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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”