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?”

Israel’s Strategic Coup

Congratulations to Israel for its terrorist strike during truce talks, in which its vaunted military neatly murdered a woman and child in their own home. This is strategic thinking. No, really! What with all the interference by the likes of the Egyptian junta pressuring Hamas into accepting yet another meaningless ceasefire without Israel moving an inch toward allowing the one million people of Gaza the remotest semblance of a life (we won’t even mention such ridiculous ideas as sovereignty or even the right to have a sewage system), Israel was in trouble: the fighting might actually have come to an end.

If the fighting stopped, then Israel would no longer have any justification for maintaining the Gaza Ghetto or undermining Palestinian unity (recall that it sabotaged the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation in the spring). Worse, people might start talking about those illegal settlers…But, fear not! Israeli strategic thinkers have once again performed flawlessly. Not only have they ensured that the fighting in Gaza will continue but have achieved the added bonus of making the generals of the Egyptian junta look idiotic for trying to mediate between the warden and the prisoners. And not only that – Israel has also, since it was trying to murder the lady’s husband, a Hamas official, established the precedent that in war, even during truce talks, there is nothing wrong with killing the enemy’s leader. Maybe that will make politicians think before starting wars.

Revolutionary Patterns and Muslim Anger

The two classic revolutions of the modern era, in France and Russia, each developed, much to the surprise of virtually all participants, over a period of months or years in an agonizing, haphazard, drunken lurching. Both Tsar Nicolas and Louis XVI were relatively moderate and well meaning but pathetically incompetent leaders whose decency translated into tragic irresolution to the point that they hamstrung reforms and thereby provoked the emergent extremism of Robespierre and Lenin. Is the Muslim world–victim of death squads funded by petrosheikhs, neo-colonialist invasions, sectarian conflict, and of course the traditional elite revanchist efforts to stab all reform efforts in the back—now in the midst of a similar revolutionary process?

If the decade of internecine conflict in Mideast/Central Asian Muslim societies constitutes a new example of the pattern that bedeviled the French and Russian societies, it would behoove us to recall that the results of undermining genuine reform in both those cases was to prolong the agony for at least a century. The French experienced not just the Napoleonic disaster but the reemergence of elite repression and really did not escape from the evil aftereffects of revolutionary excess until the de Gaulle era. Russians suffered from the horrors of Bolshevism for three generations, and good, democratic governance remains little more than mist on the political horizon to this day. Betrayal of the egalitarian aspirations of a repressed population, once moved to defend its interests, provokes a rapid explosion of extremism followed by generations of struggling to clean up the mess.

Already, the parallels between Muslim societies since, say, 9/11, and the two great historical revolutions are thought-provoking.U.S. military involvement and the setting up of Western client regimes that effectively export the oil for which Westerners so thirst while leaving their people impoverished, repressed, and as hungry as Russian peasants in WWI or French peasants still, in 1789, trying to recover from the military excesses of Louis XIV are likely to provoke the rise of Muslim Terror much as Prussian invasion of France provoked the rise of Robespierre or German invasion in WWI provoked the rise of Bolshevism.

The House of Saud sits on a political and social house of cards fully the equal of Marie Antoinette’s Versailles. The main pillar of their support–the descendants of the extreme, fundamentalist Wahhabi sect that partnered with the Saud family to conquer the desert in the first place—is likely to end up being the worst enemy of the House of Saud, as, indeed, some Saudi officials are beginning to perceive. In Iraq, Maliki’s self-serving political machinations seemed fully as divorced from his people’s interests as those of any Russian tsar or French king.

The explosion of anti-foreign violence following the U.S. invasion of Iraq brings to mind the rise of revolutionary military vigor following the Prussian invasion to quell the emerging French revolution. The string of Islamic State successes has been almost too easy to be believed; clearly, many states are providing secret support for short-term goals quite likely to backfire. Perhaps the ISIS balloon will indeed pop, but the risk of an Islamic crusade with the energy of Napoleon or international Bolshevism in return for a few short-term payoffs is not worth taking.

