Emulating Barbarians

In the global struggle between populations demanding justice and elites defending privilege, it is important to note how the forces of conservatism efficiently share tactics. We must look both over time and across societies to see the pattern of new precedents for oppressing the people being established by virtue of the impunity with which most elites operate and their facility for adopting the worst practices of their peers in other societies.

The world is watching regime after regime engage in forms of behavior completely outside the norms of civilized behavior. Two increasingly common examples are manning security forces with foreigners so they can be “trusted” to kill the people to protect the elite and attacking hospitals to punish the broader population for its political activities, but these are only two of a wide range of poisonous practices by out-of-control politicians. The pattern is simple and insidious: a precedent is established by the failure of the world to criticize (if not punish) the first offender, and then any other regime that chooses force over reason follows that precedent. The more often the crime is committed, the easier becomes the subsequent violation of civilized norms. One day it is an enemy, the next an ally, and the third…your own government.

Foreign Police and Army.    One example is the ominous tactic of hiring foreigners with (naturally) no loyalty to the local population as oppressors (security forces not to provide security for the people but to provide security for the elite against the people). The U.S. reportedly included former Latin American death squad members in its mercenary army in Iraq. Gaddafi got mercenaries from elsewhere in Africa and perhaps Israel to battle against Libyan democracy advocates. Bahrain’s police and military are primarily composed of foreigners. Now Riyadh is considering Pakistanis to repress its people. It is hard to imagine a practice more inimical to democracy than giving internal security to foreigners, but there is another example of elite adoption of repressive tactical innovations to put citizens “in their place” even more shocking: attacking hospitals.

Attacking Hospitals.    For those interested in civilization, the spreading practice over the past decade of attacking hospitals is a particularly barbaric example of militarism run wild. Just to cite one previous example (hardly the first in the past decade), when Israel invaded Gaza in Dec. 2008, it committed the dual war crimes of attacking both a U.N. relief post and a hospital, for which it was condemned by Ban Ki Moon to no avail in the face of protection by Washington. Since Israeli leaders were not punished by the so-called civilized world, others have now drawn the obvious lesson that it is OK in the 21st “century of state terrorism” to slaughter helpless hospital patients to punish populations demanding civil liberties. This time it is tiny Bahrain, a “state” not formerly on anyone’s list of rogue states.

Failing to hold leaders of regimes personally responsible for their crimes in office turns those crimes into precedents that other opportunistic politicians (please pardon my redundancy) will quickly follow. Every time a politician in office commits a crime– particularly a war crime such as attacking hospitals, using outlawed weapons such as phosphorus bombs, or attacking peaceful demonstrators–with impunity, we are all endangered. What matters is not where the crime is committed but whether or not the officials in charge are condemned by name. Bringing them to trial and punishing them would of course be preferable, but what is truly inexcusable is silence. Criticism is what establishes cultural norms. When we look the other way, when we shrug it off, we only put ourselves in danger because silence equals acquiescence. All who prefer living in a democracy or indeed simply under civilized conditions rather than barbarism should be concerned about the rapidity with which common human standards of behavior decline when major states commit war crimes with impunity. And in the last decade, we have seen an astonishing list of new precedents–preventive war in the absence of a compelling danger, the advocacy of nuclear war, collective punishment, the hiring of foreign mercenaries as domestic security forces to oppress the local population, and military attacks by states on hospitals (first in enemy states, then domestically)–become increasingly common practice on the part of regimes that choose force over reason.

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A Positive Step by Obama Administration

The Obama Administration took a small step in the right direction when spokesman Jay Carney held Yemeni president Saleh personally responsible for his behavior but missed an opportunity to make clear that it would hold all the leaders of all countries responsible for their behavior.


