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.