As I noted back in August, in a piece titled "Texas Hold'em," the U.S. approach to foreign policy has long been more analogous to poker than to chess. As the diplomatic conflict with Iran heats up again, it should come as no surprise that poker and chess analogies should again come to the fore.
On Tuesday, a piece appeared in Al-Jazeerah titled "Texan Poker Bluff and Persian Chess Moves" by K. Gajendra Singh. It suggested that the Iranians are engaged in some smart, chess-like maneuvers: "Like (the Chess King) Ali Khamenei might remove from the centre (Knight) Ahmadinejad with his awkward moves. Iranians have shown Chess like long term planning and finesse to counter US moves in the region, even offering full cooperation in 2003 (an honourable draw), if US normalized bilateral relations disrupted since 1979 . Always many moves ahead they nurtured SCIRI, Dawa and other Iraqi groups and Kurds. Since the invasion of Iraq , they now occupy and control the centre (as in Chess board) , with open and hidden threats to any US moves."
More recently, and practically as a response, the former CIA Director James Woolsey wrote an incindiery opinion piece in an Israeli publication titled "Chess with Tehran: If we are forced to strike Iran, we should do so decisively" where he writes: "If we were to look at the world as a chessboard, and the Persians after all invented chess and are very good at it, and if we were to think of Iran as a chess master and look at its various pieces, I think we might characterize its nuclear weapons program as its queen, its most lethal and most valued piece." I would suggest we read that as a direct threat of violence.
As David Shenk suggests, chess has always been an excellent metaphor for political maneuvering and may even have helped to invent it. During the feudal period, chess offered kings used to bloody conflict over land a powerful model for the "bloodless war" of diplomacy. Of course, American diplomacy today is not especially diplomatic, let alone bloodless. And that is precisely why it cannot be sustained long term and cannot win the day against the Iranians, at least on its present course. Like an overly aggressive attack in chess, our language of escalation will have to burn out, allowing our opponents to gain the inevitably strong counter attack.
A better model of chess-like political maneuvering is offered by none other than former chess world champion Garry Kasparov, whose opposition party has been gaining some legitimacy thanks to its astute and deeply conceived tactics. In an interview today by Melanie Kirkpatrick in the Wall Street Journal titled "The Other Russia The man who would checkmate Vladimir Putin," Kasparov points to several interesting quiet moves his party has made of late to gain strength for the coming battle in the post-Putin era. Though he is "a famously aggressive player" and author of the forthcoming Attacker's Advantage, the eminent GM knows well not to blunder into an attack without first building his resources and accumulating positional advantages, which are like allies in the attack. His smartest move has been to form a coalition called "The Other Russia" which brings together all of the opposition parties as a way of marshalling their forces. As he notes, "The big advantage of the Other Russia, and I think it's our biggest accomplishment, is that we've established the principle of compromise, which was not yet seen in Russian politics. It was always confrontation. It was a mentality of a civil war. We eliminated it."
What's more, he knows that building and planning for the attack can take a long time. Only when the moment is right do you seek decisive advantage: "As the new year unfolds, Mr. Kasparov predicts 'a political crisis' in Mr. Putin's government, along with 'less stability, more uncertainty.' That's the opening for the Other Russia. 'We should keep our group together, close to the wall, to get into the hall when it's broken. But not too close to be buried under the debris.'"
I think Kasparov's political aspirations and chances of success have too long been underestimated in the U.S. Especially seen in contrast to U.S. diplomatic blundering, he seems to be playing a brilliant and strategic political game.