November 21, 2003

Backgammon: A Platonic Dialogue

Adeimantos: "So when do you think the U.S. military will be out of Iraq?"

Thrasymakhos: "September 2003, of course. Unless you think that the neoconservative hawks have more clout with George W. Bush than Karl Rove."

Glaukon: "And what happens then?"

Thrasymakhos: "A decent interval--three months, six months, a year... Then the proclamation of the Islamic Republic of Iraq. Then a proclamation that Iraq is not only Islamic but Shia--of the Party of Ali. Then conclusion of a close alliance with the Mullahs of Qom. Then much mediation on the crimes of the Ummayads 1300 years ago. Then an announcement that the As-Sabah of Kuwait and the Al-Saud of Arabia should start sharing a *lot* of their own oil revenues with the twin Shia Republics--or else.

Glaukon: But surely the United States will assure Kuwait that it has nothing to fear.

Thrasymakhos: And the leaders of the Shia Republics will point out that while it took Hizbullah 17 years to chase Israel out of Lebanon, it took Saddam Hussein only 1 1/2 years to chase the Americans out of Iraq, and that American bases in Kuwait are vulnerable to rockets launched from donkey carts. Better to share your oil revenues then to bet on the strength of a weak reed.

Glaukon: So you believe that the U.S. has to stay in Iraq--has to up its forces committed to Iraq--because if the Iraqi domino falls, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia will not be far behind?

Thrasymakhos: Believe? What's this "believe"? I'm a fictional character, remember. My role in the dialogue is to put forward the most depressing, cynical, and black view of the situation--unless, of course, you make it worth my while to say something else.

Glaukon: So what do you believe?

Thrasymakhos: If I believed anything, I would believe that Iran--like Reformation Geneva, Reformation Scotland, or Puritan England--is a revolutionary-religious power. Northwest Europe was urbanizing in the early modern period, Gutenberg had introduced printing, and so for the first time ever a large number of people in the cities uncertain how to live or what their identity was were given direct and unmediated access to the Holy Book. In Reformation Europe the result was disaster: religious war for a century and a half as different factions demanded that others believe in their version of the loving God, or die!

Adeimantos: Yes...

Thrasymakhos: The massacre of St. Bartholomew's Day...

Adeimantos: Yes...

Thrasymakhos: The Spanish Inquisition...

Adeimantos: Which no one expects. Yes...

Thrasymakhos: The sack of Magdeburg...

Adeimantos: Yes...

Thrasymakhos: The mass executions by England of prisoners captured from the wreck of the Spanish Armada...

Adeimantos: Yes...

Thrasymakhos: A century and a half of terror and bloodshed...

Adeimantos: Yes...

Thrasymakhos: Using the stained-glass windows of Canterbury Cathedral for musket practice, an action reminiscent of the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan...

Adeimantos: You've made your point...

Thrasymakhos: When a newly-literate newly-urban middle class meets teh unmediated Holy Book for the first time, very bad things happen for generations. Iran is now writhing with fever in the Islamic Reformation, and...

Glaukon: And?

Thrasymakhos: The old policy--the dual containment policy--the Bush I-Clinton policy--of saying that Saddam Hussein is a very nasty man, but he keeps the blood and terror of the Islamic Reformation far from the south side of the Persian Gulf had a great deal to commend it. It was very hard on the Iraqi people to be ruled by such a tyrant, yes. But was it worse in total than what Bush's invasion of Iraq has set in motion throughout the Middle East? That is far from clear.

Alkibiades: If I may?

Sokrates: Yes?

Alkibiades: I have been playing backgammon.

Sokrates: Backgammon?

Alkibiades: Online. You log on, and play backgammon online. Lots of Iranians logged on too: I've been playing lots of backgammon with Iranians.

Sokrates: And?

Alkibiades: We talk--about Khatemei, about the Mullahs, about European-Iranian relations. They are polite and sane.

Sokrates: Well this is very good, Alkibiades. You are doing your part in building global civil society.

Alkibiades: And that, of course, is why I do it. It has nothing to do with procrastination, ennui, or a lack of good research ideas.

Sokrates: You are truly becoming a philosopher, Alkibiades.

Glaukon: Might I suggest that a computer-using internet-connected English-writing Iranian who wants to play backgammon online is probably not representative?

Sokrates: But it is a start, and an important start. As long as you divide the world into clan members to be helped, clan enemies to be killed, strangers to be robbed, or heretics to be burned, the chances for world peace are low.

Adeimantos: Why, yes, Sokrates. How wise you are?

Sokrates: But if people view each other as partners--intellectual partners, entertainment partners, commercial partners--if they think of everybody, "that's someone with whom I could play some positive-sum game--intellectual, commercial, or social--then our chances for world peace are much, much better.