In a statement Tuesday night, the White House press secretary, Jay Carney, said the United States “strongly condemns the use of violence by Yemeni government forces against demonstrators” in Yemeni cities in the past several days. Mr. Carney “reminded” Mr. Saleh “of his responsibility to ensure the safety and security of Yemenis who are exercising their universal right to engage in political expression.” — Laura Kasinif and J. David Goodman, “Government Forces Fire On Protesters in Yemen,” New York Times 4/5/11
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The Solution.    Washington should identify practices considered unacceptable, publicly condemn all examples of such behavior, name the guilty officials, state that it supports the principle of holding officials personally responsible for the actions they take as well as for actions taken by their subordinates, and state that it will support efforts to bring these officials to trial.

Such steps would involve at least two fundamental shifts in conventional  behavior:

  1. Putting Principles First: the focus would shift from arbitrarily criticizing people we happen to dislike for behavior others are allowed to engage in with impunity to articulating a principle (e.g., “thou shalt not bomb hospitals”);
  2. Holding Leaders Responsible: the specific and crucial principle of personal responsibility for official action taken as head or part of an organization would be established, refuting the corrupting practice of pretending that the leaders of an organization are magically “innocent” of the behavior of that organization, as though the “organization” were distinct from the individuals composing it.
To the degree that we enunciate principles and hold leaders personally responsible for violating those principles, we strengthen civilization’s defenses against barbarism and thus protect ourselves.

Mideast Policy Choices

Letting the locals take the lead, promoting common standards, inducing rather than coercing add up to a wiser U.S. Mideast policy.
Four alternative Mideast strategic scenarios present themselves to U.S. decision-makers:
  • Outright empire
  • Israeli military dominance
  • Watching the rise of a hostile Iran
  • Turkey the Broker.
Each of these artificial scenarios, viewed in isolation, has all manner of negative features and unacceptable constraints. In brief, none constitutes a good strategic plan for the U.S.
The imperial dream of the neo-cons already looks worn around the edges, with the U.S. trying to pull back from an Iraqi adventure that was insanely expensive and seems to have put a grinning Iranian Cheshire cat in every palm tree, getting bloodied in Afghanistan, facing endless instability in Pakistan, being made a fool of by Israel’s political right, and losing ground even in traditionally friendly little Lebanon.
But the old Cold War policy of relying on the unsinkable Israeli aircraft carrier is dated and unimaginative. Israel’s increasingly blatant reliance on force, evidently declining foreign policy skill, rising terrorism by illegal Israeli settlers in the West Bank, and creep toward fascism are making Israel more of a security albatross than a security advantage for the U.S.
Yet, watching a hostile and insecure Iran emerge without learning to work with it is surely a bad deal, while reliance on Turkey to keep the peace is simplistic, to put it mildly. Thus, the real question comes down to a choice between persuading a hostile Iran to cut a deal and learning to live with an independent but reasonably friendly and moderate Turkish leadership. The good news is that going with the latter also advances the former: the most effective method for moderating Tehran’s behavior may be to reward Ankara for emerging as a moderate but independent power center, thus demonstrating to Tehran that Washington will not demand subservience as the price of cooperation.
Erdogan in Lebanon continues repositioning Turkey:
Does it [Israel] think it can use the most modern weapons, phosphorus munitions and cluster bombs to kill children in Gaza and then expect us to remain silent?,” AFP reported Erdogan as saying. “We will not be silent and we will support justice by all means available to us. [Haaretz]
Teaching Tehran this lesson will of course come at a cost. An independent Ankara may well not tolerate Israel’s destruction of Palestinian society, much less its brutal and immoral policy of collective punishment of 1.5 million innocent Gazans to punish them for supporting Hamas. Such refusal to tolerate Israel’s sins might well be to the long-term advantage of the average Israeli citizen, but it will require painful adjustments to the all-too-cozy Washington-Tel Aviv axis nonetheless. Washington will have to let Ankara teach it to demand that Tel Aviv keep its commitments and to speak to global political Islam in the language not of force but conciliation.
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The Wrong Way to Negotiate With Iran
The US undertook its engagement strategy with Iran with the clear conviction that it would fail. At the same time, it was preparing (and disseminating in private) an alternative pressure strategy. This is the most serious indictment of all.
According to the record, the Obama administration was briefing allies almost from the start — and before Iran had even had a chance to respond to offers of engagement — that we expected this initiative to fail and that we were actively preparing the pressure track that would immediately follow.
Iran could hardly have been unaware of all this, so the chance that they would respond favorably — even before the contested election in June 2009 and the brutal crackdown that followed — was essentially zero. The only conclusion I can draw from this is that Obama was never sincere about his engagement strategy. It has yet to be tried.Gary Sick commenting on WikiLeaks revelations about Obama’s policy toward Iran
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The payoff for such self-control on Washington’s part could be a revolutionary breakthrough in Mideast affairs that would leave the region with three power centers—Israel, Turkey, and Iran—plus one or two others not far behind. Iranians advocating hostile self-reliance will be increasingly on the defensive domestically as Ankara emerges to regional leadership. Meanwhile, the institution of a “Turkish peace” in the Levant combined with the pullback of Israel to within its legal borders will undermine any Iranian efforts to exploit Levantine discord to its own advantage. Simultaneously, the ability of the Israeli right to manipulate the U.S. for its own partisan advantage will decline.  All three trends will enhance U.S. national security even as U.S. costs and risks are minimized.
In a well balanced and relatively cooperative Mideast environment with multiple power centers, Washington would effortlessly occupy the seat of real power – “effortlessly” in the sense that everyone would be competing for the support of the distant outsider. Without soldiers dying on the ground and without offering such a tempting target for troublemakers, Washington would find low-cost diplomatic avenues for exercising influence far more effective than it does today, when it is seen as invader and highly biased proxy for Zionist colonialism.
Washington should look carefully at a fifth scenario as the basis for its Mideast policy: multilateral independence. In a multilateral Mideast of states independent of U.S. control, Washington runs the risk of suffering nasty surprises but will also benefit from an environment in which all parties see advantages to cooperating. Washington’s challenge in such an environment will be transformed from struggling to uphold a house of cards facing a political whirlwind to promoting the positive-sum aspects so that all actors will prefer to accommodate everyone else.

