Monday, June 4, 2007

Balancing Chaos and Order: Iraq, Terrorism, and Complexity

Society is not a formal English garden with all its people standing in straight little rows. Society requires adaptability, flexibility, maneuverability. It is not the people but the rules that need to be kept in their place. Rules are useful tools – nothing more, or, that is, rules should be nothing more. The jackboots of history make all too clear how easily they can be, however. When rules take precedence over human welfare—when “order” becomes god, the society is sick. But when no rules exist, the society collapses into chaos. The evolution of human history from Neanderthal times seems to be the story of rising complexity and a concomitant increase in the difficulty of achieving a balance between chaos and order.

The more cultures intermix, the more educated and aware of neighbors people become, the more ideologies each individual is exposed to, the more of a challenge achieving this balance becomes. And the more technology spreads, the more dangerous a loss of balance becomes. Individual access to weapons of mass destruction makes chaos more dangerous; state access to technologies for control makes order more dangerous. In between the two extremes, interventions gone wrong become increasingly costly in terms of money, human lives, and downstream impact.

Complexity theory offers the hope of a more sophisticated way of viewing 21st century society, whose novel dynamics so baffle us. If we can figure out how to understand human society as a complex system of interdependent parts in which behavior at one level, e.g., individual, causes unanticipated types of behavior at another level, e.g., global, then perhaps we can learn to minimize foreign policy failures by tuning policy with more finesse.

Complex systems are presumably highly resilient, so why need we be concerned with “finesse?” Mature complex societies, with their accepted rule sets, firmly established and highly legitimate institutions, and well developed problem-solving mechanisms are resilient, though even these can be overwhelmed by change. (Tainter, Diamond) Relatively simple hierarchical societies (e.g., dictatorships) may well also be resilient. But it is in a very different type of society where foreign policy missteps of our new century appear to occur: transitional societies.

Societies in the process of transition from relatively simple hierarchical forms to something much more complex (integrated, fluid, heterogeneous, specialized, mobile) lack the strengths of both extremes (hierarchical and complex).

Transitional societies are characterized by fragility and unpredictability. Transitional societies are fragile because:

· Institutions are poorly established, with rules that are not worked out or accepted;
· Political support is minimal;
· Both institutions and rules have little legitimacy.

Transitional societies are unpredictable because:

· Political actors can easily choose to switch roles (e.g., from patriot to criminal) or be so labeled;
· Many obstacles block success
· Resource constraints;
· Zero-sum competition;
· Aspects of both the old and new phases exist.

These points merit detailed consideration because, to the degree that they are accurate, they contain lessons for formulating effective foreign policy.

Weak institutions and rules. One early example of weak rules after the U.S. invasion of Iraq was the rules for media behavior. The hostility toward the U.S. of Shi’ite cleric and political activist Moqtada al Sadr seems to have been set in concrete--with consequences that are still playing out--because the U.S. saw his newspaper as violating what it considered to be the rules and therefore closed his paper. A different example of challenging the rules is al Sadr’s recent overtures to Sunnis which signal an interest in replacing ethnic-based institutions with some type of cross-ethnic structure.

Switching Roles. In transitional societies individuals as well as social structures are in transition and searching for more effective and comfortable roles, tradition is being tossed aside, and the establishment has lost its grip, so political actors can easily switch roles and indeed may play contradictory roles at the same time. Is a militia leader the head of a criminal gang or a patriot stabilizing society? In what direction is he evolving? What political context would be likely to influence his evolution in one direction or the other? Are the simultaneous exercise of “contradictory” roles, i.e., roles that contribute to order and disorder, necessary under any particular set of circumstances during a transition?

It is not at all obvious what the impact on a tenuous transitional situation will be of removing such a militia leader from the scene. His removal will generate numerous changes: loss of local security, loss of local government, power vacuum that must be filled immediately by the national government or some other force will step in, alienation of the deposed leader’s supporters (who probably encompass a whole sector of society and thus cannot themselves be eliminated, empowerment of opponents (not just the national government but perhaps also additional militias. The removal of such a leader will thus generate numerous complex dynamics that will be exceedingly difficult to foresee. One example was the late May killing of Sadrist leader in Basra.

The various portrayals of Abu Qader are instructive. He was a “criminal leader” involved in “weapons trafficking” but yet “known for instilling restraint in his men” and trying to “stabilize” Basra. ) If the purpose of killing him was to bring order to Basra, it is not at all clear that his killers thought this through very carefully.

