Positive-Sum Foreign Policy: Modeling Introduction

While searching for positive-sum foreign policy offering enduring results (because they are supported by all sides)  may be good advice for policy-makers, the process of designing such a policy is hindered by prejudice and emotion, [see “Designing Positive-Sum Foreign Policy“] not to mention incomplete information about the adversary and pressure from allies with private agendas. So a little formal modeling may spruce up the busy policy-maker’s thinking. It so happens that among all the many sophisticated techniques for analyzing international affairs there is one so straightforward that it really can be done with a pencil on a napkin…and this approach can quickly facilitate identifying some major foreign policy blunders and opportunities in contemporary Mideast affairs.

Far from being a naively idealistic dream, the search for positive-sum outcomes in foreign policy rests on a foundation of cold logic, a conclusion that may be easier to accept by using a very simple modeling technique whose magic, aside from its simplicity, is that to employ it naturally filters out emotion and prejudice, revealing the logical skeleton of truth. This old technique, that requires nothing more than a napkin and pencil, is the Venn Diagram. Let the foreign policy goals of State A be listed in one circle and those of State B in another, then see if any overlap exists. If so, diplomats have room to work. And, indeed, how can at least some overlap not exist? Do not all regimes wish to remain in power, do not all societies wish to survive? Perhaps not; suicidal political groups could exist, and if you judge that to be the case, then perhaps your model will contain two separate circles, and so be it…unless you choose to question the veracity of your model. More likely, by stating goals in general terms, e.g., the desire for security or development or prestige, ground for making deals will be discovered. The approach is rather more logical than just snarling that the adversary is “evil” or “crazy,” both characterizations conceivably true but almost certainly a source of confusion for a policy-maker trying to achieve something.

An initial Venn Diagram of Iranian-Turkish relations might show disagreement over the desired composition of a future Iraqi (or Syrian or Lebanese or Yemeni) regime but agreement on the goals of oil trading and border security. This logically flawed diagram should provoke an immediate protest: the defined goals are not on the same level, since the goals on which they agree are general (easy to agree on) while the conflicting goal (nature of the regime) is precise.

A "Mental Model" Based on Judgment of Iranian and Turkish Goals

A “Mental Model” Based on Judgment of Iranian and Turkish Goals

Now comes time for creative diplomacy. Can the goals be redefined in a mutually acceptable manner to state that Turkey would like Sunni autonomy along its border while Iran would like Shi’i autonomy along its border? Their preferences, so stated, not only seem logical but feasible, given similar preferences on the part of many Iraqis actually living in those regions, changing the situation from an insolvable contradiction between Iraq’s two  powerful neighbors into a reasonable proposal for shifting the Iraqi regime from centralized to decentralized with broad domestic and regional support.

By redefining the goals of Iraq’s two neighbors from trying to control Iraq, not their actual goal, to border security via empowerment of friendly populations, Ankara and Tehran can enhance their states’ security, please friendly Iraqi populations (further enhancing their security), and perhaps enhance the stability of Iraq, affording a long-term second-order benefit. The enlargement of the area of agreement in the foreign policy goals of the two states additionally promotes a cycle of cooperation that will facilitate cooperation on additional

Mideast Venn Diagrams - Redefining Goals

Different but compatible goals…and a much less hostile relationship

issues after some delay as the leaders and bureaucracies on each side become increasingly accustomed to considering those on the other side as potential partners. The critical shift achieved by redefining the adversaries’ goals is to move them by making them more precise from mutually exclusive to different without being mutually exclusive, a process requiring no compromise–just a little creative thinking.

Nothing follows automatically from a diagram, of course. The red question marks in the center with arrows suggesting possible movement by each side toward a compromise solution signal where the real work of the diplomats will occur, but this work will be greatly facilitated by having a diagram that puts on paper the critical concept, all too often cast aside by prejudiced adversaries (especially those operating from a self-perceived position of strength), that a way forward can be imagined.­­­ If dismissed or not imagined, the positive-sum compromise that could resolve the conflict will not even be discussed.

Since the restructuring of the Iraqi government is the core issue under negotiation in this model, Iraq needs to be added to the model. Iraq’s role in conflict resolution is likely to be greatly influenced by both the Islamic State threat and the regional hydrocarbon trade regime envisioned by Ankara and Tehran.

The Islamic State, the latest incarnation of Sunni extremism and prime claimant to the Sunni dream of a restored caliphate, is also the latest challenger to the modern concept of international law. International law may be honored more in the breech than sincerely even by global leaders, but it is as close as the global political system comes to having an ideology to inform its interstate political structure. The Islamic State by its ideal of a caliphate and the open pride it takes in its terrorist behavior

A minimum of four states need to be incorporated in even the simplest Mideast model

A minimum of four states need to be incorporated in even the simplest Mideast model

(which in practice may only be slightly worse than the state terrorism practiced from time to time by numerous major states) challenges the global political system both on ideological and structural grounds. It is already central to the analysis of the foreign policies of Ankara, Tehran, Baghdad, and Damascus, four ruling factions but hardly any longer representing four real states. United by the pressure of the Islamic State, the four areas formerly constituting the states of Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria seem the smallest analytical unit possible in the region for the realistic modeling of interstate relations.