Betrayal of reformers the minute their creativity becomes remotely embarrassing or uncomfortable for outside powers characterizes revolutions, which typically are begun by the downtrodden (i.e., the weak) and thus require external support from elites reluctant to share their privileges. Such betrayal provokes further resentment. England, Austria, and Prussia undermined the French Revolution; even though the West had nearly won victory in WWI, it gave little thought to what the new moderate, bourgeois regime in St. Petersburg needed to maintain power. The moderate, democratic “dream” movement (for the West) represented by Tahrir Square was simply sold out in favor of a new military dictatorship. Viewed from a regional perspective, the Islamic State is the Muslim world’s response to the Western betrayal of Tahrir Square; viewed from an Egyptian perspective, an extremist response far more bloody than Tahrir Square may be assumed to lie just over the horizon. The decision to do business as usual with the illegal military dictatorship that overthrew legally elected Morsi (with Algeria 1982 as dress rehearsal) will prove to have been a very short-sighted and self-defeating move for the West.

The pillaging of Iraq and Syria by ISIS; the Bolshevik overthrow of the first, bourgeois, semi-revolution; and the emergence of Robespierre (years) after the fall of the Bastille all exemplify what happens when a moderate reform wave is undermined so that it fails to provide either physical or economic security (much less human rights) to a desperate populace. Sunni support for ISIS barbarism roared down a highway paved by Maliki’s discriminatory anti-Sunni policies and his general incompetence. The same argument could be made for Syria…and Lebanon, which may be the next victim of Islamic revolutionary fervor. Governance both discriminatory and incompetent invites a level of rage that burns down the houses in which everyone lives.

Real revolutions are complex, uncontrolled, unpredictable, long-term processes with a multitude of built-in tipping points. Nothing about that process is inevitable. Typically, undesired outcomes are provoked by unnecessary short-term expediencies. Tsarist Russia had a good minister of agriculture; both the tsar and the moderate post-February revolution regime could have paid more attention to his critical advice. But, even after the February Revolution, “instead of land, the peasants received stones.” France, ruined by Louis XIV, may have been beyond help, but Turgot’s reforms under Louis XVI suggest otherwise. An effort to bring genuine reform to occupied Iraq, not to mention rejection of Reagan’s earlier policy of cooperating with Saddam, would likely have led to a profoundly different outcome from this summer’s collapse of national governance.

Real revolutions take time; they are energized by hostility. Now six years into his rule, Obama is right to be cautious about committing military force to Iraq. The U.S. bears far too much guilt for the mess in the Mideast to chase yet another quick fix mirage. The revolutionary beast is best caged by addressing the causes of its anger.

Nonlinearity in the Rise of the Islamic State

Nonlinearity in politics is nothing strange: years of quiet preparation lead to a sudden shift in power or an embarrassing mistake by a disliked leader causes a sudden loss of legitimacy. Complexity theory offers insight into the question of whether or not one should anticipate an unusual degree of nonlinearity, of surprise in the evolution of a political system: as the complexity of a political system rises, so does the probability of nonlinearity, and the battlefield successes of the new Islamic State are cases in point.


Both the near instantaneous collapse of Iraqi military control over Mosul and the dissolving of two Syrian divisions in as many days are examples of “suspicious beyond belief,” nonlinear shifts in power relationships characterizing the rise in military influence of the ISIS, whose real story clearly remains to be told.

The first point, then, is to anticipate nonlinearity in highly complex systems. The more interesting second point is that one should indeed be suspicious: such nonlinear shifts in power relationships should not be taken at face value; they “should not happen.” A poorly armed band of attackers should not be able to defeat 30,000 soldiers defending a city of one million in a couple days. An outnumbered attacker should not be able to overrun one of the major military bases in a country, grab its tanks, and essentially drive away without losses while a full division of defenders simply turns its back. The visible battles are not the story; the story lies in the intricate web of hidden interactions paving the way for treachery or lack of resolve on the part of powerful defenders. Perhaps corruption by the Maliki administration left the defenders of Mosul short of ammo and food. But the real story of both the explosive surge of the ISIS at Mosul in June and at the two Syrian military bases at the end of July very likely follows the model of the conquest of Ming China by the Manchu “barbarians at the gate (literally):” the Ming general manning the Great Wall cut a deal with the Manchus and opened the gate.