Abu Qader’s death aggravates and leaves unresolved a host of issues: where do “his men” and their families now turn and what lessons about their behavior are they now to learn? What kind of leader is likely to fill the power vacuum he leaves behind? Was his group providing any sort of local security or perhaps providing social services to the community? How will his death affect the behavior of local militias in competition with him? Was he contributing more to “order” or “disorder?” In which direction was he moving? Was he approaching a tipping point where he could easily have been nudged in one direction or the other? Without answers to such questions, interventions are mindless exercises in futility.

Both locally, in Basra, and nationally, it remains to be seen what repercussions will ensue from this crude intervention in the delicate process of socio-political transition. Multiply such “interventions” many times over in countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, and Colombia, and one begins to understand why the chaos there is so endless.

Aspects of old and new. Fragments of both the old, hierarchical phase and the newly emerging phase, not to mention transitional fragments co-exist in transitional societies, all interacting but in new ways that emerge as the mix of “fragments” evolves. These “fragments” may be cultural mores, institutions, or rules. Purely transitional structures may be mixed with structures that will turn out to characterize the future complex society. It is not clear if they are even theoretically distinct categories or if “chance” determines which are retained since the transitional societies are in flux and success for any new structure is so dependent on initial and subsequent conditions. From the perspective of Western industrial society, a Mideast militia that provides social services to the poor or a Colombian narco-paramilitary force that defends rich cattle barons may appear to be a transitional force, but that perspective rests on the questionable assumption that these societies will inevitably evolve into Western-style industrial societies. If human society is “undergoing a transition away from hierarchical control” (Bar-Yam, p. 782), then some of these apparently transitional subnational structures may become permanent features of a form of society that does not yet exist.

The emergence of Fatah al-Islam in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp near Tripoli, Lebanon exemplifies some of the complications of overlapping old and new features in societies transitioning from hierarchical structure. In Lebanon’s case, the hierarchical structure was essentially composed of several so-called “confessional,” i.e., ethnically/religiously-based, hierarchies (Shi’a, Sunni, Druze, Maronite) that had agreed to divide up political power plus a disenfranchised Palestine refugee population constituting 10% of Lebanon’s population but living in self-administered camps both physically and legally separated from the rest of the Lebanese population. Fatah al-Islam has now emerged as a transitional offshoot of the traditional Palestinian refugee political structure (traditional in the sense of having been in existence in Lebanon since the Palestinians arrived in the 1970’s). On top of that simple structural explanation, one should add the more political perspective of the various regional conflicts contributing to the violence.

The fragility and unpredictability of societies in the process of a transition from a relatively simple hierarchical structure into something new may be exacerbated by the potential for an even greater degree of complexity during the transition than after. In the natural sciences, the most complex situation is “the phase transition, when both phases coexist.” (Cowan, p 522) The question of whether or not a transitional society may have even more interdependence among an even larger number of parts than a mature complex society deserves to be researched. Transitional societies are under stress, which seems to provoke many individuals who are normally politically quiet into activism, and not just activism but radical forms of activism.

Consider, for example, the dozens of different insurgent groups in Iraq and the speed with which they fracture and re-form. The degree to which activist organizations in transitional societies under great stress are truly interdependent and the density of social networks in such societies would be worth knowing. I would hypothesize that interdependence and learning among activist groups are higher in transitional societies because activists feel the need to enhance their performance and that, therefore, social networks are unusually dense. Hence, complexity is likely to reach extreme, indeed, unsustainable levels. There is too much to do, there are too many people to contact, events are moving too fast.

Intervening in such a mess is easy; almost any intervention will have an impact. Knowing what the impact will be is the hard part.

· Can Lebanon become a successful and stable democracy if the most effective representative of Lebanon’s 1 million Shi’a and indeed the most effective political organization in the whole country (Hezballah) is ostracized?

· Can Iraq become a success and stable democracy if Al Sadr is prevented from giving a political voice to Baghdad’s Shi’a poor?

· Can the fighting in Palestine ever end if Hamas is denied the ability to govern after winning a democratic election?

Given the effective impossibility of predicting the results of crude interventions in highly complex transitional situations, it may be more effective to intervene with finesse. Rather than trying to identify enemies to destroy, it may be more effective to focus on the socio-political context out of which they emerge, to ask how that context affects their behavior, and to alter that context to induce changes in the behavior of groups that are struggling to find roles for themselves in a highly confusing transitional situation.

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