So-Called "Depleted" Uranium Weapons Poison the Homeland

The story of the thoughtless manufacture and widespread use in war of highly radioactive depleted uranium illustrates how a zero-sum attitude in foreign policy impacts domestic policy.

Do foreign policy chickens come home to roost? Consider the interlocking dynamics of mistreatment of foreign populations and mistreatment of the U.S. population generated by a foreign policy based primarily on the zero-sum use of force rather than the search for positive-sum solutions. A company produces a weapon of mass destruction designed to poison not just enemy soldiers during a battle but the very ground and air where it is used and all civilians who ever go to that location in the future…for tens of thousands of years. During manufacturing back in the good old U.S. of A., that same process of poisoning poisons the American workers manufacturing it and, of course, the surrounding environment. More, both the corporation and the U.S. government collude to prevent the workers from receiving justice. Irresponsible, short-sighted foreign policy that accepts collateral damage to foreigners generates irresponsible, short-sighted domestic policy that accepts the collateral damage of Americans.

Alliant manufactured over 16 million medium and large caliber depleted uranium munitions. The suburban Minneapolis site where Alliant made DU munitions is now a “superfund site” and the local community is fighting the company and the Pentagon over clean-up responsibilities.

In Iraq, U.S. troops fire DU weaponry from the Abrams battle tank, A-10 Warthog and other systems.A toxic and radioactive substance, DU– otherwise known as Uranium 238– is a byproduct of enriched uranium, the fissile material in nuclear weapons. It is pyrophoric and burns spontaneously on impact. That, along with its extreme density, makes DU munitions the Pentagon’s ideal choice for penetrating enemy tank armor or reinforced bunkers.

When a DU shell hits its target, it burns, losing anywhere from 40 percent to 70 percent of its mass and dispersing a fine toxic radioactive dust that can be carried long distances by winds or absorbed into the soil and groundwater. According to a military spokesman, in the first year of the war in Iraq, the U.S. Army and Air Force fired 127 tons of DU munitions. Soldiers and civilians in the war zones and those who live near testing ranges like the one in Socorro, New Mexico where open air testing of DU was conducted for more than 20 years, have suffered the short and long term health effects of ingesting radioactive dust, such as kidney problems, birth defects, cancers and death. [Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.]

The cost to the U.S. of its war of choice against Iraq in 2003 has been calculated by Nobel Prize laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz to be between three and five trillion dollars. How much more will the poisoning of Socorro and Minneapolis add to that cost?

One of the more subtle casualties of this foreign policy-domestic policy linkage is the government transparency upon which democracy stands:

The Pentagon has traditionally been tight-lipped about DU: Official figures on the amount used were not released for years after the 1991 Gulf War and Bosnia conflicts, and nearly a year after the 1999 Kosovo campaign. No US official contacted could provide DU use estimates from the latest war in Iraq. [Christian Science Monitor 5/15/03.]

This anti-transparency attitude that views the American people as the enemy extends to collusion with the industrial half of the military-industrial complex:

The DoD continues to deny any problem or responsibility of DU exposure by civilians or soldiers.  ATK refuses to release medical studies of Depleted Uranium production workers at TCAAP. [Alliant Action.]

The attitude that “no one is responsible” is one of the most dangerous cracks in the structure of democracy.

As for what the Pentagon really thinks about its uranium-laced weaponry:

Six American vehicles struck with DU “friendly fire” in 1991 were deemed to be too contaminated to take home, and were buried in Saudi Arabia. Of 16 more brought back to a purpose-built facility in South Carolina, six had to be buried in a low-level radioactive waste dump.

While eager to use the weapons and quick to deny that these weapons cause collateral damage, the Pentagon is evidently not proud of its behavior.

Domestic-Foreign Policy Linkages.
If a state adopts a bullying attitude toward foreign adversaries, can it maintain a kindly, sympathetic attitude toward the weak in its own society? The history of the U.S. over the last decade suggests the following Reinforcement Hypothesis:

H1 = If either domestic policy or foreign policy in a democracy becomes markedly skewed, a similar tendency will be reinforced in the other.

