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