Friday, August 31, 2007

Iraqi War "Progress???" - You Be the Judge

Now that certain of our elected representatives in Washington are contemplating launching a new war with Iran, might it be worth thinking for a moment about whether or not we are making progress with our two long-standing wars (in Iraq and Afghanistan)?

One could certainly discuss what would constitute valid indicators of progress, but certainly the level of U.S. forces deaths is one relevant measure. The graph below shows monthly totals for U.S. troop fatalities in Iraq between January and August of 2006 and 2007. Note that the totals are higher every month this year than the comparable month last year. Other indicators will be added in the future. Thanks to Juan Cole for suggesting this graph. Those who wish to make use of it, be my guest.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Iraq is Arabic for Vietnam

The brilliant “Iraq is Arabic for Vietnam” bumper sticker, which has been around since the beginning of the American war on Iraq five long years ago, got it right. Details about Iraq and Vietnam of course differ, but arguments over the details miss the point. Of course, Vietnam is (well, pre-agent orange, was) green; Iraq is brown. Vietnam’s insurgents were Marxist-Leninist; Iraq’s are many things (secular Sunnis, fundamentalist Shi’a, various stripes of patriot, and now all manner of outsiders to boot) but hardly Marxist-Leninists...

Iraq is Vietnam (and, for that matter, Afghanistan under the Soviet occupation) for broad, basic reasons that cannot be wished away by hairsplitting:

1. a local conflict enflamed by superpower intervention;
2. superpower involvement by the most in-your-face means - a huge superpower army (some 200-300,000 U.S. soldiers including U.S. mercenaries in Iraq);
3. heavy-handed behavior by the superpower’s soldiers, including frequent killing of the civilians they supposedly went there to protect;
4. superpower emphasis on military victory in a battle actually about the quality of governance;
5. superpower intervention for its own reasons, not to help the locals – justified as preserving freedom (Vietnam), bringing modernization (Afghanistan), eliminating nuclear weapons and later bringing democracy or stopping an insurgency that was a result of the invasion (Iraq) but in reality much more about stopping China (Vietnam), inoculating Soviet Central Asia against the Islamic virus (Afghanistan), and a combination of controlling oil and strengthening Israel (Iraq);
6. destruction of the liberal middle--because empowering liberal, patriotic moderates means truly giving control to the natives--and thus leaving the battlefield to extremists.

But most of all, Iraq is Arabic for Vietnam—and Afghanistan--because in all three cases, the superpower assumed it had the right to smash down the front door and enter another man’s house without permission. Is there, with the benefit of hindsight, persuasive evidence that in any of these cases the superpower in fact had such moral superiority or wisdom as to justify that assumption? If the answer to that question is anything less than a slam dunk, then the American public deserves a policy alternative so on election day it can make a choice.

The alternative to the war policy is not to salami-slice the number of troops, the amount of time they spend on the street, the level of criticism of the puppet regime, the particular forms of torture to be inflicted upon locals convicted of no crime. The alternative to the war policy is not to continue the war policy by fomenting a coup. The alternative to the war policy is not to remove the official U.S. Armed Forces but leave the (now perhaps 100,000?) mercenaries. The alternative is not to remove the men but leave under U.S. control the several permanent military bases.

The alternative to the war policy is a peace policy; the alternative is to confess that:

  • we were wrong to go in;
  • we are there under false pretenses;
  • our presence led to the mess that resulted;
  • we do not have the wisdom to manage the solution and our presence is indeed preventing resolution, so we must leave and do what we can from a distance--and frequently through others--to make amends.

That would be an alternative policy on which a candidate could run an electoral campaign that would mean something.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Part X. Self-Organization in the Iranian-Israeli Confrontation

On the significance of the complex systems notion of self-organization
for the Iranian-Israeli confrontation…

According to the conventional perspective, when a system is broken, say by regime change or military defeat in the case of a country, it ceases functioning.

The complexity perspective, however, offers an alternative possibility – that the broken pieces will self-organize. This does not exactly mean that they will reconstitute themselves but create some, most likely novel, structure and start functioning again…perhaps for a very different purpose. Outsiders watching the process are likely to find this process surprising, but it is not. After all, the original system may have arisen in any number of ways and may have been under the conscious influence of a very different set of actors. Indeed, the old system that just collapsed was almost certainly controlled by a different set of actors than whatever new system that subsequently self-organizes (a landed aristocracy replaced by the middle class or whatever), so quite naturally the new system will take on new purposes.

This trait of complex systems would not apply to a shattered, helpless population in a situation of utter chaos because such a population would no longer constitute a complex system. But a population of still connected people, even after military defeat, might retain sufficient complexity to self-organize in the absence of central controls and transform into something very different. Indeed, precisely this seems to have occurred in post-invasion Iraq with the formation of a resistance movement composed of a multitude of highly adaptive insurgent groups exhibiting a complicated combination of independence and interdependence.

The message of self-organization is particularly pertinent to "Victory for al Qua’ida," a scenario leading to "preventive" Israeli aggression that could be expected to unleash numerous contradictory forces:
  • The self-organization of interdependent Shi’ite resistance/revenge networks, which would be facilitated by the porous Mideast borders and tight personal ties among Mideastern Shi’ite elites;
  • The self-organization of an Iranian nationalist movement;
  • Efforts by al Qua’ida (in itself apparently now more of a self-organizing network than a tightly controlled hierarchical organization) to take advantage of both the above trends.

Precisely because these efforts would be self-organizing (assuming in this scenario the elimination of the regime), the degree of cooperation among Shi’ite fundamentalists, Iranian nationalists, and al Qua’ida proponents of a war vs. the U.S. would not be predictable.

Research Question: Given that the destruction of a complex system may
provoke the self-organization of some new system, how is one to think through in
advance the various ways in which such a new system might be likely to organize

This lack of predictability of a complex system resulting from its ability to self-organize from the bottom up, in defiance of those who plan to manipulate it constitutes a critically important warning for external opponents planning an attack and dreaming of an easy victory.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Part IX. Co-Evolution in the Iranian-Israeli Confrontation

Continuing the exploration of how the concepts of complex
adaptive systems may help us understand world politics in general and the Iranian-Israeli confrontation in particular…

The conventional perspective denies that “we” can be influenced by the enemy.

The complexity perspective sees actors adapting to respond not only to others but to their perceptions of how others will adapt.
According to this perspective, one should assume ceteris parabis that all components of a system will adapt, as discussed in the previous post.

In world politics, a component could be not just a country but also a sub-national organization at whatever level down to an individual. A given component may not adapt, at least over some finite time period, perhaps because leaders put great effort into designing it in a hierarchical fashion precisely so it will resist adaptation. Such resistance to adaptation may or may not be healthy for the organization, as I have discussed here.

Given that all components of (or actors in) a system will, in principle, adapt, it is an easy extension to the concept of “co-evolution:” my adaptation provokes your adaptation, which in turn provokes…

Israeli foreign policy toward Iran is designed today to deal with a nuclear-armed Iran that is willing to use those weapons not just to prevent war or to defend itself in war but for offensive purposes. Israeli foreign policy thus rests on a whole cascade of unproven assertions. It might be worth weighing the possibility that Iran will in fact ceteris parabis turn out as predicted by this “mental model” against the possibility that Israeli policy will prove to be a self-fulfilling prophecy as Iran becomes increasingly willing to develop and use nuclear weapons precisely because it is threatened with them. Co-evolution guided by a biased model of the opponent can amount to a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Research Question: Are there principles in complexity theory that might help students of world politics determine the conditions
under which biased perceptions of the opponent could lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy?

