or suppress. The horizontal axis represents the international community’s alternatives: steer clear of the conflict or interfere.

Based on the four examples of Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Libya, it appears that regardless of what actions the international community takes, a Middle Eastern dictator’s dominant strategy is to suppress his internal revolt.

Unfortunately, for the international community, there does not appear to be any dominant strategy whatsoever.

The point is not that suppressing a revolt is the moral thing to do. It obviously is not. Unfortunately, in the Middle East, it is the most rational strategy.

About Sean Patrick Hazlett

Finance executive, engineer, former military officer, and science fiction and horror writer. Editor of the Weird World War III anthology.
This entry was posted in Defense, Energy Security, International Security, Mathematics, Middle East, Policy, Politics, Predictions, War and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Game Theory for Middle Eastern Dictators

  1. This is a thought-provoking post. I’m generally in agreement with your analysis here, that it unfortunately appears that vicious oppression is a better survival strategy.

    I’ll probably have enough to say about it to do my own post taking off from your post, but just to further the discussion here, I’d add two points: 1) while we can learn from past experiences, it’s hard to draw hard-and-fast rules about the particular incentives & likely behavior of world leaders– particularly people who’ve been dictators-for-life for a while; 2) it’s a bit too early to conclude that Qaddafi and Assad have persevered.

    I think that’s just adding complications, ones with which you may well agree, to your sound enough model.

    (BTW– why “Middle Eastern” dictators, not just dictators generally? Just ’cause that’s what’s been in the news lately, or do you think that conditions are different there than elsewhere?)

    • “1) while we can learn from past experiences, it’s hard to draw hard-and-fast rules about the particular incentives & likely behavior of world leaders– particularly people who’ve been dictators-for-life for a while”

      I totally agree. The only rule I can think of that at least dominates American security thinking as it relates to dealing with these sorts of dictators (i.e., Kim Jong Il, etc.), is that regime survival is a key policy objective for these folks. Threaten that, and you risk further instability.

      “2) it’s a bit too early to conclude that Qaddafi and Assad have persevered”

      I completely agree here. Qaddafi’s days may be numbered. I’m not sure about Assad.

      “(BTW– why “Middle Eastern” dictators, not just dictators generally? Just ’cause that’s what’s been in the news lately, or do you think that conditions are different there than elsewhere?)”

      An excellent point. I wanted to limit my focus to states that were similar culturally, because it is much harder to generalize any point across multiple cultures. That said, the Maghreb is far different than Saudi Arabia, but they are roughly similar enough for an admittedly high level comparison.

      Intuition tells me that this analysis would be very different for Western countries than for the Middle East, but I have no sound data to back up this intuition. I think part of the difference is a much longer experience with democracy, a more bottoms-up political process, and a firmer separation between church and state. A free press certainly helps. That said, the experience of Britain could herald a change in my perception of this difference (i.e., 1/3 of Brits favored using not plastic, but live bullets to put down rioters.).

      I’m looking forward to reading your post.

      • Couple things occur to me– first off, in retrospect, after successful protests, it always seems obvious that the dictator should have put down the protests that brought down his regime. But would a regime with a reputation for hair-trigger massacres be a stable one? (Saddam makes me think “yes,” but then, he was rather a unique figure).

        Second, it depends on how you define “the West,” but we don’t have to look too far back in Eastern Europe to see how things worked– should the Soviets have gotten their tanks into the streets earlier in 1991? Or would that have been futile, because people didn’t fear their government enough anymore? (If so, then we’re on the verge here of making a model that says, “oppression works, except when it doesn’t,” or at least that has to factor in gov credibility and # of citizens willing to flood the streets).

        And Juan Carlos of Spain helped thwart a rightist coup in I think 1982. We don’t have to go back that far in Europe to see how these things work. (I recall seeing an article that applied Samuel Huntington’s model from The Third Wave” to the Middle East, & predicting that Tunisia might fall, but Mubarak wouldn’t). ‘Course, I was just reading about how Americans reacted to anti-inflation price controls in 1971. Wouldn’t be the same here today. It’s always tough to puzzle out how well generalizations hold across time & place…

        • Ian Bremmer, the head of the Eurasia group has an interesting model to explain this dynamic in his book, The J Curve. He argues that the states are the left part of the curve (not political left), are the most autocratic and therefore very stable. However, as new freedoms are introduced into a society, stability decreases. Stability starts to increase again once a state evolves into a fully democratic system. I don’t know how much there is to it, but it is a fascinating thesis.

      • Didn’t think of this til now– where does Israel fit into all of this?

        It’s hard to compare unrest in democracies like Greece, the UK, or Israel to what’s going on in dictatorships, but maybe some of the same pressures lead to mass movements…

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  3. “Didn’t think of this til now– where does Israel fit into all of this?”

    I don’t think the Israelis have as much to worry about from a disgruntled middle class, because the elites can always point to the “Other” in their society, namely the far worse off (and sometimes suicide vest-wielding) Palestinians.

    Plus, the Arab Spring may have vastly altered Israel’s security calculus for the region (i.e., they have a heck of a lot more to fear from potentially unstable Arab democracies than stable dictatorships). I posted something to this effect in February (

    “It’s hard to compare unrest in democracies like Greece, the UK, or Israel to what’s going on in dictatorships, but maybe some of the same pressures lead to mass movements…”

    I agree.

  4. Scott Erb says:

    I agree with the comment above that Assad and Gaddafi may still yet go. But your point is accurate. If the dictator’s main goal is to stay in power, suppression is the only chance. (I’ve called this the ‘give them an inch they’ll take a mile’ theory — the masses will never be satisfied by concessions). You have to hope either that: a) dictators actually care more about their people than power, and are able to separate the two — Gorbachev is a classic example of a dictator who let his state collapse rather than use force; or b) dictators do not hold complete power, meaning a powerful military or group of top officials can undercut the dictator and prevent suppression. A classic example of that is Erich Honecker in East Germany.

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