THIRTY YEARS ago, Thomas Schelling, one of the pre-eminent figures in the field of conflict resolution, posed an intriguing question: "When two dynamite trucks meet on a road wide enough for one, who backs up?"
The answer has nothing to do with the amount of dynamite carried or the relative size of the trucks. Rather, it is a function of commitment: The truck driver who is better able to convince the other that he will not back up is the one more likely to get his way.
The most effective way to convince the other side that you will not back up is to demonstrate to him that you cannot back up -- that you have, for example, lost your brakes.
It takes little imagination to see that U.S. and Iraqi forces are like two dynamite trucks heading toward each other, engaged in a game of chicken. President Bush has made his position clear: If Iraq does not withdraw from Kuwait we will launch an attack.
Bush is now attempting to gain a competitive advantage by trying to convince Saddam Hussein that our commitment is absolute and irrevocable, and that the prestige of both the presidency and the United States are on the line -- that we not only won't back down, but we can't. In effect, he wants to convince Saddam Hussein that our truck has no brakes.
But, as George Bush is finding, it's tough to play chicken in a democracy: It's difficult to convey the unambiguous impression that there's no turning back when others on your side are free to communicate different messages. As the Iraqi leader tries to read between the administration's lines to discern the depth of U.S. commitment, he has plenty of information that challenges the impression Bush is trying so desperately to convey.
Generals openly report that our troops are not ready to fight; Congress members of both parties wonder aloud whether we shouldn't give sanctions and diplomacy more of a chance; pundits assert that war would be a disaster; and public opinion is at best divided (to say nothing of the lack of consensus among our allies). All these voices serve to subvert the president's message. And in the game of chicken, a dubious commitment is as good as none at all.
There's another problem in taking this tack: Chicken rewards bluffing, lying, stubbornness and, perhaps most important, irrationality. If I know that the guy driving the other truck is drunk or a madman, I'm more likely to back up. In bluffing, lying, stubbornness and irrationality, Saddam Hussein has an enormous competitive edge over Bush. Chicken also favors the party who is the most desperate and has the least to lose. Here again, advantage Hussein.
Bush has chosen to engage Hussein in the one game that is stacked against us, the one game that Hussein can win. It's like Michael Jordan choosing to play Jimmy Connors in tennis rather than basketball.
What game should we be playing? The United States has enormous assets that we can call upon in this conflict. Our military is more powerful, the international community is aligned on our side. And we are on the side of right.
President Bush also brings important personal assets. He has strong ties to the international community, has proven his ability to lead over the long haul in a prudent and steady manner, and is, along with his secretary of state, a skilled negotiator.
We should choose a game that rewards these strengths. We should begin by communicating with Hussein in order to explore interests and options for a peaceful settlement. During such talks, we should hold forcefully to principles of legitimacy; that Iraq not benefit from its invasion of Kuwait, and that Iraq get no more than that to which it is entitled under international law and equity.
If Iraq refuses to work toward peace based on these principles, then it will continue to suffer under the oppressive burden of sanctions. National and international resolve on this point is clear.
If diplomacy and sanctions prove ineffective, and we decide that it is in our interest to engage Iraq in war, then at that point we should communicate our resolve to fight and win. No bluffs. No dynamite trucks. No chicken.
Douglas Stone is an associate in the Harvard Negotiation Project at Harvard University. Peter Kumpa, who normally writes on Maryland politics in this space, is taking the day off.
In games of chicken, a dubious commitment is worse than none at all.