Obama did not exactly say, “Putin, trust me, we Americans know what it means to get stuck in a quagmire, so take this warning to heart.” Nor, of course, did Putin take it that way. Pity.

President Obama noted publicly that “An attempt by Russia and Iran to prop up Assad and try to pacify the population is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire, and it won’t work.” Obama will quite probably be proven correct, but to understand the outrageous hypocrisy of the remark, simply remove the names by abstracting as follows:

An attempt by [a global power and a regional client] to prop up a [vicious regional dictator] and try to pacify the population is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire, and it won’t work.

There was, for you young readers who haven’t studied your history, once a guy named Leonid who discovered this for himself in Afghanistan. Too bad Leonid was too old to write a history, for we are all still suffering from the consequences two generations later, and it would have been considerate of him to have warned us against repeating his mistake. Now, to be fair, I suspect Obama has in fact read some history, judging from his path-breaking (we hoped) Cairo speech way back at the now long forgotten beginning of his White House years, but in the rush of trying to run the world, one overlooks even the most obvious of lessons, which leads to having to rush all the more to learn them all over again…which brings us to the hypocrisy of Obama’s pot calling Putin’s kettle “black.”

This very week, as Putin solidifies his military position in Syria and flattens Aleppo (wasn’t that once a city that supported Assad?), Obama, who has been vigorously arming Riyadh with the bombs it has been using the past couple years to flatten Yemen, actually opened fire against one side in the very long Yemeni civil war. Did any Houthi imagine that Obama would respond to a Houthi rocket attack on a highly threatening U.S. destroyer sneaking around off the Yemeni coast by apologizing for the havoc wrought across the world’s most abused society by U.S. bombs over the past two years? [Note: it remains unclear whether it actually was Houthis rather than some false flag element hoping to provoke a thoughtlessly violent American response.] Bad judgment by the Houthis it may have been, and yet, fighting for your political rights against the combined might of Western bombs and Western-supplied Saudi jets for two years and then watching a U.S. destroyer, armed to the teeth, sticking its nose where it did not belong (was it…no surely not…inside Yemeni waters???) must get frustrating. More to the point, to quote a certain U.S. politician, all this is going to get the short-tempered superpower that just moved from the background of the Western campaign to manipulate the Yemeni civil war into the limelight “stuck in a quagmire.”


Dear Donald, Dear Hillary, “If elected, will you continue the Obama policy of supporting the Saudi aerial war against one side in the Yemeni civil war?”


Do We Want a Zero-Sum or a Positive-Sum World?

As tempting as it may be to conceive of an opponent as “evil” and oneself as “good,” the truth is seldom so clear-cut: something happened, someone felt boxed in, someone misunderstood someone else’s intentions, one thing led to another. But humans can’t know everything and will always search for a neat mental model. Rather than “good vs. evil,” try “zero-sum vs. positive sum.”

During the half century following WWII, this article would surely have focused on the example of communism vs. capitalism. Child labor and bailouts for the rich at the expense of the poor are bad even when practiced in capitalism systems. Free health care is good, even when practiced in communist systems. Each system should be judged on its merits rather than simply tossed in a box with a mindless label (“the good system,” “the bad system”). The U.S. caused itself enormous harm by the emotional, thoughtlessly rigid way it approached whatever group it judged to be “communist,” alienating potential allies by classifying them as enemies because they sought justice.
Today, the U.S. has the same self-defeating Manichean attitude toward radical Islam, as though no Muslim had the “right” to demand radical reform regardless of the injustice of his or her circumstances. Instead of trying to distinguish “good” from “evil” as a route to understanding Mideast politics, we should try distinguishing those who view regional political affairs as a zero-sum game from those who view the world as a positive-sum (win-win) game, and then we should act in an inclusive manner to promote the positive-sum perspective.

Positive Sum History
“Positive-sum history” is the optimistic view that history shows the development of human civilization in the direction of an ever-broader definition of the common good. The optimist sees history as progress, believing that as education spreads it also deepens, so we can learn from history. According to this view (which one may call a “religion,” since it must be taken mostly on faith), the barbarism of the 20th century will teach us the value of international law and democracy, with both institutions used for the good not of a class or ethnic group but of mankind.

Zero-Sum History
“Zero-sum history” pessimistically interprets history as always adding up to the same thing; it’s either them or us. The pessimist sees history as repeating old mistakes since human DNA preordains that hubris will trump humility. According to this view (which may be called “realism” because most historical evidence supports it), all issues are zero-sum and all goals are short-term. (Aside from a few fundamentalists–who seem to exist at the margins of most major religions–and the occasional terrorist with no apparent goal beyond dying along with his victims, essentially no one advocates negative-sum behavior, which would seek defeat for both sides. Therefore, even though negative-sum behavior is amazingly common, it can perhaps be ignored in this context.)