Co-evolution pervades the scenarios. Iran and Israel may continue co-evolving down the path of confrontation, as suggested by “Victory to al Qua’ida,” or may shift and co-evolve down on of several paths of conciliation, as imagined by the other three scenarios. Even the “Equilibrium” scenario, in which “nothing changes,” will probably see a zig-zag process of shot-term co-evolution first in one direction, then another.

Hostility by one side is likely to provoke hostility on the other side, and perhaps conciliation would do the same. This raises the question of how a co-evolutionary process toward rising hostility could possibly shift in the opposition direction and become a co-evolutionary process toward rising cooperation. Useful research could be done on the conditions for transforming an undesired co-evolutionary process into a more beneficial process.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Part VIII. Adaptation in the Iranian-Israeli Confrontation

Continuing the discussion of how the concepts of complexity theory can facilitate our understanding of the Iranian-Israeli confrontation…

If the conventional perspective in foreign affairs defaults to be "us vs. them," the complexity perspective begins by assuming that we are all part of an adaptive system. Win, lose, or draw—according to this perspective—we are tied to the opponent. Consequently, the fight will change us.

A contemporary example of ominous import is the way American society and attitudes toward international law and basic morality appear to be undergoing transformation as the result of the blatant public acceptance and indeed trumpeting by the Bush Administration and its neo-con fellow-travelers of the notion of "preventive war." This rising "acceptability" of the idea of an unprovoked (at least by any remotely comparable provocation) U.S. nuclear attack as a morally legitimate policy option against a non-nuclear state or even a group of private individuals (!)—now advocated even by some Democratic officials—further underscores the impression of a transformation in American moral attitudes. Regardless of the outcome of the particular wars of the Bush administration, acceptance of such justification for limitless aggression appears to be transforming American society into something less caring and less idealistic than the myth of American exceptionalism we so cherish.

From a complexity perspective, this degeneration is comprehensible: everything is connected, and the behavior of all system components (both ourselves and the opponents with whom we are linked) causes us—and them—to adapt. So whereas the conventional perspective simply starts by looking for "survival" or "victory," the complexity perspective accepts that adaptation will occur and thus starts by searching for a strategy that will facilitate adaptation in a desired direction. The conventional perspective enables decision-makers very easily to completely overlook this issue…and thus time after time snatch defeat from the jaws of victory because they make the naïve assumption that the act of pursuing and achieving battlefield victory will not change anything else.

Complexity theory certainly does not predict the outcome of specific issues, but it does caution us to raise critical questions. Put in the context of international relations, complexity theory leads to such questions as:
  • If total victory requires changing into a garrison state, might a democratic society prefer a compromise that would enable retention of civil liberties?
  • In an adaptive system, a simple white hates-vs.-black hats battle cannot occur; each side will adapt. What adaptation might we provoke to transform our opponent into something less distasteful…and with what (possibly beneficial) affect on ourselves?

A country that launches unprovoked nuclear war vs. a non-nuclear country will change itself in ways that may be very fundamental and unpleasant to contemplate.

Fear, horror, will also change observers – some will reluctantly kneel and hope for escape, others will take great risks to find a way to resist, but all will know the stakes are immeasurably raised and the level of international trust weakened.

Complexity theory does not tell us the result but can predict a period of disequilibrium as changes reverberate through the system. It therefore warns us to contemplate the implications of that disequilibrium before we provoke its occurrence.

Adaptation will, for example, work very differently under "Mideast Bipolarity" than under "Victory for al Qua’ida." Occurrence of the former scenario will reinforce, rather than undermine, international cooperative norms and put pressure on both Iranian and Israeli elites to adopt a more cooperative stance. A virtuous cycle will ensue in which compromise on one issue generates mutual benefit and thus predisposes actors to compromise on another issue – precisely the reverse of the vicious cycle of rising hostility that will occur under "Victory for al Qua’ida."

Discussing the collapse of societies, Tainter has pointed out that adaptation occurs at different spatiotemporal scales. What we define as a system is somewhat arbitrary. A system is a collection of distinct but connected modules; in reality systems are frequently hierarchies of systems: the international political system an aggregation of countries (and international corporations, international movements, NGOs), the countries in turn aggregations of provinces or departments, which are aggregations of individuals. At all levels units adapt because they interact with other units as well as because they consist of aggregations of units that are interacting and adapting. Since the various units interact at different temporal scales and over differing spatial distribution, opportunities for "crashes" are numerous, like a fog-bound highway on which some cars not only change lanes rapidly at the same time that other cars change lanes very slowly but on which cars may occupy either small or extremely large spaces.

How teenage Iraqi refugees in Syria and Jordan will behave over the next 20 years is one example of a dynamic with both unpredictable spatial and temporal scales that will impinge directly on Israeli-Iranian relations. How will they adapt to losing their country and living on the margins of a society that cannot afford to care for them? Will they return to Iraq as nationalists, as radicals, as middle-class businessmen in the years after U.S. troops have gone home? Will they join the Lebanese Moslem Brotherhood and shift power in Jordan from the monarchy to Islamic activism? Will it be the refugee generation or their children taking action? What influence over the answer will Israeli treatment of Palestine have? Will their behavior tempt or pressure Iran to engage in risky behavior it might otherwise have avoided?

The spatial arena in which Iraqi teenage refugees and the new generation of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon (the 400,000 still in Lebanon 25 years after Israel invaded to push them out) will make their impact is highly questionable. Given the traditional cultural ties and current political ties connecting Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Egypt, today’s refugees in one country may well become tomorrow’s activists in another. Ten percent of Lebanon’s population and 25% (and rapidly rising) of Jordan’s are refugees with plenty of reasons to refuse allegiance to the regime that governs (or ignores) them.

The process of adaptation—both the adaptation of one side in reaction to the other and in reaction to its own behavior—is deceptively subtle. If the application of complexity theory to foreign policy issues does no more than alter us to think about how adaptation occurs in a political system, it will have been well worth the effort.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Part VII. The Iranian-Israeli Confrontation as a Complex Adaptive System

Complexity: How It Happens

In order to understand how the Iranian-Israeli confrontation may evolve, we need to dig deeper than scenarios, deeper even that the underlying dynamics that cause system behavior, and study the Iranian-Israeli political relationship as a complex adaptive system. Several principles of complexity theory are relevant to the evolution of the Iranian-Israeli political system:

  • Interdependence of parts
  • Adaptation
  • Co-evolution
  • Effects Disproportional to Causes
  • Self-organization
  • Individual variation
  • Sensitivity to initial conditions
  • Criticality
  • Emergence.

    Rising education and technical advances such as the Internet, among other factors, have produced so many global interconnections that we need to master this new perspective on international political reality in order correctly to interpret the rush of daily events. The next several posts will introduce each of these concepts, which have in the last 20 years become common terms among physical and biological scientists, and offer some initial thoughts on how to apply them to the Iranian-Israeli confrontation and, by extension, to global affairs more broadly.

    Interdependence of Parts
    When pushed, we may all recognize that everything has at least some influence in world affairs on everything else, but typically most people assume their own country has a fixed nature independent of the rest of the world. Most people also all too easily slip into the assumption that all parts of a foreign country share a set of defining characteristics. As though, say, nurses, criminals, and politicians from the land of an ally shared one set of traits while nurses, criminals, and politicians from the land of our enemy of the moment shared another set – an obviously idiotic premise since our list of enemies mutates rapidly. (Saddam was closely supported by Washington in the 1980’s, we have alternatively supported and deserted the Kurds, our attitude toward Russians changed overnight when the Soviet Union collapsed, Iran a generation ago was a close ally, etc.)

