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The Strategy of Crazy

Stephen White

Why did PresidentPutin suddenly and unexpectedly announce last week that Russia was pulling its armed forces out of Syria? It was an announcement that took every political commentator by surprise, and subsequently there were as many theories to explain the situation as there were commentators.

Maybe he was bluffing, and not really pulling out at all. Maybe he couldn’t sustain the war effort financially. Maybe it was playing badly to his domestic audience. Maybe he had become irritated that the man he was supporting, President Assad, had become too arrogant after he discovered that Russia was to be an active ally. Maybe he saw this as a way of forcing Assad to be better behaved at the imminent peace talks in Geneva. Maybe it was a conciliatory sign to the rebel forces in Syria, and to their Western allies. Maybe he is just a bit crazy and irrational.

This last explanation is not as starkly naïve as it looks on paper. In a recent article in The Atlantic magazine there is a passage which reflects this ‘Crazy’ theory. President Obama talks in an interview with journalist Jeffrey Goldberg. When discussing his foreign policy he says that his critics comment that ”…..the President doesn’t exploit ambiguity enough. He doesn’t react in ways which might cause people to thinkWow, this guy might be a little crazy.”

Elsewhere in the article an example is given of President Obama acting a little crazy, at least in the eyes of his advisers. After reports surfaced in 2012 that President Assad had an arsenal of chemical weapons President Obama gave a clear warning – use of these weapons by Assad on his civilian population was a ‘red line’, which if crossed would cause the US to take military action.  And yet in August 2013 when accounts were verified of the use of sarin in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta which killed several hundred, if not thousands of civilians, President Obama did not implement the sanction, and was widely condemned by his advisers and by the press who thought his decision was crazy. Instead, through diplomatic channels, he pushed for an agreement to remove all chemical weapons from Syria, and that is what happened.

There may have been many contributory reasons. In the UK Members of Parliament had a few days earlier voted not to extend military action into Syria. He knew that in the US there was similarly little appetite for a conflict which would have been additional to the ones US troops were already conducting in Afghanistan and Iraq. But his foreign policy advisers had a simple message for him – if you draw a red-line and the other side cross it you MUST follow through with the sanction or you will be forever damaged. In the Atlantic article he reveals his different view – that when the conventional playbook dictates a certain course of action, playing ‘crazy’ and doing something completely different is sometimes the better option.

The red-line catechism is basic to every negotiator. Sanctions which are threatened in a negotiation have to be delivered if the circumstances trigger them, otherwise future threats will never be believed again, and power shifts as a result. Common commercial examples include failure to implement penalties for late payment, or to press for cancellation penalties.

But acting a little crazy occasionally plays to another negotiating strategy which also has benefits – the use of surprise. When behaviour is predictable negotiating power is also reduced. I once advised a mail order catalogue company who charged their suppliers a print fee for appearing in the catalogue. The fee was standard, so the suppliers simply added it to their pricing. We suggested varying way the fee was charged – sometimes based on sales volume, sometimes on exclusivity, sometimes as a flat rate, plus not announcing the method of charging until the negotiations had started. Our client saw better pricing as a result.

President Obama figured that the cost of exerting the sanction was too high both in terms of potential military casualties and domestic disapproval, but also that acting a little crazy would maybe kick start a different resolution. It also left world-stage players wondering what he might do next. President Putin’s pull-out announcement last week appears equally bizarre and maybe more than a little crazy.

Maybe for the same reason.

Stephen White

Image credit:  Drop of Light / Shutterstock.com

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