Making the Next Economic Crisis Worse

The U.S. economy clearly faces some major challenges. The issue is whether or not we, as a society, are preparing to meet those challenges, and the most obvious way to do that is to give the whole society the best possible foundation. Unfortunately, since the Recession of 2008, exactly the opposite has occurred: strengthening the 1% by undermining the 99%.

In his intentionally provocative but nevertheless solidly researched National-Debt-2014-300x199Economic Collapse blog, Michael Snyder posted this very scary U.S. Treasury chart illustrating the exponential growth of U.S. national debt. Arguments over the significance of the huge overall debt or the enormous increase over just the last year need not obsess us: the point here is the word “exponential.” Those who have spent their life trying to avoid any mathematical thinking at all should read “avalanche.” In case you missed the endless Great Recession of 2008-??? brought to you by those great men on Wall St. who now pretty much own the nation once again (after their control slipped a bit following their previous major screw-up in 1929), we Americans are now all (except of course for the bankers, who made out like pirates in 2008, not coincidentally) walking in a financial valley beneath the peaks of high finance, covered deeply in layers of financial snow composed of deeply leveraged powder tenuously balanced on generous slices of very slippery corruption. The tortured analogy is for the innumerate, of which I confess to being one. For anyone familiar with thinking about exponential rates of change or anyone who can simply follow the curve of this scary U.S. Treasury graph, the message is pretty clear: expect an avalanche.

Of course, we have a government both more than willing to interfere with the normal march of capitalism, fortunate to some degree since we also have a financial class dedicated to the total corruption of the normal march of capitalism, so we can all assume that our government will be able to foresee the high probability of imminent disaster as well as the rest of us, right? Perhaps, though they did not have a clue in 2008, but there is another problem: we have seen very little sign since 2008 that Washington has cleaned up its act, and certainly Wall St., which won big by defrauding the nation in 2008, has not demonstrated the slightest interest in cleaning up its act. Elizabeth Warren must now be the loneliest person on the planet.

Not to be pessimistic, but there is still another problem with our financial situation, and to my mind this is even worse. Snyder and others speak of individual problems with debt; corruption; the failure of reform efforts; the continuation of leveraging; the failure to deal effectively with the cancer of empty, rotting, foreclosed housing. All true, of course, but to me the elephant in the financial room of the house American society calls home is the degree to which the vast wealth of America has, over the last generation, been taken out of the hands of the 99% and stuffed into the deep pockets of the corporate/financial elite. Am I exaggerating? Just compare the 17,000-level of the Dow Jones with the socio-economic collapse of Detroit. Detroit, not the stock market, is the symbol of the contemporary U.S. economy.

When the financial avalanche roars down on our heads, how will we protect ourselves? While Washington took care of the financial elite first by the breathtaking and secretive bailout of the billionaires followed by Treasury management of the economy to puff up yet another stock market balloon, American society was left with massive unemployment, declining real incomes, broken retirement contracts, vanishing benefits. Am I wrong? You tell me: how’s your nest egg doing, lately?

The real problem is not that America faces financial challenges but that its enormous wealth has been transferred away from potential consumers and small business owners into the very inefficient and non-productive hands of a tiny elite that has become addicted to gambling rather than production. The wealth of America still exists, but it is fenced off in a private game room for useless, and in fact pernicious, socially harmful activity.When the next big financial crisis arrives, the U.S. has the wealth, resources, population, education to deal with it through belt-tightening, but I am guessing that your belt is already tight as the result of the Recession of 2008, and we both know that those who now control the money have belts too big to tighten. So I wish you luck.

 

 

 

 

Marginalizing ISIS

ISIS exploded on the Mideast scene with some quick victories supported by unrelated factions with their own agendas. Now Washington is throwing stones at the hornet’s nest, inefficient at best, sure to transform ISIS in the eyes of many into the “defender of Islam,” and also likely to consolidate support for ISIS in those quarters those quarters that happen also to land in Washington’s very blunt crosshairs. Addressing the causal dynamics and splitting the ISIS “coalition of the jihadi willing” would be the wiser course of action.

How did ISIS get so powerful, so fast? Answer that question, and you will have the key to wresting that power away. Instead, ISIS is obviously baiting Washington, and Washington is tripping all over itself, despite Obama’s well-founded qualms, in its rush to stick its neck into the trap’s teeth…again. Brain-dead, self-styled tough guys (who never see a battle) scream for blood (to be paid for by the blood of other Americans). But ISIS is a gang being empowered by a slew of factions with a wide variety of temporarily overlapping goals–a coalition of the sort-of, at the moment “willing.” Persuade them to turn “unwilling.” Bombs, especially when tossed around in civilian areas, are as likely to infuriate those bombed. So can we find the patience and wisdom to consider the aspirations of the various factions supporting ISIS in order to figure out the degree to which we might manage to find common ground…and isolate ISIS?

