Policy Process Fairness

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.


One may imagine the landscape of possible public policies by a state as a function of the fairness of the domestic and foreign policy processes (theoretical introduction here). Such a model defines four quadrants, with the two extremes being a quadrant in which process is totally fair (green, in the figure) and a quadrant in which it is totally unfair (red, in the figure). In the green space, policy is made democratically, through negotiation; in the red, policy is made by force. If the “quality” of governance is defined as a function of the degree to which the policy-making process produces positive-sum outcomes (and thus stability, which is assumed to be greater over the long run when all sides buy into the substantive decisions that are reached and have a fair chance to promote their subsequent modification), then the deeper into the green sector, the better the quality of governance (white arrow).
Before beginning an argument about policy substance, attention should be paid to policy process: setting up a fair process facilitates inventing a mutually acceptable solution. Politicians resistant to this line of thinking are probably cheating, i.e., they do not want a solution. Developing a scientific method of identifying fair process may prove somewhat difficult, but even a minimal concept of fair process facilitates policy evaluation and implementation. Deep in the red quadrant, the region of force, lie economic sanctions, terrorism, cyber-warfare, and military attack. As one moves toward the green region of diplomacy (internationally) and democracy (domestically), one passes through a broad area in which preconditions are attached to negotiations. This is a rich region for analysis, where the well-armed always call for “peace” first to steal the best card (e.g., demonstrations) in the hand of the weak. Thus, city governments across the U.S.responded to Occupy protests not by listening to their substantive demands but by trying to prevent or circumscribe the demonstrations. Similarly, the central government of Peruis currently demanding an end to local anti-gold mining protests as a precondition to compromise, as though such a concession by the weak rural farmers would have no impact on their subsequent negotiating position. Moving all the way into the green region, one reaches (at least theoretically) the magical land where two adversaries sit down and (really) reason together. Occasionally, innovative positive-sum solutions emerge from such open-minded discussions.
Similarly, on the domestic side, one moves from police violence and death squads at the dictatorial extreme to recalls and referendums at the democratic extreme. While this may all be intuitively obvious, formalizing the approach, even to the minimal extent laid out here, offers the advantages of 1) sensitizing people to the dangers inherent in overlooking biases in process while debating substance and 2) raising the issue of the relative significance of various process biases. Concerning the latter, for example, Americans have yet to face up to the seriousness of demanding Iranian preconditions that amount to surrender as the entry price to negotiations. Why would an adversary negotiate if it had given up all its bargaining cards in advance? Perhaps a policy of forcing Iraneither to surrender or fight is what the American people want, but U.S.policy-makers are certainly not presenting those as the choices, nor in reality are they the choices. On the Iran issue, U.S. policy-makers are playing a different game, and in a democracy, the people have a right to know what the game their leaders are playing.

Democracy or War?

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 four core trends in the socio-economic and political evolution of U.S.society suggest a pair of explanatory dimensions for evaluating the future course of society: attitude toward democracy and attitude toward war. “Democracy” refers not to sterile institutional forms (e.g., elections) but to a whole complex process of popular insistence on guiding and judging the behavior of those permittedto be national leaders. Democracy stands or falls on the dedication of the population to defend it, as illustrated by the Occupy Movement, Bolivia’s Cochabama campaign for drinking water free from corporate control, and Peru’s Cajamarca campaign to control the behavior of international mining corporations. “War” refers to the use of force—including economic sanctions, political coups, state terrorism, as well as outright military attack—to influence the rest of the world, as opposed to negotiating positive-sum solutions.
Defined more formally, the result is a “governance” dimension, going from “democratic” (bottom-up) to “centralized” (top-down) and a “foreign affairs” dimension, going from “negotiation” to “war.” Curiously, these two dimensions both can be viewed as trading off the degree of confusion in the initial decision-making process (with democracy and negotiations being the extremes of confusion) for what may be the hope of stability over the long-term. War, for example, is easy to start but a famously ineffective method of achieving the desired long-term solution (WWI provoking WWII, WWII provoking the Cold War, Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon provoking the rise of Hezbollah, the U.S. invasion of Iraq pushing Iraq into Iran’s orbit, etc.). Perhaps the real underlying dimension of significance should thus be society’s attitude toward long-term solutions (i.e., how much effort a society is willing to make to achieve a solution acceptable to all sides over the long-term as opposed to a quick fix for the winner).
Sticking, for now, with the original dimensions, they generate an analytical landscape of four alternative scenarios. The green and red regions represent analytically clear alternatives: the green for a democracy that, while obviously negotiating domestic political solutions (by definition) logically does the same internationally and red a centralized regime that gives orders domestically to the repressed population and internationally seeks to do the same. The blue and grey regions represent intuitively illogical, albeit perhaps historically common (at least briefly), possibilities that seem likely to be unstable. The blue region would encompass dictatorships that work internationally for positive-sum solutions. The grey region would encompass aggressive democracies. To say that the green and red regions are analytically logical does not mean that they are in practice logical forms of governance. That is a more complicated issue–a function of leadership and circumstance. In general, however, one may hypothesize that the regimes in the green region will tend to generate policy slowly but reach relatively stable solutions: slow because they must be negotiated and stable precisely for the same reason, that the various parties freely agreed and therefore presumably saw some advantage in the agreement. Conversely, regimes in the red region see likely to make decisions efficiently but make policy that is relatively counter-productive over the long-term, provoking instability.

