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.
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Hidden Agendas

When politicians talk up tensions between two states, these tensions may be a game to satisfy hidden agendas or a reality artificially created by the irresponsible players. The citizens of the two sides, the ones paying the price, should open their eyes and reserve judgement.

State A and State B have long been at each other’s throats, both regularly engaging in insulting rhetoric and hostile maneuvers at every opportunity. Both societies suffer from governments that perform badly in terms of economic management and the protection of civil liberties at home. Each state sports a leader addicted to an aggressive international posture. Both states are theocracies, though both make obeisance to the modern god Democracy. Both states make laughable claims to exceptionalism. But there is a difference. State A is small, with few natural attributes of leadership but with an outsized military its leaders cannot resist using, regardless of whether it offers a long-term solution or not. State B is large, a natural power, but with a weak military, yet to reach its potential. The two states share no border and indeed have no obvious reason to pay any particular attention to each other.

One of the first distinctions one might notice about these two states is strategic: State A, with ample territory, a large population, and resources, seems destined, if it can get its house in order, to a bright future. It needs time, however, and could thus logically be expected to seek a stable and cooperative international environment. State B, with no obvious prospects over the long run for leadership but momentarily on a roll with a vastly greater relative superiority in strength than it could imaginably sustain, in fact has a brief chance to do what it wants but logically could be expected to foresee its inevitable loss of relative power in the midterm and therefore also be looking for a stable, cooperative environment that would facilitate the construction of lasting relationships. Nevertheless, the two cooperate only to the degree that they are, hand-in-hand, courting disaster. What is going on? How can one explain such mutually self-defeating behavior? What are the dynamics of this relationship?

Strategically, State A needs time to gather its strength, import advanced technology, achieve domestic political stability, develop its economy, and gain international support. Its forward-leaning foreign policy and egregiously hostile rhetoric appear ill-timed. Nevertheless, it has a logically defensible hidden agenda. State A appears strong and clearly is in the process of gaining strength, yet it presumably knows its own weakness and may well be acting tough on the basis of the perfectly defensible hidden strategic agenda of covering up its own weakness. In this dangerous game the slightest miscalculation may provoke precisely the attack it is attempting by bluffing to avoid. State A’s long history of suffering aggression from global powers combined with State B’s pattern of aggression against a variety of neighbors provide a persuasive body of evidence arguing in favor of bluffing rather than trying to accommodate State B. Clinching the case in the minds of many of State A’s national security thinkers may be a powerful pair of additional facts: the tight alliance between State B and the world’s only superpower and that superpower’s recent proclivity for attacking State A’s neighbors. When you really are being surrounded, it is easy to jump to the conclusion that you are under threat. State A’s behavior seems to be a dangerous miscalculation strategically but is explicable as a calculated risk to conceal a position of genuine weakness.

State B’s behavior also makes some sense strategically…but only as a risk-taking, short-term maximizing strategy. State B is, after all, in a temporary position of strength; it has a strategic opportunity that can be expected to dissipate, so the argument can be made that this is an historic opportunity to consolidate its position by seizing territory and retarding the development of potential adversaries. The strategic risk is that such a policy is also likely to maximize the hostility of its adversary. Given that its adversary is likely to gain strength relative to State B over the long run, a policy that stimulates hostility is logically questionable from a national security perspective. Defense of this strategy as a rational approach requires belief in the assumption that everyone else will always be hostile, a self-fulfilling prophesy of doom that is irrational by definition.

Both states, then, are pursuing what appear to be illogical and self-defeating policies of raising tensions and needlessly taking a real risk of provoking war of incalculable cost, yet each state actually can make a somewhat logical, if highly dangerous, case that it is pursuing a strategically valid policy. This conclusion is important because it portrays the respective decision-makers as carefully calculating risk-takers rather than the crazy militants they sometimes appear to be. Fighting to the death may be the only workable response to crazy militants who worship force; other, much cheaper solutions are available to persuade rational, calculating risk-takers that a particular risk may be too great.

This conclusion is also important because it suggests that national security thinkers in each state may well support these policies for a long time, regardless of how dangerous they are for the respective states as well as the rest of the world. No one can safely assume that either regime is suddenly likely to “wake up” and become risk-averse, renounce the use of force, and transform itself into a “good neighbor.” Like driving a sports car at top speed, a policy of force has momentum. This means the world needs to take very seriously the danger that this strategic competition might spin out of control; rather than just watching, or, as some are wont to do, cheering on one’s favorite side, the rest of the world needs to recognize that these two states are going through a period of extreme danger, like speed-crazed drivers entering a curvy section of highway but unwilling to slow down, and this highway is crowded. The period of danger will last as long as:

1. State A remains too weak to feel confident that it can protect itself without frightening its adversary;
2. State B remains convinced that it has a unique moment of power that it must exploit before it is too late.

It is thus in the interest of the rest of the world to consider how they might dissuade each side from these perceptions.