Modeling Political BehaviorOne might start with a simple model of political behavior in the Mideast that considers three factors: conflict resolution strategy, level of ideological commitment, and the nature of the physical environment. Many Mideast groups, obviously including ISIS, have a militant conflict resolution strategy and are ideologically committed. Everyone in the Mideast is faced with a tough physical environment, where food surpluses are hard to come by and competition for water is constant. According to the model, then, political behavior in the Mideast will, no surprise, tend to be rough and nasty, more specifically, zero-sum and warlike (i.e., centered in the red quadrant). And indeed, such is the standard assumption in Washington, from which an equally militant U.S. policy seems almost automatically to follow. But even this simple model makes perfectly clear that numerous alternative options are theoretically available. How might they be evaluated?

One can hardly get such a question out of one’s mouth before being accused of being “naive,” but in fact the naive position is the blind faith in simplistic solutions to complicated problems. There may be no need to debate the extreme nature of ISIS, but where was that little militia before Iraqi soldiers walked away from Mosul? Where would ISIS be today if Baghdad had not enraged Sunnis with its discriminatory policies? The ISIS coalition of the jihadi willing really doesn’t look so solid beneath its flashy military exterior. Iraqi Ba’athist ex-officials would find a genuine offer to share political power hard to resist. Unemployed young Iraqi Sunni men might well be persuaded to desert ISIS in return for jobs. A concerted effort to find a Syrian political compromise that would remove Assad and share power might satisfy Ankara to the point that it would stop facilitating the flow of funding to ISIS.

Financial InducementsTo be found, solutions must be sought. Throwing rocks at the ISIS hornet’s nest will certainly scatter the hornets and upset their tactical plans for a time, but if the broader problem is an extremist coalition composed of factions with widely varying needs, ideologies, and goals, that jihadi coalition structure offers opportunities for genuine solutions. The red quadrant, above, represents political behavior of factions that are highly militant, ideological, and facing stiff non-political conditions (an intentionally vague phrase that may stand for economic deprivation or resource shortages). ISIS has gained enormous financial resources, but the degree to which Iraqi Sunnis generally are benefiting remains very much open to question. The degree to which a restructured financial policy by Baghdad might persuade Iraqi Sunnis to abandon ISIS and become supporters of the national regime remains an opportunity as yet unexplored.

A second obvious opportunity is to address the concerns of marginalized senior Ba’athist figures seeking political access. These relatively secular former officials have little obvious ideological affinity with ISIS fundamentalists and may well find themselves forced uncomfortably deep into the red quadrant of military solutions to conflict when they might be more comfortable negotiating with Shi’i officials across a table in Baghdad…if only given the chance. Obama stressed the need for Sunni-Shi’i reconciliation after the fall of Mosul, but it is probably Tehran rather than Washington that holds the key to persuading its Shi’i allies to share power…and, indeed, Tehran clearly has understood this point.

A systematic review of the graphical landscape of political possibilities may well focus attention on additional opportunities for breaking apart the ISIS coalition. Consider the gray quadrant (lower front left), representing factions that are ideologically committed but dedicated to peaceful conflict resolution. Are such Sunnis more natural bedfellows with Sunni jihadis or Shi’a sharing their dedication to peaceful conflict resolution? Perhaps more to the point, what impact might a new coalition of Kurds and Sunnis seeking negotiated solutions have on sectarian rivalry in Baghdad? Might the need to defend themselves against ISIS jihadis provoke the rise across Iraq of a more civilized political culture?

 

 

 

Understanding What Makes the Insurgent Fire Burn Hot

Cognitive limitations that better education could avert are to blame for our difficulty in foreseeing that something like the Islamic State would follow naturally from the thoughtless Mideast policies of the major state actors, both in and outside of the region.

People, including policymakers, tend to have tunnel vision, which is great for spying lurking tigers but disastrous for forecasting tipping points resulting from the chance interaction of multiple causal dynamics, and that is why the explosive force of the ISIS insurgency was a surprise. Several causal dynamics combined this summer to drive the sudden success of ISIS: the steady growth in ISIS military influence in Syria over the previous year, the on-going post-U.S. invasion frustration of marginalized Iraqi Sunnis being discriminated against by Baghdad, and the very complex self-organizing rivalry among jihadi factions.