For example, a bias in favor of the use of force rather than compromise in foreign policy will promote the use of force (perhaps economic power, perhaps outright police force) in domestic affairs. Similarly, as concern for domestic civil rights intensifies, foreign policy is also likely to give more weight to the rights of foreign societies. Whether or not the Reinforcing Hypothesis is true is unknown, but it is sufficiently intuitive to merit study, especially considering that it is consistent with trends in the U.S. over the last decade.
The processes by which such a linkage might play out are likely to be varied because it may occur across a wide range of link types (of which only two–the propensity to use force and sympathy for the views of others–are spelled out in the diagram. In the case of the U.S., as foreign policy increasingly focused on military force rather than diplomatic skill or generosity domestic policy increasingly focused on freeing the uber-rich from constraints. As the U.S. military was freed to use its power against overseas adversaries, the uber-rich were freed to use their power to take resources from the middle class for their own further enrichment. To interpret this as mere coincidence is intuitively illogical.

Reinforcement Hypothesis

U.S. foreign and financial policy during the first decade of the 21st century illustrates the logic of the Reinforcement Hypothesis. This hypothesis views domestic and foreign policy as two components of a single system, a seemingly obvious statement but one whose implications tend to be overlooked. The impact of the nature of foreign policy upon the nature of domestic policy in particular is ignored by both politicians and voters, both of whom typically make judgments about the propriety of each in isolation. In the short term, a war of aggression may indeed offer benefits; the potential for the act of aggression to harm the moral fiber of the aggressor society tends to be overlooked. As illustrated in the diagram, the Reinforcement Hypothesis contends that a decision to conduct foreign policy with a bias toward the elite will generate a positive feedback loop creating a bias toward conducting domestic policy in favor of the elite as well, and this in turn will further promote an elite bias in foreign policy.

More abstractly, the Reinforcement Hypothesis holds that zero-sum foreign policy generates zero-sum domestic policy and vice versa. Similarly, positive-sum policy in one arena creates a tendency toward positive-sum policy in the other arena. As the “Domestic and Foreign Policy Reinforcement” chart illustrates, reliance on force (typically military) or exploitation in foreign policy encourages an attitude on the part of a regime that foments reliance on force or exploitation (typically financial) in domestic policy. A classic foreign policy example is the refusal to talk to opponents until they submit, combined with the use of threats (rhetoric and encirclement by military bases) to gain such submission. Domestic policy may be implemented, especially in democracies, somewhat more gently with increasingly severe police action to obstruct civil rights and financial policies that steal from the poor to enrich the rich.
In the context of demanding one-sided international benefits for the U.S. (as the only superpower, certainly the “elite” of global states), a habit of relying on force for short-term gain at the expense of the weak made it easier to conduct domestic financial policy in the same manner. The similarities between Washington’s intense focus on the military at the expense of diplomacy/compromise/sympathy for the weak of the world and Washington’s intense financial policy focus, especially but not only during and after 2008 on bailing out the rich while millions lost homes and jobs is striking.
Consider the alternative: if post-9/11 foreign policy had focused on police action against terrorists combined with a campaign to offer the Muslim world a fair hearing for its grievances followed by genuine reform of the international political system, would the marginalization of the American homeowner and the American worker have been so easy? Would an administration willing to address sympathetically the concerns of Muslims be inclined to engage in a consistent policy of favoring the domestic rich at the expense of the poor?
War and the Garrison State. The pretense, to take one now-infamous example from recent history, that a foreign war can be fought without impacting the aggressor’s domestic society, is the kind of nonsense that comes from a failure to understand the meaning of complexity. Borrowing the funds for war from overseas to avoid raising taxes up front obviously only puts the burden of paying for the war on future generations. Hiring expensive mercenaries to supplement or replace citizen soldiers to make war appear “free” is just another clear deception that thinking citizens should immediately see through.
Other interactions, however, are more subtle. To what degree may such practices change the values of the aggressor society from democratic, open-minded, sympathetic, and moderate to prejudiced and extremist as the price of war becomes increasingly concealed? How can democracy survive in the arms of an increasingly powerful garrison state that requires constant war to justify its continued existence and builds a constituency of war profiteers who personally benefit from its existence? As power steadily shifts into the hands of war industrialists and extremist politicians who get elected by waving the bloody flag, screaming “Emergency!”, who will defend the allocation of resources for domestic needs? Who will defend the right to speak out against endless war? Who will point out the moral linkages between the acceptance of collateral damage (e.g., tens of thousands of dead Iraqi civilians) in foreign policy and collateral damage (e.g., millions of unemployed workers so discouraged that they drop out of the workforce)?

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

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

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

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

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

The Power of a Mental Model

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Military and Financial Adventurism: Two Sides of a Bad Coin

Global war against Muslim political activists and domestic economic crisis both appear here to stay, so it is high time for Americans to recognize that they are connected and to start trying to figure out how global war and domestic economic crisis impact each other.