In addition to using this model to evaluate regimes, it can be applied to specific policies. It is obvious that democracies tend to become less democratic as a function of stress: with barbarians at the gate or cities leveled by earthquakes, decisions need to be made. More interesting are situations in which democratic regimes loudly proclaim their desire to do as the population wants even while carefully concealing what they are actually doing in order to implement micro-managed and highly dictatorial policy decisions. Graphically depicting a “green” state that happens to reach a “red” decision or implement a decision in a “red” manner  is likely to facilitate communication and comprehension by getting past trivialities such as, “Oh, but we live in a democracy!” Living in a democracy and behaving democratically at every step are two very different things.

American citizens have very little influence over Washington’s traditional tendency to support right-wing, militarist factions in Israel that talk peace while implementing anti-Palestinian repression. No referendum in the U.S. has ever asked which policy Americans would prefer, nor do decision-makers typically explain what they are actually doing; rather, they publicly proclaim an interest in resolving the situation while quietly blocking any effective steps to reach a positive-sum compromise, which would require historic transfers of land, water, and political power to Palestinians. Regardless of one’s opinion of the policy, the strategy pursued on this policy is relatively opaque to the U.S. public. The policy is implemented in a highly centralized manner and presented as even-handed while in fact relying on force rather than serious negotiations (either with the U.S. public to formulate the policy or with Palestinians to work out the terms of the solution). Using the model encourages stepping back from the substance of a policy to ask probing questions about the nature of the policy, the likely impact of making or implementing policy of a particular nature, whether or not a policy of a particular nature is appropriate, and how often a state can design or implement top-down policies and still legitimately call itself “democratic.”

Assessing Blame for the U.S.-Iranian Conflict

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.

Differentiating Friends From Foes

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:

  1. Determining winners and losers of the specific policy;
  2. 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.

Foreign Policy Winners and Losers

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.

Now, the theoretical stage is set for the specific foreign policy players, who will appear in subsequent  posts. But you can try this yourself: 
  • 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?

Having thought that through, would you still locate relevant policies in the same place on the continuum of international behavior as you first thought?

Reality-Based Policy-making

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.
Biasesideological, cultural, personalmay 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 hikers 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, thatindeedthere 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 intentor fearor 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 Quaida 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 Arabias 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 ones 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 concealednot from you and me, but from the decision-makers themselves.

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.”

Dealing with Denial

Let’s imagine that a decision-maker admits that he might be in denial but denies that it is intentional. How might he or she crawl out of the mental box?

