Foreign Policy to Defend Democracy

Democratic societies whose public servants conduct a foreign policy based on “good guys” vs. “bad guys” undermine their own long-term security. The attitude of a state toward another state should rest on an assessment of the counterpart’s behavior, not its race, religion, or ideology. Perhaps needless to say, such an approach to foreign policy formulation hardly exists in the modern world.

States may rationally select partners for many reasons, and having a foreign policy based on case-by-case judgment, i.e., with no permanent partners at all, is by no means the least rational basis for foreign policy, though it takes a very clear-thinking statesperson to guide such a policy. Possibly the most incompetent and self-defeating (taking “self” to refer not to the leader but the society) foreign policy of all is the typical one, based on old prejudices and habits from an era long gone. To discern the difference, a logical method of distinguishing classes of foreign policy behavior would be a nice tool, if we could but design it. Hard as it may be to identify any real-world regimes with such a tool for identifying other regimes worth supporting, a simple continuum from selfish behavior to behavior for the common good would make a solid, if not revolutionary, foundation.

In the complex arena of foreign policy, doing harm is almost as common (and vastly more costly than) doing good, implying that there is sufficient room for improvement to anticipate real value even from a simple tool. If we can accept foreign policy based on the assumption that a general minimization of harm done would, over time, benefit us all, then we are set to move forward to a definition of broad categories of behavior that should be viewed as harmful or beneficial to the common good regardless of the identity of the actor.

Debates over exceptions will of course explode the instant one attempts to categorize specific behaviors as harmful to the common good and thus warranting opposition, but at least a default attitude (e.g., “war is bad”) would serve to make one hesitate and demand justification. In the case of good behavior by an adversary, the burden of proof would be put on one’s own leaders to justify any inclination they might have to oppose good behavior simply because done by the wrong regime. In addition, having the scale at hand would make it easier to notice and harder to “ignore” a shift in behavior. The continuum also offers an easy way to promote the common good: attacking the bad behavior of adversaries need not be the focus of foreign policy; a great step forward could be made simply by applying the continuum to one’s own behavior, to see if “we” are truly setting an example for the world.

Several common behaviors suggest themselves immediately as harmful to the common good:

  • colonization;

  • aggression surpassing the scope of a threat;

  • collective punishment;

  • preventive war;

  • denying autonomy to a disliked and marginalized minority;

  • putting reporters on trial in secret;

  • arresting anyone for “insulting” a leader.

Several other common behaviors seem to deserve immediate support:

  • nuclear transparency;

  • obeying international law.

This short set of criteria already suffices to generate a good deal of thought…and no little embarrassment. Consider the example of how the West might tackle the problem of finding partners in the Mideast. Israel is guilty of colonization of the West Bank, multiple cases of aggression beyond the scope of any threat, nuclear ambiguity, and collective punishment of the residents of Gaza. Saudi Arabia is guilty of multiple cases of aggression beyond the scope of the threat (or perhaps “preventive war). Turkey is guilty of denying autonomy to a disliked minority, putting reporters on trial in secret, and arguably for arresting people for insulting the leader. Iran was guilty of nuclear ambiguity.

Are the charges accurate? Are there justifications? To what extent are the categories of equivalent seriousness? Given the ease with which one could find similar guilt among leading Western democracies, is the test so tough that no powerful state can pass? What constitutes passing?

That last question leads to two particular cases that stand out not for the nature of the states’ behavior so much as the change. Iran has, or at least one may so hope, abandoned nuclear ambiguity (in stark contrast to Israel). Turkey has, over the last year, shifted from a policy of democratization and inclusion of Turkish Kurds in its political system (note that the former has little meaning without the latter) to a policy of repressing the Kurds by not just fighting their extremists but also by marginalizing their politicians and more broadly restricting freedom of the press and freedom of expression for the whole Turkish population.

These two dramatic cases raise the issue of whether current regime behavior or the direction of change is more important. Given the extreme differences in the development of civilized governance within a given state over time and across states at any particular time, it might well be more logical to emphasize the direction of change. Given the need for progress in governance to evolve from within a society than be imposed from without, emphasizing the direction of change is also more likely to have practical value, particularly if the international community both practices what it preaches and reacts quickly to changes.

Obama’s decision to avoid receiving Erdogan at the end of March 2016, months after Erdogan’s shift toward repression and centralization became clear to the world, might thus be judged a good move but too little, too late. It may well be imagined that Erdogan has by now become so committed to his new policy of repression that a factional realignment of forces within his political party can offer much hope of setting Turkey back on the path to modernization, democratization, and secular inclusivity.

The Western call for new anti-Iranian sanctions for testing missiles in the context of the nuclear agreement is even more curious, sending the nearly unmistakable signal that despite the huge concession Iran made in settling the nuclear issue in the absence of a similar requirement being levied on Israel, the West remains committed to subjecting Iran to discriminatory rules. Is there any other state in the world that has been ordered by the West to forego the testing of missiles? More pointedly, are Saudi Arabia and Israel required to sign up to the rules concerning missiles that Iran is being told to follow? Of course, one might protest that “Iran is different,” but this argument is like pouring water into a wicker basket in view of the aggressive foreign policy of both Saudi Arabia (preventing Bahraini democratization, internationalizing the Yemeni civil war, pursuing regime change in Syria) and Israel (invading Lebanon, retaining the Golan Heights, imprisoning the people of Gaza in a ghetto).

The real issue in Tel Aviv and Riyadh is that, being both essentially fundamentalist religious regimes and expansionist nationalist regimes, they do not welcome the rising competition from yet another state playing the same game. For Tel Aviv and Riyadh, the issue is clear: they desire neither the military competition for regional influence nor the direct ideological challenge to their dreams of religious empire. For Western regimes, the Mideast confusion of competing fundamentalist religious and sectarian interests complicating and aggravating aggressive nationalist claims and counterclaims is—if addressed as such—impossibly arcane. To deal with this problem, Western regimes tend to simplify it by assigning essentially meaningless labels that facilitate decision-making while ensuring that those decisions will be counterproductive. In an effort to evade the cultural complexities of the Mideast, Western regimes thus become captive to those complexities, making themselves servants of whatever cultural group they happen to label as “friend,” for “friend” as a political term among states means “looking the other way,” i.e., renouncing your right to think for yourself and criticize your counterpart when you perceive improper behavior. A Western state should never support or oppose a Mideast state because of the religion or sect of the Mideastern society; the Western state’s attitude should instead be grounded in an open-eyed assessment of the nature of the behavior in question. Making this assessment with a carefully defined set of behavioral criteria in mind could help Western leaders to distinguish more accurately between beneficial and harmful behavior.

How the West should react to violence is the obvious case-in-point. The constant need for Western states to decide whether to support or oppose the endless Mideast acts of violence in the name of Shi’i, Jewish, or Sunni Salafi interests will always provoke a pointless and useless debate as long as the underlying question is: “Which sect’s acts of violence should the West support?” From the long-term perspective of Western democratic societies, the answer in the abstract is “None.” As the events from 9/11 to the late March 2016 terrorist attack in Brussels should make evident, sectarian violence is not in the interest of Western societies. Indeed, even if we have forgotten the horrors of the 16th century religious wars in France or the Thirty Years’ War a century later, we should have learned the lesson from the KKK and Kristalnacht.