Two long trends characterize the political environment of the U.S. today: an expensive, forward-leaning foreign policy and a debilitating economic crisis. Neither is being resolved. If fraud is the act of selling something on false pretenses, then both Washington’s policy toward the Islamic world and the joint Washington-Wall St. attitude toward the behavior of Big Finance are fraudulent. Washington is selling its militant stance regarding global political Islam as in the interests of U.S. national security, even though it is actually undermining that security by provoking hostility. Washington is selling its coddling of Big Finance as “reform,” even though it is precisely the lack of thorough reform that is setting us up for a second financial crisis. The situation in each policy realm is in fact so bad that the moderate tone of the above words itself approaches deception. [Those who would like to read a summary of U.S. policy toward the Muslim world that does not try so hard to be polite can turn to the award-winning U.S. foreign policy reporter Nick Turse; those who want the criminal nature of the financial crisis spelled out for them can turn to economist and former Federal financial regulator William Black.]

That the U.S. faces these two adverse trends simultaneously is obvious, but these two trends tend nevertheless to be considered in isolation. Therefore, the incredibly dangerous, non-linear ways in which the two might feed off each other is overlooked, as are the potential solutions that might be obvious were we to think of them together. For example, the obvious solution to the budget crunch is to stop wasting so much money spinning wheels in counterproductive efforts to control an endless series of Muslim cultural, political, psychological, and economic brushfires not amenable to military solutions in the first place.

Before focusing on solutions,  however, we need to understand the context in which we as a society currently find ourselves, and “train wreck” is not the appropriate metaphor; more accurately, the appropriate metaphor is “double train wreck.” The problem is not just that Washington faces two major problems, but that each is making the other worse. The military-political crusade against not just presumed terrorists but a global array of politically active Muslim groups advocating justice for Muslim societies rests on moral grounds and national security grounds concerning which debate is perhaps possible, but one thing is clear: Washington’s approach is expensive.

That drain of resources for military adventures leaves less to combat the weakened economy that has resulted from the financial adventures of gambling bankers, brokers, and mortgage firms. In addition, America’s foreign creditors are increasingly reluctant to loan us the funds to power a military campaign they find distasteful in the first place, while such trade partners as Saudi Arabia are looking for less controversial partners, and allies such as Turkey beginning to view the U.S. as a hopelessly incompetent global leader. The links also work the other way: a gutted economy of unemployed workers combined with a financial system now focused not on investing in the American economy but on manipulating the savings of Americans to enrich the elite can hardly avoid weakening the ability of the U.S. to spend about half the world’s military budget all by itself. So the war undermines our ability to maintain a strong economy, while the weak economy undermines the war. The urgency for Americans to understand that these two trends are interacting is hard to overstate.

Nevertheless, all that is, frankly, obvious. What is not obvious is exactly how the two negative trends of endless military adventure and endless economic crisis will interact. Since the public debate pays little attention to the fact of their interaction in the first place, it is not surprising that little insight about the actual dynamics of how these two trends interact is available. Are the interactions additive or multiplicative (i.e., exponential)? Is there a time delay that will generate nasty instability? Is there a logical approach to resolving the two problems jointly, whereby we need to do X on foreign policy in tandem with or before or after we do Y on the domestic economy?

It is a safe bet, unfortunately, that no one knows. Suffice it to say that since neither adverse trend shows any sign of being resolved, we’d better start trying to figure out how global war and domestic economic crisis impact each other.
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Technical Note: I kept technical terms out of the above overview, but the implication is that the nexus of domestic economic trends and foreign policy constitute a complex-adaptive system characterized by exceedingly complex causal dynamics. Therefore, not only is the prediction of any specific event hard because all the parts are evolving, but surprise is easy to predict because the underlying forces work in irregular ways. Recent examples of surprise include 9/11, the bursting of the mortgage bubble, the size of the CDO market, the viciousness of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 2006…

Do you want more surprises?

Can Erdogan Save Syria?

