Prisoner's Dilemma

After a week spent sniping at each other, the Time says “Hillary Clinton will attend a birthday party Wednesday evening in Martha’s Vineyard, just as their relationship is hitting its lowest point since the 2008 Democratic presidential primary. But Clinton hopes to use the occasion to put a fresh controversy over their foreign policy disagreements behind them, with a spokesman saying ‘she looks forward to hugging it out’ with the commander-in-chief.


Clinton called Obama on Tuesday in an attempt to clear the air before their meeting, Clinton spokesman Nick Merrill said. The flareup highlighted the challenge facing Clinton as she seeks to differentiate herself from a president of her own party, and the limits to which she can break with him without alienating Democratic supporters of Obama.

The problem for Hillary is that at the rate President Obama is messing things up, her chances of being elected president in 2016 are going from slim to none. The problem for Obama is different: he needs to find someone he can blame for the catastrophe unfolding overseas. The most obvious candidate to take the rap is Hillary.  So Obama’s opening line is probably to promise he’s not going to set her up.

Back in 2012 author Ed Klein told Glenn Beck that Bill Clinton’s first reaction upon learning of the attack on the Benghazi consulate was how to get Hillary out from under.  Say what you like about Bill Clinton, but that man knew how to see a punch coming.

KLEIN: Two separate sources on this. And Hillary claims, and I tend to believe her, that she ordered beefed‑up security in Benghazi because it had been requested and that this order was never carried out and that furthermore when and if she is subpoenaed, along with her internal memoranda and the cable traffic from the State Department by the House committee, it will prove that she did just that.

Now, if it doesn’t prove that she did just that, then they’re lying to me, and the sources are ‑‑ you know, I’m not suggesting that that’s impossible, but I seriously doubt it since I’m talking to legal counsel to Hillary Clinton. Legal counsel. These people don’t generally lie.

PAT: Ed, if that happened, why did she then later accept full responsibility for what took place? Why would she do that?

KLEIN: This was a big debate within the Clinton camp itself, between Hillary and Bill. Bill did not want her to take full responsibility. He wanted her to, in fact, consider the possibility of even resigning if the White House continued to try to make her the scapegoat in this. Hillary and her legal team decided she should look presidential, above ‑‑ she should look moderate, she should come forward and say, “Look, I take responsibility. I’m the Secretary of State” and by comparison making the president look a hell of a lot smaller because he was ducking all responsibility and knowing full well that when the full story came out, she would be, in her words, or at least the words of her legal counsel, exonerated.


The problem is that by concealing the presidential input — if there was any — Hillary left herself open as being the highest known decision maker that night of the debacle. As Allen West wrote, absent the “I was only following orders” defense that Hillary the buck for Benghazi stopped with her:

And at a January 2013 Senate hearing, Mrs. Clinton said that security requests “did not come to me. I did not approve them. I did not deny them.” …

As Toensing says, by statute, Clinton was required to make specific security decisions for defenseless consulates like Benghazi, and was not permitted to delegate them to anyone else. The Secure Embassy Construction and Counterterrorism Act of 1999, or Secca, was passed in response to the near-simultaneous bombings of U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, on Aug. 7, 1998.” [and made the SOS responsible for such matters]

If we take “Benghazi” to be a catch-all word to describe the failed foreign policy whose consequences are now plunging the region into the turmoil, then the ownership of that policy is of the utmost political and criminal consequence. “Benghazi” is the doorway to a whole nexus of events which may conceal not just one, but many possible criminal acts. That’s why  the door is so hard to open; not because of what happened that night in Libya, but what that night in Libya might be  part of. Especially if the consequences of the policy are now playing out in Syria and Iraq.


Supposing this to be the case, just hypothetically, then Hillary and Barack may now be attempting to resolve the Prisoner’s Dilemma, which is the classic problem of two guys trying to beat a rap.

The prisoner’s dilemma is a canonical example of a game analyzed in game theory that shows why two purely “rational” individuals might not cooperate, even if it appears that it is in their best interests … to do so. It was originally framed by Merrill Flood and Melvin Dresher working at RAND in 1950. Albert W. Tucker formalized the game with prison sentence rewards and gave it the name “prisoner’s dilemma” (Poundstone, 1992), presenting it as follows:

Two members of a criminal gang are arrested and imprisoned. Each prisoner is in solitary confinement with no means of speaking to or exchanging messages with the other. The police admit they don’t have enough evidence to convict the pair on the principal charge. They plan to sentence both to a year in prison on a lesser charge. Simultaneously, the police offer each prisoner a Faustian bargain. Each prisoner is given the opportunity either to betray the other, by testifying that the other committed the crime, or to cooperate with the other by remaining silent. Here’s how it goes:

  1. If A and B both betray the other, each of them serves 2 years in prison
  2. If A betrays B but B remains silent, A will be set free and B will serve 3 years in prison (and vice versa)
  3. If A and B both remain silent, both of them will only serve 1 year in prison (on the lesser charge)

Restated in the present case, you can recast the choices as:

  1. if Hillary and Obama expose each other’s role in the foreign policy debacle, then both face political ruin and possible criminal liability, if any laws were violated.
  2. If Hillary can pin it on Obama or Obama can pin it on Hillary then one walks and the other takes the rap.
  3. If Hillary and Barack can cut a deal, then both walk or emerge with minimal damage.

One of the assumptions of the prisoners dilemma is that they are isolated, precluding collusion. In this case since the parties are meeting, collusion is not only inevitable, but guaranteed.

Prediction: this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship. It is in the interests of both to remain silent and cut their losses.  What could go wrong? (Hint: suppose Hillary isn’t elected in 2016 then she can’t keep her end of the bargain …)

Erratum: I earlier quoted from the wrong meeting between Hillary and Barack and have corrected it with the right source. I deeply apologize for the error.

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