To make effective policy and to understand what game policy-makers are playing, process must be distinguished from policy. If the policy is a search for peace, but the process is seen by the adversary as intentionally designed to put them at a disadvantage, the result is likely to be violence.
Attitude toward democracy and war seem critical factors in the evolution of the U.S., judging from four core trends currently evident: rising corporate control, rising corruption, rising elite preference for war over negotiation, and the strengthening of class divisions. (Part I of this series on the future prospects of the U.S. discussed the four trends.)
The U.S.-Iranian contest for status appears highly dangerous: even if the players are in the game for purposes short of war (e.g., national status, personal career), miscalculation is an ever-present threat. Moreover, the game is expensive on numerous levels, not least the waste of oil powering all those U.S. ships in the Persian Gulf. Therefore, assessing who is to blame is critical. It’s not about punishing the irresponsible but about discovering a solution.
Washington has placed more obstacles in the way of U.S.-Iranian rapprochement that has Tehran, judging from a simple list, though policy makers seem curiously oblivious to their own actions. The list suffices to illustrate that Washington bears some of the responsibility for the conflict, and recognition of even that simple fact on the part of U.S. decision makers would constitute progress, but a serious assessment of where blame lies requires moving past mere lists, and a straightforward weighting scheme is the next step. The approach might clarify far more than just U.S.-Iranian relations.
Parsimony is the key to designing an unbiased weighting scheme. All can probably agree that existential threats are the worst, lesser national security threats a bit lower on the scale of severity, threats to the regime (but not the state, much less the population) yet less severe. Insults, despite the propensity of politicians on the make to treat them as worth their weight in gold, are far less significant than military or diplomatic moves. Preparations are more difficult to score, but since every country feels that it has the right to prepare (to research, to arm, to train), it is hard to see how legally permitted preparations can be ranked as very seriously. By now it should be clear that the business of weighting schemes, albeit useful for measuring the significance of behavior, can get messy very quickly.
In an attempt to avoid such messiness, then, the following parsimonious weighting scheme is proposed, with a score of 8 for “Existential Attack” down to 1 for “Rhetorical Attack:”
- Existential Attack – war that could destroy the society
- Attack on State – war that could destroy the military but takes care to avoid destruction of society
- Regime Overthrow Attempt
- Lesser Military Moves – repositioning forces, arming adversaries
- Non-military Use of Force – economic sanctions
- Official Threat to Use Force
- Diplomatic Campaign to Weaken Adversary
- Rhetorical Attack – insults carrying no clear implication of action.
Much is of course overlooked. For example, is an official threat to attack by a nuclear state by definition an “existential threat” that should be scored higher than threats by states that possess no weapons of mass destruction? This weighting scheme is a short step on the road to placing blame, yet it already seems to improve our understanding by demonstrating how ridiculous glib protestations of innocence are.
The “Assessing Blame” table, scoring once if either state has even once done the relevant act, generates a much higher score for the U.S. than for Iran. Note that the issue of whether the U.S. has actually done anything to overthrow the Iranian regime is scored “0,” arguably introducing a pro-U.S. bias. Moreover, each state gets the same score of “5” for lesser military move, which again seems to introduce a pro-U.S. bias since it leaves the host of threatening U.S. and Israeli military moves scoring no more than the relatively minor Iranian military moves in Iraq and Lebanon. Third, each is scored “3” for conducting a hostile diplomatic campaign, but again consider the reality: while the Iranian campaign is for reform of the global political system to “cut the U.S. down to size” the U.S. campaign is arguably a far more serious effort to marginalize Iran. Iran’s call for reform is not only quite reasonable on the face of it (a pro-U.S. bias does obviously exist in the governance of the world and U.S. management of the world is fraught with errors), but Iran’s campaign calls for new leadership not the exclusion of the U.S. from world affairs.