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…

The New Mideast…Simplified

Are you confused about the Mideast? Are you an overworked decision-maker, too busy running the world to figure out what is going on? Stay calm. Just a bit of political science theory can actually make your life easier. Try it!
The Mideast has irrevocably changed—at the fundamental social level, just as the Soviet Bloc irrevocably changed after Prague Spring, although, again like the Soviet Bloc, it may take some time for these changes to impact the visible political structure. Given the change, new policy is necessary, but given the undeniable complexity of current events, how is one to simplify the picture—or, perhaps to put it better, how is one to perceive the real currents and topography of the New Mideast beneath the whitecaps of the stormy sea of daily events?
Decision-makers are clearly confused, yet if one focuses correctly, one can perceive a relatively simple underlying political system that, while surely only one view of a vastly more complex reality, nevertheless sufficiently exposes the core attributes of the new political Mideast to serve as a practical foundation for effective policy-making.
This perspective sets to the side all discussion of the personalities of individual leaders, whose “friendship” or “hostility” is discounted as so much fluff on a wind-swept sea. Professional decision-makers do not base national security on the “loyalty” of foreign leaders (they do not say, as politician Reagan did, that Marcos is my “friend,” as though that were a responsible basis for determining interstate relations). This perspective sets to the side the national distinctions among the two dozen or so regional states. This perspective also sets to the side the particular goals of this or that political faction.
The core attributes of the new Mideast are a simple combination of four actors and the dynamics that link them. “Simple” is obviously a relative term, since a system of four actors linked by multiple dynamics working at cross-purposes and according to different time-scales would not really be “simple” even if we knew exactly what the dynamics were. Unfortunately for those readers hoping to have the Mideast “explained,” even naming those dynamics correctly will, upon reflection, be seen to be perhaps just a bit beyond anyone’s capacity, and determining how they interact certainly will be. Nevertheless, a perspective that focuses on core attributes offers some hope:
  1. Only four actors;
  2. A goal of identifying a minimal set of dynamics;
  3. Two further goals of estimating A) the direction and B) the relative power of those dynamics.
I propose that the essential list of Mideast actors decision-makers need to consider is simply this:
Actors.
Actor 1. The Population. This is a new actor, a group we all knew existed but have always pretended, without many negative consequences, did not exist. Decision-makers wishing to avoid the charge of being in a state of “terminal denial” must now avoid that pretense. All populations of all states should now be assumed to be: politically aware and willing to fight for the hope of a better life. Take their interests into account or earn their enmity and pay the price.
Actor 2. The Elites. Elites want privilege: Arabs, Americans, Christians, Jews, Muslims, fundamentalists, secularists…it does not matter. Based on the first premise, elites all cut deals, but the existence of Actor 1 means that deals with Actor 2 come at a new price.
Actor 3. The Boss. It is still a unipolar world, and it is still U.S.-centric. Much that occurs will be in reaction to the behavior of the boss. The first thing Washington needs to understand about the Mideast is the impact of what Washington does; for the Boss, nothing can ever come out of the blue; sorry, Boss, that excuse just won’t fly.
Actor 4. The Pretender. A pretender to the throne will always exist. The big secret that the Boss never understands is that eliminating the pretender will only create an environmental niche for a new pretender, perhaps one better adapted to succeed. The hidden message in this secret is that the influence of the pretender is usually more a function of the behavior of the Boss than a result of anything the Pretender can do. The barbarians did not destroy Rome; Rome, through the unbelievable stupidity of corruption and financial mismanagement, destroyed itself. Revolution usually is the fault of the Boss not the revolutionaries. In the Mideast, there is really only one serious pretender – Iran.
Dynamics.
Dynamic 1. Control provokes resistance. Dynamics are much harder to identify, but one is both easy (at least for those in charge) to ignore and utterly predictable: control provokes resistance. The harder the boss tries to control, the greater will be the resistance: micromanagement is counterproductive. Much of politics at every level is attributable to the irony that the only actor incapable of seeing the idiocy of micromanagement is the micromanager.
Dynamic 2. Power corrupts. No matter how much wealth or power an elite accumulates, it tries to get more, even to the point of destroying the goose that lays the golden egg. Henry Ford made an exception when he advocated paying his workers enough so they could afford to buy the cars he was selling.
Dynamic 3. People are self-organizing. This is a new one, more-or-less. Any reader of Dickens (Tale of Two Cities) or Hugo (Ninety-Three) will know that the people have always had the theoretical ability to self-organize, but in today’s tightly connected world, self-organization is moving from the exception to the norm.
The New Mideast
Ignoring, for the moment, the admittedly important issue of whether or not the above list of dynamics is sufficiently all-inclusive, this vastly simplified model of the political disputes raging across the Mideast today already contains some key lessons:
  • 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.
Most of all, decision-makers need to appreciate the degree to which this is a system in flux (hence the metaphor of the storm-swept sea). A bit too much acquisitiveness on the part of a domestic elite can generate a huge amount of hostile popular self-organization and vastly inflate the influence of an otherwise hapless pretender. Once a tipping point is reached (say, an unknown worker burns himself in public protest or the idiot thugs employed by a careless dictator abuse a bunch of kids), the time-frame over which a dynamic plays out can shrink far faster than a distant decision-maker can react. Read that sentence again: dynamics are…dynamic! They not only cause behavior to change but are themselves capable of pushing faster or slower. If reaction is ineffective because always behind the curve, then planning ahead—which increasingly will mean offering a better deal to one’s adversaries than “appears” necessary—becomes the better part of valor.
As for what to do with the simplified perspective on the new Mideast, it’s not quite as obvious as you may think. More later…
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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.