    Complexity theory’s concept of interdependent parts sets a different baseline: unless you happen to have specific evidence to the contrary for a given case, assume all components in a class are the same. From this premise, it then follows automatically that:
  • Diplomats will be inclined to negotiate;
  • Politicians will be inclined to tune their messages to their audience (so one needs to know the intended audience in order to interpret the message);
  • People in general have security concerns, tend to give themselves the benefit of the doubt, and see opponents in a negative light (e.g., "my" weapons are for defense, "yours" are for offense).
Second, the complexity perspective assumes that all components (regardless of class) influence each other, i.e., their natures are constantly evolving. (The many unresolved analytical challenges here include identification of the nature of the links, what governs the link intensity and reaction speed, how influences operate.) If all components—individual voters, interest groups, regimes, etc.—influence each other so that all are adapting in response to the behavior of others, then it becomes difficult to argue that these endlessly and unpredictably evolving components have immutable natures.

Once having accepted the complexity perspective, it becomes much easier to entertain a perhaps complicated but relatively realistic set of possibilities. In the case of Ahmadinejad’s firery rhetoric, for example, the following explanations are probably all true:
  • By such rhetoric, Ahmadinejad is attempting to enhance his standing among Iranian voters;
  • By such rhetoric, Ahmedinejad is putting his peers in the elite on the defensive;
  • By such rhetoric, Ahmedinejad is making a global name for himself and his country as an independent actor to which global leaders must pay attention;
  • By such rhetoric, Ahmedinejad ischallenging the Arab world to accept him as their leader, as the new Nasser, the one man with the courage to stand up and defend the downtroden of South Lebanon, Palestine, and, by extension, the rest of the region;
  • By such rhetoric, Ahmedinejad is representing the views of the Iranian radical faction, which genuinely believes that injustice in the Mideast exists, is the fault of Israel and the U.S., and deserves to be addressed;
  • By such rhetoric, Ahmedinejad is inviting the U.S. and Israel, both of which he probably perceives as only understanding the language of strength, to modify their behavior.

Where a traditional perspective will say, "Ahmedinejad’s rhetoric means X" (e.g., he intends to destroy Israel), the complexity perspective cautions one to avoid such childishly simplistic one-to-one equations. In fact, the equation is more nearly:

R = ∑(XiW…XjW)

Rhetoric = the sum of all Ahmedinejad’s different goals times the importance or weight (W) of that goal at the moment

It should be noted that theoretically the weight is also an attribute that is sensitive to adaptive pressures, i.e., is constantly evolving in response to the behavior of the various components. (In practice, a decision-maker might conceivably be so strong-willed that he could resist some pressures for some period of time, but complexity theory argues that we should assume, ceteris parabis, constant goal-evolution.) In brief, the relative importance of each goal depends on conditions and is therefore subject to the influence of all actors in the system.

Thus, the complexity perspective opens an infinite number of doors to those who want to have influence. A complex adaptive system has many components (e.g., ministries, corporations); many goals (e.g., security, profit, freedom, status); many links (meetings, phone calls, payments, rhetoric, treaties); many link types (e.g., cultural, legal, diplomatic, financial). All of these are adapting, so all constitute potential points of influence. That is the practical value of understanding the world as a complex adaptive system: everything is in principle changeable. Nothing is absolute, nothing is immutable. Nothing is "on" or "off;" everything is "more" or "less." Therefore, alternatives to extremist, black-and-white decisions are always available. This reasoning is fundamental to the "Respect" scenario.

Since the focus here is on Iranian-Israeli relations, it is useful to think of three linked complex systems – Mideast politics as a whole plus the two subordinate Iranian and Israeli political systems. All the parts of the Mideast system adapt in reaction to the behavior of the others even as distinct adaptive processes take place in Iran and Israel. Each of the many components (e.g., Majlis [parliament] and Basij [youth militia analogous to the Red Guards in China's Cultural Revolution] in Iran; the various political parties and the army in Israel) will have its own perspective.

The interdependence of parts also underscores that each actor functions within a set of constraints. Every terrorist attack on Israel makes it more difficult for Israeli democracy advocates to dismantle the Israeli apartheid system. Every threat of Israeli nuclear aggression on Iran endangers Iranian advocates of an opening to the West. Perceptions of other actors, behavior of other actors, and constraints each affect one’s own behavior. Causality is hard to determine, blame almost always shared, and the impact of interventions unpredictable.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Part VI. Dynamics of the Iranian-Israeli Confrontation

Dynamics: What Causes It to Happen

The unseen controlling forces beneath the surface of daily events...

Specifying scenarios lays the foundation for identifying causal dynamics: the scenarios constitute targets to help focus attention on dynamics, thus facilitating their identification.
All scenarios contain a range of intertwined dynamics. Their relative significance at various points in time and direction (some will reinforce while others undermine) need to be determined to understand what causes the scenarios to take place. A useful initial step is to identify the dominant dynamic(s) characterizing each scenario, enabling generation of the graphic to the right illustrating the key process of each scenario. This both provides a good opportunity to check the basic argument of each scenario and underscores the differences among the scenarios…and what makes them different.
The next step is to tackle the combination of dynamics that actually would be expected to exist in each scenario were it to come true.
In "Mideast Bipolarity," for example, the more politicians invest their prestige in lowering tensions, the more effort regimes will make to maintain the momentum through conflict-avoidance steps. To the degree that lowered tensions lead to broader domestic freedoms and, declining defense expenditures, voters may come to value those changes. Such trends on each side may lead to changes in perception with people deciding that, for example, "they" evidently do understand language other than force.
Evolution of "Victory for al Qua’ida" will be pushed by a double vicious cycle. The assumptions that the game is zero-sum and that "they" only understand force will predispose each side to make demands and resist concessions, thereby "validating" the other side’s hostility. In addition, refusal to put all issues on the table will undercut any efforts that are made to resolve any specific issue. The nuclear issue, security of Israel’s borders, Iranian support for Palestinian independence, the Golan Heights, Iranian military aid to Syria, Israeli resistance to accepting Iran as a leading regional actor, inflammatory Iranian (e.g., Ahmedinejad) and Israeli (e.g., Netanyahu), and Iranian support for Arab radicalism are all linked. None of these issues can be resolved in isolation. Therefore, when regimes are trying to resolve issues, progress on one issue can facilitate progress on others (the dominant dynamic in "Mideast Bipolarity" and "Respect") but, by the same token, when a zero-sum attitude dominates (the "Victory for al Qua’ida" dynamic), even on issues where progress is mutually beneficial and mutually desired, progress is inhibited by the existence of all the other irritants to bilateral relations.

An analogous argument applies to the dynamics. Although it may be a useful simplification to study causal dynamics one at a time, in truth, the dynamics are interdependent: it is precisely the interaction of dynamics that makes it so difficult to resolve issues one-by-one. To understand the evolution of a scenario, all the dynamics that cause it to evolve need to be mapped. Such a map could be done within the system dynamics perspective as a causal loop diagram or, indeed, a set of simultaneous equations, but it is more accurate to think of it as a complex adaptive system, which brings us to the final stage of analysis.

Delay plays an under-appreciated role in how dynamics unfold. In "Respect," for example, Israel is trying a new policy designed to replace the vicious cycle of hostility dynamic that currently dominates Israeli-Iranian relations with a new "virtuous cycle" of cooperation. The key to making the new dynamic dominant is realization that there will be a significant delay between Israel’s launching of the new policy and a positive response from Iran, which has every reason to be distrustful—hence the significance of the secret Israeli plan for a year-long unilateral effort. Israel must resist the temptation to play "tit-for-tat: to tip over from a strongly dominant dynamic to a different one takes effort, foresight, and patience.

