Saturday, September 1, 2007

Part XI. Nonlinearity & Predictability in Iranian-Israeli Relations

Continuing the study of how the Iranian-Israeli confrontation may

The conventional perspective is frequently to plan for a repeat of the last war; only slightly better, it may be to plan for continuation of current trends. Even worse, it may be to plan for continuation of one of several current trends – an arbitrarily selected trend that exists among many, a trend selected because one finds it beneficial rather than because it has any particular predictive power.

Complexity theory and system dynamics are both bearers of bad news: the disproportionality of effects to causes will undermine all efforts at planning. According to system dynamics, variables, trends interact. Under one set of conditions, a trend can vanish, under another set it can explode. Small causes can have huge consequences or no consequences; it depends. Complexity theory would have no argument with this, but would add several more layers, as suggested by the earlier discussions of adaptation and criticality.

The practical impact for foreign policy planning is that nonlinearity is an ever-present threat to prediction and understanding of world affairs. Nonlinearity pervades almost every imaginable scenario for the future of Israeli-Iranian relations:

Members of the Israeli elite call for nuclear strikes on Iran because certain Iranian politicians made insulting remarks; in response partly, perhaps to the war of words and partly, perhaps, to Israeli attacks in Gaza, Hezballah attacks an Israeli army squad on the Lebanese border, and in response to that Israel launches a campaign of ethnic cleansing that drives one million Shi’a out of southern Lebanon.

With responses this far out of proportion to causes, how can anyone predict the future? And although the above story reads like a bad Hollywood movie, it is not one of the scenarios in this study or even the creation of a drunken imagination: it happened last summer.

Nonlinearity also pervades the scenarios generated in this study of the future of the Iranian-Israeli confrontation.
  • In "Mideast Bipolarity," grudging Israeli acceptance of Iran as a regional power transforms both Iran and Israel into moderate states.
  • In "Respect," initial, low-keyed Israeli verbal concessions evolve into Mideast peace.
  • In "Victory for al Qua’ida," short-sighted playing of the zero-sum game evolves into Mideast war.

Huge consequences from small initial conditions.

Can decision makers be taught to think before they leap?

Of course it is not necessary to study complex adaptive systems in order to realize that trends can be nonlinear. But in practice decisionmakers frequently do not foresee the likelihood that minor resentment will explode into full-scale insurgency or that simmering resentment will bring down a government. Complexity helps illuminate the processes by which this perplexing and seldom anticipated nonlinearity takes place: the adaptation of interdependent parts, the self-organization to the edge of criticality, the sensitivity to initial conditions. If complexity theory holds the answer to the future, we do not yet know it. However, knowing that disproportional effects will certainly occur is better than naively assuming tomorrow’s weather will be just like today’s.

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