The substantive elephant in the methodological room that is left untreated in the above analysis is the charge that Iran’s alleged policy of nuclear opacity may be designed to enable Iran to sneak up to a breakout capacity that would enable it to create a handful of nuclear bombs with which to threaten Israel, which has an official policy of nuclear opacity and is commonly thought to possess 200-400 nuclear bombs, not to mention a variety of delivery systems, all under a one-sided U.S. defensive umbrella. Since even a lopsidedly weak nuclear breakout is still something of a game changer, Iran’s apparent inability to present clear evidence that it is not traveling down this road deserves consideration…but only in the context of a vastly superior Israeli nuclear capability. Israel cannot, legitimately, have it both ways: either ignore the nukes and nuclear aspirations of both sides or pay attention to the nukes and nuclear aspirations of both sides. The contribution of a clear method is how clearly it brings such issues into focus.
In short, even a simplistic weighting scheme further reveals the degree to which blame for the U.S.-Iranian conflict lies not just partly but mostly on the U.S. side.
Determining who wins and who loses may be more a matter of how a policy is implemented than what the policy is or, certainly, who is advocating that policy. The international contest over Palestine is a case in point, made only more complicated by the context of Iran’s challenge to the U.S.-centric global political order. The failure of policymakers to understand these subtleties costs much wasted blood and treasure.
In Foreign Policy Winners and Losers, I described a simple way to evaluate any specific foreign policy action by discriminating between who wins and who loses as a result of that action. In moral terms, the best policy is one in which we all win; the worst in which just one state (or, worse, one group or individual) wins. This would seem to be a straightforward way to clarify the highly distorted and confused debate that currently undermines national security by virtually precluding the development of a consistent and beneficial foreign policy. It would seem to facilitate distinguishing, for example, between policies that help the elite rather than the society and would seem to expose such fallacies as claiming violence by a friend is OK while violence by an enemy is bad.
But all is of course not so simple. Here’s a challenge for this method that cuts to the core of contemporary foreign policy debate:
How are we to rank on the Continuum of International Behavior the behavior of a system challenger?
Tehran presents itself today as the champion challenger to the U.S.-centric global political system, and Washington seems to concur. The degree to which either side may be pretending is hard to determine, since Washington refuses to offer Tehran the option of being accepted as an equal and respected but independent player, while Tehran’s “challenge” is so encompassed in rhetorical smoke that it can be difficult to discern much policy fire. Does Tehran want nuclear arms or does it just want the U.S. to offer it a respectful hearing and a guarantee of security and, of course, recognition that it has the same right to nuclear arms that is exercised by Israel? Does Washington provoke Iran out of incompetence, slavish obedience to the Israeli right, or because Washington sees the uses of having an enemy and just can’t find a more imposing one, at the moment, than the military and ideological midget Iran?
Whatever the degree of sincerity on either side, both feed the image of Iran as the giant-killer, regardless of how unrealistic that image may be. Beyond that, however, disagreement is rife: whatever one side terms “required,” the other terms “unacceptable.” The endless talking of each side past the other merely serves to raise tensions and blind both observers and participants. If the policies of each side could be evaluated fairly, a needless war even more mutually disastrous than that imposed on Iraq by the U.S. might be avoided. The Continuum of International Behavior would seem to constitute a reasonable candidate tool for this purpose, except that evaluating winners and losers resulting from a policy with the ultimate goal of overthrowing the international political system is a bit harder than with a typical policy aiming at some narrow, short-term goal.
So, limiting the discussion for the moment to Iran’s policies, two problems immediately present themselves:
- Determining winners and losers of the specific policy;
- Deciding whether or not the real goal of the policy is to further Iran’s presumed goal of founding a new global political order.
Consider Tehran’s campaign in support of justice for Palestine. If Iran achieved its stated goal of justice for Palestinians, regional anti-Israeli sentiment would decline, benefiting Israeli society, but the decline in tension would cause the Israeli right to lose votes and perhaps result in a fundamental shift back toward a polity ruled by those favoring democracy, a good-neighbor policy, racial and religious equality. The losers would be the ruling rightwingers and in particular Jewish fundamentalists and Israeli expansionists. Israelis favoring democracy would win; those favoring a garrison state would lose.