The next post in this series on Iranian-Israeli relations will continue to make use of dynamics, but through a different and more powerful "methodological lens:" that of complex adaptive systems.

Friday, August 17, 2007

"Respect:" Part V of Iranian-Israeli Confrontation

Whereas the previous post in this series on the future of the Iranian-Israeli confrontation presented the pessimistic "Victory of al Qua’ida" scenario, this post discusses a far more optimistic outcome based on basic mutual respect and a recognition that to "live and let live" entails a measure of compromise…even by the strong. "Respect" is not a scenario based on equality: Israel retains its current dominance in absolute power but alters its behavior in ways calculated to address the concerns of its neighbors.


Realizing that Israel’s overwhelming military dominance gives it the option of taking a chance for peace, a new Israeli leader renounces expansionism. Israel implements a secret one-year plan to shift bilateral and regional dynamics so as to lay the groundwork for a relationship built on respect, if not trust, rather than military force. The plan calls for a patient focus on signals requiring no response, to be followed by low-key, unconditional offers that are easy to accept. Tel Aviv’s first move is to condemn calls for a preventive attack on Iran as "immoral." After ignoring several rhetorical flourishes by hardline Iranians, Israel then plays up a moderate Iranian statement. A few weeks later, Israeli diplomats "happen" to encounter Iranian diplomats at an international meeting and casually raise the idea of a review of differences. Two weeks later, Israel officials adopts a "no first strike" principle and publicly notes its appreciation of Iran’s official stance that nuclear weapons violate Islamic principles. The following month, after commenting to the press that "Nixon is remembered for having the courage to visit China," the Israeli prime minister says he would meet Iranians anywhere to ensure "peace in our time." Meanwhile, Israel makes overtures to Syria, quietly stops violating Lebanon’s air space, and launches a program to clean up cluster bomblets in Lebanon left over from Israel’s 2006 invasion. Realizing that its Palestine policy is also integral to its relationship with Iran, Israel replaces military attacks on insurgents with police work, frees all Palestinian members of parliament that it had jailed, releases or tries the 10,000 other Palestinian prisoners, and replaces its policy of economic warfare against Palestine with efforts to facilitate economic growth. Although these steps in no way diminish Israel’s real superiority in power, they ease tensions, attract the notice of pragmatic Iranian leaders whose priority is economic development, and make it more difficult for hardliners to mobilize support for confrontation. Iran remains weak and loses influence along the eastern Mediterranean coast, bilateral issues remain unresolved, and Israel remains the dominant power, but the tone of Mideast politics turns away from confrontation, and moderates everywhere are empowered.

Comment: This scenario is likely to be transitional: status usually follows power rather than preceding. But offering status and respect can make reality more palatable, especially if combined with the hope of economic progress. Moreover, just as exclusion of Iran from international meetings to which other countries of equivalent power (e.g., Turkey, Saudi Arabia) are invited can be expected to provoke anti-system behavior (e.g., the arming of insurgent movements, statements calling for restructuring of the system or alterations of international borders), inviting Iran to participate and listening with a respectful attitude may well raise Iranian willingness to cooperate.

Demanding that Iran accept the system’s rules before inclusion puts the cart

Note: The vertical double bar indicates a time delay between any initial
concessions made by Side A and the rise in trust on the part of Side B.

before the horse: power needs to be acknowledged by inclusion, in the expectation that inclusion will gradually induce behavior modification. If the advocates of our current international political system seriously want it to be the long-term global system, then it is incumbent upon them to make the system attractive to outside forces (countries, insurgencies). This may of course prove unacceptably costly but should be the goal; policy should be sufficiently flexible and conciliatory to induce outsiders to join the system. There is no moral or logical reason to expect that an external actor would be willing to modify its preferred behavior as a condition of entry into whatever arbitrary global political system happens to have been set up by the current powers who find themselves temporarily "in charge" of the globe. The "Respect" scenario is sensitive to such concerns and rests on the assumption that if the strong award equal status to the weak, they lose little but the weak gain much and so are significantly more likely to accept the current system.

That said, equality of status has real meaning:

  • Equal treatment

  • Equal right to participate

  • Common standards.

Equality of status implies the equivalent of domestic free speech and for the same reason: we are not perfect, so we hypothesize that the best we can do is guarantee a free marketplace of ideas in the hope that the best will rise to the top. Similarly, the best we can do internationally is to allow all actors the right to speak out. Participation goes a long way toward inducing a willingness to work within the system. In contrast, when you have already been isolated, opposing the system that has rejected you costs little and gains much.

The concept of common standards is also critical. It is hard to make the argument that a country should voluntarily join the system when the system discriminates. Discriminatory rules that give one country the right to offensive nuclear weapons while denying another country even the right to nuclear technology are waving a red flag in front of a bull. Telling an outsider that accepting discriminatory treatment is the price of admission does not constitute an invitation: it constitutes rejection.

The "Respect" scenario is likely to be transitional precisely because once the real meaning inherent in equality of status sinks in, Israel will be faced with some hard choices that will boil down to returning to the bad old days of high tension or making some real compromises. The price of those compromises will depend in great measure on how thoroughly the "respect" policy has been implemented.
Since "Respect" is a scenario founded on the willingness of the strong to behave with respect toward the weak, the most critical milestones to realize this future are actions that Israel (not to mention its U.S. patron) will have to make—and frequently will have to make unilaterally and with patience. The weak can afford to offer little, so the burden of proof is on the strong to demonstrate a sincere desire to climb out of the gutter of threat and hostility. But the strong of course do not want needlessly to endanger the security they have struggled so hard to obtain, so successful steps toward the "Respect" scenario are initially likely to focus on statements of principle and low-cost diplomatic initiatives, leaving the more substantive concessions for later. As the peaceful settlement of the Cold War demonstrates, what cannot be accomplished in a period of high tension when ideologues are in control can sometimes turn out to be quite easy once the mood has calmed and power has shifted into the hands of open-minded leaders.

Key milestones include:

  • Israel renounces expansionism

  • Israel condemns calls for a preventive war against Iran

  • Israel announces a "no first strike" nuclear policy

  • Israel "welcomes" a moderate Iranian statement

  • Israel terminates practice of violating Lebanese airspace

  • Israel replaces military attacks on Palestine with police work

  • Israel offers to clean up cluster bomblets in Lebanon

  • Israel releases jailed Palestinian members of parliament

  • Israel negotiates with Syria on returning the Golan Heights

  • Israel diplomats offer to meet informally with Iranian counterparts

  • Israel proposes talks with Iran

  • Iran and Israel agree on joint working group on bilateral ties

  • Israel proposes Mideast security conference including Iran

  • Israel and Iran agree on trade and "people-to-people" exchanges.

The five scenarios derived from consideration of various combinations of relative power and relative status in the Iranian-Israeli confrontation summarized in the graphic on the right represent only the beginning of a complete analysis of this highly dangerous relationship. Not only have many variables of significance--such as ideology--been omitted, both the broader international context and the domestic political context have been slighted. These scenarios represent no more than the foundation for the type of careful analysis of possible Iranian-Israeli futures that needs, for everyone’s security, to be conducted to gain control over the frenetic pace of irresponsible statements and actions. Nevertheless, even this study suffices to make clear that negative assumptions about the inevitability of disastrous outcomes is not warranted. Given the will to think before acting, logical pathways toward a better future can be conceived and planning to walk those paths can be done. The next post in this series will address a critical element that we must understand to do such planning: the causal dynamics underlying the various scenarios.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

"Victory to al Qua'ida:" Part IV of Iranian-Israeli Confrontation

"Victory to al Qua’ida," the third scenario for the future of the current Iranian-Israeli confrontation envisioned in this study, addresses one of many ways in which mismanagement of Iranian-Israeli relations could aggravate and be aggravated by other Mideast issues to produce a regional crisis.