It may be concluded, then, that strategic claims are at least to some degree sincere and thus must be taken into account by analysts attempting to understand the curious behavior of these two states. That said, strategic considerations are clearly far from the whole story. More than one layer of hidden agenda lies inside the policy onions of these two states.

If a government is a group that gropes its way toward some (often least) common denominator called a policy, it is also a collection of individuals focused like a laser on their own personal careers. The behavior of States A and B cannot be understood without appreciating the degree to which the leaders of each benefits from, indeed survives politically as the result of, the garden of international tension which he so assiduously waters.

The leaders of States A and B would no doubt both be highly insulted were they informed of the degree to which they present mirror images of each other. Each has exacerbated domestic discord with ominous long-term implications for the stability of his society in order to form a winning coalition to enhance his own hold on power. Each has exploited and exacerbated international tensions to cover up his own failings as a leader. Each justifies his own failed leadership by then claiming to be defending his own country against the very hostility he himself has done so much to provoke. As obvious as this personal hidden agenda may be, the respective supporters of each seem utterly oblivious to it.

More, on each side, some of the supporters simply do not care; they themselves benefit too much to care. Superpower politicians share the hidden agenda of State B’s leader, exploiting the tensions they so loudly deride between State A and State B to pad their own resumes. Other enemies of State B are more than happy to profit from the tensions to gain the support of State A. Tensions, just short of war, offer many opportunities for profit. More technically, balancing on the fine edge of chaos maximizes performance (as long as it lasts).

International relations is described by the players in fine patriotic words. The reality is an onion of hidden agendas that make almost impossible rational policy-making.

The dynamics propelling behavior in this two-state system are complex. Expanding the analytical perspective to include domestic politics and external patron states makes the system dynamics almost defy comprehension.

The first dynamic is a vicious cycle of hostile behavior by one side provoking hostile behavior by the other side, which in turn provokes more hostile behavior…This cycle is real enough. The pursuit of a weapons system by one side provokes the pursuit of a weapons system by the other side.

A second dynamic is not “real” but “perception,” though its effects may be just as real. Each side interprets all defensive moves by the opponent as demonstrating offensive intent. Misperceptions can cause war as easily as real threats.

A third dynamic is a hidden state agenda to exploit tensions for national profit. A weak state can stride the international stage by providing cheap rhetorical support for an insurgency. A client state can manipulate a patron into providing an unneeded flow of aid. Foreign tensions serve as a marvelous cloaking device for regimes wishing to win votes or repress dissent at home. The leaders of both states exploit tensions for domestic partisan purposes, but both they and the voters misperceive that exploitation as sincere so tensions rise. Tensions also rise because the politicians talk themselves into believing their self-serving propaganda (cognitive dissonance).

A fourth dynamic is a hidden personal agenda to exploit tensions for personal profit. Waving the bloody flag is a tried and tested road to a brilliant political career. It is also the road to massive corporate profit. Who dares complain about the cost of “supporting our boys in uniform?”

These obvious points only deserve mention for two reasons:

1. Obvious or not, politicians get away with this nonsense every day, causing incalculable harm to society;


2. Even if all the individual points are obvious to a particularly aware individual, humans are poorly wired to “connect the dots” when the dots occur in a dynamic relationship, i.e., when interacting feedbacks generate exponential change and tipping points that suddenly reverse dominance (e.g., from intensifying patriotic fervor to sudden disenchantment with a crooked politician). Thus, we almost never understand the danger that results from these different dynamics when they interact.

The above account is a model. No pair of states in human history has ever precisely matched this model. Indeed, this model, as specified above, has no specificity. You must provide the specificity when you apply it to a real-world case, e.g., by determining the rate at which these various dynamics operate (all different from each other and all susceptible to variation depending on the context). Be that as it may, if the model seems to shed light on the behavior of any real pair of contending states, then it may provide a somewhat more useful starting point than screaming accusations of “insanity,” “fundamentalism,” “being the New Hitler,” “deserving to be wiped off the face of the earth,” or “representing evil incarnate.”

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 al Qua’ida Trap

Patrick Cockburn of the Independent on al Qua’ida trap:

the real strength of al-Qaeda is that a quite small incident, that a botched attempt by a Nigerian student briefly in Yemen to blow up a plane, can then precipitate a whole change in international relations and US—greater US support for the Yemeni government, a greater involvement in a really difficult country. This seems to me walking straight into a sort of al-Qaeda trap. You know, at the time of 9/11, al-Qaeda quite openly—leaders quite openly said that their hope was to entrap the US into ground wars in Muslim countries. And that seems to be exactly what’s happening.

Cockburn is referring to exactly the mistake that is discussed in yesterday’s post on Yemeni Radicalization Dynamics.

Iran’s Future Dims

Iranians have evidently fled the streets, and the regime has closed the book on the election dispute, but neither pro-Ahmadinejad extremists out for blood nor Ahmadinejad’s opponents within the elite appear to be getting the message, as rhetoric intensifies. This harms Iranian democracy and makes more dangerous the international situation by complicating Iran’s relations with the U.S. and Israel.

