Sunday, May 01, 2005

Bush finds Saddam a formidable foe in high-stakes poker game

Jakarta Post
March 6, 2003

Thang Nguyen, Geneva

As I watch the of the Iraq crisis develops, I cannot help but think of a classic movie titled The Rounders. As its title suggests, this movie is about an ultimate poker game between a Russian mafioso named "KGB" (John Malcovitch) and a card wizard named Mike McDermott (Matt Damon) who drops out of law school to become a professional poker player.

Well, the Iraq situation is looking more and more like the Rounders. The only difference is that the two players are President George W. Bush and Saddam Hussein. It is tempting to ask, what moves would both players make next, when would the final call be, and what would be the endgame?

As an attempt to answer these questions, let's look at both players' hands and what are the stakes at this stage. Both Bush and Saddam each have been dealt 4 cards, and the fifth (last) will be dealt after the two players raise the stakes.

A quick look at Bush's hands reveals that he currently has a flush. In comparison, Saddam has a four-of-a-kind, which is more powerful than a flush.

As a zero-sum game, here is the best-case scenario for both players: If Bush got a A, it would give him a royal flush, which beats a four-of-a-kind. In contrast, if Saddam got a JOKER next, he would have a five-of-a-kind, which beats a royal flush.

What would be Bush's A? It would be combination of a mistake or a wrong move by Saddam that somehow revealed his possession of WMD, which would then legitimize a U.S.-led war, a deal with Turkey to use its bases, and a continued support from the American public.

The reason I mentioned the U.S. public support of the war is three-folded. Firstly, the success of this war (or any other war for that matter) depends, among other things, on whether it is fought with the hearts and minds' of the people at home. After all, they are the parents of the troops who are sent to Baghdad -- not Bush, not Rumsfeld, and certainly not Blair.

Furthermore, the American public is not a very patient one; if the U.S. does not attack Iraq while the Sept. 11 pain is still strong, its public will be booing its own government very soon and loud -- just like the hungry and angry Roman mob in the movie the Gladiator.

As a matter of fact, the British public is also questioning why it should join the Americans in this war. At the moment, it looks like Blair, Bush's most vocal disciple, may have to kiss his job good-bye in the near future.

Secondly, as taxpayers, some Americans are questioning the price tag of this war, which is estimated at US$13 billion. If they do a cost-benefit analysis, taking into account the current U.S. budget deficit and fragile economy, most Americans would conclude that this war is too expensive and does not make sense.

Thirdly, many Americans have come to a point where they no longer want Uncle Sam to continue his role as the global cop, who is increasingly "hated" by everyone in the world, from the French to South Koreans. Simply put, they feel thankless and betrayed after all the nice things they have done to "humanity" -- to their credit, had it not been for them, the French would be speaking German by now.

As for Saddam, his Joker card would come from a continued call to give the UN inspectors more time and a persistent statement by Hans Blix that he is both clean and co-operative, a second UN resolution, and continued demonstration from the international community against the war.

At the moment, we've seen signs of this card. Dr Hans Blix announced on Valentines Day that the inspectors could not find any evidence of Saddam's nuclear activities. Last weekend, people in almost every corner of the world, including the U.S., threw themselves in the streets in demonstration against the war. Despite President Jacque Chirac's and Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's outspoken anti-war stance, the EU met Monday in Brussels and declared: "War is not inevitable. Force should be used only as a last resort".

The Iraq crisis, like poker, is not just about the hands and the chips one has got. It is more a psychological game that requires guts and the ability to conceal one's emotions -- hence, the expression "poker face".

Thus far, President Bush has called Saddam names and, on CNN, he appears both impatient and angry. His feelings are understandable, but showing them undermines his posture towards Saddam. Worse yet, the fact that he did not make any move after declaring "the game is over" actually gives Saddam the feeling that he is bluffing.

In contrast, Saddam has so far been very quiet and calm himself; all communications from Baghdad seem to be centralized and strategic. My theory is that he knows he has good cards in his hands, patience, time, and really not much to lose. In the worst-case scenario, he already has an exit strategy: Exile.

One can only believe that Bush knows that he is playing poker against a fearless and experienced, if not clever, player. His people, too, can only believe that he knows the rules of the game well: After all the cards are dealt and the raises made, players call.

The writer is a political analyst and a graduate of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

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