Three distinct trends happened to intersect this summer: ISIS battlefield success suddenly resonated with relatively secular but very frustrated Iraqi Sunnis at a moment when al-Baghdadi had developed an effective strategy combining rapid military attacks with efficient state building. The result of the chance intersection of these three separate driving forces was a tipping point in Mideast influence away from traditional states toward the ISIS insurgency. It would be hard enough for most people to project three separate lines starting from distinct points and moving at different rates moving toward a tipping point, but to foresee the sudden success of ISIS, one would have had to have in mind a trend line curving up (battlefield success), a steady but already very high line (Sunni anger), and a complex-adaptive self-organizational process of constant experimentation to discover more effective jihadi tactics over the past two decades from Al-Qua’ida to al-Zarqawi to al-Baghdadi. That’s tricky, especially when the steady level of Sunni anger was essentially off everyone’s radar in the West and almost no one in government even thinks in terms of complex systems in the first place.

To spell out just a bit more the technical issues here from a cognitive perspective, this discussion involves both system dynamics and complex-adaptive systems. The former is very familiar – one or more smooth, but not necessarily, straight trendlines (e.g., the exponential growth of bacteria in potato salad at a picnic plus rising temperature as the day warms). The latter–beyond our mathematical comprehension and ignored by most educational curricula—concerns developments so complicated and uncontrolled that they really cannot be visualized or forecast with precision. Thus, the outcome of dozens of jihadi factions all doing their own thing cannot be predicted. What can be predicted is that if such a complex-adaptive process of experimenting endlessly with one tactic after another is allowed to function endlessly, eventually we will all get a nasty surprise. In other words, it was extremely irresponsible of policymakers to walk away from the very well known problem of Baghdad’s political discrimination against Sunnis. It was also very dangerous to sweep under the rug a fourth causal dynamic—the rising tendency of Ankara to look the other way at if not actively sponsor jihadis in Syria with so little thought about what might happen if those “pet jihads” actually succeeded in dethroning Assad. It appears that Ankara and other regimes failed to think through exactly how state-sponsored jihadis might act once in power.

All those causal dynamics–once kicked into gear by tossing around military aid, invading countries without taking responsibility for fixing what one smashes, discriminating against ethnic minorities, cultivating fundamentalist educational systems—don’t just stop functioning because some outside actor stops looking. Chickens come home to roost; forest fires keep burning…unless they run out of fuel. An insurgency fire can also run out of fuel, but to make that happen requires understanding where the insurgency got its fuel in the first place.

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Technical Note:

System dynamics and complex-adaptive systems are two distinct ways of analyzing complicated phenomena. These methods are normally employed by different researchers and considered alternative ways of representing processes. In reality, however, they merge: there is no reason to expect that in a real situation, an interesting or frightening tipping point in behavior will occur as the result only of 1) the interaction of mathematically expressible smooth curves (i.e., the growth rates, delays, feedback loops of system dynamics) or 2) unanticipated emergent behavior at one level (e.g., group) generated by behavior at another level (e.g., individual) in a system of semi-independent, co-evolving substructures displaying self-organization. Real tipping points, the stuff of history, are created by a very confusing combination of causal dynamics displaying features artificially separated by the methodological disciplines of system dynamics and complex-adaptive systems. Not only are the two hardly ever applied to world affairs, they are hardly ever even considered together in a theoretical context.

 

 

 

A Strategy for Coping With Jihadi Surprise

In order to formulate an effective response to the Sunni fundamentalist crusade, one must understand the causal dynamics in the Mideast political environment that generate regional extremism. Bombs, slurs on Islam, and protestations that one will not be cowed by terrorism are but band aids over metastasizing cancer.

The first clue that something is seriously amiss in the Mideast is surprise. No matter how much in denial policymakers may have been about the various inequities in the Mideast, the whole world has now realized that with ISIS, “something is going on.” The next step, which should be obvious, is that the surprise is likely to result from a variety of perhaps hidden driving factors, such as nationalism, economic deprivation, insecurity, demand for respect. To explain everything away as simply “Islam is violent” or “the leader is a terrorist” does nothing but reveal the superficiality of the speaker.

Nothing really difficult lies in these first two steps, despite the problems that they seem to present to Western policymakers. It is really the third intellectual step toward understanding a bizarre phenomenon such as the explosion of ISIS across the Mideast that presents a cognitive challenge to the analyst: drawing the correct implications from acceptance of a picture of multiple, interacting, hidden dynamics driving behavior. The essence here is…tipping points. No secret will tell us what will happen, but what must be understood is the likelihood of reaching, without warning, a tipping point (e.g., the collapse of moderate Syrian rebels, the collapse of Iraqi Shi’I resistance, or—from the earlier case of the Arab Spring—the explosion of mass popular resistance to the Egyptian military dictatorship).