Despite a statement by the Guardian Council that the election issue was resolved, the Islamic Revolution Devotees Society, which had announced support for Ahmadinejad in April, called on June 30 for debates among the presidential candidates to clear up “ambiguities.”Judging from a Western media report, hardliners have little interest in reunifying the fractured revolutionary elite:

  • “Those who asked for the annulment of 10th presidential election are anti-revolutionary and against the regime,” hardline cleric Ahmad Khatami told the official news agency IRNA, in an apparent reference to opposition groups led by Mousavi. “If anyone said there was fraud in the election, he has lied and committed a sin,” said the cleric.
  • Even more ominously, the Basij militia is overtly interfering in politics, reportedly calling on the regime to investigate Mousavi for sedition. If true, this would add evidence to the argument that the electoral crisis was really about an effort by the military (and perhaps intelligence) forces to take control of Iran away from the old Khomenei-era generation of clergy.

These remarks starkly diverge from Khamenei’s own strong backing for the legitimacy of all four candidates in his June 19 Friday prayer sermon:

The four candidates who entered the presidential race all belonged and still belong to the Islamic establishment. One of these four is the president of our country – a hardworking and trustworthy president. One of them is the two-term prime minister, he served the country when I myself was president. He was my prime minister for eight years. One of them was the commander of the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps and one of the wartime commanders. One them was two-time head of parliament and Majlis speaker. They are all members of our Islamic establishment.

Despite the dangerous tone of the pro-Ahmadinejad forces, elite rhetoric from the anti-Ahmadinejad camp continues to heat up as well. Former President Khatami had called for the formation of an “impartial” body—implying that the Guardian Council was not impartial to resolve the election dispute.

In a Sunday meeting with members of the parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, Khatami raised the alarm that the breach of public confidence could shake the foundation of the Islamic establishment.

The two-time Reformist president then suggested that the formation of an ‘impartial panel’ to look into the issue could remove any ambiguities and restore public trust.

On July 1, Khatami went further, denouncing the handling of the protestors by the regime:

If you want to calm the atmosphere, why are you carrying out mass arrests? Oppressing people will not help end the protest.

Karroubi, head of the Etemad Melli (National Confidence) party and former Majlis speaker, has also reportedly become increasingly active, although Iranian media censorship is making it increasingly difficult to track the actions of the losing candidates:

… Karroubi has stepped up his independent criticism of the election and could emerge as a leading dissident voice against Ahmadinejad.

On Tuesday, he issued a harshly worded statement that blasted Ahmadinejad’s government and pledged to continue challenging its authority. Karroubi’s political group, the National Confidence Party, said the newspaper was shut down in response. “I don’t consider this government as legitimate,” said the statement posted on Karroubi’s Wed site. “I will continue the fight under any circumstances and using every means.”

Karroubi had formerly singled out the Interior Ministry as responsible for electoral tensions, in an apparent effort to put the onus on Ahmadinejad rather than Khamenei.

Moussavi issued a statement Wednesday flatly challenging the regime:

From now on we will have a government the legitimacy of which the majority of the people, including me, will not acknowledge.

Khamenei’s thoughtful and conciliatory remarks in his Friday prayer sermon on the 19th indicated his concern over such a split among the elite, but his cautious tone has not been emulated by others in the winning coalition – on the streets, at the legal level, or in recent rhetoric and has thus provoked the very divisiveness it attacked. Heavy-handed regime behavior even after its overwhelming victory seems likely to prevent conciliation among elite factions, not to mention undermining legitimacy among the people. This can be expected to further poison an already harsh political environment characterized by bitter factional competition and institutionalized distrust in which career failure can easily lead to imprisonment or even execution.

Iranian politics has been energized, and to that extent patriotic Americans or Israelis dismayed by the lack of popular commitment to defend democractic principles in the face of leadership abuse may be envious. On the other hand, the handling of the election seems likely to leave behind a population and elite split, embittered, radicalized, and disenchanted. The fact that somewhat analogous processes have weakened the unity of both the Israeli and American populations in recent years will make rational interaction among the three states considerably more difficult in the near future.

Manufacturing Extremism

When oppression and neglect by a corrupt elite (be it a financial elite in New York or a landed aristocracy in Pakistan) reaches the point of provoking sustained violent protest, the result is typically the rise of a new brand of self-serving elite. It is our ironic habit in the West to term this second type of self-serving elite “extremist.” The example of Pakistan follows.

The following opinion piece in Pakistan’s Frontier Post should be required reading for Washington decisionmakers on several levels. The first lesson it teaches is that state collapse is a long complicated process that contains numerous opportunities for influencing the course of events. The second lesson is that there exists an historical pattern that by now should be (though it certainly is not) obvious to all American decisionmakers: a pattern of justifiable insurgency in protest against local injustice that becomes radicalized as a result of “self-serving policies” of the elite. The third lesson is that American boots on the ground have a tendency to exacerbate rather than resolve the situation. For those who still don’t get it, that is what statements such as “Iraq is Arabic for Vietnam” mean.