If Policy Fails, Intensify the Policy!

Washington’s effort to compel Iran to obey over the last three decades has only alienated Iran and made its regime more extreme. Might there be flaws in Washington’s policy?

If a long-term effort to implement a policy is failing, despite repeated efforts to intensify that policy, then perhaps another approach is warranted. Worse than just a fix that fails, this may be a case of shooting oneself in the foot. Thirty years after the Shah’s dictatorship was overthrown, such seems to be the case in U.S.-Iranian relations.

In a perfect example of the zero-sum attitude plaguing U.S. foreign policy toward Iran, Ray Takeyh says on November 12, 2010 in the Washington Post:
The question that has perennially bedeviled Washington and its allies is how to compel the theocratic regime in Tehran to alter its objectionable practices.
He is of course quite correct that this is the question that Washington politicians have had in their heads, but he fails to point out the bias in such an extreme and condescending attitude that is responsible for the failure to achieve a solution. Iranians could put the statement differently:
The question that has perennially bedeviled Tehran is how to compel the imperialistic regime in Washington to alter its objectionable practices.
It is, after all, Washington that has troops, bases, and aircraft carriers spread throughout the Mideast and
Central Asia; Iran’s military is in Iran. It is Washington that is insisting on a discriminatory regional nuclear regime, giving Israel a blank check while carrying out economic warfare against Iran to punish it for nontransparency. Yes, Iran agreed to be transparent in signing the NPT, but does the fact that Israel is a nuclear rogue state spurning the NPT, developing nuclear arms, and threatening to use those arms against non-nuclear Iran excuse Washington’s nuclear discrimination in Israel’s favor?
Decades of U.S. hostility designed to prevent Iran’s natural emergence as a regional leader with an independent foreign policy has only cemented the control over Iran of conservative, religious, militaristic, repressive politicians. U.S. repression of Iran provokes Tehran’s repression of the Iranian people. U.S. threats against Iran stimulate the dangerous rise of an Iranian garrison state. The zero-sum attitude of Washington toward Iran has provoked exactly what U.S. foreign policy was allegedly designed to prevent. Perhaps someone should rethink the policy.