And what about Iran? If Tehran received the credit for resolving the Palestinian-Israeli dispute, Tehran would surely gain regional status, so over the short term, Tehran would win and more specifically Ahmadinejad would win. But if a U.S., European, or Turkish-led movement (much less concessions voluntarily offered by Israel itself) were credited with providing justice to Palestinians, Iran not gain, while those credited with bringing justice would. Moreover, as regional tensions declined, Tehran would lose its bully pulpit, and Iran’s influence in the Levant would decline. For Iranian society, as opposed to the current Tehran regime, the issue is different; resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute in a way that minimized Iranian influence and activity in the Levant would go far toward ending the U.S./Israeli security threat to Iran.
In sum, the current Tehran regime benefits from espousing Palestinian independence but would be a big loser if Palestinians actually gained independence, as long as Iran did not receive the credit in regional eyes. Rather than opposing everything Tehran wants, Washington would serve its interests better by judging issues on their merits and supporting issues of common interest to all in the hopes of getting some of the credit.
At least two lessons follow. First, crudely, it is not about who advocates a policy but who gets credit for implementing it. Opposing a good policy because your antagonist thought of it first only ends up making you look churlish and giving your opponent a free ride.
Second, our allies are no more unitary actors than our enemies. Even in Washington, most policy-makers seem now to understand that enemy states may be ruling populations of perfectly normal and harmless people with whom the U.S. could potentially cooperate, but these same policy-makers remain almost totally incapable of seeing that the same principle applies to allies. An Israeli politician widely recognized in Israel as having racist or fascist tendencies does not automatically become America’s friend just by winning office. An Israeli politician widely recognized in Israel as pursuing expansionist policies that endanger Israeli national security will also endanger U.S. national security. Such Israeli politicians will be winners with policies that leave the U.S. the loser. Just as everyone in an adversarial state is not an enemy, everyone in an allied state is not a friend.
All the involved societies benefit from providing justice to Palestinians: a cancer infecting every society is removed. In each involved country special interests exploiting the tensions flowing from the dispute will be the losers if Palestinian justice is achieved. But it is not that simple. This discussion began with the premise that Tehran wants to overthrow the U.S.-centric global political order. Without judging who might be the winners and losers, if Washington wants to avoid that outcome, it should seek lower tensions in the Levant by addressing Palestinian concerns. Rather than allowing Tehran to parade as the champion of Arab justice, Washington should lead the way, leave Tehran to choose whether to follow or not, and gain the credit for accomplishing something in the interest of all who desire a secure and cooperative international environment. Achieving justice for Palestinians per se does not tell you who the winners and losers are; the determination of who wins and who loses depends on how justice for Palestinians is achieved.
Honestly admitting who wins and loses for any recommended foreign policy action would clarify what is today a dangerously self-defeating U.S. foreign policy debate.
The vigorous nature of the public debate–both in the U.S. and elsewhere–about U.S. foreign policy behavior indicates that the nature of U.S. foreign policy behavior is generally considered by all observers to be important. That much at least we can agree on, but beyond that, at least in the U.S., the debate illustrates nothing so much as the level of confusion that exists. There is no consensus about the definition of terms, the meaning of morality, or anything else. And as long as the debate is confused, we have little hope of resolving anything, little hope of ending the endless mistakes that are costing the U.S. and the world rapidly increasing amounts of blood and treasure.