The remark by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mullen that the arrival of another 17,000 U.S. troops would hopefully stabilize the situation illustrates the astonishing blindness of U.S. decisionmakers – astonishing after the lessons of Vietnam and Algeria and Lebanon and Somalia and Gaza and Iraq.

The turmoil in Pakistan’s FATA and NWFP offer a set of “models” illustrating these lessons. It is not more U.S. troops, more drones, more straffing runs by U.S. helicopters piloted by local militaries, more Israeli slash and burn tactics created in Jenin and Gaza and Southern Lebanon and reapplied from Fallujah to Bajaur that are needed. Rather, these regions need state-provided civil services, police forces that will not just direct traffic but also guard schools, military forces that will not just show up in jet bombers but establish a permanent presence on the ground to back up the police and tribal militias. Either the rich elite of urban Pakistan will dig into its pockets to fund the provision of state services to the border populations or the border populations, with the support of the urban poor, will give their support to an insurgency that will make the rich elite very uncomfortable.

March of Taliban and waiting for Allah

Tanvir Orakzai

When a state collapses, it does not happen due to a single factor or a single event as commonly believed; instead it is the combination of economic, political and administrative blunders that accelerates the demise of a nation. The seed of erosion of Pakistan have been sown decades ago; where successive military and political governments miserably failed by pursing self serving policies with little care for its powerless population. US invasion may have triggered the rise of local Taliban but there was a general discontent in Pakistan over the mismanagement of political and economic policies that were pursued for decades. The Algerian insurgency in 1990s took place in similar circumstances where military and political leaders failed to redress the wide spread social discontent. The leadership of Islamic parties in Algeria was hijacked by bands of outrageous militants, who considered everybody infidel except themselves similar to Sufi Muhammad. The result was an indiscriminate killing spree of innocent civilians for years in the name of Islam. Insurgency needs an environment of inequality that allows militant leaders to capitalize on the dissatisfaction of the masses to pursue their own agendas. Militant leaders find followers in situations, where there is little political and economic development and where expectations are met with frustration. For militant leaders, such surroundings are ideal to construct an ideology that is rooted in religion, history or nationalism to glorify the terrorist acts. Pakistan has been suffering from all these symptoms and it was natural for militants to snatch the opportunity and declare war on Pakistan. Looking at the present chaos, our leaders (Army and politicians) seem completely lost without any sense of direction with a strange sense of numbness and inaction. Our leaders believe that by issuing empty statement to media; everything will go back to normal. Such state of mind is immature because every insurgency is aimed to bring down the existing system. The insurgent movement sprouts from country side encircling the cities and finally knocking down the government. This pattern has been consistent in various insurgent movements around the world including Afghanistan, Vietnam, Nepal and Pakistan; where Talibans have successfully established control all over FATA, Swat, Buner except Peshawar and Mardan. Pakistan is an excessively centralized state; where power and wealth is concentrated in one province- unwilling to share it with the smaller provinces; Punjab’s shortsightedness is bound to create resentment in the federation. We have lost half of the country in 1971 due to this approach. Today leaving Punjab aside, the rest of the three provinces lack not only self-esteem but have no hearsay in national affairs. The result is chaos and rebellion not only in NWFP and Balochistan but Sindh is also waiting to explode. Unfortunately the power of militants is augmenting with each passing day. This pattern can be clearly observed in recent Swat deal, where militants forced ANP Government to impose Sharia at their terms and conditions. Similar peace deal was done with Hitler in 1930s to avoid war but WWII started few years later. The unnatural peace deal in Swat may have provided sometime to ANP Government, but any deal done from the position of weakness is a dead deal and Taliban are on the winning spree. Our Army has no will to fight; and our police is trained in harassing innocent public and petty thieves. The politicians are flattering police graciously; nevertheless our police is no match for die-hard followers; whose eyes are fixed on heaven. The gallantry of police has been seen by the whole world during Lahore attack, where 10 militants killed more than 100 policemen and forced 1000 policemen to flee like sheep. The march of Taliban will continue overtaking cities and towns one by one–unless Pakistan’s leadership musters its will to counter them. Our leaders’ state of mind is similar to Muhammad Shah Rangeela, who in the wake of (Nadir Shah) invasion used to mutter “Hanooz Dehli Door Ast”. The day is not far, when many of our leaders will be castrated and hung up to the poles in Islamabad like Najibullah.

Invading Muslim Societies: Failure of Judgment

EXCERPT The repeated Western wars of choice against Muslim societies over the past generation show a consistent pattern of judgmental failure at the most basic level by Western decision-makers. In each case, the decision-makers exhibited naive faith in the inevitability of their visions of victory, irresponsibly ignored the price of failure, and were lost in amateurish denial about the danger of catastrophic surprise.

