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.

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