As Syria collapses, the likelihood of intervention rises. The nature of that intervention is key to the future of the Mideast.
As Syria morphs into Libya, two very different scenarios are beginning to appear on the distant horizon, with profoundly distinct implications for Mideast stability. One scenariothe Israeli Expansion Scenario–is that of a U.S.-Israeli intervention in the name of humanity that would invade, eliminate the barbaric Assad regime, and effectively colonize Syria in the interests of Israel. The otherthe Turkish Tolerance Scenario–is a Turkish initiative, also to eliminate the barbaric Assad regime in the name of humanity, conceivably diplomatic but more likely also a military invasion, that would oversee the creation of a moderate Syrian popular regime.
The Israeli Expansion Scenario would antagonize the whole region, threaten to stop the Arab Spring in its tracks, infuriate hardliners in Tehran, embolden hard-liners in Tel Aviv, excite hardliners in Riyadh.  The Turkish Tolerance Scenario would offer Syrians neutral ground for working out a national consensus, catch both Iran and Israel off-guard but simultaneously mitigate the fears and ambitions of each, slam the door in the face of Salafi jihadists looking for their next opportunity, and turbo-charge the Arab Spring with a breathtaking victory for moderate, democratizing modernization with a Muslim flavor.
Israeli Tanks [Amir Farshad Ebrahimi]

Almost no one would like an effective Israeli takeover of Syria under a 1970s Lebanon-style proxy regime. A frontal invasion by the IDF is perhaps the least likely way such a scenario would develop, but a more subtle Israeli role would cause nearly as much damage as long as Israel were perceived regionally as expanding its area of influence at Syrian expense. Iranians would rightly fear the construction of offensive Israeli air bases near Iranian territory, committing the normally cautious Iranian national security elite to emergency countermeasures. Muslim hardliners from the IRGC to al Quaida would have a field day with easily justified campaigns against Zionism that would exponentially magnify their regional popularity. Israeli hardliners would see the takeover of Syria as a brilliant coup giving them a fast-closing window to take out Iran as a regional competitor. Even if no country actually decided to start a war, the rising tensions and rapid pace of developments would dramatically raise the danger of war through miscalculation or a third-party provocation.

          
Turkish P.M. Erdogan [Copyright by World Economic Forum
swiss-image.ch/Photo by Andy Mettler]
The impact of a solution to the Syrian mess dominated by Ankara would be far less dangerous to regional stability. Regardless of who liked or did not like a moderate Turkish leadership role in forming a new Syria, such an arrangement would be sufficiently non-threatening and offer sufficient potential benefits to make everyone else take a deep breath before using violence to oppose it. Washington could calculate that a democratic Syria under Turkish guidance would no longer be a regional irritant. Tehran could calculate that its expanding economic ties with Turkey are, in the end, worth far more than its alliance with a discredited Assad. Even if it did not, what could Tehran do once Turkish ground forces were inside Syria? Tel Aviv would lose a military opponent, potentially gain a neutral Syrian state, and might think it could talk Ankara into forgetting about the Golan Heights. Riyadh could figure that it could always work with Sunni Turkey and slowly gain influence in Syria through its financial clout. And Erdogan, now solidly in control with his impressive 2:1 electoral victory over his nearest competitor and justified by the growing urgency of addressing the Syrian refugee flood, might just be able to pull this off. At the end of the day, Turkey has a unique regional combination of low fear-factor and high power.
But Erdogans moment to act is now. The world will not be able to ignore the unfolding horror in Syria forever. Sooner or later, if it continues to worsen, Washington will intervene militarily. If that happens, we will see Iraq all over again, but with Israel even more deeply involved and, this time, Iran and Saudi Arabia both spring-loaded to protect their perceived interests. Lacking popular support, the time that was available to Bush for his anti-Iraq war preparations, the strong economy inherited from Clinton, and military force (given current commitments in Afghanistan), Obama will intervene with insufficient power, opening the door to both Israeli and Saudi influence. Each of the latter will move to radicalize the situation for their own short-term interests. Syrian popular interests will be ignored, and extremists will have their day, once more. Iraq 2005 and Lebanon late-1980s come to mind. Every regional action hero will move to Syria for every imaginable purpose except helping Syrians.