TEXT National security requires a much better understanding of international processes than Washington has exhibited in the confusing post-Cold War years. The impact of attack on a Muslim society by a Western industrial power is the most urgent example. The West has launched wars of choice against Muslim societies often enough in recent decades to enable us to begin to see some very consistent and very ominous patterns. Western invasions of Muslim societies are provoking and linking together the security threats those invasions were allegedly designed to resolve, i.e., Western decision-making on the most critical global security issue of the time has been counterproductive, thus irrational. Rational behavior is behavior that gets one close to one’s goal; the Western approach to Islamic activism has steadily undermined Western security. Might it be time to try a different approach?

Nassim Taleb starts the concluding chapter of The Black Swan, his study of how people miscalculate extreme risk, with the observations that he takes care to be “skeptical about confirmation—though only when errors are costly—not about disconfirmation” and that he is skeptical when he “suspect[s] wild randomness.”

___________
[“Black swans” are events so rare that they are judged impossible…until they happen. The 9/11 attack could be considered a minor black swan.]
___________

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (1978-1989), the Israeli invasion of Lebanon (1982-2000), American invasion of Iraq (2003-2011?), and American invasion of Afghanistan (2001…) seem to share the following characteristics: the aggressors were confident about confirmation of their assumptions despite the obvious danger that error would be costly, arrogantly dismissive of disconfirmatory evidence, and oblivious to the high probability that their wars of choice might become characterized by wild randomness.

Failure to Anticipate the Cost. In each war, errors were costly, in ways far more extensive than just the casualties. Each war damaged the invading power’s moral stature, reputation, and economic health. Each war also undermined the very legitimacy of the invading country’s government in the minds of its own people. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, for example, contributed greatly to its collapse. Both the grossly unanticipated cost and the atmosphere of political irresponsibility engendered by the dishonest Bush Administration pursuit of the war against Iraq contributed in ways yet to be appreciated to the still deepening U.S. recession.

Failure to Anticipate Surprise. Each war was launched by an overwhelmingly superior power, yet each ended up provoking an insurgency that dragged on endlessly. This insurgency was the first class of wild randomness. Each war also provoked horrendous self-destructiveness, as the victim societies turned inward, ripping themselves apart. That was the second class of wild randomness. The spread of the war to neighboring countries—PLO escape from Beirut and eventual return to Palestine, followed by the intifadas; al Qua’ida’s turn to global jihad; Turkish attacks on Iraqi Kurds; the spreading war in tribal regions of Pakistan; and, arguably, the terror attack on Mumbai–constitute a third class of wild randomness. This pattern of randomness is a clear warning of danger whose probability and nature cannot be calculated.

Failure to Achieve Stated Goals. If the invader’s goal was the destruction of a society, then the invaders won, at least temporarily. But if the invader’s goal was a glorious military feat or “bringing Muslim peasants into the 20th century,” “removal of the Palestinian threat,” “elimination of al Qua’ida,” or “finding Saddam’s WMD,” then in each case the invader, to date, has lost. If the goal was stabilization of the invaded society so that it would no longer be a threat, the invader has also in each case failed to achieve its goal.

Aggravating Rather than Resolving the Issue. Each invasion not only failed to resolve the instability that provoked it but aggravated that instability both by leaving behind a broken society and by entangling other societies.

  1. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan morphed into Soviet support for a post-invasion regime that was toppled after a bloody civil war paving the way for the rise of al Qua’ida and, thus, the American invasion of Afghanistan.
  2. The Israeli invasion of Lebanon, after provoking the creation of Hezbollah, “ended” in 2000 with the Israeli pullout but really continues, with the Israeli re-invasion of 2006 and Hezbollah’s continuing policy of “resistance.” As for Hezbollah, its power, a generation later, continues to grow, and the aggravation of Israeli-Iranian tensions provoked by the war threatens to generate a new war.
  3. The American invasion of Afghanistan has scattered without destroying al Qua’ida—a dangerous tactic against a networked opponent, provoked a boom in Afghanistan’s illegal narcotics exports, witnessed a resurgence of the Taliban that may yet achieve victory, destabilized Pakistan, and threatened to provoke war between India and Pakistan.
  4. The American invasion of Iraq overthrew an evil dictator at the cost of ruining and impoverishing the rapidly modernizing Iraqi society. The invasion also raised Iran’s regional status within a hostile context, thus further aggravating Iranian-Israeli tensions. Although fighting has died down, Iraq is deeply divided, with a Shi’ite regime facing both Kurdish desires for autonomy and revitalized as well as rearmed Sunni tribalism[1] (Steven Simon, “Will the Surge’s Success Backfire?” in Foreign Affairs, May-June 2008, p.67) that has perhaps only temporarily been bought off.

