Thursday, August 28, 2014

Benghazi is a prisoner's dilemma, and the Republicans are the prisoners

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The House Republicans' special committee on Benghazi is really happening. Last week, the House voted, basically on party lines, to establish it, and the seven Republican members have been announced. As many as 206 House Republicans were reportedly vying for spots on the committee. That's almost 90 percent of the entire House GOP competing to be the public face of the Benghazi campaign.

It stands to reason that at least some of those Republicans don't actually believe that the Obama administration is hiding the truth about their handling of the attack on the US mission in Benghazi in 2012. They may even believe that continuing to investigate it is a political dead end for Republicans. From a narrowly strategic standpoint, there's just no good evidence this resonates with anyone who isn't already a committed Republican.

But while Benghazi-mania may be a political misstep for the GOP as a whole, it's utterly rational for even skeptical Republican politicians to get in on it. That's because the politics of this issue resemble what game theorists call a prisoner's dilemma: a situation where two parties would both be better off by cooperating for the greater good, but can't because there's no good way to coordinate their strategy, and so end up competing. Such are the internal Republican politics on Benghazi.

Some number of Republicans are certainly investigating out of a genuine belief the administration did wrong. The amount of energy very senior Republicans, like Speaker John Boehner and Rep. Darrell Issa, have put in to investigating Benghazi doesn't make any sense as a pure fundraising tactic. Even cynical political motivations don't make a whole lot of sense unless there's actual evidence that would damn the administration. So let's assume that some Republicans are pushing the issue earnestly, others simply out of political calculus.

Enter the prisoner's dilemma. In the classic scenario, a prisoner's dilemma arises between — you guessed it — two prisoners. Let's call them Jack and Joan. They've been arrested for collaborating on the same crime, and are being held separately. The prosecutor meets with them independently and offers both Jack and Joan the same deal: confess and rat on the other one, and you get to walk free — unless the other prisoner also confesses. In that case, you both get moderate jail time. If everyone stays quiet, then the prosecutor will be forced to settle for a token conviction with a light sentence.

Screen_shot_2014-05-11_at_6.55.15_pm

You can probably spot the problem here. For both Jack and Joan individually, it makes sense to confess: if the other person doesn't confess, you go free. If the other one does confess, then you get a lighter sentence than you would have otherwise. This means that the rational move is always to confess — even though the best possible outcome, in terms of overall punishment meted out, is that nobody confesses. In lab experiments where testers ask people to simulate being Joan and Jack, people tend to confess.

There are literally thousands of journal articles about the implications of this idea, for everything from philosophy to international relations to basic psychology. But let's talk Benghazi.

House Republicans compete with each other as well as with Democrats. That's true directly, in primary and leadership races, and less directly, for fundraising dollars and public attention. Benghazi is now part of this competition. It's really important for core Republican voters, the conservative media, and likely some donors.

This puts Republicans who are skeptical of the Benghazi investigations in a prisoner's dilemma with one another. From their point of view, the best outcome for the party and themselves would be to drop the issue or, at very least, confine it to the fringier parts of the party's delegation. But if one mainstream representative ignores Benghazi while another pushes it, the one peddling Benghazi gets an advantage in the internal competition. So it's rational for every Republican to clamor for more Benghazi investigations — even the Republicans who think it's a waste of the party's time and energy.

Here's a table putting it into prisoner's dilemma terms, with "Republican 1" and "Republican 2" replacing Jack and Joan.

Screen_shot_2014-05-11_at_7.18.21_pm

Once you see the prisoner's dilemma, Republican behavior on Benghazi makes a lot more sense. Take last week's flap over fundraising. Rep. Trey Gowdy, the chairman of the Benghazi committee, told Republicans not to raise money "on the backs of four murdered Americans." Yet they did, and it doesn't look like they're going to stop. Why? Republican representatives and groups want the money for their campaigns, and can't be sure that other Republicans won't grab the lion's share of whatever Benghazi-driven donations might be available.

There is a way to "solve" the prisoner's dilemma. In the late 1970s, University of Michigan political scientist Robert Axelrod ran "tournaments" testing different prisoner's dilemma strategies against each other. Running a number of simulations of different strategies on computers, he found the best strategy was to not confess in the first game, and then do whatever the other player did the next time around. If they confess in round 2, you confess in round 3. (Remember that the best outcome is for neither side to confess.) This strategy, called tit-for-tat, basically evolved into an agreement not to confess: once a player learned that the other person was willing to work with them to get the best outcome, they started cooperating.

That doesn't appear to be happening with Benghazi. This new committee is an escalation, not the first step towards backing away from the issue.

There are lots of potential reasons that could be true; here are three. First, pressure from true believer Republicans: there are probably so many Republicans who believe investigating Benghazi is a good use of the GOP's time that the party is effectively unable to back off en masse. Second, it's hard to see how you would enforce a hypothetical secret agreement for House Republicans to give up the issue for the party's greater good.

Finally, there's no real way to make a credible commitment to give up on Benghazi — the issue keeps evolving. The current committee was born of an investigation by Judicial Watch, a conservative foundation. Judicial Watch obtained an administration email which Republicans saw as proof of a cover-up. You couldn't have anticipated something like that, which all of a sudden changed the internal incentives to favor talking about Benghazi. Since Republicans can't anticipate when they'll need to be talking about Benghazi, they can't make promises to each other to swear it off indefinitely.

In other words: expect Republican to be talking about Benghazi for a long, long time. They couldn't stop even if they wanted to.

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