Glaukon: But through backgammon over the internet?

Sokrates: It's a start. And every little bit helps. Have you heard of Marshal Lyautey?

Alkibiades: Marshal Lyautey?

Sokrates: A favorite story of John F. Kennedy's, and of Lloyd Bentsen's. The aged Marshall Lyautey, retired on his chateau, asked his gardener if he would on the morrow start planting a row of oak trees. "But Mon Marechal," said the gardener, looking at the eighty-year old Lyautey. "The trees will take more than fifty years to grow." "Oh," said the Marshal. "In that case, plant them today. We have no time to lose."

Posted by DeLong at November 21, 2003 06:02 AM | TrackBack


Very nice, but you're missing a closing italic tag after "or die!".

Posted by: Cosma on November 21, 2003 11:17 AM


I prefer backgammon to chess, because a well-worked position can always be thrown out of joint by a lucky throw of the dice. That's why David Hume played it, I think, and I suspect that it's another reason why it's popular in the Arab world, inshallah and all.

Also, computers make lousy backgammon players.

Posted by: nick sweeney on November 21, 2003 11:20 AM


Sorry, Nick, but you're wrong. I've forgotten the reference, and am too lazy to look it up, but there is a world-class backgammon program. It was much easier than chess.

Posted by: Jonathan Goldberg on November 21, 2003 12:19 PM


If you want to pick a game computers are still pretty lame at, there are few choices left: go. (And on the even lighter side, note that Backgammon is a zero-sum game. I would not, however, draw any inference from that to what it takes to switch to a positive-sum civil society game, though.) I hope I am not too far off topic. :-) (Great post, by the way.)

Posted by: Jean-Philippe Stijns on November 21, 2003 12:42 PM


If you want to pick a game computers are still pretty lame at, there are few choices left: go. (And on the even lighter side, note that Backgammon is a zero-sum game. I would not, however, draw any inference from that to what it takes to switch to a positive-sum civil society game, though.) I hope I am not too far off topic. :-) (Great post, by the way.)

Posted by: Jean-Philippe Stijns on November 21, 2003 12:47 PM


I don't understand why this sort of opinion isn't more widespread. It's seemed obvious to me for a while. Regardless of how many troops the US puts in Iraq now, eventually Iraq will have to govern itself. And it looks like for the forseeable future, the US doesn't have what it takes to put in place a moderate Iraqi government that will actually survive. The governing council is blatantly dominated by people with substantial foreign business interests, who are disconnected from the Iraqi on the street and mostly accepting of a policy to give lots of Iraqi goodies to US corporations. Neither this council nor its policies would even remotely survive free elections in Iraq. A US-appointed government that is quite distant from the sort that would survive elections, and which Iraqi moderates won't touch and have no connection to, is a recipe for an overthrow. Not necessarily violent, if the appointed government isn't willing to go to repressive lengths to prevent their own complete electoral ouster. But overthrown it will be, and the Islamists will have the most potent organization to grab lots of power. Their popularity will be strengthened by general anti-foreigner and anti-western sentiments due not only to the violent occupation, but due to the previous government being so obviously an instrument of foreigners and westerners.

The only real hope for an Iraq ruled neither as an Islamic republic nor a military dictatorship, was to create a government with heavy involvement of moderate Iraqis, with an independent voice from the US occupying authority, staffed by native Iraqis rather than expatriates, and stripped as quickly as possible of all US-appointed positions.

This hope is now mostly dead. With how screwed up things are now, even a total about-face in US policy about forming an Iraqi government would take at least a year of western oversight and devolution of power to produce such a thing. If it's possible at all - the best hope to do such a thing was immediately, before the guerilla war really got going and Iraqis started becoming radicalized against the occupation and any government at all associated with it. Now, there's no time - the administration will be in too much of a hurry to pull out troops before the election. They will probably devolve power to Iraqis too quickly and amid too much chaos to prevent it from being anything but the usual Middle Eastern competition between a dictatorial secular government or an extremist Islamic republic. The Islamic republic seems more likely, because the seriously secular forces were associated with Ba'ath, and the US will likely focus more on keeping them out of power.

Posted by: Ian Montgomerie on November 21, 2003 12:58 PM


The 16thC analogy is right although *grits teeth* we can't blame the Calvinists for St Bartholemew.

What is interesting is that Martin Luther's Wars (1525-1648) were ended by the Treaty of Westphalia, which saw the victory of the modern idea that States were soverign, independant and co-equal, and that their internal affairs (ie matters of faith) were not a sufficient reason to invade them and replace their government, as they had been in the 16th C, and indeed before (ie Jan Hus in Bohemia).