The danger of the Israeli Expansion Scenario lies in the number of conflicting and interacting military and sectarian dynamics it would provoke. This set of dynamics will contain more exponential shifts of influence, more tipping points, more tricky delayed reactions, more oscillations derived from negative feedback loops than anyone will be able to understand in time to react. It will be plagued by fixes that fail including expensive examples of the subset, Shooting Yourself in the Foot, e.g., applying military force to prevent terrorism and thus provoking terrorism; shifting the burden, e.g., forgetting social collapse while fighting political enemies; and the needless creation of accidental adversaries, thereby spoiling some beautiful relationships. The overwhelming complexity of the situation will stimulate a degree of self-organization that may give rise to the emergence of some unsettling new political phenomena.  Recent examples of self-organization include Aum Shinrikyu, al Quaida, the Iraqi insurgency against U.S. occupation, illegal Israeli settler terrorism, and Tahrir Square. Attempts by the status quo forces artificially to constrain disconcerting but stabilizing change will pave the road to more black swans (see Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Mark Blyth, The Black Swan of Cairo, Foreign Affairs May-June 2011: 90:3, 33-39), further stunning and roiling the world. All involved actors, guilty of the action bias (Taleb, 39) that so plagues U.S. foreign policy-making, will end up making incomprehensible circumstances worse by following the honored dictum, when in doubt, just do something. Syria is moving toward chaos, but that in no way proves that more energy (money, weapons, feverishly busy actors) inserted into the system will not just push it faster in the same direction.

Moreover, as former Israeli officials themselves have warned, Israel today may either be plotting war against Iran or stumbling into it. Both dangers will only be increased by an Israeli Lebanonization of Syria.
Syria is weak but strategically located. As a stable, rationally governed state, Syria acts as a buffer, keeping the regional tigersIran, Iraq, Israel, and Saudi Arabiafrom scratching each others eyes out. But as a failed state, Syria is transformed from buffer into battleground. To get at each other, Israel and Iran must cross Syria. Weak Lebanon in its turn becomes further exposed to outside influences if no strong state presence is guarding its Syrian border. Syria as a power vacuum is a threat to the region that will demand action.
These are just scenarios; neither is a prediction, nor are they by any means mutually exclusive or logically exhaustive. The two could even combine into one marvelous dream world of Turkish leadership putting a Muslim face on an international effort backed quietly by American power. But that too requires quick initiative by an Erdogan whose  time may just have come. In a word, the region now needs Erdogan to put his money where his mouth is.
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My thanks to Media With Conscience for first publishing this article.

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.”

Egyptian Revolt: A Classroom Exercise

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A scenario analysis is a provocative way to guide students to think about the implications of the Egyptian revolt. The gemstones of scenario analysis are revealed by asking not the traditional “what” but “how.”
Scenario analysis can be complicated to describe, but the steps flow naturally in a group discussion, allowing the students to take the initiative and figure out for themselves how to think about the future.
The basic steps are:
  1. Select the question: “Where is Egypt headed?”
  2. Identify the causal factors: desire for civil rights and desire for economic security.
  3. Draw a grid generating the scenarios. The graph is a useful aid to the real challenge of this step: identifying the likely differences in outcome of each scenario.
  4. Identify the key dynamic powering each scenario. Much more important than asking what might happen is explaining how your predicted outcome could occur.
  5. Identify at least one other scenario that would change behavior if it became dominant. Whatever you think will happen, some other invisible dynamic is surely present in the background and needs to be identified to avoid surprise.
  6. Explain possible tipping points. Ask how a tipping point leading to a shift in dominance might occur.
That process is plenty for two or three one-hour class sessions separated by a day or two for related homework. For further challenge and further realism, the whole system can fruitfully be considered as a complex adaptive system. This provides insight into the underlying evolutionary processes of the whole system within which, in the current case, Egypt exists.

Escaping the Mideast Extremist Trap

Although Erdogan’s refusal to grant Israeli right wingers a blank check is to be applauded as a tactical effort to restore some balance to Israeli behavior, Americans should be thinking much more deeply about the subtle threats to both U.S. national security and American democracy that will flow from a collapse of Turkish-Israeli relations. These dangers will be particularly severe if the U.S. blindly sides with an Israel still under rightwing control.
Turkey is a democracy struggling to emerge from the shadow of rightwing military rule; Israel is a democracy sliding into increasingly authoritarian rightwing expansionism. Each society needs the other’s moderating influence to support its own democratic aspirations. Each society suffers from its proclivity to repress an unwanted minority that it nevertheless refuses to free, with the denial of civil liberties to the minority feeding back to undermine the liberty of the majority.
The U.S., with cracks aplenty in its own democratic structure, in no small part due to its shaky imperial adventure in the Mideast, in turn needs good relations with moderate Turkish and Israeli democracies. U.S. and Israeli societies are so closely linked that the emergence of full-fledged authoritarianism in Israel could cause significant harm to American democracy, as shown by both the dangerous U.S. copying of Israeli urban warfare tactics (rather than trying to understand the aspirations of Iraqis, Somalis, and Afghanis) and even more dangerous game of U.S. and Israeli rightwingers trying to trump each other’s threats toward Iran. 
When U.S. politicians use Israeli extremism as justification for building up their own head of imperial steam, it endangers not only peace but also U.S. civil liberties: repression of others morally compromises free societies. In order for the U.S. alliance with Israel to avoid harming U.S. national security, Israel will have to become a force for peace, moderation, and cross-civilizational cooperation. The tiny Israeli peace movement and the eviscerated Israeli left are the repository of all those “shared values” some Americans like to talk about.  The Israeli left and peace movement are the Israeli factions the U.S. needs to befriend, not just for the good of Israel but to find its own way back from the Mideast precipice.
A moderating and democratizing Turkey is even more important to the U.S. because of both its size and its unique position astride the civilizational boundary. Turkey probably has the greatest capacity of any country today for conferring political flexibility upon the rigid Mideast, and that flexibility constitutes the opportunity for the U.S. simultaneously to shore up its own democracy and escape the Mideast extremist trap.

