Sunday, November 29, 2009

Magic: The Gathering, Baseball, and the Dynamics of the Arab-Israeli Conflict

One of my passions is gaming, a hobby that is useless at first glance.  But as I've gotten older (and perhaps more delusional), some of the ideas found within games apply to greater issues.  This particular post is going to deal with a couple truisms, the first oft-repeated in Magic: The Gathering circles.  It goes like this: "There are no wrong threats, only wrong answers."

For those who don't know what Magic: The Gathering is, it is a collectible card game (CCG) in which two or more players are magicians fighting for dominance.  They use decks of spells to fight each other, with the goal of either exhausting the other player's deck completely or, more commonly, reducing the opponent's life total to zero.

There are many ways to achieve this goal, but only two apply to the Arab-Israeli conflict.  The first is an aggressive strategy, where a player normally uses cheap spells to overwhelm the opponent's defenses and win before slower decks can establish dominance.  The second is a control strategy, where a player tries to answer the opponent's early threats to get to the late game, when the control player normally has a few powerful but expensive spells that end the game.

Right now, I would classify Israel as the control player and the Arab actors as the aggressive player.  Israel is a nation-state that has been fighting for its existence since its inception.  Its stance is overwhelming defensive; Israel tries to identify threats and neutralize them while essentially eschewing truly aggressive strategies.

The Arab actors thrust themselves into the aggressive role with the invasion of Israel in 1947 and have continued to present new threats.  These threats ranged from the conventional (1967 War) to the unconventional (suicide bombings).  Most recently, they have launched public relations salvos aimed to erode Israel's standing in the world community and thus, the legitimacy of its ability to bring military force to bear.

Israel has, to this point, found the right answers to the existential threats presented.  The IDF is one of the strongest, most resilient fighting forces in the world and has delivered a string of decisive military victories against superior forces.

However, to bring in another of my favorite sayings, this time from baseball, "Past performance is no guarantee of future success."  The IDF is fantastically well-equipped to deal with conventional military conflicts.  On the way back from a trip to the north this week, we drove by a tank exercise.  Dozens of tanks stood in formation on a field.  It was an intimidating sight and not something any conventional army would want to see across the battlefield.

But this only highlights that the threat profile has changed and formerly effective answers may no longer be relevant.  Few, if any, of the battles Israel will face in the next ten years will take place on an open field.  Tanks, while wonderful blunt force instruments, are little use in urban settings where civilian casualties must be minimized.  Those tanks may serve as a deterrent to aggression by Israel's neighbors but do little to stop rocket fire coming from Gaza.

If this were a game of Magic: The Gathering, Israel would have already won.  They found the answers to their opponents' early threats, established a dominant position, and have the overwhelming force necessary to destroy their opposition (for the Magic players out there, a few quick swings by a Morphling or Baneslayer Angel would be an appropriate analogue).  If this were a baseball game, it would 25-0 and the fans would already be heading for the exits.

But this isn't a game where the goal is to kill your enemy at all costs, morality and consequences be damned, or one that ends after a set number of innings.  Israel cannot, for a variety of good reasons, commit genocide to ensure its safety, nor can it simply hold on until it gets 27 outs.  Instead, Israel must try to maintain its position while dealing with the new threats its opponent poses.  Israel spends a huge amount of human and economic capital on maintaining control, costs that take their toll on Israeli society.  Yet these costs must be paid because the next threat, the one they cannot answer, may destroy everything for which they have worked.

By comparison, organizations like Hamas have little to lose.  If one threat fails, they find another.  And if that fails, well, they just keep plugging away.  All of these threats are relatively cheap and force their opponent to spend a large amount of resources to find solutions.  One example I mentioned in a previous post is the Qassam rocket fire aimed at Sderot.  Each Qassam is easy to make, sometimes composed from aid materials and thus incredibly cheap, and capable of inflicting fear and death.  To deal with this persistent threat, Israel has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on bomb shelters while incurring economic losses due to mental health issues and infrastructure damage, to name a few.

I do admit that I find Israeli paranoia problematic, especially since it complicates the peace process and leads to the occasional police harassment I have encountered.  However, this paranoia stems, in part, from a gut understanding of two old truisms: There are no wrong threats, only wrong answers, and past performance is no guarantee of future success.  Just because Israel has always found the answers before does not mean they will always do so in the future.  And one stumble could lead to the end.

Or, to stretch my metaphors to the absolute edge of breaking, they are stuck in a baseball game that does not end until both teams decide to call it a day.  And we all know how that turns out.

1 comment:

  1. An interesting piece! As you say, zero sum games where, by definition, only one competitor can be the "winner," serve as useful metaphors for worldly events. In the Middle East such events almost always involve some form of military positioning. At least in the English language, military allusions define games, whether they are organized sports or card games. like Magic: the Gathering.
    There is only one major difference between games and world events: whereas games are played according to certain fixed rules, world events unfortunately give rise to tactics that ignore ethical rules or moral standards. It appears that in Magic: The Gathering there are specified spells in each player's deck which are available whether a player employs an aggressive strategy or a (defensive) control strategy. A baseball team has a predetermined time to act as aggressor or controller in containing the other team's success as aggressor. In any event, the tactics each team uses are always the same as those used by the other team, and neither side can change the rules in mid-game.
    This was once the case in the real world, where conventional armies engaged in elaborate battles that, together, determined the war's eventual outcome. Today, asymmetry has redefined military engagements, and the Arabs mucn prefer unpreditable tactics such as roadside explosive devices and suicide bombers, to conventional warfare. Moralities are completely set aside as Arab fighters seek the shelter of women's dresses and babies' diapers in trying to avoid inevitable repercussions. Then, they skillfully portray defensive Israeli tactics as aggressive forays initiated without regard to civilian casualties. In other words, they freely change the rules in mid-game.
    Meanwhile, Israelis are severely constrained by universal moralities that demand protection for their own civilians and respect for Arab civilians. These necessitate the use of conventional military forces readily distinguished from civilian settings. The shibboleths, "no wrong threats, only wrong answers" or responses, and "past performance is no guarantee of future success," are certainly true in the real world that defines the Arab-Israeli competition. However, in the real world either side is bound by its own moral standards in adapting the rules of engagement, and there are no ethical rules that bind both sides. That clearly distinguishes games from worldly events.