When to Hold and When to Fold: Today's Gamble for Greece

What do they really want? That's the question everyone is asking about both the Germans and the Greeks. Aspirations explicit and veiled circulate. But recent events -- negotiations, stalemate, trash talk, referendum, shutdowns -- have moved many options off the table. A thunderous "no" vote in Greece drowned out the more pointed "no" from Germany. Both these negatives were expressions not of will but of weakness.

Yes, that's correct, German weakness, too. Is this something Alexis Tsipras can exploit?

On such a field of increasing obstacle and impediment is where the next battle will play out. Politics is like this. You do not get to make your own terrain. The image of warfare that centers on control is famously inept. Winners win by adapting to the changing environment here and now. Rather than making the world over, greatness is measured along the lines of a dance that makes you fit to things and things fit to you.

While a philosopher might ask today 'what are the possibilities?' the key political question as Europe hangs in the balance is the opposite: 'What can't Tsipras do, what can't Merkel do?' Each must discover where the other is blocked and, while trying to channel the ebbs and eddies of energy and commitments around that, try not to press their opponent towards political suicide. (That is the way to face the worst kind of fanaticism.)

Of course, possibilities can kill you with diffusion and indecision. Impossibilities, however, are what obstruct or upend negotiation, and inhibit adjustment. They erode politics itself. The tighter things are coming together -- this is what we call crisis -- the greater the risk that everything will collapse further into disorder -- this is what we call stakes.

Political genius is what is needed in this situation. Does Alexis Tsipras have what it takes? Can he see clearly enough what -- right here, right now -- is impossible and will, for just that reason, lead this drama towards a successful conclusion for Greece?

Those whose deep hopes are split between Greece and Europe may see something more Grimm than Wagner. It is as if the intrepid Tsipras, endowed with an unrealized sorcery, enters a foreboding and murky TroikaWald filled with noxious Dijsselbloems, where he must meet three magical challenges if the people are to be brought back into the light.

Emerging from a fog into the Clearing of the Referendum, Tsipras's timing was decisive and brilliant. As his call for the referendum occurred after the proposals had been proffered and rejected, precisely what that invocation of "popular will" could not do was to impose a mandate on the negotiations or on the opposing negotiators. It was aimed rather at domestic solidarity and legitimacy.

Unfortunately, brilliance is often a weak magic. The Dijsselbloems have uncanny powers. They transformed the referendum into its opposite, a mandate. An anxious global public was again convinced that the Greeks are inept and stupid children who do not understand the consequences of their own actions. From the TroikaWald a great cry of feigned offense arose: "Oh look," the Dijsselbloems protested, "we cannot seriously engage the Greeks in negotiation because their choices are constrained!" No one bothered to ask By what? A nonexistent mandate?

Next came the challenge of the Varoufexit, where Tsipras had to compel the resignation of his Minister of Finance, Yanis Varoufakis. Now he found a more powerful spell against the Dijsselbloems. It was catalyzed by the irrational reaction against Varoufakis.

Recall how we have been asked to believe that personal animosities trailing Varoufakis caused negotiations to founder. But what the Greek Minister of Finance provoked was not exactly personal. What he caused in others was rather display and exposure of an "irrationality" that is always a constituent, not an adjunct, of markets and the human behavior that makes them up. The "rational actor" is an idol. What drove the bureaucrats of Europe to distraction was being forced to confront this fact. Or, even more terrifying, having to talk to "it."

So, it happened that when the chips were down Tsipras could concede Varoufakis to those who made him an issue. Tsipras -- who is indispensible -- never needed Varoufakis. While the Europeans took this fruitless sidetrack from the main line, Tsipras played them.

Sacrifice is a rule of negotiation. The brilliant political leader makes his opponents value something that he himself will not have to pay much to abandon. You turn in your weak cards for a stronger hand. Consider, then, how Varoufakis could freely say he would resign if the vote went against him. This was a nonsense idea, of course, since all of Syriza would have been out of work had the referendum turned to "yes."

What the Minister's bravado did in fact was to raise the value of his own resignation in the event of a Syriza victory at the polls. This made Varoufakis's downfall even more delicious for those who despise him most: the Dijsselbloems. It gave Tsipras a significant realignment of the negotiations without having to touch the real issues whatsoever. It was like burning incense in the Reichstag.

What if Tsipras was right to hold out for the referendum? How will he invest that fact with new meaning as it becomes clear that "the will of the Greek people" does not amount to much? And what if Tsipras was also right to fold on Varoufakis? What comes next?

We are now on the verge of the third challenge. The real money is back on the table. As the deal comes down, the cards are on fire. The Dijsselbloems are, for now, out of the game. Tsipras faces Merkel and he must make an offer she cannot refuse.

Everyone knows that Greece is not Germany. Resources are scarce and power in short supply. What the Greeks do have, however, is Angela Merkel herself. Tsipras can set the Europeans back on their heels by doing one simple thing. Just say YES to Angela Merkel.

Everyone knows that Merkel has been bent on rejecting whatever the Greeks bring to the table. The world is asking what does she want? The trick here is that it is impossible for her to say. She certainly does not want -- less than a century after the Third Reich -- to enter history as another iconic name associated with the destruction of Europe. And she clearly does not want -- intending to remain at the helm of her country and carry the ensign of a neoliberal Europe -- to be the person who sinks the German economy.

But today, this week, this is the wrong question. To bring things together, Tsipras needs to consider what is impossible for Merkel. What she cannot reject is her own proposal. If Greece were to in essence accept what was offered -- in the last instance before the referendum, or in the 25th hour by Juncker -- Germany would have to lay down its hand. And the negotiations would start again on a different footing.

Of course, on its face this is a crazy idea. How could Tsipras survive and be taken seriously if he were to accept exactly what the referendum was wrought to reject? But the political scene in Greece changed dramatically following the vote. Tsipras used it to solve one of his most important problems: since his election he has been pummeled ferociously by every other domestic political force. On the firmer ground of the referendum, he has in effect organized a "national unity" government without having to abdicate leadership or abandon principles. This is a huge victory. It is not an expression of "popular will." It is the mobilization of solidarity. But the game is not over. It is, in a sense, just beginning.

Of course, Tsipras would not come back with an identical copy of the proposal. This is where the capacity to make things fit enters the play in earnest. The great political leader would now seek and find the pivotal balance in this ratio: the closer the terms Greece brings back to the table are to what Merkel offered, the greater the pressure on her to concede, while the more the agreement is tweaked or changed, the less that pressure will bear on her, the more easily she will deflect it.

An indirect part of this scenario is what counts most. The German game with Greece has been about cover. As long as there was the tiniest bit of cover, the least way of saying "it is the Greeks who are the problem" -- the "lazy," "profligate," "irresponsible," "badly dressed," "narcissistic," "irrational," "corrupt," "criminal" Greeks -- Angela Merkel could roar or sit in the appearance of impassive silence.

Without that cover she must act. If offered back her own words, her own solution, she, paradoxically, loses control of the situation. Then it no longer matters what she wants. She is faced with the impossible. And Tsipras, as he is today, must shout just that message in the face of Europe.

For what Merkel cannot allow is the appearance that all this was a game to get Greece out of the Euro and Europe. Or that it was a game to keep Greece in the Euro and Europe. Her astute but disingenuous appeals to necessity and demons will have to come to an end. The world, the people of Europe, and the voters of Germany will see clearly who is to blame for the collapse of the Euro and the European dream, and for the seizing up of the German machine. Faced with the imminent prospect of political suicide, she will change her tune. We will see which way the wind blows.