Even this basic model of the Mideast, as riven by internal contradictions as it may be, is unified by the common desire of all ruling elites for survival. Yet, even at this simplest level, actual international behavior seems somehow to be missing the target. If all four want to survive, should this elemental fact not be better exploited to persuade them to compromise? A second fact is also obvious: all four want to participate. Nothing alienates a regime from the international community and transforms it into a troublemaker so surely as marginalization. By definition, he who rules desires to participate. Yes, theMideast Venn Diagrams - Common Interest efforts to marginalize, by refusing to negotiate until after receiving a concession or by refusing to invite one player to a regional conference, are conscious efforts to exert pressure, but such blatant discrimination can hardly be expected to elicit sincerely accommodating attitudes. And yet, foreign policy failure, based on precisely this behavior, follows foreign policy failure. The four ruling parties share at least these two goals: survival and participation.

How might this knowledge be used? Consider the statement: “all regimes want to survive.” Once again, the precise formulation matters. To say, “all leaders want to survive” has the wrong focus – on individuals rather than groups, thus reducing room for negotiation, for it is much easier to accept the continued participation of a faction than a specific hated leader. There may well be members of the faction who legitimately represent a portion of the population and do not share the blame for all the leader’s crimes. In any case, the leader is the symbol. An international argument over the future of Assad will lead to war; an international argument over the continued participation of Alawites in Syrian politics is quite a different thing.

As for participation, no state will support an international system that rejects it. The international political system was incrementally, experimentally created by the regimes that existed to facilitate communication. To refuse to communicate evokes nothing so much as the spoiled brat who sulks in the corner: not appropriate behavior for the leader of the system! Such tactics are not calculated to inspire confidence, trust, or gratitude, nor should they: they are the epitome of insincerity. The tactical goal of regimes trying to create a better world should be to entice all actors who exist (unless indeed the intent is in fact to exterminate them) to participate, to communicate. This is the first step toward determining how to deal with them. So even as the model gets increasingly complicated (with the addition of  more states and goals) in the effort to make it more realistic, it retains a simple yet valuable core: the region at the center–tiny as it may be–representing goals common to all is the point from which the design of foreign policy should begin.

Since all share some basic goals, negotiations have a place to begin. Can the area of agreement be enlarged? Could it be enlarged via creative redefinition of goals? Can discussions move smoothly from the core area of agreement to secondary goals amenable to compromise? One of the most valuable pieces of information to be gleaned from negotiations, even if one believes them to be “useless,” may be the identification of secondary goals of your adversary that turn out to be insignificant to you. Finding one is pure gold – something to offer that the adversary wants but you can readily give away. One glaring example in recent years has been U.S. refusal to extent diplomatic recognition to Iran, traditionally a nearly automatic diplomatic procedure that simply recognizes any power that exists but which was, in a major blunder, transformed by U.S. intransigence, into an additional unnecessary obstacle to resolving U.S.-Iranian conflict. valuable U.S. possession.

Having determined that the area of common interest exists but is small, the obvious next step is to identify ways to enlarge it, not necessarily with all other actors simultaneously but certainly in ways that try to avoid losing on one side what one gains on the other…at least until one determines that all out, unconditional warfare is the only solution. Aside from that very rare situation, negotiation should be pursued diligently – it is cheaper, safer, and can offer an endless array of unpredictable benefits if pursued with ears and eyes wide open because the political arena in the adversary’s camp will always be evolving in response to invisible domestic dynamics. If one puts on the table precise and credible offers impossible in today’s political environment for the adversary to accept, they may nonetheless become attractive without warning tomorrow. There is no telling, for example, what impact over time on Tehran’s support of Assad might result from a promise by Washington to support a post-settlement Iran-Syria or Iran-Turkey hydrocarbon pipeline, to support continued Alawite participation in a new regime, or to recognize the right of Iran to maintain close ties to the new regime. Indeed, the first option, i.e., the goal of economic development, may be the big goal omitted from our list of common goals, but its priority relative to sectarian conflict and the fear of being destroyed in civil war is uncertain, so it will be dealt with separately.


The Next 100 Years: Incentives

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Today, incentives are structured in the U.S. to avoid thinking about the crucial challenges we face, so we are busy digging deeper the hole we are standing in.

Mankind faces two fundamental challenges that are external to the political system, i.e., not the result of faulty governance: climate change and population growth. Mankinds response might be bottom-up, as suggested by the Occupy movement; all seven billion of us might slowly accept new cultural priorities. However, the behavior of government will surely have a huge impact, and by far the most influential government is that of the U.S. The U.S. government itself faces two constraints on its ability to rise to meet these challenges: its addiction to global military activism and its support of elite financial exploitation. With the natural leader of global governments thus distracted, an effective governmental response to the two major global challenges seems a long shot.
Washingtons international focus on using military force to spread its influence and its domestic focus on facilitating the enrichment of the super-rich at the expense of everyone else undermine its ability to address the two key external challenges. Focusing on the uncritical enrichment of all the rich rather than, say, allowing the enrichment of those who perform socially useful tasks while punishing those who behave irresponsibly is a critical failing. The choice is not between the wealthy and the poor: there is no obvious reason to assume that equality would lead to resolution of global problems. There is no obvious reason why the incentive of becoming rich in return for making greater contributions to society cannot be a socially responsible approach.
Abetting the mindless enrichment of the few, regardless of their behavior, on the other hand, clearly obstructs effective steps to meet common challenges. Playing the stock market using other peoples money with the assurance of government bailouts for all the rich who lose offers an enticing prospect for the rich that will suck away into meaningless financial contortions funds that could be employed for long-term projects of benefit to all, including projects to redesign society to meet the challenges of climatic and demographic change. A foreign policy that frames international issues in terms of military competition similarly drains away funds while simultaneously exacerbating social problems by destroying infrastructure and provoking refugee flows, to cite just two effects. Both financial exploitation and war are socially destructive forms of behavior that simultaneously drain away government resources and distract government from addressing real problems.
More, they create zero-sum psychological contexts that inhibit cooperation between the two sides. Concerning war, one need only note the difficulty of Israelis and Palestinians cooperating on a mutually beneficial program to share scarce water resources or the difficulty of Washington and the Taliban reaching agreement on a mutually beneficial program to develop Afghanistans economy amidst endless violence. Concerning finance, the lack of Wall St. efforts after the 2008 Financial Crisis it did so much to provoke to take responsibility for the damage it caused to the American public and the rapidity with which efforts to call the uber-rich to account were slandered as class warfare betray the same elite zero-sum perspective.
As Paul Krugman said back in 2009 in answer to his own question about why some bankers suddenly began making vast fortunes just before the 2008 collapse:
It was, we were told, a reward for their creativity for financial innovation. At this point, however, its hard to think of any major recent financial innovations that actually aided society, as opposed to being new, improved ways to blow bubbles, evade regulations and implement de facto Ponzi schemes. [New York Times 4/26/09.]
Krugman goes on to point out that the issue concerned not just the bankers but the whole system, in which the government provided vast amounts of corporate welfare to promote their accumulation of wealth:

Wall Street is no longer, in any real sense, part of the private sector. It’s a ward of the state, every bit as dependent on government aid as recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, a k a “welfare.”

I’m not just talking about the $600 billion or so already committed under the TARP. There are also the huge credit lines extended by the Federal Reserve; large-scale lending by Federal Home Loan Banks; the taxpayer-financed payoffs of A.I.G. contracts; the vast expansion of F.D.I.C. guarantees; and, more broadly, the implicit backing provided to every financial firm considered too big, or too strategic, to fail.

And, writing in 2009, Krugman of course did not refer to the scandalous bias, reported just recently, built into U.S. tax law permitting many of the richest corporations in the land completely to evade taxes in years when they made billions of dollars of profit.
Yet what has been the performance, three years after the onset of the 2008 Financial Crisis, of Big Finance in thanks for being handed the hard-earned dollars of the 99%, some 20 million of whom are now either officially unemployed, under-employed, or so discouraged they have dropped out of the market? In 2010 Big Finance foreclosed on an all-time record of over 1,000,000 homes. The Republican allies of Big Finance in Congress are advocating that Washington pull back from reforming the fraudulent foreclosure process, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA)who recently called the Occupy Wall St. protesters a mob”—has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign support from Big Finance during 2011. Meanwhile, the acting Comptroller of the Currency John Walsh is telling us that foreclosure reform could take a year, butpending such reformof course the foreclosures conveniently continue [LA Times 9/23/11]. Banks, surprise-surprise, are still fabricating documents to promote foreclosure [America Blog 9/1/11]. As for Wall St. fraud, the possibility of perjury charges against Goldman Sachs CEO Blankfein for 2011 remarks to Congress is emblematic of the attitude of Wall St. [Fierce Finance 4/14/11].
A political focus on the pursuit of short-term military victory that provokes long-term hatred or the accumulation of wealth without concomitant production ofanythingalso has a subtle psychological impact by encouraging short-term thinking. In war, it is hard to get away from the obvious goal of winning the next battle; at the stock market, it is hard to get away from the obvious goal of making profitable short-term investments. To ask a general facing the threat of defeat or an investor facing the threat of financial ruin for a thoughtful assessment of where society will be in a generation is laughable.
Were the general charged instead with guarding a generation-long international effort to construct something or were the trader told his profits would be a function of progress toward some generation-long social goal, those two individuals would have entirely different attitudes toward the future of society. In a word, socially useful thinking and socially productive behavior can be bought. Generals and traders are neither good nor evil: incentives matter.
War and its domestic equivalent, financial exploitation organized by a minority as an institutionalized component of the system, are short-term, zero-sum activities, while the real dangers on mankinds horizon call for century-long programs supported by everyone. U.S. elite priorities do not just miss the target of protecting our future but exacerbate the problems we must address, and the way the system is designedwith incentives for short-term thinking and socially destructive behaviormake it almost impossible to reform those anti-social elite priorities.

The Next 100 Years: Climate Change

The facts of climate change, one of the two great challenges to humanity over the next 100 years external to governance, supports a pessimistic prognosis.

The scientific view:

Decreasing CO2 was the main cause of a cooling trend that began 50 million years ago, the planet being nearly ice-free until CO2 fell to 450 ± 100 ppm; barring prompt policy changes, that critical level will be passed, in the opposite direction, within decades. If humanity wishes to  preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm, but likely less than that. The largest uncertainty in the target arises from possible changes of non-CO2 forcings. An initial 350 ppm CO2 target may be achievable by phasing out coal use except where CO2 is captured and adopting
agricultural and forestry practices that sequester carbon. If the present overshoot of this target CO2 is not brief, there is a possibility of seeding irreversible catastrophic effects.
[Hansen, et al, “Target Atmospheric CO2…”.]

Current level – 388 ppm [CO2now.org.]

The Next 100 Years: Milestones for Success

Many reasons for pessimism about the next 100 years exist, e.g., rising challenges and a poor historical record of human behavior.  Defining milestones indicating that humanity is rising to the occasion may help lead us forward.