But Western politicians try endlessly to distinguish “justifiable” violence by a regime or private group by looking first and foremost at the sectarian identity of the guilty. Over time, that approach accomplishes two things: it exposes Western politicians as hypocritical (thereby weakening the West’s credibility as a moral leader) and establishes a dynamic that degrades the foundations of Western democracy by setting into motion a cycle of cynicism and violence. Bad behavior, short-sighted behavior, brutal behavior, emotion-based rather than thoughtful behavior is always more readily copied than the other kind. The world is watching the steady contagion of calls by politicians for sectarian policies (building walls, patrolling urban regions based on the sect of the inhabitants, banning political parties that support the political integration of minorities); collective punishment (by mistreating refugees, stripping minority regions of political rights, suicide bombers or wars against cities); drones to kill presumed but untried and perhaps unidentified opponents (to date, in “other” countries). In each case, society goes down a slippery slope: the principle is at first violated in some seemingly benign manner (e.g., racial targeting) or extreme manner presumably done as an exception (e.g., killing a known and identified individual combatant posing a direct and immediate danger) that then leads both to less benign or more common violations while also quickly establishing a precedent. It may take generations for a leading world power to convince the world to accept a new principle (banning slavery; allowing women to participate in politics; religious freedom; the right to criticize the leader; open trials; making such terror weapons as poison gas, white phosphorous, barrel bombs, nuclear warheads illegal; granting autonomy to repressed minorities). Popularizing barbaric forms of behavior that violate accepted moral and legal principles, in sad contrast, happens effortlessly and almost instantly, with unpredictable but reliably negative consequences for progressive democratic societies. A world of wars against cities, repression of minorities, and the freedom to use whatever weapon one can design or buy is a world in which dictators and extremists flourish: only societies aspiring to peace and civil liberties suffer.

Democratic societies need to impose upon themselves a higher standard of behavior–particularly in the implementation of foreign policy–not just in some idealistic quest to make the world a better place but as the core of self-defense.

How 21st Century World Affairs Work

The idea of a global political system that is “evolving” makes decision-makers, who are conservative for numerous reasons, uneasy. Unfortunately for our security, the pace of that evolution is accelerating, and we need to learn how to keep up; the ash bin of history awaits its next victim.
Although no one can know how world affairs will operate for the rest of the 21st century at the microscopic level of individual events, much can nevertheless be said about the large-scale functioning of the global political system and, specifically, about how it is evolving in ways that decision-makers ignore at their peril. Decision-makers, i.e., precisely those individuals responsible for guiding their societies into the future, also tend to be particularly conservative (read: hide-bound, blind, in denial) about how the conditions under which that future will necessarily come into being are evolving. What sticks in the craw of our backward-looking leaders is a certain liberal (read: open-minded, flexible), leftist (read: oh-oh, dont wanna go there) little word that makes self-perceived tough guys feel queasy in the stomach—“evolving.
In the U.S., at least, most leaders are virtually illiterate and almost totally innumerate because they have focused their lives on winning elections (without any clear reason why) or building fortunes (again, without any clear reason why) or winning legal cases in court (which still leaves one little time for learning about foreign cultures or history). None of these backgrounds provides a very good path to understanding where human civilization has come from, how it got where it is, or where it is headed. Those unusual leaders with a bit of education probably carry around a powerful mental model of one outstanding event (perhaps Hitler or the glory of Rome or the Depression) that shines so bright in their minds that it blinds them to the real tangle of underlying dynamics pushing mankind to and fro. If an individual leader rises above the rest and enters office with a clear comprehension of the past, he or she will still be behind the curve because the world is now changing faster than we can keep up.
So, in the end, our leaders are conservative. A conservative attitude may have been fine during what we perceive as the endlessly predictable Neolithic times when tradition was the best guide (at least until one of those unsettling interglacial ages rolled around). Today, however, conservatism is likely to put one dangerously out-of-touch with reality. A conservative may continue to believe that foreign policy is about regime-to-regime ties, when an Arab Spring suddenly puts the masses in the drivers seat. A conservative may continue to rely on traditional military force even though current instability results from socio-economic and psychological foundations whose cracks cannot be repaired by bombs. A conservative may continue to view an old ally as a trusted friend decades after it has transformed itself into a pugnacious troublemaker. If conservative is to maintain old values, it may be the most admirable of attitudes. But if to be conservative is to reject the flexibility required to keep speed with a changing reality, in a world of globalized finance, globalized pollution, and globalized asynchronous warfare, it is suicidal.
This raises two obvious questions:
  1. What is different about the world today?
  2. How can we understand it well enough to protect ourselves and continue the long process of building a better life?
To get a sense of what is different, consider the vastly simpler circumstances of the solar system, which lacks ideology, personality, hormone surges, and love affairs. Without going into too much detail about such things as the rotation of the galaxy or the threat of a supernova somewhere in the neighborhood, consider the solar system as the sun, surrounded by eight planets predictably revolving in orbit. With some imagination, consider the solar system thus simplified, by analogy, as your model of traditional world affairs, with the power of gravity symbolizing the political power that makes little societies revolve around big ones, with the superpower sun just sitting there making the rules.
Now consider a different system in space, of which there are many examples: two stars revolving in a dance aroundwell, around what, exactly? A does not revolve around B, nor does B revolve around A. In fact, the two revolve around a central point in space defined by the relative gravitational pull of each. This is far more complicated, but it is still predictable with what human civilization is pleased to consider standard math.