The Power of a Mental Model

Positive-sum history and negative-sum history are alternative mental models, gross simplifications designed to provide first steps toward organizing the clutter of information into meaningful categories. Neither, by definition, is “true,” any more than it is “true” that a rainbow is green. A rainbow may contain green, and history may contain positive-sum examples (international law),  zero-sum examples (Hitler), and even negative-sum examples (Israel’s suicidal Sampson Option). When a decision-maker mistakes either of these constructs for organizing one’s thinking as a description of reality in global affairs, disaster should be anticipated. These constructs or models are not “reality” but goals.
These models are of course not restricted to broad discussions of “history.” The point of grand models of history is that they serve as guides for negotiating the twists and turns along the sinuous trail toward practical policy goals. The U.S. and the U.S.S.R., hostility and suspicion notwithstanding, agreed that nuclear war should be avoided, that a direct Soviet-American military conflict should be avoided, that certain weapons systems could usefully be banned, that poisoning the common atmosphere with nuclear tests was bad, that bilateral trade was a good idea. They agreed, despite their bitter conflict for global supremacy, to talk and to listen…and to compromise. They understood the concept of positive-sum outcomes. The absence of a global nuclear war was a pretty clear example of a positive-sum outcome.
These two alternative models are also not trivial choices for policy-makers. The post-9/11 zero-sum attitude that “if you are not with us, you are against us” led to a decade of war against political Islam that has the U.S. bogged down in a losing battle to this day. If, by contrast, the positive-sum model offers a more beneficial foundation for foreign policy, that does not mean the choice is simple. Adopting a positive-sum model means, by definition, taking into account the preferences of others, from which it follows that one’s own appetites must be constrained by a willingness to share and to seek profit in ways that may be less convenient and more costly in order to enable adversaries also to find benefit. Designing policy for positive-sum outcomes requires far more imagination than fighting to the death for victory; it requires figuring out ways to redefine the contest:
  • Rather than a zero-sum war to control global hydrocarbon resources, a positive-sum policy might promote a treaty to manage global resources and spend the money saved on developing alternative sources of energy.
  • Rather than a zero-sum policy of offering nuclear arms to allies while threatening adversaries who demand equal access, a positive-sum policy might offer security guarantees and alternative energy technology to all who would sign up to a regional nuclear-free zone.
A positive-sum foreign policy constitutes a commitment to a fundamentally different worldview entailing a dramatic restructuring of budget priorities and long-term national security strategic calculations.

Using the Models to Guide Mideast Policy
Given the pertinence of the concept of a positive-sum outcome to reversing the disastrous U.S. foreign policy toward the Muslim world over the past decade, the rest of this discussion will focus on the application of the models to that case. According to the optimistic view of positive-sum history, Obama means what he says and will in the end support peace and justice in the Mideast, believing that while “peace” via totalitarian control may have worked rather well for extended periods in the past, mankind has today matured and the world has shrunk to the point of putting Orwell’s 1984 behind us. Obama will thus further understand that peace between Israel and Palestine is one side of a many-sided coin that certainly includes peace between Iran and the West and that the most reliable route to the one is to move simultaneously toward the other. Hence, the U.S. will grope its way toward a position of supporting Israeli security not because of some “chosen people” myth, “end of days” fundamentalism, guilt over Nazi atrocities unhindered, or the short-term convenience of an “unsinkable aircraft carrier,” but simply because Israelis are human and deserve security just as much as Palestinians do. Obama will also understand that Iran deserves an active part in Mideast affairs not because of its Israeli-style nuclear ambiguity but because of its intrinsic importance and originality of thought. Washington will therefore offer genuine compromise to Iran, and Tehran will find the maturity and vision to meet it halfway. Washington will curb Israeli militarists and support the maintenance of beleaguered Israeli democracy even while helping to construct Palestinian democracy. Washington will realize that the road to peace is the right road and that the question is not about which ethnic group to support but whether to support fascism or democracy. Then Washington will, as a superpower should, change the world.

According to the pessimistic zero-sum view, if oil is running out, then Washington will use a good bit of what is left in military adventures to seize the last drop. If a corrupt regime offers support, Washington will greedily accept. Obama, being black and having what has now become an extremely sensitive Islamic name, is nothing more than an extraordinarily fortunate cover behind which the conservative military/financial elite can hide their manipulation of the world in a way they never could under Bush/Cheney. The Palestinians will be bulldozed into oblivion under the cover of beautiful rhetoric delivered with winks and endless talks about talks. The eager Israeli militarists will get everything they want, but the price will be Israeli descent into fascism under the management of a garrison state that can survive only amidst perpetual war, moving smoothly from the West Bank to Iran, joining the region of Muslim unrest in the Mideast with the region of Muslim unrest in Central Asia. The superpower, focused on power instead of governing for the people, will turn into a new Weimar Republic and very likely catch the fascist disease as its uneducated population rightfully becomes angrier and angrier but sadly without understanding cause and effect. And thus, in a different way, the superpower will change the world anyway.

Zero-sum Dynamics
Of course, neither of the above scenarios is likely to occur; reality will be a confusion of the two and perhaps much else. The point of the scenarios is that each worldview–that world affairs is zero-sum and that world affairs is (or at least might be) positive-sum–in practice amounts to an exponential spiral with the dynamics of a whirlpool or an avalanche. A step in either direction just makes the next step all the easier.

As soon as it became fashionable to make war on terrorists, as though they could be defeated by charging through the gates of their fortress and demanding their surrender, it became much easier to start wars for other purposes. If a superpower could invade a country to catch a gang of terrorists, then it could invade a country to get its oil or prevent it from posing some theoretical future threat. One constraint on arbitrary behavior after another evaporated. Less than a decade after the U.S. invaded Iraq, American bombing of other countries (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia) hardly even makes the U.S. news, and the precedent has been copied by Israel vs. Lebanon, Turkey vs. Iraq, Russia vs. Georgia, Colombia vs. Ecuador. Only the naive will be surprised if it is copied one day by China vs. Taiwan or India vs. Pakistan. The beginnings of the exponential spiral away from international law toward zero-sum interstate behavior is already quite clearly visible.

Once invasion became acceptable to defeat a subnational actor, it was an easy step to collective punishment, as well. After all, if the subnational actors in fact represented social movements, then perhaps “society” was to blame and deserved to be punished. When down-on-its-heels Russia was allowed to get away with the collective punishment of Grozniy, al Qua’ida’s slaughter of civilians in New York and the U.S. attack on Fallujah became all the easier, and then who was pure enough to criticize Israel’s destruction of Gaza?

As soon as it became fashionable to toss around the idea that “all options” were on the table, it became easier to imply with a smirk that “all options” really meant the military option and that the military option really meant nuclear war. The ultimate threat became common parlance; civil discourse began sounding like the sneer of a bully in a dark alley. The ultimate threat became commonplace and began to be used thoughtlessly and in a way that had become demeaning and counterproductive.

