Tit for Tat: Its Role in Strategy

When I took negotiating back at Harvard Business School, I remember my professor going through the mathematical proof from game theory that demonstrates that the best generic strategy is simply "tit-for-tat." You treat others as they treat you. Initially, you treat others as you would have them treat you because you assume they also understand good strategy and will return the favor. However, if in return, they try to take advantage of you, you must respond in kind. However, as this approach realizes, many people do not know what is good for them. The mathematics of game theory, like the mathematics of economic theory, is limited by the fact that many people work under very different rules. The beauty of "tit-for-tat" is that, if you follow it, you are actually adapting to the rules others play by without having to understand them in detail first. The reason that the "tit-for-tat" strategy works is tied largely to incentives. Once people understand that you respond in kind, they are more apt to be kind. This brings us to the Middle East, where the US constantly sending confusing messages regarding our "tit-for-tat" policies. In this WSJ article called, "Was Osama Right?" the author, Bernard Lewis, contrast the treatment of the old Soviet Union in the region versus the treatment of the US largely in terms of our failure to understand "tit-for-tat."
A few examples may suffice. During the troubles in Lebanon in the 1970s and '80s, there were many attacks on American installations and individuals -- notably the attack on the Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, followed by a prompt withdrawal, and a whole series of kidnapping of Americans, both official and private, as well as of Europeans. There was only one attack on Soviet citizens, when one diplomat was killed and several others kidnapped. The Soviet response through their local agents was swift, and directed against the family of the leader of the kidnappers. The kidnapped Russians were promptly released, and after that there were no attacks on Soviet citizens or installations throughout the period of the Lebanese troubles. These different responses evoked different treatment. While American policies, institutions and individuals were subject to unremitting criticism and sometimes deadly attack, the Soviets were immune. Their retention of the vast, largely Muslim, colonial empire accumulated by the tsars in Asia passed unnoticed, as did their propaganda and sometimes action against Muslim beliefs and institutions. Most remarkable of all was the response of the Arab and other Muslim countries to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. Washington's handling of the Tehran hostage crisis assured the Soviets that they had nothing to fear from the U.S. They already knew that they need not worry about the Arab and other Muslim governments. The Soviets already ruled -- or misruled -- half a dozen Muslim countries in Asia, without arousing any opposition or criticism. Initially, their decision and action to invade and conquer Afghanistan and install a puppet regime in Kabul went almost unresisted. After weeks of debate, the U.N. General Assembly finally was persuaded to pass a resolution "strongly deploring the recent armed intervention in Afghanistan." The words "condemn" and "aggression" were not used, and the source of the "intervention" was not named. Even this anodyne resolution was too much for some of the Arab states. South Yemen voted no; Algeria and Syria abstained; Libya was absent; the non-voting PLO observer to the Assembly even made a speech defending the Soviets.