Victory for al Qua'ida

Iran continues striving to escape from Israeli nuclear blackmail and remains frozen out of regional affairs led by Israel while Israel remains frozen out of regional affairs led by Iran - leaving both feeling deprived, anxious, and insulted. In the zero-sum context of each side trying to marginalize the other, no leader proves sufficiently statesman-like to agree to unconditional bilateral talks. This leaves each issue separating the two sides festering, which further strengthens extremists. The division of Palestine becomes more absolute, leading to ever rising Iranian involvement that in turn pulls Saudi Arabia in on Israel’s side. A similar proxy struggle intensifies in Lebanon. The competition spreads to Jordan, collapsing under the weight of an Iraqi refugee population exceed one-quarter of Jordan’s own population, and these refugees become increasingly radical, supporting a rise in Palestinian radicalism. The Moslem Brotherhood overthrows the Jordanian monarchy, offers citizenship to the refugees, and—on the basis of ex-refugee and Palestinian support--easily wins a free, democratic election. That immediately energizes both Hezbollah in Lebanon and Moqtada al Sadr in Iraq. Hezbollah walks out of a shaky Lebanese government of national unity that had been able to accomplish little because the West had withdrawn its support after Siniora’s fall from power. Hezbollah wins power in a free election. On the nuclear front, Israel refuses even to discuss the principle of a nuclear-free Mideast, leaving Iran with no incentive to compromise on that issue and feeling confident as its influence spreads rapidly in Jordan and Lebanon. Iran intensifies a policy of nuclear catch-up that is part fear-driven and part negotiating tactic but which is seen in Tel Aviv completely as indicating offensive intent. Simultaneous, in response to Israeli provocations, both Lebanon and Jordan ask Iran for military aid. Iran responds. Netanyahu rides panic among Israelis to victory as the region remains haunted by a double threat: Israel threatens to commit the ultimate crime of nuclear war against a non-nuclear power while Iran searches for some comparable or asymmetric counterthreat. Al Qua’ida sees its chance, blows up an Israeli embassy in a way that gets the attack pinned on the new Jordanian regime, and Israel invades. Israel’s tactics of collective punishment against the whole population causes a wave of resentment sparking regional war.

Comment: This scenario is the most unstable and dangerous of the five. It teaches all non-nuclear states the lesson that they must have WMD both for self-defense to be treated by world powers with respect. The inequality pervading Victory for al Qua’ida will breed contempt by the strong and resentment by the weak. The longer Israel retains overwhelming strength, the more its leaders become tempted to achieve "final solutions." The longer Iran remains grossly subordinate, the more its leaders become tempted to engage in desperate schemes to achieve parity or their own "final solution."

As time passes, the Israeli population may increasingly "do the math" and conclude that for 5 million Israelis to aspire to dominate 70 million Iranians is an irrational long-term policy. In this way. inequality may breed not only insecurity of the weak but also, incongruously, insecurity of the strong!
Israelis may come to view their situation as unstable because Israel’s power is artificial and one-sided. Israel’s huge military superstructure (built on massive U.S. aid) rests on a foundation of sand: small economy, tiny territory, tiny population, apartheid society, and a Palestinian colony that only further weakens the state. Israel’s destructive ability is clear, but the broader utility of its military for providing the Israeli people with security is increasingly questionable.

Israelis may therefore begin to believe that their very dominance causes their insecurity. Their dominance breeds insecurity because it is so extreme and its manifestations so barbaric (Palestinian people subjugated, colonized, and subjected to apartheid; Lebanese people repeatedly brutalized by collective punishment; Israeli Arabs discriminated against). Their recognition of this insecurity that exists despite Israel's militarization and emphasis on violence as the solution may make them feel still less secure and thus aggravate their militaristic tendencies.

Israelis may also come to the conclusion that their extreme, in-your-face dominance out of all proportion to threats also fundamentally, perhaps fatally, injures Israeli democracy because it stimulates the metastasizing of the emerging garrison state (a state that views itself as besieged and having defense as its raison d'etre). To the degree that politics focuses on security, civil rights and democracy take second place to an imperial military-industrial-intelligence complex that both holds the real power and demands the status of being "above the law." That is, the garrison state psychology facilitates the rise to power of extremists who will demand such unhealthy privileges. All behavior can be justified as "required for national security" and keeping such behavior secret from the state's own citizens can be justified in the same way.

Analogous rusting away of the girders supporting the political system may occur in Iran. Iran's relative weakness will open wide the doors to extremists who will insist that an "existential threat" requires maximum sacrifice and all manner of risk-taking. From that, extremists will accuse anyone counseling moderation, thinking before acting, or compromise of being a "traitor." Iranian extremists will have little trouble making this case regardless of Israel's actual behavior because it will be obvious to all that 1) Israel has the capability (if not the intent) to pose an existential threat and 2) that Israel has far greater military superiority than can reasonably be justified under any condition except that it intends to commit aggression. Moreover, the Israeli garrison state will repeatedly produce extremists who will make outrageous accusations, such as accusing some Iranian leader of being "the new Hitler," which will be read as an Israeli effort to make excuses in advance for planned unprovoked aggression (or is the phrase du jour "preventive" aggression?) and thus as evidence of Israel's aggressive intent.

In sum, "Victory for al Qua’ida," over time, undermines the security of both Israel and Iran by provoking mutual hostility. Similarly, it weakens democratic tendencies in both countries by opening the door to abuse on the part of politicians willing to exploit tensions for personal gain and by enhancing the reputation of the military. For these reasons, Victory for al Qua’ida ironically turns out to have long-term pernicious implications not just for the weak side but also for the strong. Iran and Israel will both lose; the only winner will be al Qua'ida.

A few of the many milestones that might warn that this scenario was in the process of coming true...
  • Nuclear threats by Israel officials
  • Hamas, completely marginalized by a Palestinian regime under Israeli control, denounces the "democratic" process
  • Palestinian civil war
  • Iraqi refugee unrest in Jordan
  • Jordanian radicals take power
  • Israel invades Lebanon again
  • Islamists in Jordan, Palestine, Iraq, or Lebanon win democratic election but prevented from taking power
  • Lebanese civil war
  • Lebanese war of resistance vs Israel
  • Lebanese request Iranian troops to fight Israel
  • Syria intervenes in Lebanese fighting
  • Iran attacked by Israel or U.S.
  • Iranian civil war
  • Iraqi Shi’ites support Iran vs U.S.
  • Proposal to discuss nuclear-free Mideast is rejected
  • Pakistan provides nuclear bombs to Iran.

Perusing the above list, which is clearly far from complete, suffices to indicate the many routes by which a regional Mideast crisis could erupt and to suggest the need for careful consideration of how such routes might be foreseen and prepared for. Indeed, developing a good methodology for using milestones as a planning tool should be a research priority. I may return to this topic in the future, but the next post on the Iranian-Israeli confrontation will provide the final scenario, offering a dramatically different future for the Mideast from the "Victory of al Qua’ida."