A striking recent example was the unseemly rush of the Pentagon to contradict a now rare example of Washington reasonableness, when U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy stated that all options toward Iran were “off the table in the near term” [AP 4/21/10]. Although still falling far short of what would have seemed the only rational statement in past decades, i.e., that nuclear attack against a non-nuclear power is always off the table (in order thereby to encourage countries to forgo the development of nuclear weapons), Flournoy’s remark was still too much for the new, post-Cold War Washington to tolerate, so the Pentagon immediately reminded the world that nuclear attack by the world’s only superpower remained on the table [Reuters 4/21/10].

Then Washington went further down this slippery slope, making the incredible statement that “all options” would be on the table against Syria if it turned out that Syria had sent Scuds–an absurdly primitive weapon with which to balance Israeli military might–to helpless Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Are we to believe that Washington decision-makers have floated so far into the Twilight Zone that they would launch nuclear war against everyone who talks back? Or have “all options” suddenly metamorphasized into a code word, as I have advocated regarding Israel [OpEd News 3/16/10] and Iran [Foreign Policy comment 3/7/10], for…ah…”all” options, including sympathy and compromise? Perhaps they have, but somehow I doubt it.

The rising acceptance of invasion, the collective punishment of civilians, and the use of nuclear weapons illustrates the perilous dynamics of a zero-sum view of history. Two dynamics are visible here. First, once the moral barrier is broached, others copy the bad precedent. Second, one zero-sum precedent facilitates the use of other zero-sum precedents. The interaction of these two dynamics merely accelerates the exponential curve of collapsing standards of behavior.

Positive-Sum Dynamics
Positive-sum dynamics are harder to get started because they suffer from the reputation of being “dangerous,” as though the events of the last 15 years in Grozniy, New York, Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, Somalia, Yemen, and Lebanon were somehow “not dangerous.” The very actors who implement these zero-sum policies are the first to warn of the dangers, citing Hezbollah rockets or Pakistani rebels or Iranian nuclear infrastructure, yet they persist in employing the very tactics that push the world further toward realization of the extreme zero-sum mental model.
Yet the trend toward a zero-sum world took place one step at a time. Public rhetoric only slowly lost its sense of morality. War on cities only slowly became commonplace (or, more accurately, commonplace again). What might have happened if the West had seriously condemned Russia’s flattening of Grozniy? What would have happened if Washington, basking in the glow of global sympathy on 9/11, had called for an international police action to arrest and bring to trial international terrorists? What would have happened after Israel’s retreat from Lebanon in 2000 if Lebanon’s security had been guaranteed? What would have happened if Israel’s attack on Jenin had been used by the West as evidence that Palestinians must be given justice? What would have happened if the legally elected Hamas administration of Palestine in 2006 had been supported rather than overthrown?

  • What would happen if the West now recognized the right of all countries to obtain medical-grade uranium for whatever medical use that those countries would open to full international inspection?

Would that simply allow Tehran more room to cheat or might it undercut the pro-nuclear lobby in Tehran? Would that simply allow Tel Aviv more room to cheat or might it spark the revival of Israel’s formerly vigorous pro-peace party? Might the undercutting of Tehran’s nuclear advocates feed the revival of an Israeli peace party and vice-versa?

  • What would happen if Washington endorsed international calls for a nuclear-free Mideast and called on Israel and Iran jointly to adopt a policy of nuclear transparency?

If Washington pressured Tehran and Tel Aviv to talk about the tough issue of nuclear arms, might each side come to see some advantage in doing so? And if they did, might they discover other arenas in which cooperation would be mutually beneficial?

What would the impact on Hezbollah be if the Lebanese Army were able to defend the country against Israeli aggression? What would be the impact on Israel if it saw Hezbollah’s power decline at the same time that its own ability to conduct a foreign policy based on military superiority was also declining?

  • What would happen if Washington stated that it favored the security of all Mideast societies and that it was replacing its Israeli-centric strategy with a strategy of Mideast multipolarity, in which Washington would work closely with all regional powers that were willing to work with it, without requiring that they accept all of Washington’s policies?

Do Washington decision-makers have the wisdom to discover ways of putting teeth into such a pronouncement? If so, might Mideast states slowly come to see some value in cooperating? Even under the neo-cons, the U.S. and Iran cooperated to set up the current regime in Afghanistan. This was a rare positive-sum outcome swallowed by the Bush Administration. Can we believe it is the only conceivable example of a potential positive-sum joint U.S.-Iranian action?

None of these actions would instantly transform the balance of power. None of these actions would irretrievably imperil any country’s security. Each would be just a step that could be reversed, slowed, or redirected. But these are important questions. These questions deserve to asked, debated, answered, and acted on; evading the questions is merely voluntarily to blind oneself. Adopting the positive-sum approach does not provide any answers, but it does guide one to start asking questions that open doors to considering new possibilities. These questions point out the many opportunities for reversing the cycle of violence and suggest that the sparking of a benign dynamic founded on a perception of history as positive-sum might not only be possible but might increase the security of all.