Mideast Radicalization Dynamics

The end result of the domestic political strife in Iran may be the replacement of the regime with a kinder, gentler regime, but for the moment the strife creates yet another cycle of radicalization in the Mideast. Since this cycle is liked in many ways with the other cyles (the battle for Palestine, the Iranian nuclear dispute, the Western war with radical Islam), its immediate impact is to make the Mideast a still more dangerous place.

Farhideh Farhi portrays the radicalization of domestic politics in Iran, a process by which regime repression of within-system dissidents is pushing the dissident movement toward more hardline tactics in self-defense, thereby further radicalizing the regime, in a vicious cycle that makes compromise ever more difficult. This domestic process is occurring in the regional context of Israel’s increasingly intransigent approach to Palestine, demonstrated by the viciousness of its Gaza attack a year ago and its insistence on expanding the illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank. Globally, the Western conflict with activist Islam continues to expand, with the surge into Afghanistan and recent expansion of the U.S. bombing campaign into Yemen the latest examples. Not surprisingly, the Western nuclear dispute with Iran proves, in this context, difficult to resolve. Whenever one side offers any signal of moderation, something—possibly related to the nuclear dispute but very likely unrelated—intervenes to poison the atmosphere and obstruct progress.

As each of these cycles of radicalization feeds on the others, the momentum for war can build far more rapidly than would be justified by the actual reasons.

Violent domestic political strife tends effectively to preclude foreign policy compromise in any country. For the Iranian regime to compromise on a core issue such as its right to develop nuclear technology in the face of highly abrasive and public Western pressure is virtually inconceivable. At a minimum, a nuclear breakthrough during the current Iranian domestic crisis would probably require public silence on the part of Western leaders about Iran’s nuclear program, secret diplomatic overtures to Iran promising fundamental shifts in how the Mideast is managed that would entail greatly enhanced Iranian influence over the U.S. role in that region, and acceptance of a common standard for Mideast nuclear powers that would explicitly link what is tolerated in the nuclear arena on the part of Israel with that which is tolerated on the part of Iran.

Given the rising radicalization of the global Western-Islamic conflict, however, it is hard to imagine the Obama Administration having the courage to offer anything remotely like the above concessions. Even if the political opposition from the Israeli lobby in the U.S. to such a policy could be overcome, the question would remain of how one might reasonably launch such a policy now without having it be misinterpreted as support for, or effectively constituting support of, the repressive regime.

The distinct, but linked, cycle of radicalization in the Levant is provoked by the hardening of Israeli elite attitudes toward Palestinians in recent years, the continuation of apartheid policies toward Palestinians in the West Bank, the intensification of collective punishment of all Gazans, and the continued expansion of Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian territory (constituting an effective policy of ethnic cleansing). Such Israeli behavior not only provokes occasional violent Palestinian reactions and poisons Israel’s relations with Lebanon and Syria but offers Tehran hardliners irresistible temptations for exploitation to gain regional influence. Such Iranian behavior may frighten some Israelis but certainly offers, in its turn, its own irresistible temptations for exploitation by Israeli officials looking for ways to deflect American eyes from Israel’s repression of the Palestinians. Thus, both Iran and Israel whip up tensions that risk war even without either necessarily having any desire to go to war.

Once multiple cycles of radicalization become linked, they transform into a political structure of great durability. Extremists have a huge advantage over those counseling moderation under such circumstances. It takes concerted action simultaneously to resist the radicalization process within each cycle in order to create momentum toward peace, while it takes only a single tiny push anywhere in any one of the cycles to intensify the radicalization process, as exemplified by the emotional and self-defeating reactions in the West to the appearance of one Nigerian terrorist.