The result of these four invasions plus various smaller ones (e.g., Israel into Lebanon in 2006 and Israel into Gaza this past December) is an intensifying cascade of Muslim grievances combined with a steadily deepening Muslim organizational capacity for unified resistance. The list of Muslim grievances is endless. The majority of the population of Pakistan’s Bajaur Agency, some 400,000 people, were turned into refugees at the end of 2008 by a Pakistani army campaign to “protect” the region from insurgents. A prolonged Pakistani army campaign in neighboring Swat Valley resulted in a deal to institute sharia that looks very much like a Taliban victory. Two years of warfare against Ethiopians in Somalia further wrecked that hapless land before the Ethiopians gave up, leaving the Islamists more powerful and more radicalized than before the Ethiopians’ U.S.-supported intrusion. Iraq’s middle class society, perhaps once the most modern in the Mideast, has been destroyed, with many of its members still refugees somewhere else in the Mideast. Gaza exemplifies the barbaric extremes to which the policy of force against Muslim populations seeking freedom and justice can reach. In Lebanon, a Hezbollah created in response to one Israeli invasion (1982) was re-energized by another Israeli invasion (2006), and now is in reach of national electoral victory.

In addition to a lengthening list of grievances, Muslims appear to be strengthening their capacity for unified resistance. Qatari sponsorship of a Lebanese compromise that paved the way for Hezbollah’s strengthening political position, Iranian involvement in Gaza, and the recent formation of a united front of insurgent groups in preparation for this summer’s widely anticipated “Taliban surge” into Afghanistan are three examples of the improving organization of Islamic resistance.

Thunderheads on the Horizon. The story is clearly far from over. The effects of this series of invasions are becoming increasingly entangled. The invasion of Iraq accelerated the emergence of Iran onto the regional stage and gave al Qua’ida a powerful foothold in Iraq. The 2008 invasion of Gaza strengthened Iran’s influence in the Levant. The inconclusive nature of the war in Afghanistan empowered and radicalized activists in Pakistan even as it made both Washington and Islamabad appear ineffective. The result of these wars has been to weaken major powers, speed the emergence of new powers onto the world stage, empower non-state actors, radicalize Islamic activism, and provoke new conflicts at a rate that suggests the creation of a truly “wild randomness.”

Individual politicians trying to make a name for themselves may benefit from “wild randomness,” if they are lucky and don’t instead burn the house down with themselves inside. However, large, complex nations with sophisticated economies don’t do well in an environment characterized by bizarre and unforeseeable crises, whether the impact is a city-killing hurricane or a 9/11 terror attack or a housing bubble collapse. The more efficient and sophisticated a modern industrial society, the more painful the shock.

As for the big question of why such randomness, such a “richness” of the unexpected, is occurring, clues are provided by 1) the disconnect between methods and problems 2) and the disconnect between the perspectives of Muslim victim and Western invader. Military methods are being applied to resolve social problems. Modern ideologies are being forced upon societies that either reject these ideologies or reject being forced to accept them. Aggravating it all is the endless faith by powerful decision-makers in confirmatory evidence (“we have so many tanks,” “our way of life is superior,” “God [history] is on our side”), failure to calculate potential costs, and utter denial about the degree of randomness that war against pre-modern societies is capable of generating.

Western thinkers need to make a concerted effort to understand the overall process being generated by this series of Western invasions. With old wars expanding and new wars threatening, the urgency of such a project can hardly be overestimated.

Western decision-makers who wish to survive would be well advised to view assurances of “slam dunks” with skepticism, pay great attention to disconfirmatory evidence, and take measures to reduce randomness before their energetic…but thoughtless use of military force against Muslim societies generates a major Black Swan event.


[1] Steven Simon, “Will the Surge’s Success Backfire?” in Foreign Affairs, May-June 2008, p.67.

More on Radicalization of Muslim Societies

Following up on my recent post about radicalization of Islamic societies, see also this important article that gives a different perspective on the radicalization of Pakistani society:

The Saudi-isation of Pakistan

A stern, unyielding version of Islam is replacing the kinder, gentler Islam of the Sufis in Pakistan.

By Pervez Hoodbhoy

See also a Brookings study by Moeed Yusuf that describes the classic path of young men who feel alienated from society becoming radicalized:

Overwhelming majorities of radicalized youth are found to have a strong sense of being discriminated against and are alienated from the larger society. This in turn is believed to be a function of socio-economic deprivation. Poor education standards, lack of economic opportunities, and unequal access to avenues for social and economic mobilization are usually present in countries that undergo radicalization among the young. The problem is often accentuated in societies which exhibit cultural polarization.

I argued that militarization of the sociopolitical struggle between moderates and Islamists is radicalizing society in both Pakistan and Somalia. Hoodbhoy describes a separate process in Pakistan of radicalizing society via education (with considerable help from the government). Yusuf describes socio-economic causes. The three are of course intertwined, with each story of Western or central government military abuse being used to justify further radicalization.

Are there additional processes by which radicalization occurs in Muslim societies?

What processes lead to moderation?

Confrontation with Islam: Endless War or a Way Forward?