In a complex system, the number of causal dynamics is likely to be both large and delicately balanced. “Nonlinearity,” or “surprise,” if you prefer, indicates hidden causal dynamics. Many questions flow from the ISIS battlefield surprises:

  • Why won’t the Shi’i military in majority Shi’i Iraq defend itself?

  • Why won’t the Syrian military fight seriously to protect its military bases?

  • Why won’t the U.S. protect the one serious, moderate group in Iraq – the Kurds?

  • Why did Israel choose this particular moment to invade helpless Gaza yet again?

  • Why won’t Erdogan make a commitment to protect Iraqi Turkomen who are fleeing the Islamic State and flooding into refugee camps?

Complicated as Mideast politics appears, its current extreme instability suggests that it is in fact significantly more complicated. Policy-makers focused on the details of the behavior and goals of individual groups are likely to find themselves always off balance and reacting to yesterday’s issue.

Unusual systemic nonlinearity, a characteristic of complex systems, suggests that the dominant causal dynamics, which must be understood to appreciate what is happening, are hidden. All interesting systems are complex, but it is easy to overlook the degree of complexity, a dangerous mistake, since as complexity increases, so–not immediately but over the long run, will surprises.

Structural Dysfunction in the Mideast

Without denying that personality and culture may make a difference at the margins, the violence sweeping the region from Afghanistan to Algeria (call it the “Mideast”) is better understood in structural terms as an example of a complex-adaptive system gone wrong, a political system falling over cliff on which complexity balances and into the abyss of chaos. It is not arguments over religion or ethnicity or personalities but deep structural change that will be required to resolve this conflict.


The Mideast regional political system now incorporates a highly destabilizing array of mutually incompatible elements:

  • A conservative plutocracy that exports fundamentalist Salafi radicalism;

  • A racist, colonial, expansionist garrison state that is both insecure and driven by fundamentalist Zionist expansionist dreams;

  • An emerging, nationalist power emboldened by messianic, fundamentalist Shi’ism;

  • A collapsing state floating on an ocean of oil but so ruined by foreign invasion and ripped apart by domestic rivalries that it cannot govern itself;

  • National liberation movements of Palestinians, Baluchis, Kurds, Yemeni, and Bahraini constantly throwing sparks onto the dry political tinder;

  • A barbaric but administratively and militarily effective fundamentalist Sunni tidal wave dissolving the political sand castles erected by the host of incompetent regional politicians.

Every actor is highly dissatisfied with its position but cannot stand without stepping on the toes of others; the aspirations of every pair of neighbors are perceived, with good reason, as mutually exclusive. The Mideast today is the very picture of a complex, adaptive system collapsing into chaos: fully in a state of chaos in some regions, precariously balanced on the edge in other regions, with the borders unpredictably shifting and wild self-adaptation occurring everywhere.

This is the classic environment of creativity: utter complexity, i.e., no accepted rules of the game, extreme risk-acceptance, rapid tactical and strategic rates of mutation. Political weather prediction is impossible; political climate prediction is, conversely, easy: sudden changes in temperature, violent storms, floods today, drought tomorrow.

Expect rapid shifts in tactics, sudden creation and dissolution of coalitions between those with no long-term interests in common, the empowerment of extremists, socially irrational explosions of violence for the personally rational pursuit of short-term profit by whatever pirate happens to sail by.

Up to a point, complexity confers the blessings of creativity and high performance plus the redundancy that makes creativity bearable. But the Mideast political system has evolved beyond this theoretical sweet spot to, and over, the edge of chaos, where individual initiative is both uncontrolled at a large scale (i.e., the scale of society) and under the control of extremists at a small scale (i.e., the scale of self-empowered small groups, e.g., radical factions in a regime or self-organized militias). The result is complexity gone wrong, like the rapid (and usually fatal) mutation rate of life that survives in a zone of high radioactivity.