The point of belaboring tipping points is not to engage in laborious historical nitpicking but to warn policymakers: like mountain peaks, tipping points tend to occur in groups. Why? A situation resulting from multiple factors will contain surprising tipping points (e.g., the collapse of the defense of Mosul) because they result from the arbitrary intersection of two or more unrelated dynamics (e.g., an outside power’s decision to provide military assistance to a useful militia plus the assessment of a marginalized secular group that the regime will not share power peacefully).

But the Mideast political system is a complex-adaptive system: political dynamics do not just flow like wind and tides (whose interaction is chaotic enough!) but adapt autonomously. After all, political dynamics are implemented by humans deciding how to behave. This introduces a whole new level of uncertainty: not only is it difficult to calculate the direction and speed of change on the part of all the driving dynamics but a wide variety of human actors are constantly tweaking those dynamics…and doing so without necessarily coordinating among themselves (in fact, expressly avoiding coordination), resulting in still more tipping points and surprise.

The message to policymakers, then, is, “Do not panic! Do not put all your eggs in the basket of immediate, full-scale Western-style warfare…because things will change, and overreacting is more than likely to cause things to change is ways you will not like.”

Rather, the solution lies in determining the nature of the underlying dynamics: how to stop the flow of outside assistance, how to protect your friends, how to encourage allies in power to share that power, how to split temporary allies. Obama has shown considerable understanding of this but not, unfortunately, to the point of perceiving that this is the skeleton of a strategy. This strategy skeleton would define the issues to be addressed: Turkish openness to ISIS recruitment, Saudi funding of jihadis, Israeli exploitation of the ISIS terror as cover for its own campaign of terror in Gaza, the long-term tendency of Iran to support Shi’i discrimination against Sunnis, the refusal of all sides ever to allow space for Kurdish aspirations. The skeleton of a strategy would specify these areas for action. The real strategy would state how to do so and, critically, would constitute the guidelines for long-term U.S. policy. Bombing jihadis trying to commit genocide may well be an essential tactic but should be seen and presented to the world as an unfortunate and temporary crisis response, not as the nose of American cowboy imperialism once again under the Arab tent…a temporary tactic to be replaced immediately by a long-term strategic response focusing on shifting the regional political culture. In practice, the latter resolves into:

  • defining a post-Assad regime that governs some portion of Syria in a power-sharing arrangement with minorities and quite possibly incorporating the union of Kurdish Syrians with Kurdistan as well as the return of the Golan Heights, a move that would immediately enhance the credibility of any new Syrian regime;

  • stating a long-term U.S. goal of Israel returning to its legally recognized borders and immediately getting Israel out of Gaza by putting some other entity in control of the region to preclude further Israel military onslaughts and to set up with Hamas and any other Gaza factions an effective regime, so that Israel’s Gaza policy will no longer constitute grist for the jihadi mill;

  • long-term continuation of Obama’s current policy of basing S. support for Baghdad on the implementation of a non-discriminatory power-sharing arrangement, which would constitute an historic first for post-Ottoman Iraq;

  • the strongest possible encouragement of a Saudi-Iranian understanding leading to a regional compromise, probably including shared access to pipelines crossing Syria and certainly dependent on the emergence of a power-sharing regime to replace Assad;

  • genuine U.S. compromise with Iran, with the significant lessening or termination of U.S. economic warfare against Iran and a clear public statement that the U.S. opposes and reserves the right to prevent by its own military any use of military force across the Persian Gulf in either direction.

That is the minimal (omitting, as it does, other issues such as reforming the Saudi educational system) strategy for restructuring the Mideast political system such that it will no longer be fertile ground for the emergence of (Sunni, Shi’i, Jewish, or secular) extremism.

Jihad: Canary in the Mine of World Affairs

When change in world affairs happens so fast that it takes seasoned policymakers by surprise, look for hidden causal dynamics: the “real story” is not what it seems; the rise of ISIS is just such a story of success via surprise. ISIS did not gain its victories because of its power or its attractiveness or its brilliance: deeper factors were driving its success. Policymakers who fail to understand this may react simply by throwing more firepower into the battle, a superficial reaction likely to exacerbate long-term Mideast instability and provoke even more extreme, creative, and surprising disasters.

The Mideast political system has become an intensely complex system. “Complexity,” in the technical sense, means, in reference to a political system, that lots of actors with significant autonomy and lots of resources are making great efforts to fulfill private, contradictory agendas. The Tsarist Russian political system, characterized by the “all-suffering peasant” was not a very complex system: most of the time, one small group held power and behaved predictably with predictable results.   Long-term changes in education and availability of technology plus short-term changes resulting in part from al-Qua’ida’s success in tricking the U.S. into invading have made the current Mideast political system very different: erratic, unpredictable, frenzied. Where one might summarize Tsarist Russian affairs as the combination of a self-satisfied landowning elite plus long-term expansionism, the Mideast is characterized by a vast array of actors determined to implement real social, economic, and political change: ISIS may focus minds at the moment, but it is just the latest squall in a long series of once-in-a-century storms signalling long-term climate shift.