Lets move to a three-star system. Such a system still has no personality problems, no ambition, but its motions are now arguably unpredictable, though that may just reflect the limits of current mathematics.
Lets carry this analogy one step further by adding irregular internal variations of some magical sort to each star, such that their gravitational fields evolve dramatically and independently. Now, one begins to sense the meaning of complex, or, more precisely, a complex-adaptive system. The world of human politics has always been a complex-adaptive system, but for a number of reasons, it is getting more soand fast enough to have serious impacts on our lives.
The reasons are not really very subtle, and the first reason is more. There are more people, more travel, more communication. The second reason is faster. None of these changes is really totally new: financial bubbles have occurred through history and a wave of globalization occurred at the end of the 19th century. Today, however, everything really is moving faster, with the computer-driven global financial shifts being the model of this scary new world. The third reason is more intrusive. When you have to read the (very) fine print on every single package of frozen vegetables to make sure you are not buying them from potentially pesticide-poisoned farms in a China that remains far from having a reliable national regulatory system (not that the post-Reagan U.S. does either, if truth be told), you know the meaning of intrusive global complexity. There is no need to wait for a generation to feel the changes; you are being affected personally and on a daily basis. The network of links is denser, new links are generated faster, and they hit closer to home.
Imagine a network; suddenly it is becoming denser as more and more of us have more and more connections. This exponential growth in links is changing the world faster than we can learn how to manage it: the explosion of global jihad jumping from Afghanistan to Bosnia to Chechnya to Indonesia back to Afghanistan and then, courtesy of the U.S. invasion, to Iraq is one example. The virulent spread of, well, dengue fever throughout South America is a second. The equally virulent spread of the 2008 financial crisis from country to country as a result of such activities as the bundling of sub-prime U.S. mortgages into packages purchased by foreign banks, is another example.
Buy a mortgage and suddenly you, dear American, have a direct link to a Chinese bank, but dont imagine that anyone is going to inform you of that fact. Now, how should that affect your decisions about taking out a second mortgage or paying off the first or selling the house at a discount just to get out? I hope you are happy knowing that the state of politics and economics in the Peoples Republic of China directly and personally affects your ability to own a home. And of course your ability to make your mortgage payments on time directly affects the economy of China. Welcome to the complex-adaptive world of 21st century international affairs, where every component (e.g., you and the Peoples Republic of China) affects every other component.  Please note: affect does not just mean that it might help or hurt you but also that it will change you. You may become more risk-averse and move into an apartment or more insecure and vote for a bloody-shirt-waving politician who will launch a war of choice in pursuit of personal glory with the excuse that he is protecting you from foreign threats. You and your neighbors may decide that giving up civil liberties is the price of survival.  Invade someone, sacrifice a few principles for temporary convenience, and suddenly you find you live in a different society with different values. Multiply these complicated choices a million times and you see the problem facing decision-makers in the nice, new 21st century world.
To summarize the answer to the question–What is different about the 21st century world?”—even over the short-term (even a term as short as a four-year presidential term, for example) unpredictable change is predictable. Decision-makers can no longer quietly make plots for fame and profit; the world will not wait for them to take action. Instead, levee-smashing hurricanes, thousand-year floods, asynchronous warfare attacks on the American homeland by non-state actors are predictable. Of course, which one will happen next and where and how remains unpredictable.
So how do we understand all this new and threatening dynamism well enough to cope? Rather than assuming the world is a target waiting for us to shoot, assume it is an evolving system of which we are a small part. Rather than assuming we are whatever we are, with an immutable nature, realize that everything we do or others do has some impact on our nature. From this it follows that all the good guys can lose that cherished goodness and all the bad guys can be nudged in some less nasty direction. This is not an argument in favor of naïve trust but simply an effort to point out that, to put it positively, opportunities exist for someone wise enough to search for them.
This new world will caution a wise ruler (if we happen to find one) to make preparations, build capacity, avoid overreach, find friends before they are needed, search for positive-sum solutions in a world where victory is always ephemeral, and put a bit of seed corn in the barn.
Perhaps it is easier to say what not to do. A wise leader would not tell his people that they should continue enjoying life without regard to a war he is about to launch, as though war were some sort of cheap video game one could just walk away from when the quarters run out. A wise leader would not consider an old ally that tried to push one into a needless war on the allys behalf to be any longer worth having as an ally. Indeed, a wise leader would grant no other state a blank check support, much less alliance, would always be granted in the context of an understanding that certain limits exists and that the other party would be expected to adhere to certain standards. A wise leader would not follow a policy that forced all ones adversaries to join together in opposition. A wise leader would not borrow to the hilt from an adversary in order to engage in a foreign adventure that could not otherwise be afforded; to do so is to put the nations security in the hands of the creditor. A wise leader would not pursue foreign adventure at all under conditions of declining domestic educational standards and collapsing domestic economic conditions for the productive working class that constitutes both the source of national productivity and the primary customer of the national product. A wise leader would never plug his ears and refuse to listen to an adversarys point of view: there is always something to be learned and knowledge is advantage. A wise leader would not assume that they will welcome us with flowers, for merely to make the assumption (even if initially correct) will be to invite a carelessness that will put too much salt in the broth. A wise leader will understand that in a complex-adaptive system, neither “we” nor our “friends” nor our “adversaries” are fixed in place: the best one can hope for is to move in a desired direction without ever having any assurance of being able to maintain a desired position. Cliffs exist, and people fall off: carry a parachute.