In a regime of true complexity, local autonomy inspires creativity but system-wide links channel that creativity to enrich the system. Coordination is released from the deadly shackles of totalitarianism or a numbing bureaucratic insipidness even as coordination is maintained in the flexible and enriching manner of the respiratory subsystem of a great athlete or the financial subsystem of a well regulated capitalism under the control of a highly participatory democracy.

“Complexity”—let us define it simply as a network of autonomous, local power centers, each with its own internal rules and dynamics, with every local power center following an evolutionary path that, while unique, is nonetheless influenced by all the others—is hard to comprehend because effectively infinite variation can be contained within the system. The 13th century Mongols, with their empire-wide set of general practices plus the great local decision-making power of regional rulers, ran a complex empire. Capitalism is in theory a classic complex system, with significant but unique economic decision-making powers residing at every scale (individual, family, private business, corporation, and the various levels of government), and that complexity of capitalism constitutes the secret of its power to enrich all participants. To the degree that monopolies and corruption hamstring the decision-making freedom of certain actors, capitalism is simplified…and crippled. But complete freedom, e.g., the right to drive on whatever side of the road one wanted or the right to make laws to cheat consumers, would destroy the secret of capitalism’s success. Implementing a complex system, like walking a tightrope, requires balance.

Such “true” complexity is hard to see in the political and cultural free-for-all of the contemporary Mideast, where it thus is no surprise that the string of failed efforts at sincere, positive-sum compromise seems endless. Ankara’s good-neighbor policy gets blown out of the water. Egypt’s military will not permit a new democracy to get its feet on the ground. On the eve of ISIS attack, Maliki will not allow the Kurds an oil deal to keep them in the governing coalition. Israel will not allow Gaza to govern itself even after Israel “withdraws” from its occupation: putting someone in jail confers the responsibility for feeding them.

It is also no surprise that those in power choose short-term personal advantage over national survival. Assad watches his country collapse in civil war rather than sharing power. Netanyahu moved instantly to undermine an emerging Fatah-Hamas compromise, preferring the comfortable (for him) pattern of endless Israeli military repression to the potential emergence of a unified Palestinian government that might actually gain enough power to rule and thus bring stability. Maliki risks the dissolution of his country rather than resigning to make way for a regime of national unity.

“Those in power” include not just formal leaders but self-organizing militias, which also tend to favor short-term, private advantage over national survival. Typically ethnically-based, militias claiming to be fighting for their country undermine their own cause by attacking not their enemies but innocent bystanders who happen to have different ethnicity or religion, further fracturing and weakening society. Israeli settler violence against the moderate and submissive Fatah and even politically quiescent Palestinian civilians is a classic example of local autonomy being misused to weaken the links between sub-systems (in this case, the mutually dependent settler and Palestinian sub-systems, both of which would benefit from stability, security, and economic growth). The non-discriminatory policy evidently implemented by the Kurds as they moved toward declaring independence in the weeks following the initial attack of ISIS is a striking exception.

By thinking in terms of complex-adaptive systems, one can see that the current Mideast political mess is explicable in terms of dysfunctional structural characteristics in the system. Individuals may make a difference, and some may indeed be relatively evil or good; culture may matter. Nevertheless, personality, morality, religion, race, tribal status are all unnecessary to understand and even to predict the broad course of Mideastern events. It follows that neither individual leaders nor any particular religious or racial affiliation is likely to make any real difference to the core dynamics that are making the Mideast such an unpleasant place for its inhabitants and such a danger to world peace and global economic development. This conflict will not be resolved by finding the right allies, arming the right religious faction, or labeling someone as “evil.” Only profound structural transformation seems to hold much hope of eliminating the highly destabilizing array of mutually incompatible elements that powers the collapse of governance in the Mideast.

Empowering Extremists

We Westerners, in the smug comfort of our technological complexity (which must surely equate to ‘superiority’ but whose inherent fatal flaw of resting on the quicksand of environmental degradation and cultural-historical blindness) cannot solve the international problems we face because we insist on rejecting our role in creating those problems.