Positive-Sum Thinking 
The Case of Afghanistan
Can a positive-sum outcome to the endless mess in the Pakistani-Afghan theater be negotiated? The core U.S. goal in Afghanistan is, presumably, to avoid a terrorist attack on the U.S. The second most important U.S. goal should arguably be constraining heroin exports and the third escaping with the shirt on our backs. These goals constitute minimal U.S. interests. 
Putting these three modest and non-threatening goals on the table as U.S. requirements while offering to negotiate everything else, might Washington be able to entice cooperation out of Kabul, New Delhi, Islamabad, Tehran, and the Taliban? That group is probably the smallest set of negotiating partners that will have to be included to achieve a workable compromise, with success being premised above all on convincing them that the U.S. will truly be willing to walk away in return for some measure of local peace and justice–giving up control, military bases, and oil rights.
This minimal goal set should reassure all the many who fear U.S. imperialism, the irritation of U.S. troops on the ground, heavy-handed U.S. efforts to remake the world in its own image whether the recipients want such help or not, etc. This goal set would open the door to serious consideration of how the conflicting interests of the other parties might be redefined. How that can be accomplished is not clear, and the U.S. role should perhaps focus simply on encouraging them all to get together and define a smooth exit strategy for the U.S. (keeping in mind that al Qua’ida may well focus on preventing the U.S. from escaping).
Three points seem unavoidable: 1) the frame of mind that all the above-mentioned negotiating partners have legitimate interests that will require consideration, 2) that all will need to be included in the dialogue, and 3) that the U.S., as the outsider, should expect to gain the least (a degree of modesty not common in superpowers). The first step is to set the tone by adopting the perspective that attempts to achieve one-sided (zero-sum) victory must give way to a positive-sum outcome.

In practice, U.S. foreign policy has traditionally mixed and hopelessly confused these two diametrically opposed perspectives. Yet almost always one of these policies is the best foundation for a consistent, effective long-term approach to creating a safer world. It is time to face up in public debate to the implications of these two alternative approaches to foreign policy and to decide which one will best serve the interests of U.S. society and the rest of mankind.

The Appearance of Elite Collusion Against Democracy

Apparent fraud brought us the financial crash of 2008 and resultant, on-going tsunami of (permanent?) unemployment: apparent fraud throughout the whole system of elite rule, which was characterized by government agencies concealing information to prevent open democratic debate, rosy scenarios, conflicts of interest, and failure to hold anyone responsible for his actions. Will those leaders stay under this cloud of apparent guilt for the rest of their lives, staining the name of democracy, or will they have their day in court?
The shocking and sobering expose of corporate-government financial collusion to enrich the rich by stealing from all the rest of us offered by Gretchen Morgenson and Joshua Rosner in Reckless Endangerment concludes with the following assessment of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010:
It did not insist that large and unmanageable institutions be cut down to size to alleviate their threats to taxpayers in the future. Nor did it increase the accountability of those running institutions that will need government assistance in the future.
Therefore, despite this presumed reform of the corrupt U.S. financial system, will, they ask, a debacle like the credit crisis of 2008 ever happen again? Their answer: Most certainly, because Congress decided against fixing the problem of too-big-to-fail institutions when it had its chance. [304-305]
Congress failed the American people. That is the outside peel of the infinitely-layered onion of elite corruption.
As for why Congress failed, peeling back the second layer of the onion makes that question is easy to answer: the foxes still guard the henhouse. As the authors make painfully clear, many of the key individuals in charge of bending and breaking the rules, of looking the other way and of carefully planning and implementing fraudthose there at the creation of economic ruin for millions of Americansremain either in power officially or active behind the scenes. No real prospect of bringing these men to justice is visible on the horizon.
Ripping one more layer off this rotten political onion, the problem goes well beyond the handful of corrupt, short-sighted, and arrogant politicians, Wall Street executives, and mortgage company managers named in Reckless Endangerment. As the authors make clear, the real rot was systemic: the collusion not just of individuals but of the institutions at the core of the system, including Wall Street, mortgage companies, rating agencies, the privileged semi-governmental Fannie Mae, Congress, the White House, both the Democratic and Republican branches of the monopolistic/elitist political party that runs the whole show, and most shockingly even the actual regulatory agencies designed to prevent such corrupt and apparently criminal governance.
From all sides, the leaders stood shoulder-to-shoulder bulldozing aside every courageous, far-sighted, and patriotic civil servant who warned of the coming disaster. Whatever other lesson one takes away from the financial collapse of 2008, we should all remember this one: it was no surprise. It resulted from the willful denial of truth and a literally incredible inability on the part of everyone who was profiting to remember the warnings of the very recent past (the original Depression, the S&L scandal of the late 1980s, the Long-Term Capital Management scandal, the 2001 Enron scandal, the 2001 crash of the CDO [collateralized debt obligation] market, the 2002 WorldCom scandal) in the interest of maximizing personal profit. And who can blame the thieves? After all, we let them keep what they stole, and it seems that no one wants to know how many layers of the onion are rotten.
It is hard to imagine how faith in democracy in America can be restored unless those members of the elite under the cloud of a prima facie case of criminal behavior can have their day in court to make the case to the American people that they are in fact not guilty. If they by some miracle do not deserve to be jailed, they have the right to clear their names.
Far more important, the American people deserve closure on what must be one of the most egregious betrayals of the American people by a rapacious gang of the ruling elite in American historyor perhaps not. Perhaps if the Geithners, the Raines, the Greenspans, the Blankfeins, the Bensingers, the Weills, the Lewises, the Paulsons, the Gramms, the Leaches, the Blileyes, the Franks, the Johnsons, the Clintons had their day in court, they would explain how they all had our best interests at heart.

The Appearance of Fraud

Republican member of the House of Representatives Darrell Issa has been trying to protect Goldman Sachs from being investigated while pouring his wealth into Goldman accounts. If he thinks Goldman is a valuable and upright American institution, then why is he afraid of an investigation that could exonerate Goldman and restore its tattered reputation?

Lessons From Washington’s Confrontation With Islam: The Sucker Play

When you don’t know your enemy, you make yourself an irresistible target for the sucker play: “Lesson One” in How to Manipulate a Superpower. To reverse the U.S. decline, Washington national security thinkers need to learn this lesson.

