Sunday, August 8, 2010

a Prisoner's dilemma in Lebanon

All of a sudden, Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah is in the hot seat. After years of investigating, deliberating and contemplating, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, established by the UN to prosecute the assassination of Rafic Hariri in 2005, is about to indict Hezbollah members, as "rogue" as they may be, on charges of being behind the murder of the Lebanese Prime Minister that rocked Lebanon and the entire Middle East.

Wait a minute: What about the Syrians? Everyone thought it was their hand that killed Hariri. Weren't they the Master of Disaster in Lebanon at that time around? Well, it seems, they are off the hook for now because world politics needs them to be untarnished at this moment. It's Hezbollah that holds the bad card right now, so what will be their reaction?

Thinking about it brought me back to the well known mathematical problem of the prisoner's dilemma. Originally framed by Merrill Flood and Melvin Dresher working at RAND in 1950, it got its name from Albert W. Tucker who formalized the game and called it prisoner's dilemma (source: Wikipedia).

As a reminder, the prisoner's dilemma goes like this: Two suspects are arrested by the police. The police have insufficient evidence for a conviction, and, having separated the prisoners, visit each of them to offer the same deal. If one testifies for the prosecution against the other (defects) and the other remains silent (cooperates), the defector goes free and the silent accomplice receives the full 10-year sentence. If both remain silent, both prisoners are sentenced to only six months in jail for a minor charge. If each betrays the other, each receives a five-year sentence. Each prisoner must choose to betray the other or to remain silent. Each one is assured that the other would not know about the betrayal before the end of the investigation. How should the prisoners act?
 
How should Hassan Nasrallah act? If Hezbollah had a hand in Hariri's killing, the Syrians had a hand in it too (after all, Hezbollah is "Syria backed" as the Western press likes to say and they got their weapons through Syrian channels). Should Nasrallah accuse Syria, his friend, tell it all and get the reduced sentence? Or should he take the full blame and remain silent about Syrian involvement? But what would be his reward for that? In the "real" prisoner's dilemma, the only possible equilibrium for the game is for all players to defect, meaning to betray their fellow prisoner. Syrian president Assad may have already done that. Will Nasrallah follow?