It is “impossible to explain” anything “extracted from [the] large context of which it is simultaneously built and prisoner,” as Fernand Braudel noted. Washington war party fanatics worry about ISIS “terrorists,” while ISIS strategists proclaim their goal to be the freeing of the Arab nation from harmful boundaries brutally imposed by equally terrorist colonialists for the precise purpose of provoking internal upheaval so as to render Arabs impotent. How can anyone imagine that so long as the new Islamic State remains the sole voice for rejecting still quite effective colonialism and restoring the historical prominence of the Arab nation that the Islamic State will not achieve a certain popularity among frustrated Arab patriots. Yes, it is a state founded on terrorism, terrorism fully as evil as that of we practiced against America’s First Nations or that Israel practices against Palestinians, but what expanding power does not stress success over morality?

By focusing on our antagonist’s means rather than his goals, we condemn ourselves to misunderstanding the source of his power. The just-proclaimed “Islamic State” must be given credit for addressing the wrong of Mideast borders imposed by outsiders for outsiders. These borders are the symbol of a regional political system designed for the convenience, for the profit of the West, not the Arabs. The rapid expansion of the IS must be understood in the long historical context in which it was built.

The IS success must also be understood in the more recent historical context of what, even to educated Westerners–much less to Arabs, appeared to be exactly what George Bush called it – a “crusade,” yet another Western crusade against Islam, against politically active Arab patriots. The West ironically had the opportunity to escape from the dark shadow of the Neo-Con crusade when democracy broke out in Tahrir Square, but even the long, brutal occupation of Iraq was not quite bad enough to pull the West out of its cultural-historical blindness. One might have supposed, given the record of U.S. military failure in Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq that Washington decision-makers would have jumped at the chance of supporting moderate Arab democrats who had no obvious desire to take an anti-American stance, but no, in the end we remained prisoner of our own biases and turned against precisely the sort of Arab force that could have offered an anti-terrorist alternative to the IS.

It is true that Obama, to his credit, called on the Iraqi regime to stop mistreating its Sunni citizens, but in the end Washington gave that regime weapons anyway, leaving Iraqi Sunnis nowhere else to go but the new, nasty Islamic State.

Prisoner of our biases, our historical blindness, whatever happens to the Islamic State, the problem of Arab demands for justice will not go away because those demands are not being addressed. Arabs are imprisoned in their history and will remain there, frequently and violently protesting that injustice, until outside powers or some extremist (by definition) domestic force gives them their freedom. We, obviously, will not become willing to allow the Arabs to break free as long as we remain prisoners of our cultural-historical blindness. And, so, we have only more violence to look forward to as we insist on behaving in ways that empower extremists.

Can Americans Run Their Country?

The sordid details of the national financial crisis of 2008 (and continuing) caused by an utterly corrupted financial/political elite manipulating millions of greedy suckers should now be well understood, in its broad meaning, to all: Washington coddled, protected, rewarded the billionaires by stealing a nearly infinite amount of cold cash from everyone else. (If you still have not read a single book about the moral corruption that powered this theft of your money, Michael Lewis’ The Big Short is a brilliant and brilliantly entertaining place to start.)


Washington’s behavior of rewarding the guilty thus ensured a repeat performance, and, sure enough, we are already in the midst of yet another meticulously planned bubble (this time the stock market, booming not because American industry is booming but because the U.S. financial system remains consciously, intentionally designed to give your earned income to people who do not believe in earning theirs).

Surely, the financiers who pulled off this great theft and the bought politicians who facilitated it would have preferred that it all be swept under the rug, but the sudden impoverishment of millions of workers and the sudden foreclosure forced upon millions of homeowners plus the very public collapse of Wall St., followed by the stunningly socialist and utterly anti-capitalist corporate welfare response from Washington somehow leaked into the mainstream media. Thus, the criminality/irresponsibility/idiocy (pick A, B, C or all three) of the financial elite and our elected representatives regarding how to manage the nation’s economy has been neatly exposed.