As more and more actors (be they young Arab men deciding to join a militia, devout Muslims who want to change the world, or greedy outside powers) become convinced that now is the moment when dreams can be realized, the flow of “energy” (money, weapons, creative thinking) flowing into the system rises, but the process is complex. Different actors employ different types of resources in different ways for goals that are pursued over different time frames and sometimes overlap but sometimes contradict each other. ISIS expansion in the summer of 2014 may well be the chance result of several different regimes simultaneously deciding for different reasons and without coordination that empowering a Sunni fundamentalist militia in Syria would have its short-term uses. If Ba’athist Iraqis want political power, Riyadh and Tehran want to have a proxy war for regional dominance, and Ankara wants to eliminate Assad, then militarily defeating al-Baghdadi simply will fail to address the issue.

To be relevant, policy-makers must understand the underlying dynamics that cause the visible events, and the minimum requirement for understanding the underlying dynamics is to realize that these hidden causes exist. The clue that they exist is that we find events to be surprising and incomprehensible.

Political eras similar to current Mideastern affairs have existed before, e.g., in Europe during the Thirty Years’ War. The invention of the modern nation-state system was an effort to minimize the level of surprise and incomprehensibility of that disastrous period. It has now become painfully obvious that the nation-state system as it currently exists in the Mideast–with repressive religious states, ethnic discrimination, exploitation by wealthy local elites, and constant manipulation by outside powers–has failed. As more and more people take action, the regional political system becomes ever more complex…and dangerous. Tahrir Square represented a peaceful attempt to address the problem, but that effort appears to have been blocked for the short-term private gain of various elites. ISIS represents a jihadi effort to replace the whole nation-state structure with the fundamentalist Sunni answer to globalization. The problem is not jihad; the problem is the failure of the nation-state system as it exists in the Mideast.  The solution is to reduce the unbearable degree of complexity by addressing the underlying causal dynamics: the demand for security, the demand for cultural openness, the demand for respect, the demand for the right to participate in politics. At the moment, it is not at all clear that the currently existing states in the Mideast will be able to address these demands any better than ISIS jihadis with their vision of a new Caliphate.

 

 

 

Identifying Mideast Partners

Who in the Mideast really cooperates with the U.S.? Are our “allies” really helping us? Are our
“adversaries” really harming us? Can a more consistent, less emotional stance in Washington encourage desired behavior and free the U.S. from being taken for a ride? It is time for a fresh look.

 

The Mideast today appears plagued by regimes that implement a highly exclusive domestic decision-making process, leaving marginalized and hostile minorities or (as in Bahrain, even marginalized majorities). In an age of widespread awareness of world affairs and widespread access to weapons, this is a recipe for instability, as demonstrated by the ease with which ISIS extremists persuaded estranged Sunnis to rebel against a Shi’i-run Baghdad.

Mideast regimes also demonstrate significant resistance to compromise. Despite seizure of the Grand Mosque in 1979 by Islamic extremists, repeated firefights with police from 2003 to 2005, and threats to the Saudi state by ISIS, not to mention criticism from the West, Riyadh has maintained its support for fundamentalist control over the educational system. For more than a generation, Tel Aviv has maintained the combination of a highly repressive policy toward Palestinians and the steady expansion of illegal settlement on the West Bank. Baghdad would not bend on its discriminatory attitude toward both Sunni and Kurdish Iraqis until half the country had been overrun by Sunni rebels and the Kurds had moved to the very edge of independence. Tehran has insisted ever since Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon on projecting its influence into the Levant and since somewhat more recently on its right to develop nuclear technology, despite credible Israeli threats of nuclear aggression. The Egyptian military, with one brief exception after the Tahrir Square demonstrations, has insisted on dominating Egyptian politics.

Is the Mideast then not just characterized by exclusivist domestic politics but also foreign policy rigidity? Must the U.S. simply accept Mideast political traits that it cannot influence and that will predictably harm its national security over and over…or is there sufficient evidence of political flexibility to suggest that a consistent U.S. encouragement of the compromise might enhance long-term Mideast stability? Put somewhat differently, if the ideal U.S. goal of finding Mideast partners dedicated to inclusive domestic policy-making processes and open to compromise on core foreign policy positions remains mostly a mirage, could the U.S. at least look forward realistically to finding Mideast counterparts, be they inclusive or exclusive, who would approach foreign policy with genuine commitment to searching for positive-sum, compromise solutions? Must Washington continue to cut shady deals whenever it can for short-term gain despite enormous long-term harm, or might Washington be able to develop an effective foreign policy based on openness to all Mideast regimes willing to compromise?