Now, this idea stuck for a long time, but we now have the idea of a 'rogue state' - a state which has been declared by the USA to be neither soverign, nor independant, nor co-equal, which may be invaded and have their government replaced at will.

Reasons for being declared a rogue state appear to include acquiring nuclear, chemical or biological weapons, or supporting "terrorist" groups.

Now, I'm pretty sure the latter is defined as "groups that use terrorism that the US doesnt like", as otherwise Britain would get to blow the crap out of Boston. There is also the minor issue of the Falangists, and indeed UNITA (although bombing ther RNC for their support of terrorism does have a certain twisted appeal).

The former is also pretty interesting, given the long list of states that have all three (note to White House : Guys, get a clue. NBC weapons are not useful for terrorism. Aum killed, what 23 people in Tokyo subways with sarin gas. A loonie with a molotov cocktail in Seoul bagged over a hundred).

Dragging me back to the 16th century, I'd like to remind you, Brad, that the Reformed City of Nuremnurg sided with the Catholic Imperial side in the War of the Schmaldatik League, as being a city state, they had a secular interest in keeping the territorial Princes weak, regardless of whether they were Catholic or Reformed.

So even religious loonies can have attacks of raison d'etat (I wont even start about Catholic France's objectively pro-Reformed policy through just about the whole of Martin Luthers Wars).

Posted by: Ian Whitchurch on November 21, 2003 03:17 PM


>>The 16thC analogy is right<<

Oh dear.

That's really depressing...

Posted by: Brad DeLong on November 21, 2003 03:21 PM


Dear Brad

I play spades (bridge for dummies). I only meet people from the USA (all sane). Non computer owning internet connected English speaking Iranians have made their sanity clear in 3 successive elections. Iran is not a real democracy and is going crazier none the less (burying the sectarian hatchet and getting along with Al Qaeda it seems). The nuts get nuttier when it is clear that they need foreign enemies to survive unpopularity. Not a pleasant thought

Posted by: Robert on November 21, 2003 05:24 PM


{BUI}Wild thought: by throwing a secular Arab country back to a possible future of religious rule, haven't the Bushies undone what were actually the premises of an Islamist reformation?{/BUI}

Posted by: Jean-Philippe Stijns on November 21, 2003 06:05 PM


>I play spades (bridge for dummies). I only meet people
>from the USA (all sane)

Sorry, but isn't this a bit like complaining that it's hard to find Redskins fans in Brazil? Most card games are Anglo-American inventions. While I'm not saying that Americans have to give up baseball, but if one can't bother to play a different board game as a compromise, making a real compromise is going to be outside the realm of possibility, eh?

Posted by: liberal japonicus on November 21, 2003 07:02 PM


The Catholic French also financed the Swedish Protestant goon squads against the Austrian Catholics. The nice kind of Swedes we have today were not evident before 1709 at the earliest. The Swedish Queen Christina converted to Catholicism and went to Venice (semi-voluntarily) after the religious wars were finally settled in 1648 or so. Garbo's movie doesn't do her justice.

And under the leadership of the blind general Jan Zizka, the Hussite Czechs defeated the Holy Roman Empire over and over again; the Hussites were never quite eliminated and still exist in some form.

Posted by: Zizka on November 21, 2003 07:13 PM


The nuts get nuttier when it is clear that they need foreign enemies to survive unpopularity.
Yeah, you're right. But lets be fair - the Republican right aren't the only nuts in the world.

Posted by: derrida derider on November 21, 2003 11:40 PM


The assumption of US withdrawal from Iraq seems to be gaining favor, as more US troops die there and the public seems to have become less enamoured with (of?) Bush II. Now, just for the sake of argument, let's say that putting bases in Iraq was more than a minor consideration in invading the place, that we had a heads up that our welcome in Saudi Arabia was wearing thin and we notice that Iraq rubs up against more of the Mideast's obstreperous states than does Saudi Arabia.

In my make believe world, we stay, but not because backing out makes Iraq a failed effort at proving every culture is fertile ground for immediate democratization, nor because once we tore apart Iraq's governing structure (no matter how bad), we owe them another one. No, in my hypothetical world, we are in it for the real estate. Withdrawing behind barbed wire and massive stand-offs (more than RPG range), sallying forth only when the US-tolerant government is directly threatened, gives us a way to lean on Iran and Syria. We can also scowl a bit in the direction of Saudi Arabia if needed. We shore up Turkey's flank while Turkey deals with the outbreak of domestic terrorism that seems to grow out of backing us in Iraq.

My little world works lots better under the "open arms" assumption heard prior to the war, but I wonder if, now that Saudi Arabia has shown us the door, we aren't rather stuck with Iraq as a fallback position until some other solution is thought up.

Posted by: K Harris on November 22, 2003 07:06 PM


Post a comment