During a discussion of the use of game theory in IR last week, one of my students asked me "How do we know whether we're in a game of Chicken or a Prisoner's Dilemma?" Well, that's a good question. We can't just place a collect call to Tehran and say "Hello, Mahmoud! Listen, I'm just calling to make sure... we're playing Chicken, right?" And yet what game we're in has quite a lot to do with the strategies we should play because it effects the payoffs of those strategies. For example, John Bolton (and many in the Bush administration) saw nearly every political interaction as a game of Chicken. Obama, on the other hand, doesn't agree:
The question that I'm asking right now is to our military, to General McChrystal, to General Petraeus, to all our national security apparatus, is-- whether it's troops who are already there, or any troop request in the future, how does this advance America's national security interests? How does it make sure that al Qaeda and its extremist allies cannot attack the United States homeland, our allies, our troops who are based in Europe?
That's the question that I'm constantly asking because that's the primary threat that we went there to deal with. And if-- if supporting the Afghan national government, and building capacity for their army, and securing certain provinces advances that strategy, then we'll move forward.
But, if it doesn't, then I'm not interested in just being in Afghanistan for the sake of being in Afghanistan or saving face or, in some way-- you know, sending a message that America-- is here for-- for the duration. I think it's important that we match strategy to resources.
Obama views American resources as valuable, and thinks they should be spent only when they are likely to achieve specific ends. In other words, the payoffs in Afghanistan are asymmetrical so it isn't a game of Chicken. This is the realist position, and folks like Stephen Walt say similar things in reference to Afghanistan all the time. Bush viewed American prestige as valuable, and thought it should be sacrificed only when necessary. The differences in foreign policy (to the extent that they exist) are about how they view the game.