Refocusing U.S. Foreign Policy

Washington’s addiction to the outdated use of force to resolve all problems is needlessly undermining U.S. national security and doing what no adversary can do – pushing the U.S. toward international irrelevancy. Just because you have a hammer does not mean you should wash windows with it.
A year ago Leslie Gelb, twice a senior U.S. government official and current President emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, made an astute observation that remains utterly ignored by the squabbling politicians in Washington, to the long-term peril of all Americans:
For all the novel characteristics of the present era, there is one stunning constant: the national security strategy of the United States. Whereas other countries have adjusted to the new economics-based order, Washington has been tardy. [GDP Now Matters More Than Force, Foreign Affairs, Nov-Dec 2010, 38.]
The world is passing the U.S. by. Put theoretically, the complex-adaptive system that is the global political order is currently adapting, or more precisely its components (states, corporations, private militias, sub-national political structures like Hezbollah and the Haqqani fiefdom and al Quaida in Yemen) are co-evolving very quickly in our on-demand information age. The U.S. ruling elite, however, sits apart, like the kings of medieval Europe, refusing to recognize the swirling dynamics of the surrounding world. Gelb wrote the above words just before the Arab Spring, which exposed even more clearly the rapid evolution of the world and the lessening relevance of the U.S.
As Gelbs title suggests, he got it half right in asserting that we are moving into an economic-centric world [35], where U.S. national security is weakened by Washingtons outdated love affair with military force as the solution to all problems. Lets face it: Washington holds firmly in its grip one very big hammer, which it therefore wants to use. Unfortunately for Washingtonnot to mention everyone elsethe worlds socio-political challenges are constructed of fine glass.
Thus, the U.S., its military power notwithstanding, is slowly being marginalized because the world is finding the U.S. increasingly unable to contribute to the resolution of global problems. Albeit possessing the worlds leading economy, the U.S. not only refused to lead the worlds response to our environmental challenge, its governing representatives even deny that one exists. Similarly, Washington squeezes its eyes shut in order to avoid seeing the blindingly obvious discontent of world Muslims about their condition and their treatment by the West.
The U.S. was first rejected separately by both al Quaida and Iran, with the Sunni and Shii activists each demanding a restructuring of the U.S.-centric global political order and, taking a page from Washingtons playbook, backing up their demands with force. Washington responded with flat rejection, redoubling its reliance on force. Next, the U.S. was passed by a Turkey frustrated with Washingtons rising incompetence. Then Washington was ignored by the rising generation of Arabs, who generated the Arab Spring revolt both without the anti-Americanism of al-Quaida and Iran but also without paying any attention to U.S. attitudes. What can an American make of a region-wide Arab revolt against domestic repression that asserts all the values of American democracy while ignoring the U.S.? A superpower can understand and deal with an enemy that hates it, but what does a superpower do with a friend that ignores it? Superpower and marginalized are mutually exclusive concepts. Washington needs to wake up.
If Gelb was half right in pointing to the rise of an economic-centric world in which Washingtons focus on brute force is increasingly out-of-touch with reality, what he missed was ideology. Whether it is the fundamentalist ideology of the U.S. Protestant radical right, the expansionist ideology of the Israeli right, the fundamentalist ideologies of al Quaida and Iran, the prickly defensive Islamic nationalism of Pakistan, the fight-to-the-death demand for independence of Afghans, the democratic ideology of the Arab Spring proponents, or the cautious nationalism of China, the Twentieth Century is also the age of rising ideology.
If the outright use (as opposed to the possession) of military force is inappropriate for problem-solution in an economic-centric world, it is equally inappropriate in a world of competing ideologies that are all demanding, at the very least, a modicum of respect. Military force destroys economies and exacerbates ideologies. Both outcomes represent defeats for the U.S.
And again, note that in a complex-adaptive world, we are all co-evolving. Therefore, crude military force not only harms the economies of target societies but also the economy of the attacker. A decade of war against activist Islam has not only wrecked Iraq and Afghanistan and Somalia and Yemen and Palestine, it has also caused a degree of damage to the U.S. economy that may take a generation to overcome. Economic chaos may be good for al Quaida since it will bring the powerful West down to its own level, but it is very bad for the sophisticated high-tech society of the modern world.
Similarly, crude military force exacerbates ideologies, and, again, this applies not only to adversaries but to ourselves. The al Quaida that aspired to defeat a Soviet invasion of Afghanistanand was effectively allied with the U.S.–evolved during two decades of fighting into the al Quaida that destroyed the Twin Towers. As the U.S. responded with military force against one Muslim society after another in a crude effort to stop a tiny hostile minority that provoked far more resistance than it destroyed, the ideological stance of American society was also warped, with American ideals increasingly usurped by short-sighted and self-defeating extremism expressed as a love-affair with brute force.
The ironic result is that as the two extremist forcesal Quaida and Washingtonfought a seemingly endless military battle, each became marginalized. The world adapted and moved on, striving for solutions to the obvious array of problems. The world recognized that neither al Quaidas fundamentalist call for a Caliphate to be achieved by slaughtering innocents not only in the West but also in Muslim societies nor the U.S. insistence on maintaining a rigid U.S.-centric global order that would reject not just Islamic terrorism but any serious Islamic call for socio-political reform constituted an appropriate or acceptable response to global political challenges.
These broad observations imply the need for real changes in U.S. foreign policy. Yemen is a case in point. Aiding Salehs dictatorial regime as it massacres the population and morphs into a hereditary criminal gang only serves to justify the revival of al Quaida. Extremism begets extremism.
The solution for the U.S. lies in a profound reassessment of U.S. foreign policy. The U.S. needs to define its security so as to encompass space for rising powers, including those with reformist goals. Skillful U.S. leadership could enable it to blend compromises on the redesign of the global political system to meet some  goals of, for example, Iran with incentives that would be hard for Iran to turn away from. More precisely, the U.S. could benefit significantly by offering two major troublemakers (from the U.S. perspective)–Iran and Israel–deals based on a common principle: a package of benefits and responsibilities instead of the current blank check to Israel and solid wall of denial to Iran. Such a package would have to offer both Iran and Israel security guarantees in return for agreement by each to stay peacefully within territorial boundaries.
The U.S. also would benefit from encouraging innovative leadership by promoting ambitious lieutenants to positions of greater authority from which they could be challenged to shoulder real responsibility rather than just carping from the sidelines. Turkey and Brazil are not challengers but friends who see a problem-resolution vacuum that needs to be filled. Making use of their energy and creativeness could greatly benefit an overextended and confused U.S. that needs time to recharge its domestic socio-economic batteries. 
To remain relevant as the world evolves, Washington needs to recognize the rising importance of both economic strength and ideology. Possessing more ability to destroy that all the rest of the worlds militaries combined is not enabling Washington to solve problems. The disasters of Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Syria, and Somalia make that obvious. The steady rise of China, coolly profiting from Americas aimless thrashing, and the cold refusal of Iran to kowtow only underscore the declining value of Americas military superiority. The more that Washington allows the U.S. economy, infrastructure, and educational system to decline, the less the Chinese, the Iranians, or anyone else sees reason to take the U.S. seriously. The longer Washington refuses to address ideological concerns being voiced by the rest of the world, the greater the impetus for the rest of the world to reject Washington as a lost cause.

Military and Financial Adventurism: Two Sides of a Bad Coin

Global war against Muslim political activists and domestic economic crisis both appear here to stay, so it is high time for Americans to recognize that they are connected and to start trying to figure out how global war and domestic economic crisis impact each other.

Two long trends characterize the political environment of the U.S. today: an expensive, forward-leaning foreign policy and a debilitating economic crisis. Neither is being resolved. If fraud is the act of selling something on false pretenses, then both Washington’s policy toward the Islamic world and the joint Washington-Wall St. attitude toward the behavior of Big Finance are fraudulent. Washington is selling its militant stance regarding global political Islam as in the interests of U.S. national security, even though it is actually undermining that security by provoking hostility. Washington is selling its coddling of Big Finance as “reform,” even though it is precisely the lack of thorough reform that is setting us up for a second financial crisis. The situation in each policy realm is in fact so bad that the moderate tone of the above words itself approaches deception. [Those who would like to read a summary of U.S. policy toward the Muslim world that does not try so hard to be polite can turn to the award-winning U.S. foreign policy reporter Nick Turse; those who want the criminal nature of the financial crisis spelled out for them can turn to economist and former Federal financial regulator William Black.]

That the U.S. faces these two adverse trends simultaneously is obvious, but these two trends tend nevertheless to be considered in isolation. Therefore, the incredibly dangerous, non-linear ways in which the two might feed off each other is overlooked, as are the potential solutions that might be obvious were we to think of them together. For example, the obvious solution to the budget crunch is to stop wasting so much money spinning wheels in counterproductive efforts to control an endless series of Muslim cultural, political, psychological, and economic brushfires not amenable to military solutions in the first place.

Before focusing on solutions,  however, we need to understand the context in which we as a society currently find ourselves, and “train wreck” is not the appropriate metaphor; more accurately, the appropriate metaphor is “double train wreck.” The problem is not just that Washington faces two major problems, but that each is making the other worse. The military-political crusade against not just presumed terrorists but a global array of politically active Muslim groups advocating justice for Muslim societies rests on moral grounds and national security grounds concerning which debate is perhaps possible, but one thing is clear: Washington’s approach is expensive.

That drain of resources for military adventures leaves less to combat the weakened economy that has resulted from the financial adventures of gambling bankers, brokers, and mortgage firms. In addition, America’s foreign creditors are increasingly reluctant to loan us the funds to power a military campaign they find distasteful in the first place, while such trade partners as Saudi Arabia are looking for less controversial partners, and allies such as Turkey beginning to view the U.S. as a hopelessly incompetent global leader. The links also work the other way: a gutted economy of unemployed workers combined with a financial system now focused not on investing in the American economy but on manipulating the savings of Americans to enrich the elite can hardly avoid weakening the ability of the U.S. to spend about half the world’s military budget all by itself. So the war undermines our ability to maintain a strong economy, while the weak economy undermines the war. The urgency for Americans to understand that these two trends are interacting is hard to overstate.