Just a policy would impose significant short-term costs for the U.S. Insistence by Washington that Riyadh reform its educational system to train students for entry into the modern world rather than to become soldiers for fundamentalist crusades, that Tel Aviv negotiate a settlement with Palestinians that addresses their aspirations, that Baghdad develop a nondiscriminatory regime, that Tehran and Riyadh reach a compromise on Syria might leave the U.S. extremely exposed in the Mideast over the short-term. Yet such a stance might also, once regional actors became convinced that Washington was serious, lead to a dramatic improvement in Mideast stability freeing Americans from the seemingly endless litany of terror attacks and lost wars.

The answer is important enough to merit an unbiased reexamination of the behavior of Mideast regimes to determine which ones might, on which issues, make reliable partners.

Differentiating “Good” from “Bad” in the Chaotic Mideast

For an effective foreign policy, we must know our goal: war for profit…or a peaceful world of compromise. Basing U.S. support on ethnicity or religion does not lead to a foreign policy conducive to U.S. national interests.

If war for profit is the foreign policy the American people want, then the current Mideast is just the ticket: infinite opportunity to make one’s career by taking out a “bad guy,” such confusion that anyone can arbitrarily be defined as “good” or “bad” for the convenience of Washington politicians, endless opportunities to export U.S. weapons along with its brother—rampant U.S. corporate corruption, when a new U.S. military base is desired some Mideastern leader can always be bought, and oil flows for a price—even if that price includes an occasional “terrorist” attack on the U.S. mainland. That is the current reality, and many are comfortable with it.

If, on the other hand, the American people prefer a homeland relatively free from attacks by angry Mideasterners, a government in Washington focusing its energies and resources on building the economy, a domestic political environment conducive to civil liberties and a government responsive to popular direction rather than corporate greed, with the U.S. leading the world by example rather than brute force, then we, the American people, have a problem: we cannot tell the good from the bad.

Neither, of course, can many in the Mideast, for the situation is chaotic beyond measure. Need it be said that we are all suffering, and we all need a way to make better distinctions between political factions meriting our support and those who do not? To put in a word what we could debate hopelessly for a lifetime, religion is not the basis for this distinction. Even if one true religion exists, nothing stops any man from misusing that religion for immoral personal gain. Religion may provide your personal moral guidance, but the religious words flowly smoothly from the mouth of another constitute no firm foundation for political alliance.

Instead, watch the behavior of public actors. Two simple ideas offer a way to measure that behavior: how they govern and how they interact with outsiders. Common sense? Absolutely! Suppose a man claims to be a devout member of your religion, but when you visit him at home, you find that he beats his wife and shoots up the neighborhood? Would you not decide you had chosen the wrong man with whom to be friends? Yet this approach, obvious on the surface, is remarkably uncommon as the actual basis of U.S. policy-making.

These two simple ideas of judging a political group on the basis of its domestic and foreign policies leads to a range of domestic policy alternatives and a second range of foreign policy alternatives. The first,  “Governance,” ranges from “democratic” to “centralized.” Note that “democratic” refers to something much more substantial than just holding elections—to the degree of genuine political participation of the population, not just the winners or the majority but of everyone, all the time. Elections or not, if the real decisions are made by a handful of corporate executives and the politicians whose electoral victories resulted from those executives’ financial contributions, then you have “centralized” policy-making.

The second behavioral arena, “Foreign Policy,” ranges from “reliance on negotiations” to “reliance on force.” Naturally, this varies, but it is usually pretty obvious which regimes tend in one direction rather than the other. When a politician demands preconditions as the price for sitting down to talk, that is a pretty good clue that the politician is relying on force. Back to basics: talking to your wife is not a sacrifice or a favor.

Policy-making World
All possible policies are here depicted as existing in a political landscape divided into four ideal quadrants, where the green quadrant equates to a policy process most compatible with long-term U.S. interests.

Combining the two ideas allows the generation of a graphical space of possible political action in which we can locate specific policy actions for a relatively impartial comparison of various political groups.

Four quadrants are distinguished, with green representing an inclusive domestic policy-making environment where the regime prefers negotiated (i.e., compromise) solutions in foreign policy, thus facilitating peaceful conflict resolution. Red, in contrast, represents a centralized policy-making environment in which policy-makers prefer the use of force. Real-world examples would include subjecting a minority to repression, e.g., the Warsaw and Gaza ghettos, forced movement of a minority into a reservation or Bantustan, civil wars where a military solution is preferred to power-sharing (Colombia for most of the last half-century, Syria today, Lebanon in the 1980s), or choosing a policy of war against terrorists when a negotiated solution or police action is available. The red quadrant symbolizes the zero-sum perspective.