The appetites of many will be whetted by the spreading chaos, but the largest smirk of all must surely be on the lips of bin Laden.

Measuring Superpower Performance in Insurgencies

Assessing a big power’s performance during intervention in a developing world insurgency is inherently difficult because no single, simple measure provides a remotely accurate tool. Here’s the beginning of a metric for the job – an explanation of the dynamics driving the dual, interacting cycles of regime and opposition decline into the chaos of mutual violence. To the degree that your case study of choice fits this Chaos Scenario, the losers include the local populace and all who dream of peace; the winners are no more than those extremists on both right and left who exploit chaos for power and profit.

A conservative regime desperate to hold power relies ever more on brute force (its own weak force buttressed by that of its foreign patron). The more it does so, the more it comes—fairly or not—to be seen as an (inevitably) illegitimate lackey, consequently undermining its authority and thus pushing it further into a vicious cycle of repression, corruption, and loss of prestige. This process, in turn, makes it ever more difficult for the regime to engage sincerely and positively in the cooperation with reformers so vital to focusing it on the needs of the people rather than the narrow, short-term needs of the regime that enable the strengthening of links with civil society.

Contradictions between reformers demanding a share of power and leaders seeking to retain their personal and class positions come to the fore. Protected by the patron, the regime marginalizes reformers, forcing them into the arms of insurgents. A regime that relies on a foreign patron to maintain its position either is likely already to be composed of conservative politicians seeking power for its own sake rather than idealistic liberals. However it starts, its conservative, selfish tendencies intensify under the stress of coping with increasingly vociferous reformers, increasingly violent insurgents, and a populace increasingly alienated by the inevitable regime war crimes. The patron, lacking understanding of local conditions, trapped by its public lauding of the regime, and ultimately more interested in profiting from its intervention than building genuine local independence, is both sorely tempted not to change horses in midstream and manipulated by its client.

Opposing this elitist coalition is a cynical group of embittered activists whose experience has pushed them over the edge from idealism to fanaticism. Now convinced of their own perfection and the pointlessness of trying to compromise with a regime increasingly addicted to its own form of extremism, the activists-turned-radicals-turned insurgents’ particular form of the corruption of power knows no more bounds than does that of the regime.

The longer the contest lasts, the more immoral it becomes as the two sides compete for the title of “bloodiest butcher of them all.”

The above description is all too familiar. Eventually one side will tire, and the other will gain control of the slaughterhouse. The loser will be society, by then crushed morally and physically.

To the degree that this description comes to reflect reality in a Muslim society where the American Armed Forces are at war, not just the local society but also America will end up a loser – regardless of which side ends up controlling the slaughterhouse.

When taking stock of the Western-Islamic confrontation, this description provides a metric for evaluating the overall course of the conflict. To the degree that it is accurate, “we the people” are losing, and the forces of extremism, of chaos, of exploitation are winning. These forces may be jihadi terrorists or gun-running masters of the military-industrial complex; either way, they are believers in violence, profiteers of chaos. It is this distinction—not “body counts” or the claims of politicians or the emotional drivel of glib media propagandists or battlefield results—that voters need to understand.

Erdogan’s Calculus: An Analytical Approach

Erdogan’s diplomatic initiative to break the Mideast logjam with fresh thinking has provoked lots of smoke but much less analytical fire. How might we think through the options facing the region?

Turkey appears to be challenging the world to think more deeply about the state of affairs in the Mideast and to move toward a positive-sum solution. Most of the relevant actors seem unable even to imagine and perhaps do not want a situation in which the U.S., Iran, and Israel might all benefit.

Yet, it seems obvious that all three countries, and Turkey as well, would benefit if an international security regime that put a cap on the militarization of nuclear technology. Indeed, the leaders of all of those countries except Israel have called for this, although, with the exception of Prime Minister Erdogan and Foreign Minister Davutoglu, most seem to have trouble imagining a balanced way to get there. Moreover, the degree to which current powerholders rely on the fear of nuclear war to buttress their personal positions constitutes an enormous obstacle. Beyond that, settling the nuclear issue seems workable only in the context of fundamental changes in U.S. and Israeli foreign policy. What Erdogan and Davutoglu undoubtedly have thought about but are, perhaps wisely, not discussing in public is the degree to which removal of Mideast nuclear tensions depends on the willingness of Washington to replace its 21st century military-centric Mideast/Central Asian policy with a diplomacy-centric policy and the willingness of Israel to replace its post-1980s (roughly) Greater Israel policy with a “good-neighbor” policy of living within its legally recognized borders.