Milestones suggesting that humanity is on the road to successfully coping with the challenges of the next 100 years include:

  • movement away from force and toward discussion as the preferred method of solving problems
  • rising emphasis on serious science
  • rising tendency to hold people responsible for their behavior, at least to the degree of demanding carefully reasoned justifications and identification of lessons
  • longer range thinking and planning
  • rising experimentation at local levels rather than top-down, all-eggs-in-one-basket mega-solutions
  • replacing either-or, zero-sum solutions with intermediate, positive-sum solutions

A few indications of such trends do exist. The Occupy Wall St. movement has generated calls for citizens to transfer their savings from huge national banks that play the stock market to local banks. Beyond the formal Occupy Wall St. movement, popular demands for mortgage debt forgiveness matching Washington’s forgiveness of Wall St. bankers is rising:

While Lower Manhattan was being occupied, the New Bottom Line, a coalition of community groups, church folks and other networks, was staging daily clashes with big banks around the country. George Goehl of National People’s Action sees the level of direct action and nonviolent civil disobedience rising rapidly among frustrated people of conscience. [William Grieder, “It’s Time for Debt Forgiveness, American-Style” in The Nation 11/14/11.]

More good news, particularly the defeat of Republican attacks on the right of workers to organize in Ohio, came out of the mid-term election.

So far, however, the overall trend of cultural shifts in the U.S. at least appear to be moving in the wrong direction as measured by every one of the above criteria.

The Next 100 Years

Beyond the unavoidable climatic and demographic challenges of the next 100 years lies the real threat: government incompetence.

What We Know

  • climate change is occurring, with sufficient warming to change disease patterns, forest cover, storm magnitude, patterns of desertification in the U.S. Southwest, availability of water being predictable over the coming generation
  • overpopulation will intensify dangerously over the coming generation regardless of how many mothers choose not to reproduce

What We Should Plan For

  • unaffordable rise in oil prices forcing a change in the wasteful, mobile American lifestyle
  • high food prices
  • taking local initiative to survive
  • a more challenging environment, making decision-making tougher, provoking society to push closer to the unknown limits, causing more failures

What Current Behavior Teaches Us We Can Expect

  • government short-sightedness and elite resistance to sharing in the U.S. that will make matters far worse than necessary (judging from behavior during the Occupy Wall St. campaign, the financial crisis, in response to global warming, and after Katrina)
  • spreading police brutality against victims and all advocating change
  • demonization of science and thinkers
  • hardline, rigid, top-down, control-oriented policies
  • popular rage worldwide against the rich West and domestically against a corrupt elite
  • extreme instability in terms of society, climate, availability of resources and services
  • extreme geographic variability in conditions

Faced with the dual, independent but positively reinforcing challenges of climate change and overpopulation, the elite can be expected to exploit rather than lead, both domestically and internationally. As the natural and social environments both worsen, the big question is whether or not we can shift political behavior from constituting a net minus to constituting a net plus.