The powerful like to make rules that favor themselves. During the heyday of the Empire, the British, whose well-drilled armies in bright red coats liked highly formalized frontal confrontations, had a rule: if you hid behind trees or otherwise engaged in military maneuvers not included in the British manual of war, you were a terrorist. That was the actual word they used to describe the American colonial freedom fighters. The British by then had long forgotten how their ancestors had fought from behind trees, in the end successfully, to repel an earlier empire, which reached their shores with Julius legions. The weak and the strong each favor the type of fighting that gives them an advantage. And so, today, some call the soldier dropping a bomb on a village he can barely see a brave fighter but the man on the ground putting a bomb in a hole under the street to stop invaders a terrorist.
Both sides try to make the moral issues seem clear. If the fighter in the jet were flying over his own country and killing only invaders, and if the fighter on the ground set bombs to kill only invaders (avoiding harm to local residents), then moral judgments would in fact be much clearer. But the bottom line remains: there is no moral requirement for the weak to play by the rules of the strong.
In fact, for the weak to do so would simply be suicide, and it is pure hypocrisy for the strong to insist that they should and are morally compromised if they do not.
The weak can of course perfectly well see all this and will surely persist in searching for tactics to balance the power of the strong. Ironically, that very power hands to the weak an enormously effective tactic: the sucker play. Be it Native Americans tricking unstoppable buffalo herds into running off a cliff or Chechens trapping Russians on the streets of Grozniy or Hezbollah waiting on hillsides to ambush Israeli tank columns driving up narrow mountain roads or bin Laden tricking a superpower into wasting its blood and treasure in some mountain land or desert, being suckered is the ever-present threat to the powerful.
It is bad enough when one falls into a trap set by the adversary one is confronting; it is even more dangerous when the trap is set by a third party, whoas the Chinese have long put itcan then sit on a hill watching two tigers fight. Unfortunately, bin Laden was never brought to trial, so we may never know the degree to which he consciously planned the Iraqi trap into which Washington fell to the enormous advantage of al Quaida. A weakened and chastened U.S. has yet to count its losses.
One of the primary lessons that Americans should but almost certainly will not learn from the history of the confrontation between political Islam and the West is the need to understand the political forces active in societies we confront. Education is the best defense. A Taliban sheep herder defending his village is not the same as a Salafi crusader leading a global revolution; pushing them into each others arms only aids the crusader. Someone opposed to our behavior does not automatically oppose our lifestyle.
These points are, I trust, blindingly obvious to anyone who would bother to read this article, but if they are so obvious, then here is the question:
Why has the U.S. not launched a campaign to broaden understanding of Muslim societies?
Why are we not funding an explosion of Islamic study institutes and paying premiums for Arabic speakers with degrees in Muslim cultural and political studies (rather than paying premiums to Blackwater mercenaries doing jobs that should, if done at all, either be done by locals or U.S. civil servants)? The funds are clearly available or we would not choose the most expensive imaginable mode of warfare. Were there a shortage of taxpayer contributions, we could fund competitive contracts rather than scandalously huge sole source contracts. Alternatively, we could pay civil servants with an interest in serving the nations interests a modest wage instead of paying private corporations with an interest in making a profit. Alternatively, we could hire the poor locals whom our wars have put on the unemployment roles (making them angry at us) to do the jobs (making them grateful to us). But all these are short-term solutions that fail to answer the underlying question of whether or not we have correctly identified our opponent. All the generous taxpayer contributions in the world will not solve the problem, if our policy is based on ignorance of our enemy and is itself the source of the hostility we face in the world. All the weapons in the world will not bring victory if we cannot identify the enemy. But without understanding the societies from which attackers emerge, the societies which we attack, we will never know. We will blunder from one mistake to another, always baffled by the hostility that seems to come out of the blue.
When I see a flood of investment in education about the Muslim world and salaries for those so educated, then I will begin to believe that we have learned this lesson of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the U.S. invasions of both Iraq and Afghanistan: either know thine enemy or set thyself up for the sucker play.

Can the U.S. Reverse Its Decline?

If an historic shiftthe decline of the U.S.is unfolding before our eyes, then the double scandal of the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan followed by the scandal of the recession will be seen as key pieces of evidence. Butjust as those events constituted failures of leadership rather than external accidents, good leadership could avoid the decline they point to.
It is very easy to offer the double military debacle of the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan as evidence of the decline of the U.S. Indeed, it is evidence, and strong evidence at that. But that of course does not prove that the U.S. decline is, so far, more than a bad decade that could be overcome by an educated and determined population led by a responsible national leadership aware of the mistakes of its predecessors. Stephen Walt neatly spells out this all-important caveat:
The good news, however, is the defeat in Iraq and Afghanistan — and make no mistake, that is what it is — tells us relatively little about America’s overall power position or its ability to shape events that matter elsewhere in the world. Remember that the United States lost the Vietnam War too, but getting out facilitated the 1970s rapprochement with China and ultimately strengthened our overall position in Asia.  Fourteen years later, the USSR had collapsed and the United States had won the Cold War. Nor should anyone draw dubious lessons about U.S. resolve; to the contrary, both of these wars show that the United States is actually willing to fight for a long time under difficult conditions. Thus, the mere fact that we failed in Iraq and Afghanistan does not by itself herald further U.S. decline, provided we make better decisions going forward.
What lessons should we be learning from the Iraqi and Afghan wars?
  • Dont deify your enemies.
  • If the enemy is a gang, war against states is the wrong strategic response.
  • If the problem is social, a military solution will make things worse.
  • We cant do everything.
  • Even if we can do everything, we cant do everything without sacrifice.
  • Foreign policy and domestic policy are linked, and a strong societyworkers gainfully employed, people living within their meansforms the basis for an effective foreign policy.
  • Breaking our own laws, ignoring our own principles, and undermining our constitution do not strengthen our position.
  • Our ignorance of the rest of the world and of the actual behavior of our government and corporations overseas makes it very easy for enemies to set traps and sucker us into voluntarily stepping into them.
  • The military card is most effective when available but never played.
  • Never trust American leaders: they harm Americans far more than our foreign enemies do.
  • Most enemies of the U.S. are more like hornets after you throw a rock at their nest: their hostility did not come out of the blue.
  • Learn some history.
Evidence that either voters or leaders in the U.S. have learned any of these lessons is, unfortunately, hard to find.