Nevertheless, all that is, frankly, obvious. What is not obvious is exactly how the two negative trends of endless military adventure and endless economic crisis will interact. Since the public debate pays little attention to the fact of their interaction in the first place, it is not surprising that little insight about the actual dynamics of how these two trends interact is available. Are the interactions additive or multiplicative (i.e., exponential)? Is there a time delay that will generate nasty instability? Is there a logical approach to resolving the two problems jointly, whereby we need to do X on foreign policy in tandem with or before or after we do Y on the domestic economy?

It is a safe bet, unfortunately, that no one knows. Suffice it to say that since neither adverse trend shows any sign of being resolved, we’d better start trying to figure out how global war and domestic economic crisis impact each other.
Technical Note: I kept technical terms out of the above overview, but the implication is that the nexus of domestic economic trends and foreign policy constitute a complex-adaptive system characterized by exceedingly complex causal dynamics. Therefore, not only is the prediction of any specific event hard because all the parts are evolving, but surprise is easy to predict because the underlying forces work in irregular ways. Recent examples of surprise include 9/11, the bursting of the mortgage bubble, the size of the CDO market, the viciousness of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 2006…

Do you want more surprises?

Can Erdogan Save Syria?

As Syria collapses, the likelihood of intervention rises. The nature of that intervention is key to the future of the Mideast.
As Syria morphs into Libya, two very different scenarios are beginning to appear on the distant horizon, with profoundly distinct implications for Mideast stability. One scenariothe Israeli Expansion Scenario–is that of a U.S.-Israeli intervention in the name of humanity that would invade, eliminate the barbaric Assad regime, and effectively colonize Syria in the interests of Israel. The otherthe Turkish Tolerance Scenario–is a Turkish initiative, also to eliminate the barbaric Assad regime in the name of humanity, conceivably diplomatic but more likely also a military invasion, that would oversee the creation of a moderate Syrian popular regime.
The Israeli Expansion Scenario would antagonize the whole region, threaten to stop the Arab Spring in its tracks, infuriate hardliners in Tehran, embolden hard-liners in Tel Aviv, excite hardliners in Riyadh.  The Turkish Tolerance Scenario would offer Syrians neutral ground for working out a national consensus, catch both Iran and Israel off-guard but simultaneously mitigate the fears and ambitions of each, slam the door in the face of Salafi jihadists looking for their next opportunity, and turbo-charge the Arab Spring with a breathtaking victory for moderate, democratizing modernization with a Muslim flavor.
Israeli Tanks [Amir Farshad Ebrahimi]

Almost no one would like an effective Israeli takeover of Syria under a 1970s Lebanon-style proxy regime. A frontal invasion by the IDF is perhaps the least likely way such a scenario would develop, but a more subtle Israeli role would cause nearly as much damage as long as Israel were perceived regionally as expanding its area of influence at Syrian expense. Iranians would rightly fear the construction of offensive Israeli air bases near Iranian territory, committing the normally cautious Iranian national security elite to emergency countermeasures. Muslim hardliners from the IRGC to al Quaida would have a field day with easily justified campaigns against Zionism that would exponentially magnify their regional popularity. Israeli hardliners would see the takeover of Syria as a brilliant coup giving them a fast-closing window to take out Iran as a regional competitor. Even if no country actually decided to start a war, the rising tensions and rapid pace of developments would dramatically raise the danger of war through miscalculation or a third-party provocation.

Turkish P.M. Erdogan [Copyright by World Economic Forum by Andy Mettler]
The impact of a solution to the Syrian mess dominated by Ankara would be far less dangerous to regional stability. Regardless of who liked or did not like a moderate Turkish leadership role in forming a new Syria, such an arrangement would be sufficiently non-threatening and offer sufficient potential benefits to make everyone else take a deep breath before using violence to oppose it. Washington could calculate that a democratic Syria under Turkish guidance would no longer be a regional irritant. Tehran could calculate that its expanding economic ties with Turkey are, in the end, worth far more than its alliance with a discredited Assad. Even if it did not, what could Tehran do once Turkish ground forces were inside Syria? Tel Aviv would lose a military opponent, potentially gain a neutral Syrian state, and might think it could talk Ankara into forgetting about the Golan Heights. Riyadh could figure that it could always work with Sunni Turkey and slowly gain influence in Syria through its financial clout. And Erdogan, now solidly in control with his impressive 2:1 electoral victory over his nearest competitor and justified by the growing urgency of addressing the Syrian refugee flood, might just be able to pull this off. At the end of the day, Turkey has a unique regional combination of low fear-factor and high power.
But Erdogans moment to act is now. The world will not be able to ignore the unfolding horror in Syria forever. Sooner or later, if it continues to worsen, Washington will intervene militarily. If that happens, we will see Iraq all over again, but with Israel even more deeply involved and, this time, Iran and Saudi Arabia both spring-loaded to protect their perceived interests. Lacking popular support, the time that was available to Bush for his anti-Iraq war preparations, the strong economy inherited from Clinton, and military force (given current commitments in Afghanistan), Obama will intervene with insufficient power, opening the door to both Israeli and Saudi influence. Each of the latter will move to radicalize the situation for their own short-term interests. Syrian popular interests will be ignored, and extremists will have their day, once more. Iraq 2005 and Lebanon late-1980s come to mind. Every regional action hero will move to Syria for every imaginable purpose except helping Syrians.

The danger of the Israeli Expansion Scenario lies in the number of conflicting and interacting military and sectarian dynamics it would provoke. This set of dynamics will contain more exponential shifts of influence, more tipping points, more tricky delayed reactions, more oscillations derived from negative feedback loops than anyone will be able to understand in time to react. It will be plagued by fixes that fail including expensive examples of the subset, Shooting Yourself in the Foot, e.g., applying military force to prevent terrorism and thus provoking terrorism; shifting the burden, e.g., forgetting social collapse while fighting political enemies; and the needless creation of accidental adversaries, thereby spoiling some beautiful relationships. The overwhelming complexity of the situation will stimulate a degree of self-organization that may give rise to the emergence of some unsettling new political phenomena.  Recent examples of self-organization include Aum Shinrikyu, al Quaida, the Iraqi insurgency against U.S. occupation, illegal Israeli settler terrorism, and Tahrir Square. Attempts by the status quo forces artificially to constrain disconcerting but stabilizing change will pave the road to more black swans (see Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Mark Blyth, The Black Swan of Cairo, Foreign Affairs May-June 2011: 90:3, 33-39), further stunning and roiling the world. All involved actors, guilty of the action bias (Taleb, 39) that so plagues U.S. foreign policy-making, will end up making incomprehensible circumstances worse by following the honored dictum, when in doubt, just do something. Syria is moving toward chaos, but that in no way proves that more energy (money, weapons, feverishly busy actors) inserted into the system will not just push it faster in the same direction.

Moreover, as former Israeli officials themselves have warned, Israel today may either be plotting war against Iran or stumbling into it. Both dangers will only be increased by an Israeli Lebanonization of Syria.
Syria is weak but strategically located. As a stable, rationally governed state, Syria acts as a buffer, keeping the regional tigersIran, Iraq, Israel, and Saudi Arabiafrom scratching each others eyes out. But as a failed state, Syria is transformed from buffer into battleground. To get at each other, Israel and Iran must cross Syria. Weak Lebanon in its turn becomes further exposed to outside influences if no strong state presence is guarding its Syrian border. Syria as a power vacuum is a threat to the region that will demand action.
These are just scenarios; neither is a prediction, nor are they by any means mutually exclusive or logically exhaustive. The two could even combine into one marvelous dream world of Turkish leadership putting a Muslim face on an international effort backed quietly by American power. But that too requires quick initiative by an Erdogan whose  time may just have come. In a word, the region now needs Erdogan to put his money where his mouth is.
My thanks to Media With Conscience for first publishing this article.