The ultimate policy failure is a “fix” that provokes the feared outcome.

Viewing this serious example of creeping policy failure pushing the world ever closer to the nuclear cliff more analytically, the following steps can be identified theoretically:

  1. a symptom is identified that is interpreted as indicating the imminence of some feared outcome;
  2. a “fix” is implemented;
  3. the “fix” in fact provokes the feared outcome.

Given this failure, one never knows for sure if the original symptom in fact was an indication that the feared outcome was approaching.

Washington’s hostility provokes Iranian resolve.

In the case of U.S. policy toward Iran, the more prominent the regional role that Iran plays, following the blue arrows in the diagram, the greater Washington’s effort to prevent Iran’s emergence as a regional power. Encircling Iran with threatening military force, diplomatic exclusion from regional decision making, the construction of an anti-Iran alliance, and economic warfare against Iran are Washington’s specific tools. While the immediate impact of Washington’s fix may be to constrain Tehran’s freedom of movement (the returning blue arrow), the longer-term impact (red arrows) is to provoke a rise in Tehran’s resolve and capacity. (One could graph a very important internal reinforcing feedback loop here as well, with Tehran’s rising self-reliance–e.g., its uranium refinement program, its manufacture of defensive missiles copying those Washington persuaded Moscow not to sell, its increasing refinement of gasoline–stiffening Tehran’s resolve and its stiffening resolve inducing further efforts to increase its capacity.)

The emergence of a new dynamic, “Addiction to Power,” accelerates Iran’s drive for power.

Now that Washington has provoked precisely the outcome it was trying (according to this model; in reality, other interpretations of Washington’s behavior are possible) to avoid, a further dynamic makes the situation even more serious for Washington. As indicated by the new arrow (red and white stripes), Tehran’s new resolve and capability not only provoke faster emergence of Iran onto the regional stage but Iran’s emergence itself provokes further resolve and capability, a cycle that can be expected to continue regardless of whether Washington continues to try to stand in Tehran’s path. A new reinforcing feedback propelling Iran’s emergence, which may be called “Addiction to Power,” has complicated Washington’s plans. After some delay, other factors, such as fear of attack provoking surrender or resource constraints, could of course lead to a tipping point and the emergence of some new dynamic that would shift Iran’s course, but for some period of time the Addiction to Power feedback loop can be expected to accentuate Iran’s rise.

Washington now, first, continues to face the problem of Tehran’s original attempt to gain regional status; second, faces the further obstacle that the very fact of Washington’s resistance has provoked Tehran both to gain in resolve and gain in capability; third, faces the internal reinforcing loop between rising resolve and rising capability; and fourth, faces the newly emerged Addiction to Power reinforcing feedback loop as the combination of rising resolve and capability whet Tehran’s appetite. Now facing four mutually reinforcing feedback loops, all intensifying–exponentially, not arithmetically–the force of Tehran’s drive for regional influence, Washington truly finds that it has shot itself in the foot.

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Notes: 

  • Background material on system dynamics is available on the System Dynamics Page of the methodology site Analyzing the Future and on the website of the System Dynamics Society
  • System dynamics practitioners will notice that the first chart looks like the standard system dynamics pattern, or “archetype,” Fixes that Fail. The distinction made in this essay is that the “fix” does not just fail by producing a serious “side effect” (i.e., an unexpected effect, such as death from a medicine that not only cures the disease but is itself poisonous to the victim) but actually accentuates precisely the outcome that one was trying to avoid.
  • For a detailed discussion of an alternative policy Washington might adopt, see “Smarter Iran Policy Begins With a New Attitude.”