Whitewashing U.S. Behavior
Robert Danin of the Council on Foreign Relations recently called for improving our “message” to Muslims. Focusing on the idea that our problem lies in our message rather than our behavior exemplifies the failure to learn the fundamental lessons of 9/11. Empire-building, supporting Israeli rightwing expansionists, and–yes–taking the oil are what they don’t like.

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.

Too Big to Exist

When corporate or government institutions become too big and too socially destructive to exist, we need a graceful method of putting them on a diet and reforming their lifestyle.

The American genius for creating magnificently productive mega-institutions has a potentially fatal downside: we have, as a society, no idea how to downsize them when they “go rogue,” i.e., become socially destructive. On balance, today, several of America’s major mega-institutions–the Imperial Presidency, Big Oil, Big Pharma, and Big Finance–either are or are fast becoming socially destructive. They are “too big to exist;” we need to figure out how to downsize them gracefully, reorienting them toward socially useful behavior.

Perhaps the first step toward this new way of thinking that needs to replace the tarnished old “bigger is better” mantra is to understand the evidence supporting the contention that these mega-institutions are so bloated that American and, indeed, global society can no longer afford them. (I call these social units “institutions” because each is truly a unified organization composed of, perhaps, separate governmental or private units, but operating according to a clear if unstated and frequently illegal set of monopolistic rules designed to maximize profit and power at public expense and, in the case of the Imperial Presidency, at the expense of the rest of the Government as well.) Consider the following examples of mega-institution misbehavior:

  1. The Imperial Presidency, i.e., the rising ability of the White House and all its military-industrial support mechanism to overshadow Congress and Constitution on foreign policy, now employs something in the neighborhood of a quarter of a million mercenaries overseas, constituting an armed force capable of making independent war on most countries–completely outside of Congressional control and often beyond the reach of U.S. judicial authorities [see Jean MacKenzie, Jeremy Scahill, Glen Ford]. Since Augustus overthrew the Roman Republic with his palace guards and established the Roman Empire, we have known the profound threat to democracy posed by a mercenary army under the command of the chief executive.
  2. Big Pharma, constituting the whole U.S. health care industry, has degenerated so far that, to boost profits, it now essentially writes off as a “business loss” all of the nationa’s elderly with the almost universal cognitive problems associated with aging. At their most vulnerable, they are thrown into the arms of untrained relatives utterly unprepared for 24/7 nursing.
  3. Big Oil, alb eit receiv ing billions annually in welfare payments from U.S. taxpayers, can destroy ever-growing chunks of the earth through careless cost-cutting measures and escape responsibility. For the rest of our lives, we will be watching BP’s poison creep with Gulf Stream currents up the North American east coast and over toward England, while everyone complains about $4 a gallon gas, a price only a fraction of the real cost.
  4. As for Big Finance, the cost of its irresponsibility is now glaringly obvious to everyone. At the very least, Wall St. should keep accurate books, and regulators should scrutinize them.

The traditional way of toppling rogue mega-institutions is of course well known: the “barbarians” did it to Imperial Rome, Lincoln did it to the Southern slave system, Gorbachev did it to the Soviet state. But as these mega-institutions take on global scale, the cost of violent overthrow rises sharply. We should be able to do better.

Key to the smooth downsizing of rogue mega-institutions is twofold: 1) the breakthrough understanding of the bottom line insight that a cherished social structure has outlived its usefulness as currently designed combined with 2) the identification of specific traits requiring elimination. Specific reforms (Step 2) without acceptance of the goal of institutional downsizing, and redirection into a socially beneficial mode misses the point. That was the mistake of the Wall Street bailout, which successfully saved the bad old exploitative system rather than taking the opportunity to dismantle it by, for example, rebuilding the wall between the stock market and personal savings accounts. Similarly, eliminating mercenary forces while leaving the political supremacy over Congress of the Imperial Presidency untouched will only have a temporary impact. Surgical removal of a specific cancerous tumor must be done in the context of lifestyle changes related to nutrition, avoiding pesticides, and exercise.

Rogue mega-institutions must be recognized as enemies of society and redesigned to return to their proper purpose of servinhg society. The Presidency’s power should be balanced with that of Congress; stock market investments should b e used to stimulate growth, not gamble with people’s mortgages and savings accounts; the health care system should exist to provide a universal right, not to make a profit; the cost of gas should b e set by government to reflect its true value, incluyding the cost of pollution clean-up and the cost of wars fought to get the oil. And no industry that takes welfare from the taxpayer should turn its leaders into billionaires immune from prosecution.


To its credit, Washington is at least thinking about this issue. See comments by FDIC’s Sheila Bair.