Reality-Based Policy-making

How should the U.S. differentiate among the wide array of Mideast states? With whom is alliance warranted? Should any state be contained or marginalized? Is there any regime that should never be talked to or should be changed?
Regimes are coalitions of factions and individuals working together for an ever-changing combination of personal and ideological reasons. Even if a regime, a faction, or a politician is determined to be completely uncooperative, he may change his mind in five minutes. At the peak of state power, something unexpected that may change your attitude is always happening. If human society is a complex-adaptive system in which the components are all constantly adjusting in reaction to each other, so is a political faction, and so is the regime that is constituted from the lucky political factions that are part of the winning coalition.
Biasesideological, cultural, personalmay give one regime a long-term tendency that distinguishes it from another, and each state operates under a unique set of constraints. Nevertheless, nothing is fixed in concrete.
A good leader will be surveying the political landscape for opportunities and dangers as steadily as a leopard surveys the savannah for antelopes and hyena packs. The way forward always zigzags, and there is always the risk that one has zigged so much one cannot zag back. The hikers dilemma of crossing to the wrong side of a small stream to head uphill on the side that has fewer obstacles without knowing when the gorge may deepen and prevent his return provides only a weak analogy: in politics, when one player feints to the side, the others all react and may do so on longer time scales or with a time delay or with an over-reaction. They may box themselves in via public statements or the signing of agreements or the alienation of a potential ally so that they cannot go back even if they realize they should. They may talk themselves into believing their error was the correct move.
Therefore, a skilled leader makes no assumptions about the nature of the adversaries but instead constantly searches for opportunities to pursue and dangers to avoid in every direction. By that standard, few if any skilled state leaders exist. The excuse, and it is a valid excuse up to a point, is that life is too complicated: there simply is no time to reevaluate every other actor. So one assumes that allies are friends, that foreign leaders one has pleasant lunches with can be trusted, that public insults from an adversary demonstrate hostile intent, that everyone can see our own arms are only for defense, thatindeedthere is a difference between allies and adversaries and that the difference is enduring. A leopard with such a naïve attitude will have his lunch stolen by hyenas every time.
So how is the earnest leader supposed to make sense of a Mideast political environment that is not only changing but actually changing so fast that even the blindest can see the shifts occurring before his eyes? Somehow, an earnest leader must step back from labels (good, evil, friend, foe, sharing our values, hating our way of life), free his mind from the biases those labels impose, and apply some set of independent standards. He must constantly evaluate behavior in terms of that set of standards, modifying his own tactics accordingly. Perhaps intelligence submitted to leaders should delete all identifying labels, so the leader would read only: Country X sent nuclear-capable submarines to the littoral of Country Y; Defense Minister A walked out of the ruling coalition in protest and joined the opposition faction that is campaigning for compromise with the adversary. Without standards, we cannot overcome cognitive biases. Without overcoming cognitive biases, we cannot see reality; without seeing reality, we cannot protect ourselves. If achieving this goal is impossible, moving toward it, given the enormity of cognitive bias in the mind of every human, is easy: cognitive bias is a very big target.
To make sense of the Mideast, then, requires seeing it as it really is. Clear vision requires removing the blinders of cognitive bias. Whenever you assume anything, you put the blinders back on. Minimize assumptions; maximize questioning.
  • Are those military maneuvers just for training?
  • Does that insulting speech by the leader of State X indicate hostile intentor fearor his need to buttress domestic political support? Was it correctly translated? Was it designed to shock you into viewing him with respect and negotiating sincerely?
  • When has a traditional ally evolved to the point that the alliance transforms into a trap?
  • If a relationship is both alliance and trap, how do you know the ratio between the two?
Yemen has just evolved from a Saddam-style dictatorship that exploited the fear of al Quaida to get weapons from the U.S. into a highly unstable bimodal coalition between a weakened regime still in power without the old leader and a bizarre coalition of traditional tribal forces plus modernist activists. Is the new Yemen a better or worse potential ally?
Iran is constantly threatened both verbally and via the maneuvers of hostile military forces with attack for pursuing nuclear technology but responds by trumpeting its incredibly slow progress toward acquiring the ability to build even one undeliverable bomb. Like fusion power, the Iranian nuclear bomb is always just over the horizon. If Iran has hostile intent, why does it make itself a bigger target by making its nuclear progress sound greater than it is?
The regime in Israel remains under Netanyahu, leader of those calling Iran an existential threat, but has lost its three top intelligence officers Dagan, Diskin, and Yadlin, who have jointly advocated caution. Does this massive personnel change at the top suffice to make Israel more liability than ally, a country whose propensity to violence may now constitute a clear threat to U.S. national security?
Saudi Arabia has committed itself to resist the Arab Spring, using military force against Bahraini democracy advocates, employing its wealth to slow the pace of change in Egypt, and trying to maintain Saleh in office. At what point might Saudi Arabias domestic cooperation with Salafi fundamentalists, its kleptocratic approach to governance, and its regional backing for hated dictatorships constitute more of a danger to U.S. national security than its willingness to sell oil? Could it conceivably afford to stop selling its oil?
Egypt has responded to popular protests by eliminating a dictator, establishing a transitional military dictatorship, and setting a date for a democratic election. Turkey is making its mark on regional affairs by establishing itself as leader of moderates willing to work with everyone. At what point might the new Egypt and the new Turkey constitute better pillars for U.S. Mideast policy than the two traditional allies, Saudi Arabia and Israel?
The answers to these questions are unclear, but the U.S. is not even remotely prepared to get the answers. No set of standards is being used to measure the behavior of Mideast actors and identify actors whose behavior enhances U.S. national security so they can be encouraged or those whose behavior is harmful, so they can be enticed to modify that behavior.
A simple set of standards for behavior advantageous to the U.S. might include behavior conducive to a stable oil price, avoidance of sectarian conflict, growth of democratic liberties, maintenance of long-term political stability, and economic development. Define your own standards, but once you have them, apply them fairly. Cheating only blinds you to reality.
Does collective punishment of a colonized ethnic group minimize sectarian conflict? Turkey, Israel, and Saudi Arabia can all be accused of this, with the caveat that Turkey is trying to change. Does the use of military force against domestic political opponents enhance democratic liberties, economic development, or political stability? Turkey, Tunisia, and Egypt stand out as rare regional examples of states today trying to avoid such behavior.
One could take the further step of enumerating actions deemed helpful or prejudicial to the calm, moderate development of the Mideast. Helpful steps might include efforts to combat the drug trade (Iran would score a plus here), promotion of common standards for nuclear behavior (Turkey would score a plus), army refusal to fire on demonstrators (Egypt would score a plus, and Israel a huge minus). Prejudicial steps might include baiting other countries by threatening them with the deployment of major weapons systems along their borders (Israel would score a minus here), stationing troops outside ones legal borders (Israel and Saudi Arabia would score minuses), engaging in rhetorical warfare (Israel and Iran would score big minuses), using security forces to kill peaceful demonstrators (minuses to every country except, perhaps, Turkey, Egypt, and Tunisia), using military force across international borders without the permission of the states affected (unique in the region, Israel would score a minus).
Just as a coach takes cold players out of the action and focuses on using hot players, on the basis of the above analysis, policy-makers could adjust relations with other countries, cooperating more with those that engage in better behavior. The benefits of such an approach would be numerous:

  • the ability of allies to take the U.S. “captive” and manipulate it would be minimized;
  • all would see the cost of defying and the benefit of cooperating with the U.S.;
  • the existence of common standards instead of preferential treatment would make it easier for others to cooperate, minimizing hostility from adversaries who feel themselves to be the victims of discriminatory U.S. behavior.