All that is old news but important, for it proves that the elite was incompetent as regards one of the three key duties of being in charge, i.e., the economy, and thus raises the very serious question going forward of whether or not the elite is remotely qualified to run the other two equally important and even more complicated areas of governance: national security and the natural environment. No doubt anyone patient enough to read this far has already noticed for him- or herself sufficient evidence of foreign policy and environmental problems to suggest that this question is more than just theoretical.

Much has been made since 2008 of the utter blindness of the computer models used on Wall Street to calculate risk. All you really need to know is that these models were based on the assumption that the only possible outcomes were outcomes similar to those of the recent past. Wearing these rosy glasses, those models proved that everything being done on Wall St. c. 2004-2007 was virtually risk-free (for them; who wants to model poor people buying no-cash mortgages???). Not only did these very “sophisticated” and expensive models dismiss the possibility that something never before seen could occur (even when Wall St. had reinvented itself into totally new financial vacuum cleaner with CDOs and CDOs of CDOs, all based on liar mortgage loans) but these models even dismissed the possibility that the 2005 bubble could be just the latest in a series of financial disasters that had already occurred A. in recent decades and B. in the U.S. (e.g., the savings and loan crisis, the collapse of LTMC, the crisis). No news there, either, but just consider the nature of the models underpinning U.S. foreign policy and U.S. environmental policy (not, please note, political science models or scientific models about global warming, which are carefully ignored in the making of high level U.S. foreign and environmental policy).

U.S. foreign and environmental policies are not based on computerized models at all…just “mental models.” The core mental model for U.S. environmental policy is that we humans own this world and nature is our servant: take what you want and Mother Nature will make all the poisons we throw on the ground and into the air and water simply vanish. The core mental model for U.S. foreign policy is the “realist” view that since the world is a nasty place, if we want something, we should take it. Blackbeard was a “realist.” Occupying Iraq and isolating and finally surrounding Iran were “realist” policies. Now we suddenly need Iran’s help to fix the mess our “realist” invasion of Iraq created but unfortunately we just spent the last three decades using our “realist” policy to teach Iran that we cannot be trusted.

Even with enormously complicated computer models, the highest paid people in the world did not have a clue about how to run the financial system for the benefit of society (and, in fact, they would have sunk their own pirate ships, had Washington not handed them the greatest example of corporate welfare ever known). But the models underlying Washington’s core policy stance on managing national security and the environment are essentially no more than outdated prejudices kept around because they so conveniently portray decision-makers as innocent of causing any of the national security or environmental mess that just “happens” to be popping up all around us. Not only is no one to blame for the poorly designed and badly tested equipment that poisoned the Gulf of Mexico, but it doesn’t matter anyway since Mother Nature will absorb whatever poisons we feed her. The U.S. has a heavily militarized foreign policy not because the ruling elite uses war to enrich itself (in a classic but typical elite conflict of interest, during the supposed crisis after 9/11 a CEO of a U.S. arms producer who had campaigned in favor of invading Iraq earned $25 million a year) but because everyone else in the world is so unreasonable that “they only understand the language of force.”

We did not do it. We did not design a financial system to promote liar mortgage loans or to carefully conceal them in worthless packages rated risk-free for the express purpose of defrauding investors…well, OK, perhaps that one time. But we did not invade Iraq in order to launch a wave of highly remunerative imperialism called the New American Century nor did we design an energy system to maximize short-term gain at the expense of long-term environmental destruction. No, sir! Our rulers are professionals…and smart…and patriotic, “Masters of the Universe,” you might say. And anyway, who are you to suggest that they could be guilty of such anti-social governance?

What Happens After Riyadh and Tehran Divide Iraq?

So far, the ISIS, notwithstanding the fact that for weeks and probably months, its regional threat has been entirely obvious, has taken Washington totally by surprise every step of the way, despite our knowing that ISIS aspired to becoming a cross-border caliphate, was running protection rackets out of Iraq, was getting rich off Syrian oil, and was threatening even its Salafi heartland, Saudi Arabia. Yes, experts and anyone who bothered to spend a few hours searching the Internet knew this, but official Washington, well, is still playing catch-up. To Obama’s everlasting credit, he distinguished himself by thinking before acting, so there is hope.