New Mideast Rules

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For several decades, the rules most of the world’s elite took for granted in Mideast politics were pretty simple:
  • Conservative dictators could be trusted to sell oil in a way that, regardless of market price, would end up putting the profits in the hands of Western corporations (oil for high prices would be offset by large purchases of expensive, unneeded arms);
  • The Arab street would never mount a significant nationalist demand for liberty or justice;
  • Israel would have a regional blank check to do whatever it wanted because Arab dictators, dependent on Western support, would do no more than talk about justice for Palestine;
  • Anyone who seriously tried to overthrow this system would be marginalized or attacked.
Although it remains unclear what the new rules for the Mideast political system will be, it is clear that the old rules can no longer be taken for granted. All Arabs now know that an Arab population can rise up with essentially no organization and figure out in the space of a few days how to defeat an oppressive and heavily armed regime. Even the most extreme example of criminal behavior by a regime, Gaddafi’s attempt to use both the full power of his military forces plus a barbarian horde of foreign mercenaries to slaughter the Libyan protesters now seems almost certain to fail: the more extreme the efforts of Arab dictators to impose criminal rule, the more rapidly even regime officials withdraw their personal support.
Conservative dictators now know they must pay more attention to popular feelings, which will constrain the deals they cut with regimes elsewhere. Arab leaders will have a lot more reason in the future than they have had in the past to advocate policies in tune with popular opinion. Out-of-power parties will automatically have greater influence to the degree that leaders begin to feel the need to create a ruling coalition encompassing majority opinion.
These constraints on arbitrary policy-making will make it more difficult for any Arab regime to cooperate with an aggressive Israel; whether Israel’s policy changes or not, the policy of Arab states toward Israel is likely to become more critical, more demanding of Israeli responsiveness to Arab feelings because Arab leaders will simultaneously be less dependent on Washington’s largesse and more dependent on the popular mood.
Numerous milestones have occurred over the past two months, from the evaporation of the Egyptian police as a force for oppression to the decision by the Egyptian military not to murder peaceful demonstrators to the flood of Libyan officials who have had the moral courage to resign and denounce their leader. As the precedents of official organs of power failing to support a ruler at the expense of the people mount in number from one regional state to another, it becomes increasingly difficult for the next ruler to resist the popular will.
Progress toward democracy has also been notable in a wholly different dimension, as well. The learning curve of various Arab populations about how to defend human rights against the brute force of criminal regimes has been nothing short of phenomenal. Handing flowers to soldiers, sitting on tanks, using the Internet to schedule “revolutionary action” publicly have not prevented attacks by police goon squads or massacres, but they have made the point that regime terrorism can be defeated. Only the Israeli regime in Palestine and the Iranian regime have, so far, succeeded in achieving victory through violence.
Dictators, so far, are behaving with mind-numbing predictability, employing every self-defeating tactic in the traditional totalitarian handbook. Well, it still works in Tehran and perhaps in Algers, so why not? Whatever one can say about dictators, they are not known to be creative, unless the combination of foreign mercenary mobs covered by the air force—a tactical innovation from the tactical genius Gaddafi—may be deemed to count. But now that the Arab people have suddenly learned creativity, betting on the regimes of Algeria, Yemen, and Bahrain would not be advised for the risk-averse.
The outcome remains far beyond prediction. A long process of negotiation, which will vary by state, is ahead as a comfortable and security-conscious military negotiates with a broad mass of reformers. One key ingredient seems already to have been answered: this time, it seems unlikely that Washington will send troops to decide the issue. The days of Lebanon 1958 or Lebanon 1983 or Iraq 2003 seem, for the foreseeable future, to be behind us. That leaves the key to the outcome in the hands of the protesters, who include civil rights idealists, labor union activists with an eye to economic conditions, and the religiously motivated, with all three groups overlapping in unpredictable ways. So two key tactical questions are:
  1. Can the protesters find united positions on core issues?
  2. Can the protesters negotiate a compromise with the military?
Although the Arab military forces have, so far, proven to be far more humane than the People’s Liberation Army during Tiananmen, the Basij during the Green Movement protests against electoral fraud, the various warlords of Lebanon’s agonizing civil war,  the military and the Islamic fundamentalists during Algeria’s equally agonizing civil war, or the IDF in Gaza (2009) or Lebanon (2006), these examples of regime security force brutality nevertheless serve as cautionary tales of what can happen to a peaceful protest* that lacks overwhelming popular support. And even in Bahrain, Yemen, and Egypt—not to mention Libya, regime terrorism against citizens doing no more than what the citizens of Madison, Wisconsin are doing this week has been all too common. The protesters will serve themselves well if they keep these precedents in mind as they search for a united political platform and sit down to serious policy negotiations with their respective militaries.
As long as Arab regime attitudes were predictable and virtually all regional governments were using force against their own people (including Iran, the prime claimant to leadership of a new regional political system, and even democratic Turkey—vis-à-vis its Kurds), Israel had a certain degree of cover for its repression of Palestinians. If civil rights become the new fad in the Mideast, however, Israel will look very exposed.
Israel is not the only violence-prone Mideast regime that will look exposed if the protesters succeed in establishing democratic regimes across the Arab world. Iran will undermine its own pretenses of becoming a regional leader to the degree that it continues to commit a degree of violence against its people that has been renounced in the Arab (and Turkish) portions of the region. Iran may be relatively immune to Arab pressure, but it will weaken its political position.
The other country that may rapidly find itself isolated is Algeria, which appears very much ready to continue its long tradition of violence against those who wish to express their own political opinions. Whether Bouteflika’s resistance to popular demands will be weakened by popular victories across most of the rest of North Africa and to what degree the newly empowered societies of North Africa will be able and willing to provide assistance to an Algerian protest movement that has so far been stopped cold by regime security forces remains to be seen.
As for the U.S., it has an historic opportunity now to get on “the right side of history.” Having evidently made the decision not to intervene militarily against Arab protesters and having publicly asserted their right to freedom of expression, it faces a fundamental policy contradiction as long as it continues to serve as the last defender on earth of the Israeli right-wing ruling elite’s policy of oppressing and (in the sense of an organized society) destroying the Palestinian people. Washington would be well served if it could marshal the courage to get out in front of the situation by brokering, as a first step, an end to the collective punishment and continued incarceration in their ghetto of the 1.5 million people of Gaza. It has this opportunity today, but Egypt is quite likely very soon to take that opportunity away…by simply opening the Rafah gate, recognizing Hamas-issued passports, and allowing Gaza to trade with the world via Sinai. For Washington then to rush to concur that “of course the people of Gaza have the same right as everyone else to freedom of trade, freedom of travel, freedom of expression” will sound just a bit insincere and gain Washington little credit on the Arab street, which may by that point be selecting Arab leaders.
Perhaps the key strategic question at this point, in contrast to the tactical questions discussed above, is:
To what degree will the victory of similar popular protests demanding human rights for Arab populations result in a single pan-Arab movement?
A pan-Arab movement could turn into a crusade to keep oil profits or a crusade against Israel. It could also be hijacked by a new class of dictators – either traditional ones or of the religious variety. All of these unsettling possibilities will be made more likely by a West that proves reluctant to welcome Arab societies into the ranks of world democracies. But welcoming them will entail far more than just words. It will entail first of all a restructuring of aid away from exotic and profitable Western offensive weapons toward the type of trade and economic aid programs that will improve the lives of the people who are fighting for their liberty. It will entail reining in Israeli expansionists and defining a new regional security regime—one that this time is inclusive and positive-sum rather than being focused on Israel. It will entail developing society-to-society or at least state-to-state relationships, rather than leader-to-leader relationships, with all the implied implications for value judgments.
The Arab Revolt of 2011 is inspired by Western ideals and targets Western lackeys, but because of their governance not because they cooperate with the West. The West needs to choose which side it is on and should be happy that it has such an easy choice: if the choice becomes one between Western lackeys and a popular Arab revolt inspired by religious fundamentalism or virulent nationalism, the choice will be much more difficult for the West. The Arab Revolt of 2011 is not about foreign policy, but it is a short step from its domestic focus to a focus on how the West is treating the Arab world; one can only hope that some serious introspection is now occurring in Western policy-making circles.
The Arab world was united once, it was a leading global civilization once. Already it is apparent that Americans trying to defend their environment and their right to collective bargaining against right-wing political campaigns financed by hundreds of millions of dollars from a tiny handful of billionaires and corporations interested either in union-bashing or irresponsible new mining ventures in pristine locations (e.g., Wisconsin river valleys) might take some organizational tips from a young but well-educated Arab generation that includes both the Internet-savvy and some with a profound comprehension of the meaning of democracy. What else might the Arab world, if united by a new (for the Mideast) set of principles about the rights of man, contribute to human civilization?
*For those who wonder how I can include Gaza during Israel’s recent attack as a “peaceful protest,” recall that Hamas—which had won a democratic election to govern all of Palestine in 2006 only to be forced out of the West Bank by Israeli- and U.S-instigated violence, had agreed to halt rocket attacks on Israel the previous summer and was attempting with some effectiveness to enforce that agreement but continued to protest Israeli collective punishment, incursions, etc.