If any such set of standards is in use in Washington, its existence is a carefully guarded secret. On any given day, in Washington, it is more than likely that no one of policy-making significance is even asking such questions. Blinders are in place; assumptions are unquestioned. Reality is carefully concealednot from you and me, but from the decision-makers themselves.

Egyptian Revolt: A Classroom Exercise

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A scenario analysis is a provocative way to guide students to think about the implications of the Egyptian revolt. The gemstones of scenario analysis are revealed by asking not the traditional “what” but “how.”
Scenario analysis can be complicated to describe, but the steps flow naturally in a group discussion, allowing the students to take the initiative and figure out for themselves how to think about the future.
The basic steps are:
  1. Select the question: “Where is Egypt headed?”
  2. Identify the causal factors: desire for civil rights and desire for economic security.
  3. Draw a grid generating the scenarios. The graph is a useful aid to the real challenge of this step: identifying the likely differences in outcome of each scenario.
  4. Identify the key dynamic powering each scenario. Much more important than asking what might happen is explaining how your predicted outcome could occur.
  5. Identify at least one other scenario that would change behavior if it became dominant. Whatever you think will happen, some other invisible dynamic is surely present in the background and needs to be identified to avoid surprise.
  6. Explain possible tipping points. Ask how a tipping point leading to a shift in dominance might occur.
That process is plenty for two or three one-hour class sessions separated by a day or two for related homework. For further challenge and further realism, the whole system can fruitfully be considered as a complex adaptive system. This provides insight into the underlying evolutionary processes of the whole system within which, in the current case, Egypt exists.

One Short, Exciting Week in the Mideast

The Muslim world, wracked by political instability over the past week, took a step in a new direction while Washington remained focused on domestic political squabbles of little historic significance.
Hezbollah reminded the world of its new (thanks to Israel’s 2006 invasion) political power by toppling the tenuously balanced regime in Lebanon, amid a flood of rumors about the degree of pro-Washington bias among the judges examining the evidence surrounding Hariri’s murder. Score 1 for radical Islamic dissenters from Washington-centric globalization. Score -1 for Washington.

People power toppled Tunisia’s corrupt dictatorship, with Washington bug-eyed and flustered on the sidelines. Score 1 for moderates. Score -1 for Washington.

Ankara briefly tried following the West’s line on Lebanon, got slapped down by Tehran and changed its tune to one of inclusivity toward all regional players, intervened at a high diplomatic level, and fell on its face. Score 1 more for radical Islamic dissenters from Washington-centric globalization and 1 for all those interested in chaos (e.g., al Qua’ida, Israeli expansionists). Score -1 for Washington. Score -1 for moderates.
A new wave of terrorism swept across Iraq, with Washington again appearing helpless on the sidelines. Score 1 for al Qua’ida. Score -1 for Washington.
And all this came against the background of:
What all this adds up to is difficult to say: while the intensity of ferment means that something historic might happen, very strong counter-arguments suggest that, over the short run, nothing will. Jordan, for example, is “not Tunisia” (Laurie A. Brand, “Why Jordan Isn’t Tunisia,” The Middle East Channel) and, so far, it seems that Egypt is not either (Eric Tragger, “After Tunisia, Is Egypt Next?” Atlantic), nor is Syria (Josh Landis on Syria Comment). Indeed, day after day, utterly inexcusable dictatorships all over the map fail to be overthrown; the weather tomorrow will be just like today…except if there is a tornado.
Nevertheless, this week did see a widespread pattern of declining American influence and rising opportunities for regional agents of change. Moderates scored better than usual in a region dominated by extremists, but guess who is likely to benefit from change, if Washington continues to turn its back on those favoring democracy, civil rights, and positive-sum solutions! If one views regional politics as a simplistic zero-sum competition, then Washington lost a lot in one week. If one views regional politics as a complex system of interdependent actors, then a lot of positions shifted this week – but not randomly. Rather, an evolutionary process is apparent, and those who wish to resist it will have to scramble fast to make up the ground they lost this week.


Michele Dunn on the lessons of Tunisia

Mideast Strategic Evolution

Is there a type of strategic evolution in its Mideast policy that the U.S. could pursue without overall decline in its national security?