A group of extremists exists in the West that simply wants to control global oil, deeming that the best way to remain rich and get richer. Indeed, so long as the oil lasts and so long as pursuing such a goal does not provoke the explosion of a degree of global resistance too fierce to handle…Pursuing such a goal locks one into certain forms of behavior, which would be well exploring. But those in the West who put their bets on oil empire are only concerned about the short-term (while they, as individuals, remain alive), and the oil will admittedly last that long. As for provoking global resistance, which is certainly a good part of the explanation for 9/11-style violent jihad, these Western extremists are evil enough to welcome the resultant chaos as the excuse for their militarism and have the hubris to feel they can defeat all comers. So much for the details; the bottom line is that this group of extremists, like some on the Islamic side, is beyond rational discussion.

For the rest of us, however, i.e., for those who would like to maintain as much as possible of our comfortable lifestyle but grant that others also have a right to some portion of the globe’s treasures, and who consider such things as justice, democracy, civil rights, and peace to be pluses in life, a possible way forward exists. It is a narrow, rocky path through a darkly shadowed forest thick with growling wolves of temptation, for sure. No guarantees will be proffered. But those rightwing U.S. and Israeli militarists still howling for nuclear aggression against Iran can offer no guarantees either, except the certainty of a globe-circling cloud of apolitical and cancerous radiation.

So, given the failure of war to end the confrontation with Islam, perhaps it’s time now to take a new path. A number of concepts are relevant to the new path. One is empowering moderate neutrals rather than enemies. Another is working with and through intermediaries who may understand some things we don’t or may be able to get points across to adversaries who would reject the same arguments coming from American lips.

Can we have any rational expectation that such an approach would be more effective than the endless bombing of wedding parties, Predator strikes on friendly countries, incarceration of whole populations, and arrogant public threats against adversaries that serve mostly to turn them into dangerously powerful folk-heroes?

Yes. On several fronts of the global confrontation, evidence exists that an alternative path could bear fruit. (My thanks to two blogging colleagues, Richard Norton and Nasir Khan, for some of these arguments.)

Turkey, under its current moderate, Moslem leadership, is now well positioned to serve as intermediary with Iran. From the field: Obama’s Turkish Partners#links And, given the Obama camp’s interest in drawing down U.S. forces in Iraq and the need to find new supply routes to Afghanistan, Washington and Tehran may have some real mutual inducements to reaching agreement.

Mumbai, apparently an effort by extremists to provoke tension if not outright war between India and Pakistan, could with care be turned into an opportunity to bring moderates on both sides together in a determined effort to resolve some mutual issues. “Look how the extremists are manipulating you!” just might be an effective argument. It is certainly true that Indian intransigence on Kashmir remains an enormous obstacle. Nevertheless, last week’s electoral rejection of Hindu nationalist warcries offer a ray of hope.

On the Northern Pakistan/Afghan front, the Taliban seem, rather than some implacable and monolithic adversary that must be fought to the death, to be a complex and fragile coalition brought together by the common desire to get the U.S. Armed Forces off their backs. There may be room to compromise with those portions of this coalition that do not advocate throwing acid in the faces of girls or conducting a violent global jihad. Karzai has called recently for both a timetable for victory and a compromise solution. Even the redoubtable Mullah Omar seemed, according to secondary reports, to have been hinting at a negotiating position recently: peace in return for a Western pull-out schedule.

Somalia has already gone some distance down the path of compromise. The combination of public Ethiopian talk about pulling out its intervention forceand internal negotiations to form a government of national unity have set the stage. Sincere support for compromise from Washington might produce the needed leverage to achieve success.

In the Levant, Lebanon has taken some domestic steps forward in recent months with the aid of Qatar. Movement is afoot between Lebanon and Syria, and perhaps in Syria’s relations with the West. Obama seems about to continue the traditional mistake of allowing those committed to the Israeli military-industrial complex and its shortsighted policy of security through overwhelming military superiority to manage U.S. policy toward Israel, but perhaps he will realize that a superpower should run its own policy. Imagine the reaction in the U.S. if Obama were to put U.S. Iran policy in the hands of individuals committed to Ahmadinejad or U.S. Russian policy in the hands of a faction committed to Putin! Just possibly, the recent clear U.N. denunciation of Tel Aviv’s mistreatment of the whole population of Gaza combined with the pogrom by Israeli settlers living on Palestinian land in the West Bank–so egregious that it was even denounced by Israel’s own leaders–will prompt a move toward some degree of U.S. even-handedness toward the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

Does all this still amount to faint hope? Perhaps, but first steps toward peace can build momentum for peace just as we have seen first steps toward oppression building steps toward war.

Is Washington Stealing the Bailout for Corporate Buddies?

I have made the point repeatedly that the Bush Administration
took advantage of al Qua’ida’s 9/11 attack to pursue militarist foreign policy
goals they already had but did not know how to persuade the American people to
support. Are we now seeing a repeat with the financial crisis?