Saturday, August 11, 2007

"Nuclear Standoff:" Part III of Iranian-Israeli Confrontation

The current Iranian-Israeli confrontation could evolve into a nuclear standoff, either at a dangerously high level of hostility characterized by a mutually threatening arms race or by focusing on nuclear parity as paving the way for mutual accomodation. Either way, nuclear weapons policy will be at the core of this relationship for the foreseeable future. "Nuclear Standoff" is the second of five scenarios laying out potential Iranian-Israeli futures.

Nuclear Standoff

Following a transitional period of very high tension but with mutual political skill that keeps the extremists on each side at bay, Israel and Iran succeed in avoiding war. Nuclear parity, achieved either through denuclearization of the Mideast or Iran’s achieving sufficient nuclear capability to deter Israel ends up lowering tensions as it becomes evident to all that parity means standoff. To the extent that Iran remains isolated, it remains dissatisfied, but its progress in real power terms means that it comes to accept the trade-offs. Iran and Israel play in separate sandpiles, and Iran’s ties to China, Russian, and Asia generally become the focus of its attentions. Israel takes the wind out of the sails of Iranian aspirations to dominate the eastern shore of the Mediterranean by removing itself from Lebanese domestic affairs, returning the Golan Heights, and allowing a genuinely independent Palestinian state.

Comment: "Nuclear Standoff" differs from "Mideast Bipolarity" by being less positive, less cooperative because, although it is based on the assumption that Iran and Israel move toward equality of power, this power balance is not matched in the "Nuclear Standoff" scenario by equivalence of status. Nevertheless, the core dynamic foreseen in this scenario is a positive one in which the two sides perceive that a mutual willingness to negotiate the nuclear weapons issue will lead to enhanced mutual security, which, in turn, will lead to a greater willingness to negotiate, generating a reinforcing feedback cycle leading to nuclear parity.
The gradual evolution of "Nuclear Standoff" into "Mideast Bipolarity," as the two sides learn to respect each other and cooperate—i.e., as they learn to accord each other the same status that they accord other states—is a possible long-term outcome. "Nuclear Standoff" could also evolve into a highly unstable nuclear confrontation like the Pakistani-Indian situation in 2002 or the Cuban Missile Crisis. In brief, "Nuclear Standoff" seems likely to be a transitional scenario. The direction it evolves will be highly dependent not only on how bilateral ties are managed but on the broader international context.

The importance of the international context is why emphasis in the milestones that could be anticipated if "Nuclear Standoff" became reality include steps by the U.S. to adhere to the spirit of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

  • Agreement on principle of no first strike
  • U.S. promotes campaing to reduce the number of nuclear states
  • U.S. cuts some domestic nuclear programs to "move toward a non-nuclear world"
  • Israel joins NPT and eliminates its nukes
  • Israel and Iran agree to accept same rules on nukes

Future posts in this series on Iranian-Israeli confrontation will lay out the scenarios in which the relative power of the two sides remains highly unequal.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Islamic politics, I suggested in a previous post, may be approaching a state of criticality. This assertion, if true, would imply much about the future of global affairs and thus merits careful consideration. What, exactly, does this assertion imply and how might one test it?


Assertion: Islamic politics is approaching a state of criticality.

Proposition: Explore the assertion.

Implication: Complexity is being maximized.

Which entails:

  • many components
  • many roles
  • intense adaptation
  • many perspectives
  • intense debate
  • enhanced information flow
  • dense networks
  • intense debate
  • high fitness
  • self-organization

Conclusion: Learning is being maximized and the system is evolving rapidly, theoretically raising its ability to manipulate its environment. In practice, this evolutionary process will eventually hit constraints. Moreover, an outsider should not assume that the goal the system is trying to achieve is obvious. For example, from a Western perspective, Islamic politics in most of the Islamic political system may not seem very fit. Islamic politics does not seem very effective at driving the Islamic world toward economic development and civil liberties. But imagine the possibility that the Islamic political system is being driven by the multitude of actors participating in the broad self-organizational process the Islamic world is currently experiencing toward some other goal...toward not a traditional Western goal but an Islamic goal...say, removing the weight of Western influence. Before considering the effectiveness of a system, we need to determine the system's goal. Is it conceivable that the West might view the Islamic world as saddled by an inefficient system because that system does not deliver Western goals while the system is actually performing very well at attaining its actual goal?

We now have a list of characteristics that should be evident if the Islamic political system (or a part of it, for in a complex system one should anticipate both temporal and spatial heterogeneity) is approaching criticality. And, indeed, these do seem intuitively on the mark. In many parts of the Islamic world there does in fact appear to be a rising array of political components (activist religious leaders, militias, political factions) linked by a dense network of ties and involved in an intense debate. The activity also does in fact appear to be mostly self-organized rather than coming down from traditional leadership groups. The assertion thus appears plausible enough to merit testing.

Why all this matters is implicit in the above, but to make it explicit, if the Islamic political system reaches a state of criticality, whether it in the end performs effectively or not, it will have a major impact. The goal of existing at the state of criticality is to maximize performance, so if the Islamic political system succeeds in hitting the target and staying there, it will become extraordinarily influential. The danger of being at the state of criticality, however, is "avalanches," a metaphor for, in the social world, violence. So failure at the state of criticality means chaos.

"Performance maximization" has significant implications. If society is organizing itself to reach a new goal, a goal never before attaianed, e.g., casting out Western influence from the Islamic world, exp0erimentation will be needed. The most effective components, roles, adaptive processes will not be known in advance. So the optimum strategy will be to maximize experimentation - establish the densest possible networks to maximize information flow, try every plausible role, debate all ideas, and, of course, in order to put all this into practice in the absence of a clear plan, maximize creativity. This means unrestrained self-organization in an all-out competition to maximize system fitness, analogous to evolution with a high mutation rate and short generations. Everyone will make every effort to reach the goal by any means possible. In a word, the society will strive to reach, but not tumble off the edge of, the state of criticality.

These thoughts seem to leave us with more questions than answers, including:

Question 1. Are these correct theoretical statements?

Question 2. Does evidence from Islamic politics support or refute them?

Question 3. How close is Islamic politics to the state of criticality? (...and a host of follow-on questions about rate of approach, how to influence rate and direction, implications of being in one position or another, moving at one rate or another, moving in one direction or another)

Question 4. How should the world deal with a political system nearing criticality?

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Global Political Criticality

The critical state of our ignorance of how the international political system works and our abysmal inability to manage global politics in a rational manner demand, for our very survival, that we invent ways to think more clearly about the processes that lead us to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, transform potential cooperation for mutual benefit into a zero-sum dogfight, and bitterly insist on policies that create precisely the conditions we are trying to avoid.
Complex adaptive systems theory, now studied across an impressive array of distinct physical systems, holds the potential for serving as the key to a breakthrough in our understanding of world affairs. An example is the concept of a system operating in a state of criticality.

A number of historical situations that appear to have been such tenuously balanced states of criticality exist: the late Roman empire on the eve of the fateful decision to allow migrating European tribes to cross the Danube – a flood that once allowed to breach the border would end up washing the empire into history; the 13 Colonies with their rising frustration over taxation, representation, and the general lack of respect from London on the eve of the American Revolution; armed Europe on the eve of WWI; the Soviet Union in 1991. In each case, the system was balanced in a state of high tension, ready to slip off a knife-edged ridgeline, but it was anyone’s guess which way it would go.
The Moslem world now seems to have reached this point
as numerous variables (frustration with economic deprivation; resentment at the lack of status in the world and corruption; rejection of double standards imposed by the West; rising awareness and ability to organize) interact and intensify. Does that explain widespread violence by small groups from London to Bali? If so, that hints at why we see few 9/11-scale events; there will always be far more small ones. It also, however, in no way implies that another large-scale event might not occur soon – there is no implication that events need be evenly distributed by magnitude. If so, it also suggests that the protests neither begin nor end with al Qua’ida.

