Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Defense...The Devil is in the Details

Diagnosing the Health of the Global Political System. As I have argued elsewhere, the existence of an analytical framework for diagnosing the health of the international political system would help us understand where we are and where we are going in terms of world affairs. One aspect of such a framework might well be the capacity of the system to defend itself and, it follows from that, the nature of the defensive policies that are implemented.

Defending a Political System. Any system (e.g., family, country) must be able to defend itself. The critical issue is in identifying the tipping point where defensive measures begin to undermine the system more than preserve it. When a political system employs irregular, informal defensive organizations that do not have legitimacy such as secret informers, personal armies, lynch mobs, paramilitaries, or mercenaries, the system’s viability is called into question. Such may be the case even for completely legal defensive forces allowed to overreach a reasonable level of authority. For example, Roman Emperor Augustus sowed the seeds for the murder of future emperors when he gained the right to keep his personal guard in Rome.

In theory, one could imagine such irregular organizations functioning in a responsible manner, but to the degree they operate without transparent oversight or accounting they are more vulnerable to abuse than official state organs. The same applies to official defense units, like Augustus’ Praetorian Guards, that overreach normal defensive practices. To the degree that a regime’s security services or paramilitary organizations threaten the people they claim to be protecting, the system becomes endangered over the long-term. To the extent that such behavior is either increasing or becoming increasingly accepted as legitimate behavior on the part of a regime, a colonial power, or an invading force, the system is becoming more dysfunctional. Simply put, a larger proportion of people are experiencing degraded living conditions. But of course it is in reality not that simple. The resultant flow of internal or international refugees puts economic and security strains on the whole system and may feed rebellion; the feedbacks are incalculable.

Use of irregular methods—midnight visits to people’s homes by the police; assassinations of leaders or categories of people (e.g., teachers, union leaders, human rights activists, reporters); displacements of populations, especially those which are intentional; military attacks on whole segments (e.g., peasants or an ethnic minority) of the population; collusion between the military and groups advocating violence--means the political system is in desperate shape. Removing governing authority from local civilian leaders to give it to the military is a significant indicator of the breakdown of normality; for such special authority to continue to be exercised in practice by the military even after being ruled illegal is even worse – a sign that the military is operating on its own and the rule of law is collapsing. Another major set of indicators that the system’s defensive mechanisms are failing concerns the presence of foreign military and the nature of their participation in internal military operations (e.g., as advisors, participants, or in command).

Pathological Defense. Since all of the above measures are justified by those who advocate them as measures to enhance the ability of the system to defend itself, why should they be considered indicators of system pathology? At least two reasons exist:

  • misuse of these purportedly defensive steps for ulterior purposes;
  • timeframe.

Concerning misuse, the danger is that a regime will take advantage of its legitimate right to defend the system to eliminate political opponents. Measures that circumvent standard legal protections put in place precisely for the purpose of preventing abuse of power, such as indefinite detention without trial or closed trials by military court, are indicators that such intentional abuse is occurring with “defense” as the excuse.

The second reason for considering the above-mentioned defensive steps as indicators of system pathology is one of timeframe. This essay is concerned with how one measures the fundamental, long-term ability of a system to continue functioning at an optimal level. Any of the above defensive measures may indeed temporarily shore up defenses, at least from the perspective of the actors who implement them. A politician may well survive his term in office on the strength of such short-term measures.

More positively, a genuine threat may be met, just as a person with a severed artery can survive by using a tourniquet. But what is the subsequent quality of system performance? If the tourniquet is not removed within a few minutes, the patient may die of gangrene. Similarly, emergency measures lacking clearly defined temporal and procedural limits would be indicators of system pathology. Do the measures make short-term progress at the expense of long-term degradation of performance (e.g., "cleansing" of dissident minorities or coca-growing peasants provoking a rebellion in the future)? And if not, do the short-term defensive measures throw the baby out with the bathwater? If a democracy defends itself by converting itself into a military dictatorship, the elites may win (at least temporarily), but the population and the system have lost: the democracy is dead.

Moreover, the future of the system will be questionable for any number of reasons if the elites win by alienating the rest of the population. Aside from obvious threats such as civil war and revolt lie other perils for a system with internal divisions that make the masses apathetic.

Evaluation of the quality of defense must consider the relevance of the defensive measures. In a word, do the defensive steps taken actually serve to protect the system? A now-classic example of how easy it is to take supposedly defensive measures that harm rather than protect the system is the discredited idea of suppressing all forest fires to protect the forests. In the Western U.S., some tree seeds actually require fire for germination: forest fires are not an attack on the system but a necessary part of it.

The impact of time delays on this process is fundamental because the short-term and long-term impacts of an action may be opposite (exactly opposite to the typical assumption that if X is good, then more X will be better). It must be kept in mind that an action will have a set of effects, perhaps the desired one and almost certainly a number of others that will be surprises, some nasty, but all are equally results of the action, whether anticipated or not. A tourniquet has two effects: it stops the bleeding, and it rots the limb. As system dynamics expert John Sterman put it in his text Business Dynamics, “there are no side effects, there are just effects. (p 11) It is not legitimate to brag about stopping the bleeding and then to blame “bad luck” for rotting the limb. The political equivalents are endless.

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