Imagine a shared strategic Mideast security regime in which the U.S. punishes interstate aggression while avoiding such aggression itself, Israel leads a regional S+T revolution while taking no military action outside its legally recognized borders, Turkey assumes the leading role in Levantine security, a U.S.-Iranian-Turkish partnership oversees stability from Turkey to Afghanistan, and the U.S. promotes Turkish-Iranian-Saudi leadership of the region’s economic integration. The result would be a complicated series of overlapping political, economic, and military groups imposing real costs on any potential aggressor, for every important state would gain significant benefits from cooperation. Indeed, the very concept of “anti-American” or “anti-Israeli” or “anti-Iranian” would be hard to define. Would, for example, an “anti-Iranian” oppose stability in Afghanistan or the regional hydrocarbon network? One might oppose Iranian arming of Hezbollah while supporting Iranian efforts to stabilize its own borders; one would support or oppose not states or regimes but policies, a less inflammatory and more productive approach.
Much harder than dreaming up a perfect new world, however, is finding the way to get there. Could Washington lead the Mideast toward the above vision of multiple overlapping leadership centers in which political adversaries cooperated economically, military adversaries in the east were military allies in the west…without significant risk to its national security?
A traditional state-centric view of the Mideast makes such a vision hard to see, but in the small-world era of globalization and asynchronous warfare, that is only one—and an increasingly arbitrary—perspective. Viewing the region instead as a complex collection of actors constantly in motion, influencing each other, and in result evolving is not only arguably a more accurate depiction of reality but brings into focus the vision of multiple, overlapping, reinforcing power centers. After all, in embryonic form, these power centers already exist.
Israel is in fact a leader in the dissemination of modern technical knowledge to the region, though its effectiveness in that regard is greater inhibited by its combative military policy. Turkey is in fact rapidly asserting its influence as protector of Levantine peace and as a key hub in the Mideast hydrocarbon network. Iran in fact is a partner with the U.S. in the search for stable borders in the western part of the region.
But does the perspective that the Mideast socio-political system is best described as a dynamic and adapting set of interdependent actors rather than as a set of states with fixed roles, sizes, and positions really make sense? Try this experiment: list the 10 or 20 or 30 most powerful Mideast actors. How many are states?
Without any claim of accuracy or underlying scientific method, I might guess at something like the following list: the U.S., Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the IMF, Iran, Big Oil, Egypt, the IRGC, the Pakistani army, al Qua’ida, Hezbollah. One could refine this list in endless ways, many of which would no doubt be very informative, but the basic point is that it is a collection of odd fellows, implying all sorts of potential flexibility that could beneficially be employed to achieve things.
  • Ankara is not a recalcitrant child to be spanked for speaking up but an opportunity to gain new leverage.
  • Iran is simultaneous an adversary and an ally; to overlook the opportunities for cooperation is simply perverse.
  • Israel is simultaneously an ally and an adversary; to overlook its strategic threat to U.S. national security is self-destructive.
Israel’s good attributes (e.g., its potential as a source for improving Mideast standards of living) should be encouraged; its bad attributes (e.g., its destabilizing repression of Palestinians and its attitude that its adversaries “only understand the language of force”) should be discouraged. Iran’s good attributes (e.g., its opposition to Taliban violence and the flow of illegal narcotics out of Afghanistan) should be encouraged; its bad attributes (e.g., its repression of its own citizens) should be discouraged. Turkey’s good attributes (e.g., its intermediate stance on security issues) should be encouraged; its bad attributes (e.g., its continuing mistreatment of Kurds) should be discouraged. Hezbollah’s efforts to give political representation to Lebanese Shia should be encouraged, etc.
If I were in charge of the Mideast, I would see this complexity far more as an exciting feature than as a cause for concern. It is absolutely a cause for concern if denied, but once the perspective of a range of state and non-state actors, all interacting and endlessly evolving, is accepted as the real foundation for policy formulation, opportunities for progress begin to be visible. This perspective frees the policy-maker from psychological dependence on the fates of individual foreign leaders or some simplistic characterization of a foreign regime or non-state actor as “good” or “evil.” Change being understood as endless, the challenge for a policy-maker shifts from the “defeat” of an adversary to the vastly more subtle and useful transformation of an adversary.

The Complexity of Being Hegemon: America in the Mideast

If Washington decision-makers are having a hard time understanding what is happening to the U.S. position in the world, perhaps they could benefit from viewing the world as it is: as an ever-changing collection of entities, all of which are influencing each other and which are at the same time themselves composed of smaller adaptive units capable of potentially significant self-organized action. “Finger in the dike” determination is not a viable strategy in such a complex world.
In “America’s Turbulent Decline,” a pointed essay on the U.S. invasion of Iraq as a symptom of the typically unstable, if not irrational, behavior of a declining hegemon, British-Iraqi scholar Samir Rihani lays the foundation for an analysis of hegemonic decline from a complex-adaptive systems perspective. He stresses that we should not over-analyze on the basis of such trivial variables as the mental capacity of the leader, the religious mania of certain political factions, or greed for foreign resources. Rather, Rihani recommends the systemic approach of a Paul Kennedy. With this as background, what insights might complexity theory offer?
First is the perspective that things change, so erecting ever higher walls to keep out the barbarians is a doomed approach. In a complex system, somehow, one must learn to adapt. This point is so basic and has been made by so many thinkers that it is almost embarrassing to repeat it. Nevertheless, it remains ignored. Perhaps the problem is linguistic: “Wait a minute,” decision-makers will cry. “We understand that we must adapt.” I beg to differ; they do not. They think that they must adapt tactics but fail to see that they must actually go much further and compromise. “Compromise” involves adapting to the point of accepting strategic evolution, perhaps from hegemon to coalition leader or even just “father figure.”
The practical implications of this are numerous. Washington may have to put on the negotiating table its preference for:
  • an Israeli Mideast nuclear monopoly;
  • avoiding Palestinian democracy (which would probably result in Hamas control);
  • calling all the shots (rather than letting allies like Erdogan sometimes take the lead);
  • punishing recalcitrant regimes that insist on following an independent path (e.g., Tehran);
  • relying on military force to achieve its regional goals. Of course, one does not need to study complexity to understand the possibility of resistance, but complexity theory warns that self-organization is a normal process to be expected when a system is under stress.
Second, complex systems experience “self-organization.” How this works in specifics is unpredictable; the point is that the more rulers exploit the system for personal benefit, the greater the likelihood that presumed “subordinates” will self-organize in new ways to defend themselves. For example, East Germans famously contributed directly to the collapse of the Soviet empire by self-organizing to oppose controls on emigration, and Iraqis self-organized to resist American occupation.
The practical implications of self-organization for the U.S. today include:
  • The possibility that private banking and investment clubs may be self-organized if Wall Street corruption further erodes trust in that public institution;
  • The possibility of the self-organization of a widespread popular protest involving the refusal to pay taxes if Washington continues to waste vast sums fighting unnecessary foreign wars.
Third, behavior in complex systems is nonlinear: today does not predict tomorrow. Slight variations in initial conditions lead to huge variations in outcome, so prediction is effectively, if not theoretically, impossible: the disproportionality of effects to causes will undermine all efforts at planning:
The practical consequences of nonlinearity and sensitivity to initial conditions include the likelihood that facile analogies are false: whatever Ahmadinejad is, he certainly is not Hitler; intial conditions in Iran are grossly different from those in pre-WWII Germany.
Fourth, individual variation makes generalization difficult: you very well may not be able to simplify by averaging over all members of a group. Thus, not only is the nature of a group not immutable (because all groups evolve in response to the behavior of other groups), but even at a moment in time, all group members are not cut from the same cloth. All (almost) characterizations of groups are false. This may complicate life, but it is really good news in that individual variation among one’s adversaries offers endless possibilities for “divide and conquer.”
The obvious lesson of individual variation for decision-makers is to avoid deifying or depicting as evil a whole group:
  • Israeli leaders are individuals, who will doubtlessly include violence-prone expansionists quite willing to harm U.S. security as well as patriots committed to strengthening Israeli democracy;
  • Iranian leaders are also individuals, who will doubtlessly include those zero-sum types who think nuclear arms are essential to Iranian national security as well as those positive-sum types who would be amenable to a regional nuclear security regime.
The job of decision-makers in a world of individual variation is not to categorize groups but to encourage the rise of the perspectives they favor.
Finally, complexity theory warns about the potential “criticality” of a complex system. Criticality is a counter-intuitive concept, holding that as a system performs with rising success, it approaches the invisible “edge of criticality,” where one false step could lead to rapid collapse. Viewed in this light, the fall of the Wall and collapse of the USSR were not just due to Gorbachev’s statesmanlike moderation but more profoundly the result of Soviet hubris leading the USSR over the edge of criticality (evidence for this includes the rising cost of Moscow’s East European empire, the widening gap between Soviet military prowess and the overall state of the Soviet economy, and the increasingly negative demographic trends of Soviet society). If you explain Soviet collapse by reference to Gorbachev, it appears to be a unique event; if you explain it in terms of criticality, the take-home lesson is that any powerful state is potentially in danger of such a sudden collapse.