But Washington’s thinking so far appears from the outside to be, understandably but erroneously, focused on the present; after all, the folks in charge do have a certain fire-fighting duty. But equally great is their duty to lay the foundations for a better world, and that promised land lies on the far side of a morass, for the obvious outcome of the current disaster is that extremists will win the day on both sides, defining the game as outright ethnic war — Sunni vs. Shi’a. With Sunnis lining up behind the despicable ISIS and Maliki leading an ineffectual but equally biased ethn0-religious counter-attack, there is no one left in Iraq to defend: both sides are wrong. We might build a wall around Iraq and just watch…but seriously, what will actually happen seems likely to be a military rescue by Iran, led by the most extreme elements in the Iranian regime, with this promptly countered by the most extreme elements in Saudi Arabia. Iran seems likely to win a military showdown and end up essentially owning the Shi’i portions of Iraq, while the Saudis perhaps manage to govern some sort of way-too-hot-to-handle Sunni rump.

 Does anyone think that outcome will remain inside Iraq? Does anyone think it will bring stability? Does anyone think Washington will be able to control its itchy trigger finger?

So…it seems that we must start focusing our thinking on what to do when the obvious occurs.


Planning for the Land Between the Two Rivers

Don’t call it “Iraq.” That was never a country and certainly isn’t now. Sometimes it was Turkish; mostly it was Iranian, and so it will probably be in a few weeks. But Iran won’t enjoy its meal unless it gains the maturity to cut a fair deal with the minority Sunnis. Saudi Arabia and Israel will do everything in their power to prevent such a stabilization of the region in Iran’s favor. It is in the US national interest to work very hard to persuade Iran to offer moderate, secular Sunnis a deal they cannot refuse.

Washington needs to coordinate with Tehran to force Maliki out (unlikely) or persuade him essentially to create a multi-sect government of national unity. As long as the Shi’a of Mesopotamia insist on a Shi’i dictatorship that apes Saddam’s old Sunni dictatorship, they have no hope of anything but a Shi’i semi-autonomous province inside Greater Iran–facing constant threat from a crusading Salafi terrorist state extending from the middle of Syria to Fallujah. That is not good for the US, not good for the land of the Shi’i shrines, and not good for Iran. It is not even good for Saudi Arabia because a Salafi victory will certainly backfire on the Saudi state. Only al Qu’aida, some extremist Iranian IRGC generals, and the Zionist rightwing expansionists will benefit (and then perhaps only temporarily).

So Washington needs to cooperate with (not fall in love with, not trust, not bow down to…just work with) Tehran if possible and talk to Tehran every day, calmly and precisely, offering positive-sum deals because it is in the US national interest to do so.


Update: And the very next day the Wall St. Journal reported that the Obama Administration was signalling that Maliki was part of the problem and that an ethnically inclusive Iraqi regime was needed! Meanwhile, Sour Grapes Cheney, who still has of course not been given his day in court, snipes from the sidelines, trying to provoke a repeat of the 2003 disaster. Obama effectively pardoned Cheney, along with the rest of the Neo-Con war gang; the least he could do is admit his wrongdoing.

Planning for a Good Century

Without contradicting those who see the Federal Government as managed by corrupt politicians, one can more politely (and, it is to be hoped, more accurately) assert that the Washington elite is composed of firemen, whereas the nation needs leaders who prevent the fires from breaking out in the first place.

It seems appropriate on this particular dark and rainy morning, with thunderheads lurking behind a screen of heavy, obscuring rainclouds, to contemplate our society’s future. A patriot might hope that our elected representatives would be doing just that, but no, surely not: they are far too preoccupied with the “firm steps” they are taking while peering through their own dark and heavy clouds of global political sturm und drang to have any time left for watching where their path is actually leading. Rather than asking men of action to think (akin to demanding that firemen write fire insurance policies), a better course would be to redesign the political system, removing the “men of action” from decision-making circles and replacing them with…well, Plato’s philosophers. Put in more modern terms, let thinkers direct strategy, restricting the power-hungry empire-builders to tactics.