The Delusion of Current Events

With victory after victory, the American super-rich are destroying American democracy while their military-industrial allies impose the American Empire upon the world. Saddam is dead; bin Laden is dead; Washington is dropping bombs with impunity; Goldman Sachs is bigger than ever. And yet, America, looking weaker and sillier every day as its government implodes like Marie let them eat cake Antoinette, is neither honored nor obeyed. So what is happening: do events speak for themselves, or is something else going on?
The temptation to dwell on events when writing history is almost irresistible. Events are after all the building blocks of history, are they not? Well, perhaps, if you consider white caps to be the building blocks of ocean storms. But if you see storms as the culmination of the interactions of underlying forcescurrents, winds, submarine topography, temperature shifts, then you should see history as well as the story of underlying forcesgreed, the pursuit of justice, economic competition, cultural urges, security fears, ethnic antagonism, competition over scarce resources.
Consider the history of the 21st century so far. The main events have been:
  1. 9/11;
  2. the U.S. decision to respond with military force rather than via the system of justice;
  3. the U.S. invasion of Iraq;
  4. the poisoning of the Gulf of Mexico;
  5. the recession;
  6. the end of the recession;
  7. the overthrow of Mubarak (just a wild guess that it will prove to be the harbinger of a serious Arab socio-political modernization process);
But do these events constitute the key things that happened during this period? Consider the following long-term processes (not one of which can really be called an event)
  1. the global rise in oil and food prices that set the modernization process of poor countries back by perhaps a decade;
  2. the loss of a crucial decade in the battle to overcome (or just survive) global warming;
  3. the rising scale of environmental disasters in an increasingly permissive and shortsighted regulatory context;
  4. the weakening of the U.S. via the roughly $20 Trillion hit taken by the U.S. economy as the result of its invasion of Iraq ($5T per Stiglitz and Bilmes, The Three Trillion Dollar War) and $20T from the resultant recession (based on the near $1T official bailout plus follow-up hidden Government support to Big Finance; omitting the actual cost of lost productivity or unemployment checks handed out);
  5. the discrediting of the U.S. as moral leader of the global movement toward democracy;
  6. the relative decline of American power and rise in the power of Russia, China, and Iran;
  7. the exposure of the Wall St. model as both socially and financially harmful;
  8. the victory (!) of Big Finance in reestablishing itself, despite the recession it caused, in control of both the U.S. political and economic processes;
  9. the endless recession on Main St., where the tsunami of unemployment and foreclosures continues;
  10. the ability of radical Islam to resist the American Empire, or, to put it differently, the ability of Muslim societies to retain a measure of independence from the U.S.;
  11.  the Muslim shift from a focus on attacking the West to peacefully reforming Muslim socio-political systems;
  12.  the transformation of the U.S. from the global champion of democracy and reformist capitalism with a heart into an elitist plutocracy where the super-rich are intentionally destroying the middle class to replace democracy and the post-Depression egalitarian trend with a two-class society composed of a mass of impoverished, dependent, docile, and depoliticized workers exploited to further enrich the super-rich;
  13. the exposure of the weakness (via wars by the U.S. and Israel in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Gaza, and Lebanon) of modern, high-tech warfare as a means of stopping social movements and constructinganything.
Judging from events, the history of the 21st century so far has been the story of American punishment of Muslim independence combined with the advancement of the American Empire. Al Quaida was smashed, the Taliban were kicked out of power, Saddam was deposed, Iran was marginalized and economically strangled, Gazans were imprisoned, and southern Lebanon (briefly) depopulated. Simultaneously, the American Empire marched where it wished, expanding military bases with blazing speed and constructing a global financial empire even faster. True, some troops are moving around, but few bases seem to be returning to local hands. Also true, Lehman collapsed and AIG was, for a time, virtually nationalized, but Goldman expanded, and the old financial structure that brought us the recession (proximate cause) within the context of focusing on conducting war and making it invisible to the U.S. public (fundamental cause) was strengthened rather than being disciplined, much less overthrown.
And yet, after all the successes of the American Empire project, the U.S. seems far less secure and less domestically sound than it was a decade ago, while those countries offering an alternative approach to global governance (Russia, China, Iran) each find their non-military strategy has significantly strengthened its hand. Iran, barely surviving a generation ago, now has not only secure borders (in the context of the regional U.S. military withdrawal that appears to be occurring) but a real sphere of influence. China just keeps advancing economically, playing its cards close to its chest and casting bemused glances at the wild-eyed, clumsy Westerners who keep picking up rocks only to drop them on their own feet. Russia is gathering itself, carefully signing nice, legal, non-threatening petroleum contracts in every direction, in fundamental contrast to expensive American military moves that seem to leave the U.S. more and more out of the global hydrocarbon loop. Moreover, it remains unclear exactly what might be meant by any statement that the U.S. won the war in Iraq, while every indication is that the U.S. is losing the war in Afghanistan. And all the while, domestically, the condition of American infrastructure and the socio-economic situation of the American worker continue to decline like a Hollywood version of Das Kapital. (For a brilliant summary of the decline of U.S. governance over the past half century, see Noam Chomskys America in Decline.)
In short, events and reality appear to be telling precisely contradictory stories! Looking at events does not just give a superficial picture of reality; it gives a picture that utterly contradicts reality. The military successes of the American Empire project add up to a less secure and less powerful U.S. The financial successes of the super-rich add up to an increasingly weak and unstable American society whose future we may have already seenin the riots a few years ago in the suburban ghettos of Paris, in Greece more recently, and this past week in London.

Arab Revolt Futures

Now that the rules governing Mideast politics have changed and assumptions are suddenly challenged, if not discarded altogether, wise policy-makers will be considering what factors will emerge as the key drivers of future Arab behavior. This post begins a new series analyzing how the Arab Revolt of 2011 is likely to develop and laying out the method to facilitate adjustments should events overtake this analysis.
Many factors contribute to, or “drive,” behavior. Among the drivers of the Arab Revolt of 2011 that will influence how it develops are:
Factors that might in principle be considered likely to have an impact but which currently do not seem critical include the attitude of Iran, al Qua’ida, and Israel.

  • Al Qua’ida

This is particularly worth mentioning for Western audiences that may be overly fearful of the first two and biased in favor of the last. All three actors represent extreme positions that are being marginalized by the extraordinary restraint of the protesters and the relative restraint of most of the Arab armed forces, with the exception of Libya, where the military is rapidly fracturing. Military intervention by Israel or continued military attacks on the population by Gaddafi could open the door for al Qua’ida, as did the post-invasion chaos in Iraq in 2003, but for now extremists seem marginalized.

Even the attitude of the West loses importance as long as it remains cautious, since the reformers are not focused on demanding anything from the West. For example, US bases in Iraq or U.S. military aid to formerly repressive and still suspect Arab military forces may eventually become a point of attention, but at present they are not, in part because protester criticism is focused on misbehavior of the politicians rather than the military forces.
The three most important drivers influencing how the Arab Revolt of 2011 will turn out appear at the moment to be the Unity of Reformers, Reform Demands, and the Western Attitude. This could change with, e.g., the emergence of a charismatic leader like Nasser or a traumatizing attack by extremists. The Arab Futures graph illustrates the political landscape generated by the eight ideal scenarios that result from considering all three axes.
The two domestic axes in the above Arab Futures graphic stand together as a logical analytical unit: given Washington’s public stance so far (along with the restraint being shown by other external actors who might upset the apple cart such as Iran, Turkey, and Israel), it seems reasonable to focus on domestic Arab politics. The Domestic Drivers graph illustrates the political landscape, given the assumption that Washington continues to play a relatively low-keyed, non-interventionist role. Why, then, include the Western Attitudes axis in the first place? The reason is straightforward: the historic central role of the West and the continuing potential significance of any abrupt shift in Western policy; although Arabs appear very much in charge of their fate at the moment, the potential for Western interference and the sensitivity of the situation as long as power is delicately balanced between regime and protesters are too great to ignore.
Focusing first on domestic drivers, the argument here is that the result of the revolt will flow from the combination of the unity of the reformers and the nature of their program, i.e., that dictatorial regimes have already lost the initiative to the degree that the outcome has already passed out of their hands so that the reformers can, solely by their own actions, now win no matter what the regimes try to do.
More precisely, they can win, provided that they make positive-sum demands and remain unified. (That, of course, is an assertion worthy of analysis, and a different driver could be substituted for or added to the ones used in this exercise to focus on the question of how a unified protest proposing a popular agenda in the context of Western neutrality might still lose.) A reform policy perceived to be positive-sum arguably has the best chance of maintaining the unity demonstrated so far and thus of keeping the initiative in the hands of the reformers. In contrast, to the degree that major segments of the population perceive that they will be called upon to sacrifice for the good of others, opposition can be expected to intensify. The defining of such a program is clearly closely related to unity, but defining Reformer Unity as a separate driver is justified by the all-too-likely danger that such issues as personal ambitions or policy hair-splitting might fracture the reformist ranks. Thus, the argument here is that reformers must above all avoid internal fractures and offer the population a policy perceived as positive-sum for, considering the financial and military superiority of the regimes, a very large majority of the population.