 

Mideast Policy Positions
Based on actual behavior, Lebanon emerges as quite compatible with U.S. national interests, while Israeli policy toward Gaza, and the behavior of both ISIS and Iraqi Shi’a are problematic.

 

Locating Mideastern political actors exposes distinctions not obvious from much of U.S. media commentary. Lebanese policy-making in general is shown as in the middle between “democratic” and “centralized:” despite a political system that gives legal recognition to three ethnic groups, Lebanon’s overall political process focuses, however haltingly, on an inclusive domestic approach and negotiation internationally. Israeli policy toward Gaza, while democratic in the sense of being popular within the ruling Jewish population of Israel (i.e., excluding the Palestinian population of Gaza, which is effectively a colony), relies overwhelmingly on a policy of force, offering Hamas virtually no option of negotiating genuine solutions to Gaza’s predicament. As displayed in the chart, Iraqi Shi’i (especially Shi’i militia) policy toward Iraqi Sunnis and ISIS policy are two of many examples of Mideastern centralized policy-making combined with reliance on force. The Iraqi Shi’i case is higher on the governance dimension (range) because one might consider Shi’i militia policy to be generated by an internally inclusive process.

Even this very simple ordering suggests that the U.S. should seriously consider strengthening its ties with Lebanon, rethinking its policy of automatic support for Israel’s Gaza policy by insisting that Israel demonstrate genuine readiness to negotiate Gaza’s political issues, and moving very cautiously—as Obama indeed is doing—toward any strengthening of support for Baghdad until it has clearly implemented a more inclusive policy-making process vis-à-vis Iraqi Sunnis (and, by the way, Kurds). Natural allies for the U.S. are inclusive political actors willing to compromise; neither ethnicity nor religion predicts which political actors fit the bill.

Muslim Jihad and Western Strategy

War should be viewed from the perspective of civilians, not the armed forces involved. Start by asking about the conditions of civilians, with the first question being, “Are they under attack by their own government?”

 

If the answer is “yes,” then it does not matter which side is bombing, which side is committing some other form of terror, or which side is winning. The loser is liberty, democracy, stability, security, morality…human civilization.

Judging from a sobering Niquash report on Fallujah, the sad Iraqi city that over the past decade has become the symbol of everything that is wrong with the Western confrontation with Islamic political activists, Fallujah exemplifies the point that when a regime attacks its own civilians, human civilization is the loser. In this case, it happens to be the Shi’i Iraqi regime that is firing on and bombing–and thus inevitably alienating–the population of Fallujah, people who happen to be Sunni. The immediate beneficiary of this slaughter of civilians is of course ISIS. All the talking heads so confused about how ISIS exploded into power so quickly should look at how Baghdad treats its Sunni citizens. The strategy being implemented makes human civilization the loser…and therefore, by the way, harms U.S. national security, for those readers who consider this the bottom line.

The details do not matter. It could be Israel bombing the population of Gaza or ISIS and Assad laying waste to Syrian cities or Pakistani forces attacking villages in Waziristan or police facing demonstrators in an American city. War against civilian populations weakens civilization, empowers those promoting further violence, and sets the stage for worse to come. Israel’s latest war against Gaza destroyed the homes of some half million civilians; the Syrian civil war has sent a wave of some 3,000,000 refugees across its borders; the combination of the Sunni revolt against Baghdad’s mistreatment, the ISIS takeover, and Baghdad’s attack have turned most of Fallujah’s population into internal refugees. Each of these events will, for years to come, continue to put stress on the fabric of global civilization on which the U.S. relies.

Pounding civilian populations into dust or transforming them into waves of refugees undermines U.S. interests. It makes no difference which military force commits the crime.

Obama is correct: the U.S. has no strategy. The U.S. has lots of tactics: use drones, drop bombs, arm local clients for short-term battlefield gains, pick a religious faction and call it the “good guy.” But the U.S. has no strategy, and the reason is that Washington has not yet succeeded in curing its addiction to military solutions, and, more specifically, military solutions designed to be quick and easy to implement (e.g., drop a bomb) rather than supportive of the bottom line goal of advancing the cause of human civilization. For most wars, and certainly for virtually every contemporary military conflict, military violence only helps protect human civilization when used as a rare and extreme hammer for momentarily helping with the construction of civilization’s glass house.

