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ISIS’s blunder

ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) has recently provoked many within the United States to call for intervention in Iraq and Syria. ISIS jihadists in Syria beheaded two American journalists and expressed aggression against the United States in the hope to deter the United States from getting further involved in the Middle Eastern conflict. From a Game Theory perspective, ISIS and the United States are two players in the game of aggression. To understand why ISIS made such a brutal choice, we need to understand how they viewed the payoffs.

In ISIS’s point of view, its strategies consisted of “kill” and “not to kill” while the United States’ strategies consist of “intervene” and “not to intervene” in response. The payoffs for both players are obtaining support.

The payoff for ISIS to kill the journalists is 1 because they believed that it would demonstrate their power and gain them more support.

The payoff for ISIS not to kill the journalists is always 0 because they didn’t demonstrate force and gain more support. However, they wouldn’t lose existing support either.

In ISIS’s opinion, for the US to intervene after it killed the journalists would produce a payoff of -2 because people in the US are tired of being involved in foreign conflicts and they would be scared that more deaths would follow.

In ISIS’s opinion, for the US to intervene after it chose not to kill would produce a payoff of -1 because people in the US would be generally against another conflict.

In ISIS’s opinion, for the US not to intervene if it chose to kill would produce a payoff of 0 because people in the US would generally support being politically neutral.

In ISIS’s opinion, for the US not to intervene if it chose not to kill would produce a payoff of 1 because people in the US would generally support staying away from the conflict and nothing bad happened.

This table below shows the game perceived from ISIS’s point of view:

1

As demonstrated above, the Nash equilibrium is (Not to intervene, Kill) because ISIS’s dominant strategy is to kill while the US will choose “Not to intervene” in this case.

Did ISIS do the right calculation? The news article “President Obama to vow ‘relentless effort’ to wipe out Islamic State in prime-time address” proves that ISIS miscalculated the payoffs. Today, President Obama announced a strategy for intervening in not only Iraq, but Syria as well, setting the payoffs as follows:

2

The payoff for ISIS to kill the journalists is actually -1 because moderate Sunnis turned against ISIS so they actually lost support.

The payoff for ISIS not to kill the journalists is still 0 because they can keep whatever support they have.

In the US’s opinion, for the US to intervene after ISIS killed its journalists would produce a payoff of 2 because people in the US are supportive of the intervention after the tragic deaths of the journalists.

Along the same lines, for the US not to intervene after ISIS killed its journalists would produce a payoff of -2 because people in the US would be angry about the inaction.

In US’s opinion, for the US to intervene after ISIS chose not to kill would produce a payoff of -1 because people in the US would be generally against another conflict and it’s unnecessary to get involved at this point.

In US’s opinion, for the US not to intervene if it chose not to kill would produce a payoff of 1 because people in the US would generally support staying away from the conflict and maintaining a good relationship diplomatically.

The Nash equilibrium in this case is (Not to kill, Not to intervene) because ISIS’s dominant strategy is not to kill while the US will choose “Not to intervene” in this case.

 

Apparently, the second table illustrates a more realistic version of the game. It’s interesting to see how Game Theory helps analyze this intricate foreign policy situation. ISIS apparently failed to evaluate the payoffs rationally. As a result, they will soon witness its own destruction.

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