Citizens or Officials: Who Is Helping Yemen?

A country is composed of officials and citizens. Who is helping the nation? In Yemen, today, it seems to be the citizens.
In contrast to the chaotic impression given by daily events, Yemeni society has some real strengths suggesting that it may be able to make progress, assuming it can overcome the obstacle of a repressive political structure. If one views the whole socio-political system as a combination of the contribution of society and regime, then the strengths of the former may compensate for the weaknesses of the latter. Needless to say, Yemeni society has its weaknesses, e.g., two separate insurgencies that the coming of democracy could either ameliorate or exacerbate, and its external challenges, e.g., increasingly scarce water. But an initial analysis of who engages in behavior harmful to society in Yemen placed blame on the regime rather than society, a hopeful finding.
Methodology.  Carrying the analysis one step further, one can add the distinction between official and private behavior, giving the following list of candidate criteria of functionality:
  • Whether behavior is that of high- or low-status individuals;
  • Whether behavior is individual or social;
  • Whether behavior is official or private.
In each case, behavior can be ranked along a continuum from helpful to harmful, with regard to society as a whole. This method can facilitate identification of the direction of change in the functionality of the political system, as well as pinpointing the source of the problem. The extreme case of a dysfunctional system would comprise harmful behavior by high-status individuals, the whole society and officials.
Contrasting the Behavior of Citizens and Officials. Who behaves more responsibly – citizens or officials? The answer is hardly obvious. Officials, of course, may follow “the law,” but no one can doubt the ease with which the law can be warped to excuse official murder now that Solzhenitsyn’s study of the law as child and mature weapon of dictatorship is in our hands. (It may be worth noting in passing that one of the most serious “crimes” defined by the new Soviet regime, according to Solzhenitsyn, was “assembling the people and proceeding in a crowd with a petition,” a stance that the Saudi regime, for one, has recently endorsed.) There must be a far higher standard of behavior than the existence of a self-serving statue for judging the behavior of officials.
On that principle, this analysis asks not what laws were broken but what harmful behavior was engaged in. If a law permits soldiers to fire on peaceful protesters, that is no excuse. If a law permits peaceful petitioners to be jailed for their impertinence, that is no excuse. If a law permits an arrested person to be held naked in a jail cell without trial, that is no excuse. You get the idea…
Behavior of Yemeni Citizens and Officials
Who, then, in Yemen is committing behavior harmful to society—private citizens or officials? An answer is offered in the chart by the simple means of plotting where a variety of actions that have occurred in Yemen during its version of the Arab Revolt of 2011. The chart is a tool, not “an answer,” and thus best used by replacing the current dataset with whatever improved dataset you may have, with the items more accurately positioned. (In this chart, events are simply put in the appropriate quadrant, in no particular order.)
The chart illustrates:
  • 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.
As with the initial analysis, this comparison of regime and citizen behavior makes the citizens of Yemen look impressively patriotic, in contrast to a regime that appears predatory. Both impressions are based on a very short period of behavior, with significant potential for change. Watch for signs of the trends of citizen and official behavior either becoming more similar or more distinct.