Dynamics, not events, explain what happens, and in the Mideast, the key dynamic underlying events may be less the sectarian discord and extremist explosions the media focus on than the very well known but usually ignored “arms for oil.”
Everything is dynamic. Glaciers flow; continents shift; empires collapse. All this happens in weird ways as the result of a massive tangle of inter-connected forces that push at differing rates in different directions. Solzhenitsyn’s “red wheel” of history that rolls implacably over helpless man is a nice introductory image. More accurate is the image of many smaller wheels interacting with the big “red wheel,” but we are not talking about watches here–think of all the wheels connected not by predictable gears but by elastic bands. Sometimes the bands stretch and stretch, as pressure builds up in rocks, then suddenly snaps, producing an earthquake. Empires fall very much like that. Using this image, then, if one wished, for example, to try to understand Mideast affairs, one could first look for a big wheel and identify its behavior, then try to identify lesser wheels.
In the Mideast, as in any political region, there are some really big wheels that are very hard to follow because they move at, well, about the speed of continental drift. Rate of change does not correlate with importance. An example might be the drive of all human civilization toward greater liberty and justice. Hmmm, perhaps that wheel is rusted or maybe it is only the naive influence of such as John Locke and Thomas Jefferson that persuades some fortunate folks in this very special period that progress is the name of one of the big wheels of human history. Another wheel, one that is rapidly getting bigger, is the shortage of water.
Identifying the “big wheel,” i.e., the key causal dynamic, can be tricky. But we need to get it right if we want to actually solve problems.
If the problem we want to solve is the intensifying cycle of violence in the Mideast, then perhaps we could start at a less ambitious level than attempting to identify the absolute core dynamic. Thus, what might be a key dynamic influencing regional behavior over, say, the time-frame of a human life?
Let’s see. Here’s roughly how it works: the West manufactures weapons and sells them to Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia uses them on “trouble-makers” in Bahrain, Yemen, or Syria. At the same time, the West uses the money it receives for the weapons, minus the profit that the hard-working Western war profiteering sector takes for its efforts, to buy Saudi oil. The petro-sheikhs then use this money to buy more weapons. This all sounds like a free lunch, a remark I surely would not make if I were an economist, but sadly I am not. In my ignorance, obviously, I am missing something…I mean, somebody must be paying the bill. I guess that would be the people of Bahrain, Yemen, Iraq, and Syria. They don’t have any money, of course; the money belongs to the Saudis. They pay with their lives. This method of payment entails certain socio-political consequences which together may make the greatest contribution to Mideast chaos.
An infinity of additional causal dynamics influence Mideast politics: water and food shortages, government discrimination against minorities, bige power interference, etc. Moreover, these driving forces interact with each other (water shortages impact food supplies, wars destroy infrastructure and provoke radicalism that generates further war, government discrimination against minorities intensifies radicalism that ironically intensifies government discrimination). Within this reality of multiple causal dynamics adapting in response to the pressures of linked dynamics, the comfortable (for participants) “arms for oil” reinforcing feedback loop would be a fruitful place to start for anyone trying to figure out why the Mideast is engulfed in chaos.*
- Technical Note: If this sounds like a reductionist cop-out to the analysis of a complex-adaptive system, well, it is. Simplifying makes analysis less realistic in return for offering some measure of comprehension. It is a crutch. “Arms for oil” does not explain Mideast chaos; i.e., the problem of Mideast chaos is not reductionist – it cannot be reduced to a single independent cause that can be repaired to fix the Mideast political machine: there is no machine while we were fixing the arms for oil cycle, the other components of the socio-political system would continue evolving. Nonetheless, the links connecting the arms for oil cycle to, say, sectarian violence or government corruption or political radicalization–while perhaps multi-step–are numerous. “Arms for oil” is a densely connected node in the network diagram of the causes of social chaos, to use the terminology of social network analysis (for studying connections) rather than complex-adaptive systems analysis (for studying behavioral change).