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.

Playing Chicken in the Mideast

For those unfamiliar with the particularly idiotic 1950s game of a certain class of American teenage boys, “playing chicken” involved racing cars directly at each other to see which one would choose to avoid suicide (i.e., be the “chicken”) first. Today, the fine gentlemen who design foreign policy strategy in Tel Aviv, Tehran, and Riyadh are all playing this game. Since their level of testosterone seems hardly lower than that of the aforementioned immature teenagers, one may anticipate a head-on collision.

The game of chicken rests on the assertion by each side that it owns the road. Similarly, Tel Aviv, Tehran, and Riyadh currently all have a foreign policy based on the assertion that each owns massive overlapping chunks of the Mideast. Tel Aviv’s appetite has steadily grown since 1948 from wanting control over what is now Israel to all of Palestine to Lebanon to Syria to Iraq to Iran. Most Israeli decision-makers no doubt do not really want to govern this massive region, any more than they accept any significant degree of responsibility for providing good governance over the small remaining Palestinian enclaves on the West Bank; in some cases, they are satisfied simply with having the power to determine what weapons their adversaries will be permitted to own. But that is a tactical detail; the strategic point is that when the chips are down, Israel demands the right to make the final decision on what it determines to be important. Riyadh began playing catch-up in earnest with its military intervention into Yemen in 2010, followed quickly by literally snatching control of the road into Bahrain in 2011, then helped overthrow Egypt’s new democracy that threatened to seize leadership of the region. Meanwhile, Riyadh was intensifying a new effort to manage the outcome of the Syrian civil war. Tehran, running a totally marginalized new Shi’i state in 1979, was sucked into then-distant Lebanon in defense of the poor and also totally marginalized Shi’i population of south Lebanon that faced Sharon’s panzer onslaught alone in 1982. Within a year, Iran-supported Hezbollah freedom fighters had organized a guerrilla movement that would become Lebanon’s most modern political party and punish the Israeli invaders sufficiently so that twenty years later they would flee Lebanonese ground completely (but not Lebanese skies, which they continue to occupy). Tehran may not immediately have defined Lebanon as Iran’s “front-line” back in 1983 but toe-holds are hard to relinquish, and in the aftermath of “winning” the war started by the U.S. against Iraq, the expansionist attitude in some decision-making circles in Tehran is clear. Former IRGC commander Safavi, for example, stated in May that Iran’s “real borders are not what they appear, but extend to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea in southern Lebanon.”

Alternatives are not hard to find. Sufficient desert exists in Syria to contain both Iranian and Saudi oil pipelines. Now that Saddam is gone and Iraq no longer a threat to anyone, agreement on accepting Iraq as a neutral might make the whole region a much more enjoyable place. Perhaps a U.S.-Iranian nuclear deal will in fact facilitate such a move away from the intensifying regional game of chicken. So far, however, most of the key foreign policy players are insisting that “we” can only survive by controlling neutral territory in order to prevent “you” from threatening “us.”

The tripartite game of chicken thus rests on mutually exclusive claims of ownership (in polite diplomatic technobabble usually termed a “sphere of influence”) over Lebanon by Tel Aviv and Tehran, over Syria by Tehran and Riyadh with Tel Aviv just a bit behind, over Iraq by Tehran and Riyadh, and over Egypt by Riyadh with Tel Aviv coyly grinning approval. So far, this is mostly a duel in which the seconds are shooting first, e.g., the Sunni jihadi ISIS militia in Syria vs. pro-Iranian militias under IRGC supervision. But militias have a way of driving off-road when put in the driver’s seat, which just keeps sucking the principals closer and closer to the starting gate. Watch the race if you wish, but sit well back in the stands. When cars hit head-on, bystanders are at risk.

Drunk Teetering on a National Security Tightrope

Four broad weaknesses undermine U.S. national security, together threatening the collapse of U.S. global leadership: the addiction to military solutions for non-military problems, an elite focus on taking a bigger piece of a stagnant domestic pie, rising complexity of world affairs, and the arrival of an historic tipping point that will, for the first time since the early 1600s transform the U.S. natural environment from a free gift into an obstacle to the realization of the American Dream.


Those in Washington who aspire to run the world naturally focus on the very big hammer they have: with no serious military competitor remotely visible, the U.S. only needs a military as an insurance policy. There is no doubt that the U.S. has fundamental national security challenges, for which it needs a productive population of financially secure families, a stable and educated middle class actively monitoring the behavior of its elected representatives,  a modern climate policy, a vigorous international police regime to pursue international criminals, and a domestic justice system to pursue domestic abuse of power by the corporate and political elite, and a foreign policy grounded in a long-term understanding of the kind of world that would benefit American society.

The U.S. is not remotely close to meeting a single one of these conditions for long-term national security, however, so–for fully internal reasons, regardless of how benign external conditions, regardless of how nicely the rest of the world treats the last superpower standing–the U.S. will continue to decline. What the U.S. does not need is a level of military superiority that will make entice decision-makers into smashing every glass window of opportunity they perceive with their big military hammer. While the Three-Trillion Dollar double adventure into Iraq and Afghanistan may constitute the obvious example, the broader U.S. post-Cold War propensity to play the tough guy toward  adversaries (e.g., Yemen, Palestinians, Iran, Russia, Pakistan, the Egyptian people) while kowtowing toward difficult “friends” (e.g., Israel, Saudi Arabia) because Washington has lost the ability to design effective non-military foreign policy constitutes at least as serious a national security weakness.  Simply put, elite addiction to military solutions for non-military problems will in and of itself push the U.S. into decline. Call it the “Military Solution Syndrome.”