Stimulating Self-Organization in the Gaza Laboratory

Israel’s so-called policy of defending itself against Gaza by imposing collective punishment constitutes a serious and unpredictable threat to Israeli national security: stimulating the rise of a desperate and inventive self-organized network of enemies is not rational behavior for a traditional status-quo military power.
Foreign policy is traditionally seen as “top-down:” leaders confer with leaders, regimes sign treaties and start wars; policy is made between states, not a couple of guys in an alley. But the world has recently seen some disconcerting examples of “bottom-up” foreign policy, where individuals have acted in classic complex-adaptive systems mode to self-organize new forms of behavior.
Perhaps the two most obvious current examples are: 1) the rise of the highly heterogeneous anti-U.S. insurgency in Iraq following the U.S. conquest in 2003 that included interethnic violence, al Qua’ida, and the Shi’ite militia of Moqtada al Sadr, and 2) the stimulation by American intervention in Afghanistan of a broad array of self-organized and frequently local resistance groups that can with varying degrees of accuracy be grouped under the heading of “The Taliban” but which in many cases might more accurately simply be called “village defense forces.”
For Americans, at least, Gaza is unfortunately a less well understood, albeit increasingly important, example. The Gaza Ghetto, with its encircling ring of Israeli military “guards” is of course a good example of top-down control, but within the 1.5-million-person society of Gaza, Israel’s writ extends only to influencing rather than controlling. Hamas runs the local government, but even Hamas apparently does not control either the formation of political factions or the use of force—either internally or against the Israeli enemy. Whether Israel exerts its influence through the murder of politicians, military attack, or—as recently revealed—the cynical manipulation of finances to impose the collective punishment of semi-starvation on the whole population, Israel’s actions come down to an insertion of energy that keeps the social pot boiling without controlling the outcome. The outcome is the result not of Israeli decision-making but of highly complex local self-organization.
Israel might choose to support the development of normal self-government in Gaza, but it does not so choose. Rather, Israel subverts Hamas’ efforts to govern. Since Israel also does not offer a socio-political solution of its own that the population can live with—human rights, a viable economy, security, an educational system, or even a sewage system, Israel does not manage the society in the way any normal government would; rather, it simply provokes the population of Gaza to self-organize even as it prevents the only government Gaza has (that of Hamas) from performing effectively.
The effect of Israel’s negative-sum policy of preventing good self-government while refusing to offer its own governance (good or bad) is to stimulate experimentation by raising the level of desperation without offering any solution. Israel is thus creating a highly efficient laboratory for breeding new forms of self-organization. The highly predictable outcome is surprise: made desperate and goaded endlessly, the Palestinians will in response invent an endless series of new responses. One day it may be a violent Hamas takeover of domestic administration from a corrupt and servile Fatah, another day it may be a bulldozer attack on the Egyptian border, another day a series of import-export tunnels, another day an international campaign to ship in desperately needed medicine, another day the rise of new self-organized fundamentalist militias that make Hamas look like Gaza’s last best chance for democracy.
In brief, Israel’s policy in Gaza is a direct threat to Israeli national security. It sets a conservative, hierarchical modern military backed by a government with a foreign policy fixed in the concrete of military superiority as the road to peace against an increasingly inventive, flexible, motivated population finding foreign support from a broadening array of state and non-state actors. It is only a matter of time before some form of behavior with truly serious consequences for Israeli society and, by inevitable extension, for the U.S., emerges from the Gaza laboratory.

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.


  • 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.”