For Turkey, in particular, the rationale of trying to bridge the nuclear gap between Iran and its antagonists is crystal clear. Turkey’s plan of becoming the regional energy hub virtually requires resolution of the nuclear crisis. Even more important, Turkey would almost certainly lose from a prolongation of the crisis: if it turns to war, Turkey gets the fallout; if not, Turkey will come under pressure to participate in a wasteful regional nuclear arms race. Moreover, the higher the tension, the more Turkey is likely to be forced back into subordination to its American bloc leader. That, in turn, seems likely to raise the prominence of the Turkish armed forces in domestic affairs, undermining both the delicate position of Turkish democracy and the fortunes of the Erdogan regime.

If the challenge Erdogan has taken on is great, the logic of it is so persuasive that his effort can be assumed to be sincere. How he and his foreign minister rank the various goals that they surely have in mind is more difficult to answer.

Ergogan’s major goals:

  • security – a peaceful regional environment, requiring both resolution of the nuclear crisis and resolution of Iran’s demand for a “place at the Mideast table”
  • economic – international acceptance of Turkey as the hub of hydrocarbon pipelines from Iran, Kazakhstan, etc. into Europe
  • moral – justice for Palestinians and the creation of a less egregiously unbalanced regional nuclear regime
  • personal – success could cement the hold of moderate, reformist Islam on Turkish politics and make his name in history.

Debate has arisen over the reasons (e.g., economic) for Erdogan’s initiatives to restrain Israeli militarism and invite Iran “to the Mideast table.” A better analytical approach is to recognize that he almost certainly has a wide range of goals, as indicated above. These four goals, then, constitute the obvious (albeit not necessarily the only) “driving forces” underlying Erdogan’s initiative.

Starting, for analytical simplicity, with the first two–security and economic, axes representing the range of possible outcomes can be defined as follows:

  • Security – from “zero-sum” to “positive-sum;”
  • Economic – from “isolated” to “regional hub.”

The objective of both the selection of driving forces and the way that the axes are defined is to provoke interesting analysis. In this light, it may be advantageous to define “security” as “zero-sum to positive-sum” to underscore the distinction between competing blocs and a mutually beneficial regional security regime (rather than, e.g., “insecure” to “secure”). Similarly, defining the economic extremes as “isolated” and “regional hub” focuses on Turkey’s economic policy choices rather than outcomes (e.g., “poverty” and “wealth”). It may seem likely that becoming a regional hydrocarbon hub would produce wealth, but that is an analytical conclusion.

The two axes now define an analytical landscape of possible futures that can simplistically be thought of as offering four broad alternative options. Rather than getting bogged down in the typical scenario analysis exercise of weaving fairy tale stories about each one, it is analytically useful simply to conceive in a general way of the distinctions by suggesting the obvious alternative outcomes with titles.

The result, as graphed, shows what we may take as Erdogan’s calculus:

  • In a zero-sum security context with Turkey economically isolated, regional tensions and the absence of regional economic integration can be expected to interact, with each making the other worse, generating a vicious cycle.
  • The combination of a zero-sum security context with regional economic integration may seem fairly advantagous but is likely to be unsustainable, generating instability.
  • A positive-sum security environment lacking regional economic integration might be sustainable but would leave Turkey relatively weak.
  • The combination of a positive-sum security regime and economic integration would be mutually reinforcing, generating a virtuous cycle in which participants increasingly see cooperation as to their advantage.

Now we have the analytical raw materials for beginning to think seriously about where Turkey stands and how it might design an effective policy. The image alone helps structure thinking, but the essential element is still missing. The key at this point is not to construct stories about how you think the future might develop in each quadrant of our analytical landscape but to ask a simple question with inevitably complicated answers:

how are the underlying dynamics likely to affect behavior in each quadrant?

Briefly, we have decided that economics and security are the key elements affecting the future, and we have made some simplistic guesses about how they might interact (e.g., to produce a vicious cycle at one extreme and a virtuous cycle at the other), but we have yet to do any real analysis. What has been accomplished is the setting up of the analytical stage in preparation for serious evaluation of how Erdogan may be assessing his options and how Washington and Tehran might determine the appropriate reaction. Those wishing to proceed (be they students writing a term paper or decision makers) should start by asking, “As X (e.g., economic integration) increases, what else happens?” Grab pencil and paper. It gets complicated.