Protest movement unity in…Saudi Arabia!

It’s unprecedented in Saudi history that we have people sign on their names and in such huge numbers demanding what has always seemed impossible. So far thousands have signed these petitions, people from all factions; well-off people with established careers to the unemployed who have little hope. Unhappiness with the current situation is something that has brought sworn enemies together. It’s becoming more and more difficult to tell apart the demands of conservatives from those of liberals and the demands of the majority from those of minorities. You have to actually go through the petition to pick up on the single point that they diverge on, otherwise there’s a large area of overlap across all the petitions. Across the board, there’s a demand for a constitutional monarchy and accountability and the end of corruption in handling the nation’s wealth.  [Saudiwoman.http://saudiwoman.wordpress.com/2011/02/28/are-we-or-arent-we/]

Domestic Driver Outcomes
The Unity of Reformers and Reformer Ideology drivers, represented as the two axes of the Scenarios From Domestic Drivers graph, divide the political landscape of the Arab revolt into four quadrants (which in reality are, needless to say, not separated by the borders shown in the graph but flow into each other):
A. Counterrevolution – zero-sum reform ideology and reformer disunity;
B. Losing Coalition – zero-sum reform ideology and united reformers;
C. Self-Destruction – positive-sum reform ideology and disunified reformers;
D. Modernization – positive-sum reform ideology and united reformers.
Scenarios From Domestic Drivers
Scenario A, Counterrevolution, represents a reform ideology that is perceived by significant sectors of society as demanding sacrifice rather than offering benefits. Such a perception combined with a fracturing of the reform ranks would be likely immediately to strengthen the still powerful ranks of the security forces and the rich business class that profited from cooperating with them. Timing is important. In no country currently revolting, as of the end of February, have the reformers succeeded in removing these two groups from power. If Scenario A came true under such circumstances, consolidation of the ancien regime would be rapid and probably brutal. The West European Revolution of 1848, that set back European socio-political modernization for a generation, comes to mind as an analogy.
To evaluate the likelihood of this scenario requires knowledge of the reform program, something still only dimly visible, and knowledge of the degree of unity among the reformers, something at this point almost completely invisible. It is possible to say that in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, and Bahrain, reformers give the public appearance of maintaining an admirable degree of unity and moderation (advocating a program of civil, political, and economic rights with which it is difficult to find any fault), thus maximizing their influence. The devil will surely come in the details, which will no doubt provoke fractures in the reform ranks, so this could be the high point of the reform tide, and yet, to date nowhere has reform victory been, so far, more than superficial. For example, if the arrest of the Egyptian interior minister is a plus, the failure of the state to charge him with crimes against the protesters is a minus, and the rumors that the regime, supposedly a caretaker institution pending elections, is now trying to ban unions, suggest that pro-democracy forces remain far from having seized control. At this point, then, considerable evidence exists that Counterrevolution has an excellent chance of winning in Algeria, where the state security apparatus so far appears strongly united against the demonstrators, a fair chance of winning in Egypt and Bahrain, where the forces of state oppression seem to be maintaining much of their internal structure, but a poor chance in Libya, where the state security apparatus is visibly dissolving.
Scenario B, Losing Coalition, represents the curious situation of a zero-sum reform ideology likely to divide the population but unity among the reformers, a situation that would seem to define the reformers as a minority of the population and to put them very much at the mercy of the elite. Politics is the art of forming a winning coalition; in this scenario, the protesters defeat themselves by forming a losing coalition. Illogical as this scenario may be, historical precedents (e.g., Russia during the months between the fall of the Tsar and the rise of Lenin; Algeria 20 years ago when the protesters split into peaceful reformers and violent terrorists; the split of Saudi Islamic dissidents between the moderate Sahwa and the violent jihadists) suggest that it is quite possible, likely to lead to the defeat of reformers, and likely to have tragic consequences for the people. This scenario can be expected to be a brief transition to Counterrevolution for states such as Egypt that have a strong security apparatus in place or Bahrain, with an external state (Saudi Arabia, in the case of Bahrain) ready to intervene. The risk of descending into a situation analogous to the Algerian or Lebanese civil wars is arguably greater for a weak state or a state in which the security apparatus fractures. In other words, fractures within both the reform coalition and the state structure lead to a great risk of chaos…in a society with a weak commitment to democracy, a term which in this context may be defined as a willingness to share power and resolve conflicts through negotiation.
Scenario C, Self-Destruction, represents perhaps an even more tragic situation, in which the reformers develop a positive-sum ideology and find themselves well on the road to victory, only to fall victim to personality conflicts among the reform leaders or some such petty trap that opens the door, once again, to Counterrevolution. One route to such an outcome for Egypt would be a split between the Muslim Brotherhood and non-religious reformers; to date, all parties in the Egyptian reform movement appear very sensitive to this danger.
Scenario D represents the ideal outcome for reformers, in which the broad appeal of their program and the sagacity of their leaders presents the type of broad, united front that already has proved itself to be, despite the assumptions of almost everyone else, a realistic possibility by the dethroning of Ali and Mubarak and (probably within days) Gadaffi.
As depicted in the Arab Modernity graph, Scenario D represents a revolutionary social step along the path of the modernization of the Arab world. The core components of this step would be signification movement by the respective Arab societies toward the globally elusive goals of civil rights, popular control over government, and economic justice. Given the challenges facing the Muslim neighbors of those Arab societies currently participating in the Arab Revolt, a resultant wave of pan-Arab or pan-Muslim nationalism inspired by the desire to share their good fortune should come as no surprise. This might take the form of pan-Islamic nationalism, a possibility that will be greatly influenced by the policy of the West toward other Muslim states. Another question concerns the degree to which such a pan-Muslim nationalist wave would focus on either spreading modernity to neighboring dictatorships (with North African odd-man-out Algeria being the obvious target) or resisting Western interference (with the obvious target being Palestine).