The "criticality" concept does not predict a disaster if one goes a step beyond the invisible "edge of the cliff" because the cliff may only be an inch high, and, in fact, usually is. On the other hand, by some combination of causes so intricate as to seem like arbitrary chance, the cliff may be a mile high. So criticality says, "Watch for abrupt change." It certainly does not predict another 9/11. Not only will the "next time" be of a different size, it may well be qualitatively different.

Here, the analogies to physical complex systems seem to fall short. In a sandpile, an avalance is an avalance – just a bunch of sand. The quantity may vary unpredictably, which is interesting and tells you something about what insurance for a home on a sandpile…or flood plain…or seacoast...or in a time of terror should cost. But qualitatively, not much of interest occurs with sandpiles or even earthquakes. Compared to social systems, these physical systems have few variables and a degree of complexity thus so much diminished that social scientists may have to think up a new vocabulary for social science complexity. It remains to be seen how far toward an understanding of social science complexity analogies to physical systems will carry us. Be that as it may, for now, at least, complexity in physical systems serves as an invaluable model for enhancing the sensitivity of social scientists’ vision of reality.

The lesson is clear: if Islam is in a state of criticality, without significant change in conditions and (this being the social sciences) Islamic people’s perceptions of those conditions, so as to address their grievances, we must expect a long series of political earthquakes of widely varying magnitude and type. And note that "type" is a very simple word for a hugely complicated range of potential surprise behavior. The future behavior of complex systems can be studied because complex systems exhibit patterns. But in a complex system, don’t bet your mortgage on history repeating. The patterns, you see, are complex.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Mideast Bipolarity: Part II of Iranian-Israeli Confrontation: Nuclear War or Mideast Compromise?

With the destruction of Saddam's Iraq, Iran's rise toward the status of a regional power that might in the future enable it to challenge Israel has produced a increasingly acrimonious Iranian-Israeli competition. By viewing this competition in terms of power and status, a set of four scenarios can be generated to shed light on how the future may unfold, and--in particular--on whether or not the "unthinkable" (to use Herman Kahn's word) outcome of a nuclear attack will occur.
Including a default fifth scenario in which no clear trend is evident, the five scenarios, as shown above, are:

  • Mideast Bipolarity (equal power and equal status)

  • Nuclear Standoff (equal power but unequal status)

  • Respect (equal status but unequal power)

  • Victory for al Qua’ida (unequal power and unequal status)

  • Equilibrium (a varying mixture lacking any clear trend).

This post will discuss the "Mideast Bipolarity" scenario, a challenging goal that would require the emergence of statesmanship on both sides. "Mideast Bipolarity," although constituting a fundamental evolution of Mideast politics, could start slowly...

Mideast Bipolarity

Grudging Israeli acceptance of Iran as a regional power opens the door to Iranian participation in regional decision-making, This confers rising status upon Iran, but at the price of facing Iran with the expectation that once it has participated in joint decision-making, it will support the decision. Increasingly, as moderate Iranian politicians invest their prestige in these decisions and benefit from Iran’s rising status, Iran does indeed prove to be a reliable partner for a newly moderate Israel that both avoids nuclear threats and finally starts to fulfill its international promises. As a genuinely independent Palestinian state with territorial integrity, financial stability, and the military capability to defend itself emerges and as a compromise Lebanese government responsive to all its people and able to defend itself against Israel asserts itself, threatening and undemocratic Iranian radicalism gives way to a moderate, modernizing, and democratic Iranian nationalism.

Comment on Scenario:
Much thought could go into planning how to start and then keep events moving in the highly optimistic direction posited by this scenario. Not only will it require the emergence of statesmanship on both sides but that statesmanship will need to be coordinated and simultaneous. Scare-mongering politicians who see chaos as personally beneficial will have to be faced down, and the temptation to respond with righteous anger to inevitable insults, mistakes, and betrayals along the way will have to be resisted. Moreover, those with power will have to learn to share a little.

Acceptance of Iran as a participant in regional decision-making constrains Iran's freedom to play the anti-system rebel but also means Israel will have to accept decisions and implement policies related to Palestine, the Golan Heights, and Lebanon that its elites may find distasteful. The scenario argues that such an outcome is logically conceivable. Actually to realize this outcome would require rare foreign policy professionalism:

  • appreciation of cultural differences (as so elegantly pointed out recently by Beeman);

  • a roadmap of incremental multilateral compromises;

  • careful advance calculations about what one is willing to give up...and at what price;

  • a willingness to put the common good ahead of personal career goals

"Mideast Bipolarity" revolves substantially around the dynamics of inclusion in regional affairs. As illustrated in the graphic below (assume all relationships in the graphic are reinforcing), inclusion of the other party in regional affairswill lead to both opportunities to sabotage the system (e.g., by accepting an invitation to a regional conference but then refusing to make reasonable compromises) and opportunities to support the system. "Mideast Bipolarity" is a story in which the dominant dynamic goes from inclusion to compromise and cooperation.

The critical link in this process is likely to be that between the responsiveness of the system and the willingness of the former outsider to become an insider.
Some of the many milestones that might be anticipated in the course of working toward such a breakthrough are:

  • US-Iranian talks on Iraq raised to higher levels

  • US-Iranian talks expanded to cover all bilateral issues

  • Israel supports presence of Iran at regional talks

  • Israeli-Iranian talks without preconditions

  • Lebanese domestic concord

  • Israel promises to end Lebanese border violations

  • Elimination of illegal Israeli settlements

  • Elimination of Jewish-only roads in Palestine

  • Independent Palestinian state accepted by all Palestinian parties.

The utility of third party support and the heavy emphasis on the need for Israel, as the more powerful party, to take the initiative should be noted. Also critically important are steps forward on issues, such as Palestine & Lebanon, that relate to the broader context in which Iranian-Israeli relations evolve. Each milestone could usefully be broken down into a hierarchy of subordinate steps that might be required. As for how they all actually would relate (certainly not in the form of the simple list presented here), that topic will be addressed in a post on complex adaptive systems. But first, the other scenarios will be discussed. Stay tuned.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Iranian-Israeli Confrontation: Nuclear War or Mideast Compromise? Part I. Scenarios

In the context of spreading hostility from Pakistan to Egypt among the various forces contending in the region, the increasingly acrimonious Iranian-Israeli competition poses a threat the world ignores at its peril. Each side has legitimate reasons to desire enhanced long-term security, but the Mideast is considerably larger than either. Both have plenty of room to maneuver without irresponsible threats of war. The Iranian-Israeli competition is being framed by irresponsible extremists on each side as a zero-sum game, a thoughtless gamble that threatens disaster.
Unlike the alleged "threat" posed by Saddam in 2003, an Iranian-Israeli competition fueled by extremists on both sides with a Manichean view of world affairs and a naïve faith in the utility of violence poses a very real threat indeed. It is the threat of the collapse of perhaps the greatest pillar of international morality still standing in the barbaric 21st century: nuclear powers shall not use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear powers. Should this pillar be toppled, should the unique double tragedy of Nagasaki-Hiroshima be repeated and, much worse, extended to include nuclear strikes against non-nuclear countries that have not attacked first, the whole world will suffer.