The Military Solution Syndrome is the Iceberg of US Declinetip of the iceberg imperiling the U.S. ship of state. The next layer down is the broad domestic failure of leadership regarding the sorry list of chronic problems cited above. This failure results from the rise of elite corruption to the point of open warfare against the 99% under the protection of a government now essentially “bought and paid for.” Call this the “Class War by the Rich.”

These two  broad trends do not make U.S. decline inevitable. Indeed, from the first election of Obama through his now deservedly forgotten Cairo address, the U.S. appeared on the road to curing itself of the Military Solution Syndrome. Similarly, the Madison demonstrations in defensive of public workers, the Occupy Movement against elite financial corruption, Carolina’s Moral Mondays, and the election of Elizabeth Warren gave powerful evidence that the public was beginning to realize who the real enemy was. But after a generation of concerted effort, the rich had a head of steam that a still mostly in denial public has yet to match, and little evidence that the public will make the necessary effort is visible. Sadly, greater military defeats than those in Iraq and Afghanistan plus worse economic disasters than the 2008 recession may be required to stimulate such a public reaction.

If the Military Solution Syndrome and the Class War by the Rich together comprise the domestic reasons for anticipating long-term U.S. decline, the circumstances of the global political environment constitute the third layer. First, the 21st century world is structurally complex, with power (aside from military power) increasingly spread out, alliances increasingly issue-specific, and means of achieving one’s goals increasingly varied…if one has the determination and vision to play for the long term. With decision-makers blinded by the shining mirage of military solutions and the broader ruling elite blinded by a roaring-twenties lust for profit, the U.S. is lost in a new world it has no idea how to cope with. Even the entirely foreseeable mess in Ukraine, greatly the result of Washington overplaying its hand, seems beyond the ability of U.S. decision-makers to manage; how to curb Israeli expansionists while protecting its citizens, identify “good guys” in Syria, provide Iran with a combination of respect and security, allow China room in which to live, or prevent the unraveling of West Europe evidently leaves Washington utterly at a loss. Official Washington looks paralyzed, like a “Deer in the Headlights.”

The final layer is the natural environment. The natural environment has for three centuries (it was, in contrast, a huge obstacle to settlement in the earliest days of European colonization) constituted the secret weapon of America. This incalculable freebie now appears to be disappearing. Whether we Americans are primarily responsible by our greed or nature is somehow doing a number on us, the case still remains that climate shift is about to make our lives much more volatile, from F5 tornadoes almost everywhere to drought and fire in the California food basket, and our short-sighted abuse of the environment is just making things worse. As if global warming were not enough, we have the additional epidemic of poisoning of the environment on a massive scale (e.g., the Gulf of Mexico from the oil eruption, groundwater from the scandalously irresponsible shale oil exploitation)  This final layer of degradation of the natural environment, then, is quite literally the “Burning of Our Seed Corn.”

So, for those who want a sound-bite description of the challenge facing the U.S. today, it is the combination of the Military Solution Syndrome, Class War by the Rich, Deer in the Headlights, and Burning of Our Seed Corn.

Is the U.S. Rising or Falling?

Although the balance-of-power global political system of the 1920s and 1930s dramatically differs from the current unchallenged supremacy of the last remaining superpower, the pattern of both financial and military policy then bears ominous similarity to the pattern today. Are we, by choice this time, laying the groundwork for a return to the worst era in human history?

In The Great Deformation, David Stockman spends 700 fascinating pages describing how the 1% in the U.S. has been waging class war against the 99% here and all over the rest of the globe (via both the same financial principles and neo-con wars for profit), all leading up to the following conclusion:

…the world economy is now extended on the far edge of a monetary bubble that has been four decades in the making….all the major, aging consumer economies of the world are failing;…Accordingly, democratic politics will turn increasingly ugly, strident, and nationalistic in the face of chronic fiscal crisis, recession and quasi-recession, middle-class austerity, and bubble opulence among the 1 percent. [The Great Deformation (New York: Public Affairs, 2013), 705.]

Need I point out how closely this scenario resembles the rise of fascism? Need I point out how neatly the Neo-Con wave of aggression against a long list of Muslim societies fits into this picture with its tightly coordinated machine for state-corporate enrichment, brutality against civilians, attacks on civil liberties, religious stereotyping, glorification of violence, anti-intellectualism, and the provision of the full protection of the state to the financial criminal class?

To put it politely, the evidence suggests a reasonable person should feel entirely justified in taking this scenario of utterly irrational (from a social perspective), unnecessary self-destruction very seriously. So, to what extent is this now an accurate depiction of our most likely future?

If all this pessimism is giving you indigestion, try the following summary of why Stockman is wrong in a review:

The dollar hasn’t collapsed. Inflation hasn’t soared (food prices are stable). Total debt to GDP (when you include private debt) has shrunk. The financial sector has begun to normalize as a share of the economy. Housing has come back.  US borrowing costs are not exploding. Inflation expectations very far out remain tame… probably too tame. []

Housing “back” with the mess of rotting foreclosed homes across the country? Inflation “hasn’t soared” and “food prices are stable”? Consider prices as a function of average annual incomes + benefits for everyone who wants to work (including the millions unemployed against their will). Inflation expectations “very far out remain tame.” This one is tricky, but with indebtedness growing and the middle class shrinking, can we really expect “tame” inflation “very far out?” And then there’s the long list of points unmentioned: e.g., out-of-control military budget (one of Stockman’s most crucial points) plus out-of-control military tactics (institutionalized drone wars as the new normal), the contradiction between a stock market bubble and massive unemployment, failure to control health spending. And a little item with incalculable economic implications that I won’t even mention: global warming (Shhh!). Somehow, this review did not make me feel better.

Still looking for good news…