History suggests that this outcome is improbable, but history also suggests that the achievements already gained (the removal of two dictators, the impressive degree of moderation by protesters under enormous regime pressure, and the rapid spread of the revolt from one dictatorship to another across the region) were improbable. The record so far does not give repressive regimes much reason for hope: a few concessions plus fairly harsh crackdown failed in Egypt and Tunisia to save the dictators and has left the regime in Bahrain on the defensive, with only the Iranian and Algerian regimes maintaining full control. Minor concessions plus gentle handling of protesters is working for the regime in Jordan so far, but Saudi Arabia and Morocco are probably the only other states where such an approach of taking advantage of the prestige of the leader as opposed to the regime might be copied. Extreme repression quickly undercut the seemingly doomed Libyan regime. No dictator has yet come up with the idea of co-opting the revolt by accepting it as a fully legitimate decision of the people, nor is any likely to do so; such is not the way of dictators, Gorbachev’s precedent notwithstanding. Two months into the revolt, the reformers seem on the whole to retain the initiative, and yet, only in Libya does real social revolution appear to be on the horizon. Thus, although Scenario D is, at the moment, the reality, it will take extraordinary skill on the part of the reformers to make that reality anything more than transient.
However, Washington’s somewhat reluctant but now loud recognition of the right of peaceful protest, the refusal of the Tunisian and Egyptian military to massacre protesters, and the rejection of Gaddafi by both some military officers and numerous regime officials all constitute hopeful signs for the reformers. Other signs of the rising probability of the Arab Modernity scenario include the concessions made not only by all the states experiencing protests with the sole exception of Iran but also by Algeria, which has yet to experience any sizable demonstrations; the failure of these minor concessions to undermine the determination of the massive crowds of demonstrators; and the steady spread of the movement from one country to the next. In sum, although the achievements of the protests so far have been superficial (removal of individuals but little that could really be called even regime change, much less social revolution), the dynamics of the process tell a different story.
Stages of Political Change
The process of the Arab Revolt of 2011 so far suggests the following multi-stage process of political change:
Legal/Political Concessions – minimal concessions in all affected countries; major concessions promised in Egypt, under negotiation in Tunisia
Removal of Leader
Regime Change – appears imminent in Libya, being resisted effectively by Egyptian military
Social Revolution – not even on the horizon except in Libya, where being resisted with military force.
The significant stages in this process are regime change and social revolution. Momentous as the protests appear to be, their failure so far to reach either of these two stages in any Arab state suggests how much work remains yet to be done to realize the reform agenda.

Subsequent posts will continue this analysis, addressing the potential impact of Western behavior and the nature of underlying dynamics that might explain how the various scenarios could actually occur.

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

Evolution of the Washington-Tehran Dispute

Neither Washington’s nor Tehran’s behavior is fixed in stone; rather, each adapts and each sometimes passes the ball, though the other side usually fumbles it.
U.S.-Iranian relations today are plagued by untested assumptions that constrain policy, effectively putting  decision-makers in a mental box preventing them from seeing alternative tactics that might greatly enhance their side’s national security. In other words, these decision-makers are using bad models. Good models are still wrong; model airplanes do not actually carry passengers anywhere. But a good model airplane enables engineers to build better real airplanes. Policy formulation is no different.
The first step toward improving the bad mental models used by decision-makers is to write them on a napkin over lunch or graph them on a computer. If the explanation or drawing is ridiculous, laying it out will make its failures much easier to see. Immediately, someone will ask, “What does this mean?” or “Why don’t you mention X?”
Since we all run multiple scenarios (conservatives love “help, the sky is falling!” while liberals love “kumbaya”) through our fevered little brains all the time, try naming a couple of factors you think matter, put each on an axis, and name each of the four alternative scenarios that results. An example for U.S.-Iranian relations using three key factors (driving forces) has been analyzed in “Modeling U.S.-Iranian relations.”
Examination of the specific policies inherent in a compromise between the U.S. and Iran reveals the fundamental policy changes a move away from the near-war status quo will require.
A simple second step is to see if your scenario set includes a “dream scenario” and a “nightmare scenario.” Chances are it does, so concentrate on them. Based on the scenario exercise, the “Conflict vs. Cooperation” chart above was generated, illustrating several core attributes of a U.S.-Iran “war scenario” and a U.S.-Iran “accommodation” scenario. The details illustrate the very real distinctions in a wide range of policies implicit in these two scenarios. The Compromise Scenario would, for example, require major U.S. military deployment policy shifts (not to mention Israeli deployment shifts) and a fundamentally new U.S. attitude toward the mirage of U.S. domination of the Mideast. This contest for Mideast influence is not about “good” vs. “evil;” it is about real, specific, and highly arbitrary policy positions.
Call this the “peace” scenario if you want, but by “peace” one should mean not just the absence of falling bombs but friendly, stable, productive relations that benefit both sides – not surrender, not empire and colonization, but a mutually satisfactory relationship. Today the U.S. and Iran are very, very far from such a situation, causing great harm to both societies, although burnishing the “tough guy” credentials of several politicians. The analytical point is that realizing the accommodation scenario entails a number of very specific policy shifts, among which are the rather obvious ones enumerated.