A U.S. strategy designed to address the Mideast catastrophe in Iraq, Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, Palestine, and Libya with Lebanon and Jordan tomorrow’s headlines could start anywhere, say, Fallujah or Gaza or a Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon with a policy designed to offer local economic and physical security, jobs (e.g., building homes for the refugees), and local political decision-making authority. A strategy for dealing with the rising chaos is to offer the victims the choice of participating in the building of a society in which the state does not drop bombs on, or otherwise discriminate against, civilians because of their race, religion, or political activism.

 

A Framework for Dealing With ISIS

Responding to ISIS, the most extreme outgrowth of the U.S. occupation of Iraq so far, is a minefield for policy-makers, so “look before you leap!”

 

ISIS does appear to require some sort of military response to prevent their slaughtering innocents, though we don’t seem to mind when Israel does the same. So…a foreign policy based on moral principles (e.g., we oppose murdering civilians) might be a start.

Second, isn’t it odd that Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey all seem rather complacent…leaving us to take care of them? Some balance in commitment and sacrifice seems called for.

Third, a fire extinguisher may be useful, but it does not prevent fire, nor will war prevent Sunni anger at Shi’i discrimination against them in Iraq or Israeli repression in Palestine.

In the end, all groups need evidence that they can find justice and security without violence–Sunnis (e.g., in Iraq, Syria, Palestine)  just as much as, say, Jews did after World War II or Shi’a (e.g., in Bahrain, Lebanon) or Kurds (e.g., in Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Iran) do today. 

 
 
 
 

Making Sense of World Affairs

If we want to improve the way things are, we need to understand what is going on – economic determinism, just plain stupidity, limited rationality by everyone doing his best from his own perspective, genuine clash of interests, or what? It is very easy to focus on blaming politicians (and their handlers on Wall St. or wherever) but much more useful to distinguish between those who raped and pillaged because that is exactly what they intended to do and those who got forced into it.

In his study of the French Revolution, Alfonse Aulard plaintively asks how a historian is to plan his analysis of a revolution if those involved did not themselves have any plan:

S’il n’y a ni plan ni méthode sensibles dans la politique des hommes de la Révolution, il est d’autant plus difficile à l’historien d’avoir lui-même un plan et une méthode pour le choix des traits qui doivent composer le tableau d’une réalité si changeante et si complexe. [Histoire politique de la revolution francaise.]

This point bears considering as we attempt to figure out in real time what various politicians, factions, and societies are trying to do today. In brief, is there a plan? We seem to be floundering, but is that the result of confusion or simply due to a general willingness to let things just run along on their own?

Returning briefly to the French Revolution, Aulard is no doubt correct in noting the absence of an overall plan agreed upon either by “French society” or even by the key actors in the revolutionary movement, but to argue that no individuals had plans—that the whole revolutionary process just rolled over a dazed and clueless population would seem overstated. Surely both some of the key actors and some of the nameless demonstrators must either have had or very quickly have formed plans, “burn the house down,” or “protect my estates no matter what,” etc. Aulard’s message is very close to Solzhenitsyn’s implacable “red wheel” of history, not coincidentally, since both the French and Russian Revolutions seemed to have the inherent implacability of an avalanche, smashing everyone who got in their way. But that appearance is misleading: humans may be as helpless as snowflakes in many situations but still, humans also frequently do make choices, and the statistical preponderance of those choices is likely to create an outcome “biased,” if you wish, (not “created,” but at least “biased”) by the statistical equivalent of free choice. [Fernand Braudel made a brilliant career out of focusing on precisely the "snowflake" in all of us, i.e., the great amount of human action that is undertaken by habit rather than conscious choice (note his comment in La Dynamique du capitalisme, 13).]

So, if we wish, for example, to analyze some contemporary political process, we may agree with Aulard that there is “no plan or method” characterizing the whole process but with the reservation that there still are numerous very serious plans and methods being pursued by certain of the participating actors. Solzhenitsyn, in his Red Wheel series on the Russian Revolution, targets this idea by devoting a distinct chapter to each key participant in each event, a brilliant but ambitious approach to writing history that requires him to devote some 100 pages to each day of the period he analyzes and still leaves all the work of putting these pieces (i.e., the minister’s viewpoint, the baker’s viewpoint, the student’s viewpoint, the general’s viewpoint, the Bolshevik’s viewpoint, etc.) together to the reader.

All the above is merely to prepare the way for asking, “To what degree does U.S. foreign policy follow a plan, consciously designed to achieve some purpose as opposed to A) simply being the outcome of a multitude of self-absorbed little political ants scurrying around trying to line their own pockets or B) being the inevitable result of the implacable red wheel of history driven by underlying cultural, economic, biological, geographic dynamics and just rolling over us all?”