The GOP: Masters of the Credible Threat

The Pentagon Papers have been released 40 years after Daniel Ellsberg leaked them. Stephen L. Carter on what Ellsberg’s theories teach us about the tactics of Republicans today.

06.14.11 6:45 PM ET

The formal release of the Pentagon Papers by the Defense Department on June 13 garnered only passing news coverage. In this age of Wikileaks, when too many of those to whom confidences are entrusted keep them only long enough to figure out which friend to tell first, it is easy to forget the existence of an earlier era, when rules of secrecy were taken seriously, and the publication of classified data was considered a scandal. The case arose in 1971, when the New York Times and the Washington Post published excerpts from a top secret Pentagon study of American policy in Vietnam. At the time, the newspapers were doing something brave and new, and might have faced criminal contempt citations for their actions, had not the Supreme Court, in a case the outcome of which in those days seemed anything but certain, stepped in to protect them.

The leaking of the report known as the Pentagon Papers was a landmark in the history of the First Amendment, and this week’s formal release has occasioned the press to publish great paeans to itself. But more intriguing lessons for contemporary politics can be found not in the forty-year-old tussle over the leak of the classified study but in the scholarship of the man who leaked it—Daniel Ellsberg. Indeed, Ellsberg’s work on conflict has fascinating implications for the titanic battle being waged in Washington over whether and how to raise the federal debt ceiling.

Ellsberg, nowadays usually described as a Defense Department analyst, was considerably more than that. In the 1960s, he was one of the preeminent figures in game theory and among the early explorers of what has come to be known as conflict theory. This expertise was precisely the reason that he was involved in preparing the classified study of United States policy in Vietnam that became the centerpiece of the Pentagon Papers. Henry Kissinger once referred to Daniel Ellsberg as the most brilliant student he ever taught.

From his undergraduate days at Harvard onward, Ellsberg was fascinated by the dynamics of military conflict in particular, but also of conflict generally. Ellsberg’s particular contribution – and the one that should echo today – was on the use of blackmail as a tool of coercion. In a paper he wrote while in his early twenties, Ellsberg demonstrated that blackmail, to be effective, must be credible; and that its credibility was often enhanced by the adversary’s uncertainty about what the blackmailer might do. But he went even further to show that the credibility of blackmail rests not only on the intentions of the blackmailer, but also on the costs to the victim.

In one famous example, based on a real episode, Ellsberg posed the case of a bank robber who hands the teller a note demanding $5000; otherwise, the robber says, he will blow up a hand grenade. After the frightened teller hands over the cash, the robber notices that there is more money than he thought and demands the rest. The teller refuses. The cost of complying has become too high, at the teller’s current level of belief in the threat. If the robber wants the rest of the money, he must find a way to persuade the teller that he really will blow them both to bits.

Ellsberg’s insight was that blackmail has greater force when the blackmailing party creates a situation in which he will incur costs if he backs down. The greater the cost to the blackmailer from not carrying out his threat, the greater the likelihood that the victim will believe the threat is real – and thus give in. On the other hand, the risk to the blackmailer becomes very large if the victim chooses to remain steadfast.

Ellsberg’s theory has obvious implications for the political conflicts of the present day. Consider the battle over raising the debt ceiling, and, in particular, the opprobrium being heaped upon congressional Republicans for their evident willingness to allow the borrowing authority of the federal government to expire if Democrats will not agree to large spending cuts. The Republicans are being accused of brinkmanship—another term from conflict theory, although its popularizer was not Ellsberg but Nobel Laureate Thomas C. Schelling—and the accusation is entirely correct. Brinkmanship, for Schelling, involved leading your adversary along the edge of a cliff (the “brink”), where neither one of you knows exactly where the cliff ends and the tumble begins. You win if your adversary is so afraid of the fall that he refuses to remain at the edge. The classic example is the Cuban Missile Crisis, where each side waited for the other to step back from the precipice. In the debt ceiling negotiations, this is precisely the Republican strategy.

Ellsberg’s point was that the willingness to take seemingly irrational risks might actually prove a rational winning strategy, as long as your adversary believes you will do what others would consider irrational. The more costs you incur by not carrying out your threat, the more you will be believed. The Democrats are already gearing up to attack the Republicans for shutting down the government, if indeed this result occurs. That such a campaign is being planned suggests that the Republicans have succeeded in making their threat credible. And, indeed, should the negotiations fail, the Republicans will lose enormous credibility if they do not allow the shutdown to occur. In other words, the reputational costs to backing down would be substantial, probably greater than the reputational costs of carrying out the threat. But the point of the threat is to get your way, and the Republicans are betting that the Democrats, persuaded that the Republicans are serious, will back down and give them all or part of what they want.

As for Ellsberg himself, he has just turned 80 and is still going strong. He was recently arrested at an antiwar demonstration and has spoken up in defense of Pfc. Bradley Manning, accused of providing the Wikileaks documents to Julian Assange. But I like to imagine that in his spare time, the scholar in Daniel Ellsberg must be paying close attention to the debt ceiling fight. Whichever side one might believe to be right on the merits, it is a fascinating coincidence that the report known to history as the Pentagon Papers has been officially released in the midst of this real-world test of its author’s theories.