And what might such a mythical philosophical strategist think about? In today’s world, given the current level of technology and degree of understanding, it would not be too much to ask that the nation’s leader focus on the next 100 years. If one glances at a map of drought in the U.S., now covering half the country and absolutely destroying the nation’s prime California farmland, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that global warming is likely to constitute the most important economic challenge to the survival of American society over the next century. From the opposite perspective, a century is long enough for us actually to have a good shot, given current technical capabilities, at modifying the course of climate change to our species’ advantage. What else, if not that, should the leader of the world’s most powerful nation be thinking about?

The short-sighted and the traditionally-minded will respond hotly, “War!” The leader should be thinking, take your pick, either about defending us from whatever new barbarian horde comes over the hills or about conquering whatever resource-rich land we “need.” OK. Point taken. So…exactly how are we to prepare for war if our society has been brought to its knees by a global warming-induced dust bowl? And what exactly do you think the borders are going to look like when mass starvation hits the developing world?

By all means, appoint men of action to devise all manner of tactical responses to this or that potential challenge, but under the leadership of a strategist pondering this:

“How do we start today to design a global structure of government that, over the next century, will minimize security threats and maximize non-violent options for survival?”

Apply that seemingly grandiose question to a current practical foreign policy problem and its utterly practical significance becomes obvious. Take the Mideast, for example. One fact about the Mideast is clear: the regional population has already entered a baby boom and has gone far enough down that road so that the issue is no longer about birth rates. The babies in question are already teenagers, and they are growing up in a political pressure cooker. Washington just turned up the heat by engineering/supporting/permitting (your choice) a military coup to reestablish a conservative, anti-reform, old guard military dictatorship in Egypt. Would the U.S. be better or worse off over the next century with a Mideast in which the exploding cohort of unemployed young men can aspire to rising economic opportunity and broadening civil liberties or one in which repressive security forces, increasingly beleaguered by demographic pressures, screw the lid down tighter and tighter? The low-risk tactical solution for U.S. leaders (taken regarding Egypt) is exactly the opposite of the low-risk strategic solution.

Global warming has occurred before, but our particular species did not then exist, and the shifts in climate, atmospheric composition, and ocean chemistry that seem to have occurred offer us little comfort. We, as a species, are entering new territory. Rapid adjustment will be required. An economically secure, scientifically well educated, highly unified population at the starting gate would offer significant advantages over a discouraged, impoverished population alienated from government and containing millions of permanently unemployed, with a handful of outrageously wealthy and utterly irresponsible billionaires on the top. Whether this applies to Egyptians victimized by a military elite, Greeks victimized by German bankers, or Americans victimized by Wall Street, the point remains the same: society is not being prepared to fight its best fight against global warming. By the self-defeating nature of our tactical responses to current economic, political, and social challenges, we are undermining our chances for managing the now-inevitable challenge of global climate change. Many of the changes needed to prepare for the coming climate challenge are well understood and technically feasible tactical steps: e.g., encourage wealth to be spread around and applied to creating a strong and redundant infrastructure, [promote popular scientific education, minimize large-scale financial irresponsibility and corruption. If these tactical steps to prepare for a more threatening future are so straight-forward, why are they not being taken? We lack strategic vision. Our weakness lies not in a lack of resources or a lack of time or a lack of capability but in the absence of a leadership able to rise above tactical firefighting to articulate a strategy for preventing fires.

The short list of major challenges to the survival of “life as we know it” over the next century almost certainly will include the economic pressures flowing from climate change and Mideast instability. Western firestorms, midwestern and western dust bowls, violent storms, sudden temperature shifts, and flooding in the streets of our great coastal cities will increasingly demand the attention of Washington politicians over the next century. Their task will be facilitated and our survival probability enhanced by political stability overseas.

To our great good fortune, the low-risk strategy for minimizing Mideast instability and the low-risk strategy for minimizing the economic harm from global warming are entirely compatible.