Even the simplest attempt to clarify will surely provoke controversy, but nevertheless, here goes…
Consider a single dimension along which all possible state behavior in the international realm might be located, going from behavior with national (i.e., selfish) objectives at one extreme to behavior with international objectives (i.e., for the common good) at the other. Implicitly, behavior for selfish reasons that is also in the best interests of everyone else can be considered to be for the common good (after all, “we” are part of “everyone”). My concern here is not with the intent of the behavior; who really knows even why they themselves do what they do, much less why anyone else does so? Rather, my concern is with the impact – who gains, who gets hurt. (Later, it will be necessary to consider the time frame: short-term vs. long-term gain or harm.)
I assert that if we could locate whatever behavior is being considered by ourselves or our adversaries on this continuum, then we could discuss much more intelligently what we think about that behavior. I further suggest that the breakthrough step toward accomplishing this apparently simple task without coming to blows would be to enumerate who gains and who loses. The hot knife of identifying winners and losers would slice through the butter of our opaque foreign policy debate, exposing all manner of bias and false assumption.
Before getting to the stage of honestly admitting who the winners and losers are, one should probably simplify by selecting a specific policy, and a useful step toward that is consideration of where policies in the abstract should be located on the continuum.
- Who–what states, what societies, what parties, what special interests–really would be the winners and losers if Turkey and Egypt were to create a viable moderate Mideast?
- Who really would be the winners and losers if the Israeli-Lebanese border were pacified?
- Who really would be the winners and losers if terrorists were pursued as international criminals and brought to public trial rather than being used as the excuse for wars, invasions, and occupations without end?
- 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?
- 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.
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).
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.”
Take the contentious issues of the degree to which Saudi Arabia and Israel may share strategic interests with the U.S. How might one move beyond fruitless argument? The simplest step that occurs to me would be to list the ways in which strategic interests coincide and the ways in which they clash.
|Shared & Conflicting Strategic Interests: US-Israel & US-Saudi Arabia|
Imagine! Merely to admit that such a list could be created would constitute a foreign policy revolution…or is it revelation(???)…in Washington. An initial version of such a list is provided as a target. I will be the first to attack it for not distinguishing between the “strategic interests” of the elite and the “strategic interests” of the societies. Making a simple list is not quite as simple as one might think!
More seriously, the obvious point is that the relative merits of an alliance are not really so obvious when one thinks about it. When you reach the (almost inevitable) conclusion that this is a less-than-satisfying approach, try Venn diagrams. But that’s a tale for another day…
- Only four actors;
- A goal of identifying a minimal set of dynamics;
- Two further goals of estimating A) the direction and B) the relative power of those dynamics.
- The traditional practice of indulging in deals with corrupt leaders will henceforth come at a price; cutting the masses in for a share might have a better pay-off since failure to do so can easily provoke their self-organization and lead quickly to the needless empowerment of the Pretender.
- Relying on elites is naïve; rather, the Boss should anticipate that they will betray their own people and prepare to deal with the trouble that these short-sighted elites will cause. Like Henry Ford, give the people the means to be productive supporters because opposition to your plans is now a very live alternative.
- Rather than trying to eliminate the Pretender, consider how his pretense can be exposed. What is it that the people think the Pretender can provide that you cannot? The chances are that you could perfectly well afford to offer more than enough to satisfy them.
Disclaimer: If you are thinking about this, then all the above probably strikes you as rather obvious. Great. You passed your test and are appointed “Decision-Maker-in-Chief.” If, conversely, you find yourself tensing up and feeling insulted, then you may be terminally in denial. In the new, fast-moving World in Flux, good luck, buddy. Emotion really is not a cost-effective approach to decision-making.
- Whether behavior is that of high- or low-status individuals;
- Whether behavior is individual or social;
- Whether behavior is official or private.
|Behavior of Yemeni Citizens and Officials|
- The grouping of citizen actions in the “helpful” quadrant, all contributing peacefully to public debate;
- The preponderance of official actions being in the “harmful” quadrant, focused on violence to suppress debate;
- The existence of an interesting minority of official acts in the “helpful quadrant,” raising the question of whether such actions might be tricks or indicative of some willingness to compromise.