A third big step forward would be to investigate how reality is evolving. The world does not stand still. Neither Iranian nor American leaders or societies have policies or attitudes fixed in granite; changes occur, even if sometimes they do so at a glacial pace. Alternatively, policies may be maintained in the face of changing conditions, resulting in the buildup of pressures that can create a political earthquake. Calling one side “good” and the other “evil” only obscures the view of whatever evolution may be occurring either in policy or reality.

Both Washington and Tehran adapted their conflict resolution strategy and degree of ideological commitment regarding bilateral relations during 2010.
Washington’s conflict resolution strategy appears to evolve toward conciliation during the first six month’s of Obama’s administration, but Tehran chose not to test that policy in any very clear and consistent manner; similarly, Tehran’s conflict resolution strategy appeared to evolve toward conciliation during the Ankara-Brazilia nuclear initiative, but Washington chose not to test that possibility in any very clear and consistent manner. Tehran’s level of ideological commitment appears to be increasing steadily, but in Washington, Obama gave the impression at the beginning of his administration of a marked shift toward pragmatic analysis. Meanwhile, the political environment appears to have remained consistently challenging, with neither side making any significant military adjustments.
If the world is right where it was a year ago and if politicians on both sides are portraying the other side as recalcitrant, this does not mean that nothing changed. Rather, this means that an historic opportunity appears to have been missed by leadership incompetence on both sides. This analysis of scenario evolution suggests that flexibility that could have been exploited to achieve progress in fact existed in the positions on both sides and that the failure by each side to make serious efforts to make serious efforts to transform the highly threatening politico-military environment into a more benign environment played a critical role in the joint U.S.-Iranian 2010 policy failure. Tehran toyed with Brazilia and Ankara without making crystal-clear concessions on nuclear transparency, thus wasting an opportunity to occupy the moral high ground. Washington, trying to escape from a mess in Iraq and falling further and further behind in Afghanistan, nevertheless failed to explore the broad area of common interests it shares with Tehran in stabilizing both countries. With regional stability at risk and nuclear war on the horizon, neither Americans nor Iranians can afford such incompetent policy-making.

This scenario evolution analysis also suggests that both Tehran and Washington speak not just the language of force but also the language of reason; unfortunately, both seem somewhat hard of hearing when the other side uses soft language and a bit lacking in the finer social graces.

The Meaning of a Democratic Iran

Make no mistake! A democratic Iran would not become an American colony. It would be a proud emergent regional power, willing to resist Israeli regional hegemony, deeply involved in Iraqi society, and insistent upon a better deal for the non-Western world.

With all the thoughtless accusations flying around obfuscating the real issues that separate Washington from Tehran, perhaps it would be useful to take a moment to consider what a truly democratic Iran would be like.

First, (Warning: Sit down; this may take your breath away.) a democratic Iran will still defend itself. As long as it remains ringed by hostile American military bases and as long as nuclear-armed Israeli Zionists insistent upon retaining their military domination over the region remain in power, Iran will still want the option of a nuclear deterrence.

Second, a democratic Iran will still be proud of its glorious past, will remember the injustice of Russian and British and American interference, and will demand to be treated with respect. Washington will still be seen as owing Iran a truly sincere apology for the coup that destroyed Iran’s nascent democratic movement in 1953, supporting a dictatorial shah, supporting Saddam’s invasion, and shooting down an Iranian airliner.

Third, a democratic Iran will still be Muslim and will therefore find Israel’s repression of the Palestinian people repugnant. Depending on the degree to which Washington moves back toward a less biased position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the degree to which Zionist extremists continue to hold power in Israel, a democratic Iran may or may not remain leader of the anti-Zionist front, but it is hardly likely to copy the Shah’s willingness to ignore Israeli repression of fellow Muslims…any more than a democratic Saudi Arabia or Egypt would.

Fourth, a democratic Iran will still feel entitled to be a regional leader. It will not necessarily be a crusading Shi’ite revolutionary state, but it will still be Shi’ite and will therefore retain a special relationship with Iraq and Lebanon, just as the U.S. has a special relationship with Canada. It will still feel that it has a natural interest in the security situation along its borders and will thus pay attention to events in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

Fifth, a democratic Iran will still want to reform the global political system to distribution resources and power more equitably. It will be energetic, articulate, and involved.

A democratic Iran could be a real blessing for a deeply sick global political system…provided that it is welcomed, rather than threatened, by the global elite. But do not expect it to kiss up or kneel down, any more than those 13 colonies of yesteryear did.