According to investigative reporter Naomi Klein on Democracy Now:

If we think about the way the Bush administration handled the occupation of Iraq, the working assumption was that everything that could be privatized, everything that could be outsourced, would be outsourced. And it has been very much a corporate war, as you well know. But at the same time, the handing out of the contracts in the early days was done very, very quickly, because, of course, there was this manufactured emergency that we all know was based on lies, in retrospect. But that was used, that state of emergency was used to justify no-bid contracts, to justify the fact that there was very little oversight of the contractors.

She claims that the Bush Administration’s behavior in response to the financial crisis represents a huge theft of taxpayer funds to reward the rich and borders on or actually is criminal deserves very careful analysis. Her key points:

First of all, the equity deals that were negotiated with the largest banks and also some smaller banks, representing $250 billion worth of the bailout money, this is the deal to inject equity into the banks in—to inject capital into the banks in exchange for equity. The idea was to address the so-called credit crunch to get banks lending again. The legislation that enabled this was quite explicit that it had to encourage lending. Barney Frank, who was one of the architects of that legislation, has said that it violates the act if the money is not going to that purpose and is instead going to bonuses, is instead going to dividends, going to salaries, going to mergers. He said that violates the acts, i.e. it’s illegal. But what we know is that it’s going precisely to those purposes. It is going to bonuses. It is going to shareholders. And it is not going to lending. The banks have been quite explicit about this. Citibank has talked about using the money to buy other banks.
Then there’s other aspects of this that are borderline illegal. We found out that in the midst of the crisis, the Bush—the Treasury Department pushed through a tax windfall for the banks, a piece of legislation that allows the banks to save a huge amount of money when they merge with each other. And the estimate is that this represents a loss of $140 billion worth of tax revenue for the US government. Many tax attorneys who were interviewed by the Washington Post said that they felt that the way in which the Treasury Department went about this by unilaterally changing the tax code was illegal, that this had to be—this had to include Congress. Congress only found out about it after the fact.
There’s another piece of this puzzle that is also borderline illegal, which is that in addition to the $700 billion that we are discussing, the $700 billion bailout, there’s another $2 trillion that’s been handed out by the Federal Reserve in emergency loans to financial institutions, to banks, that actually we don’t really know who they’re handing the money out to, because, apparently, it’s a secret. They could be handing it out to a range of other corporations—I think they are—but they’re saying that they won’t disclose who has received these taxpayer loans, because it could cause a run on the banks, it could cause the market to lose confidence in the institutions that have taken these loans. Once again, that represents an additional $2 trillion.
The other thing that the Fed won’t disclose is what they have accepted as collateral in exchange for these loans. This is a really key point, because, of course, at the heart of the financial crisis is—are these so- called distressed assets. The value of these assets is enormously controversial. They may be worth very little. So if the Fed has accepted distressed assets as collateral in exchange for these loans, there’s a very good chance the taxpayers aren’t going to be getting this money back. So Bloomberg News has launched a lawsuit in federal court to find out who has received the loans and what has been accepted as collateral, because they believe that this lack of transparency is illegal. So that’s why we’re calling this the “trillion-dollar crime scene” or the “multi-trillion-dollar crime scene.” And they’re really challenging lawmakers to call them out, the Treasury is.
And I think, you know, Amy, the last time I was on Democracy Now!, we were talking about Henry Paulson’s original three-page proposal, the $700 trillion stickup, where he basically said, “Give me $700 trillion. Don’t ask any questions. I can never be challenged by any arm of government or any court of law.” Now, that aspect of the bailout was supposedly dealt with, and we were all reassured that there was going to be transparency, accountability, legality. But now we’re finding out that, in fact, Henry Paulson has achieved his original goal by stealth, because there is no accountability, and lawmakers are very hesitant to challenge this, because they’re afraid of causing a run on the banks, of causing more market instability. So, essentially, what the Bush administration has done is said, you know, “We dare you to challenge us and be responsible for the great depression.” And the Democrats, not known for their firm spines, have so far failed to challenge them in anything other than rhetoric.

Are Klein’s concerns overstated or is the lame duck gilding the feathers of its friends?

Congressional leaders from both parties have expressed written concern about misuse of bailout funds to line the pockets of top executives of financial firms.

Barney Frank, Chairman of the House Financial Service Committee, said, “I am deeply disappointed that a number of financial institutions are distorting the legislation that Congress passed at the president’s request to respond to the credit crisis by making funds available for increased lending.” He continued by asserting clearly that “Any use of these funds for any purpose other than lending — for bonuses, for severance pay, for dividends, for acquisitions of other institutions, etc. — is a violation of the terms of the act.”

It is also noteworthy that the huge original $85 billion bailout of AIG (the company whose executives were exposed by Congress as partying with bailout funds) has already proven such a disastrous failure that it has now been expanded to $150 billion. Now the U.S. auto makers are asking for handouts – even though as recently as September they received a $25 billion loan to retool.

How much of what is going on is legally criminal, as opposed to “just” morally criminal is open for debate, but it certainly seems clear that, despite the outflooding of funds, decision makers know very little about what they are buying or what may be the impact of the purchases on either the millionaire welfare recepients themselves or the country as a whole.