First, those powers launching or complicit in the nuclear strike will lose all claim to moral leadership and will see their own ability to distinguish right from wrong weaken. We are all part of a complex, adaptive world political system made up of interdependent parts. Our behavior affects others of course but also links back to affect ourselves. Using or supporting the use of or even advocating the use of WMD to kill civilians—whether cluster bombs or nukes—affects the user’s character.

Second, all will suffer from the fallout, reminding those of us old enough to recall the bad old days of strontium-90 poisoning the milk.

Third will be the outraged response of the victim.

Scenario analysis can help us to understand the underlying reasons for what appears to be a quite unnecessary and irrational struggle – unnecessary because framing the problem as a positive-sum challenge would open conceptual doors to numerous ways forward and irrational because this struggle is being waged in ways that needlessly endanger the security of both sides.

Other Relevant Scenarios

Numerous authors have recently laid out scenarios whose messages are worth considering. For example, al-Ahram on a possible U.S. attack on Iran, Carole Moore on an Israeli attack on Iran starting WWIII, and this thoughtful piece by Ryan Lanham on how arrogance could start an unplanned U.S.-Iran war.

The striving for power subsumes many of the goals of individuals, elites, and regimes. While a given group at a given time may focus on security, ideology, acquiring natural resources, the "search for power" is an abstraction that covers a wide range of such specific factors and thus is selected as the first axis for the scenario analysis.

Status, although not entirely independent of power, represents something different. One may certainly gain status via power, but it is also possible to have either without the other, and it is important to understand the desire for status (respect) regardless of power. While this point may be obvious to the weak, the disenfranchised, the marginalized, it is less obvious to those on top. In addition, it is often confused with or even equated to power, leading to the dangerous reasoning that "We will be respected if only we can acquire sufficient military force." Both Iranian and Israeli officials seem particularly prone to this line of reasoning, even though each country is frequently viewed in highly negative terms precisely because of its emphasis on power. In truth, it is respect, acceptance, inclusion that each of these societies seems to want the most. Arabs ostracize Israel, and the more Israel employs military force in lieu of a "good neighbor" policy, the more others deny its right to exist. Similarly, the more Iran strives to become a regional leader via loud rhetoric and efforts to catch up to Israel’s military power, the more some countries oppose it and attempt to marginalize it. This does not constitute a strong argument that status is necessarily one of the two most important concepts in the Iran-Israel conflict, but it does suggest that status is an unusually interesting issue for analysis. As such, it is selected as the second axis.

In sum, this scenario exercise explores possible futures of Iranian-Israeli relations on the basis of variations in relative power and status. The two axes define a "landscape" of four possible futures:
  • Mideast Bipolarity (equal power and equal status)
  • Nuclear Standoff (equal power but unequal status)
  • Respect (equal status but unequal power)
  • Victory for al Qua’ida (unequal power and unequal status).

Future posts will explore the details of these four potential futures.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Surge Statistics

I. Iranian-Israeli Confrontation: Nuclear War or Mideast Compromise?

In the context of spreading hostility from Pakistan to Egypt among the various forces contending in the region, the increasingly acrimonious Iranian-Israeli competition poses a threat the world ignores at its peril. Each side has legitimate reasons to desire enhanced long-term security, but the Mideast is considerably larger than either. Both have plenty of room to maneuver without irresponsible threats of war. The Iranian-Israeli competition is being framed by irresponsible extremists on each side as a zero-sum game, a thoughtless gamble that threatens disaster.

Unlike the alleged "threat" posed by Saddam in 2003, an Iranian-Israeli competition fueled by extremists on both sides with a Manichean view of world affairs and a naïve faith in the utility of violence poses a very real threat indeed. It is the threat of the collapse of perhaps the greatest pillar of international morality still standing in the barbaric 21st century: nuclear powers shall not use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear powers. Should this pillar be toppled, should the unique double tragedy of Nagasaki-Hiroshima be repeated and, much worse, extended to include nuclear strikes against non-nuclear countries that have not attacked first, the whole world will suffer.
Several techniques for thinking rigorous about the future (scenario analysis, system dynamics, complex adaptive systems concepts) can help us to understand the underlying reasons for what appears to be a quite unnecessary and irrational struggle – unnecessary because framing the problem as a positive-sum challenge would open conceptual doors to numerous ways forward and irrational because this struggle is being waged in ways that needlessly endanger the security of both sides.

This post begins a series of posts that will explore possible futures of Iranian-Israeli relations. The series will start with a scenario analysis focusing on the implications of variations in relative power and status over the coming years and go on to introduce several principles of complexity theory that are relevant to the evolution of the Iranian-Israeli political system:

  • Interdependence of parts
  • Adaptation
  • Co-evolution
  • Effects Disproportional to Causes
  • Self-organization
  • Individual variation
  • Sensitivity to initial conditions
  • Criticality
  • Emergence.

Scenarios, underlying dynamics, and the overall complex systems perspective combined constitute actionable intelligence about the future, recipes to enable decision makers to create the world they want.

  • If decision makers want a Mideast of high tension; racial, religious, and cultural antagonism; where there is always an insurgency to justify occupation and regimes willing to become proxies; where outside powers can grab the oil they want but at the cost of funding huge armies to defend the supply lines from enemies they have created; a Mideast of colonies, lackey dictatorships, and apartheid, then these scenarios layout steps to build such a world.

  • Conversely, if decision makers want a democratic Mideast, e.g., one in which people have the right to choose their own path; a Mideast in which all compete in the marketplace for oil, but do not have to fight expensive wars; a Mideast that is calm and focused on economic development; a Mideast that is not a profitable market for arms exporters but is also not a proliferation threat; a Mideast in which all people have states and all states have the right to exist, participate, and play by the same rules as their neighbors, then these scenarios lay out steps to build that world as well.

The choice is theirs. It isn’t simple, quick, or certain, but given patience, open-mindedness, and careful analysis of the future, choices that make a difference do exist.

Scenarios provide models of the future – extreme possibilities stripped of contradictory detail. Dynamics show the dominant forces that could push events in one direction. Complexity provides a detailed view of how the whole system functions. Point predictions may be impossible. Nevertheless, complexity seems to be an analytical perspective with the promise of predicting a great deal.

Prediction #1. Iran and Israel will co-evolve: without either necessarily perceiving it, they will influence each other, revolve around each other like binary stars, each in its individual orbit but bound to the other by their mutual insistence on making the other a priority, and traveling an unseen path together. Most likely, all the while each will see only its own uniqueness; neither will perceive the increasingly significant points of similarity as their mutual adaptation subjects them to similar pressures. Judging from current trends, each will feed on the other’s hostility to the detriment of both.

Prediction #2. Potential states of criticality threatening disaster will occur. They are fundamental danger zones. A wise society will avoid them. As tensions rise and groups organize to push radical agendas, thereby making tensions rise further, it is easy to slide into the unmarked state of criticality where going one step too far leads to some sort of disaster – perhaps a tremor, perhaps the "big one."

Prediction #3. Positive feedback loops will bring to the fore dynamics that were previously insignificant, and tipping points will be reached, to general astonishment.

Prediction #4. Adaptation will occur in unforeseen ways – sometimes at an unexpected location, sometimes after an unexpected delay. However it happens, Israel and Iran they will change, although our perceptions of them may not. The Israel still perceived in some quarters as a plucky pioneering movement of idealists adopted selective assassination of terrorists and then moved beyond that to assassination of opposing political leaders. Iran’s messianic Shi’ite spirit of the early 1980s has evolved into a willingness to cooperate with the U.S. vs. the Taleban in 2001 and support for the U.S.-sponsored regime in occupied Iraq today. Change is predictable; if unseen, the fault almost certainly lies in the eyes of the beholder.