Friday, November 30, 2007

Class Project on Islamic Politics




Class Project on Islamic Politics

Given the enormous amount of misunderstanding between Islamic and Western societies, education seems the only hope of avoiding needless disaster. Speaking for my own society, it is clear that American society has an extremely serious shortage of specialists in Islamic affairs: nowhere nearly enough to educate Americans about the economic, social, and political conditions in the Islamic world. I have also found in speaking to both academic and general public audiences that Americans thirst for information about Islamic affairs.

American society needs to think creatively about how to share the expertise that it has. This is by no means impossible in the Internet age. By using blogs, WIKIs, GoogleEarch, and a carefully selected set of online news sources, small schools can have access for free to an almost limitless range of information. As an example, I offer the classroom exercise described below for any educational institution that wishes to take advantage of it.

I pledge to provide support to this project if a professor wants to try it, and I invite specialists in Islamic affairs to offer their own volunteer, on-line support. Imagine a team of specialists in Islamic affairs ready to participate in an on-line dialogue with any group of students looking for guidance on this confusing area of such significance for the world.

One could imagine any number of projects. Here's an initial proposal...


Step 1. Select a posting from this blog that raises a question worth

Step 2. Assign your students to:

  1. Read the posting;
  2. Submit a comment to my blog at the end of that posting. (You may
    wish to inform students that you will grade them on the logic of whatever
    argument they make in their comment.)

Step 3. I will, to the degree feasible, try to respond to the comments – possibly by means of a follow-up posting to the blog.

Optional Step 4. Ask students to select at least one of the news sources or blogs listed on the right column of my blog and search through it to find evidence that would:

  1. support their argument;
  2. undercut their argument.

In conclusion, assign the students to write a short essay evaluating their argument taking both sets of evidence into account.

Optional Step 5. I invite students who are proud of their
essay to submit it to me. I will consider publishing it on my blog.


Let’s see how informative a dialogue we can generate!

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Annapolis: The Wrong Time

The right time for a Palestine-Israeli settlement was early 2006, when Hamas was in power and therefore had a stake in the system.

The British prime minister tried hard to make the case on BBC News that this was “the right time” for the Annapolis meeting to put the Palestine-Israeli conflict on the front burner.

Palestine is divided, the legally elected government overthrown and marginalized in Gaza – undercut from the moment it won the election and forced out, castigated for a virtual civil war outsiders worked very hard to foment, and alienated from the very political process it had formerly been criticized for rejecting.

Now, with the Palestine government and people utterly humiliated, Israeli guns and helicopters (Electronic Intifada, Nov 27) killing Palestinians even as the conference convenes, and the sight of Fatah police beating up Palestinians exercising their democratic right to protest, exactly what are the Palestinian people to make of the party in Annapolis?

The “right time” for a settlement was that instant in January 2006 when Hamas bought in—ever so tenuously, it is true, but nevertheless bought in—to the “system.” Reinforcing that fleeting inclination to compromise might have started some historic balls rolling; instead, a very different lesson was rammed down the throats of the hardliners, and the huge anti-Annapolis demonstration in Gaza on the 27th was the direct result.

Israel is the country with troops occupying a foreign land. Israel is the side with the power. Therefore, it will be up to Israel to make the first move toward peace: Palestine in abject occupation has nothing more to give. But even in this Christmas season, given the events of the last two years, it strains the imagination to conceive of a deal that Israel could offer Fatah that would suffice to quell Palestinian suspicions of a sell-out. And the horizons are crowded with extremists more than willing to take advantage of any Palestinians who may want to return whatever "present" Tel Aviv offers them.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Grading Global Governance

How well are we running this world, anyway?
Everyone argues about what is right or wrong with the world, but figuring out how folks actually justify their opinions is a bit harder. It might be easier to figure out how well we are governing the world, if we had standard metrics for measuring the quality of governance. Many metrics can be devised . What follows is designed to be as simple as possible.

November 2007 Scorecard

  • Meeting at Annapolis freezes out Hamas
  • Fatah beats nationalist demonstrators
  • Pakistani dictator defeats middle class pro-democracy movement
    & retains power
  • Rising war threats on Eritrean-Ethiopian border
  • Rising violence by Islamic militants in Pakistan met by rising
    government violence
  • Rising violence in Somalia
  • Ahmadinejad calls opponents of his nuclear policy
  • Turkey threatens to invade Iraq
  • Growth of Iraq militias
  • Anti-democracy trend of Russian government
  • Burmese repression of democracy movement


  • Lebanese political crisis
  • Israel military attacks on Palestine
  • Darfur fighting
  • Iraqi political stalemate
  • Tensions between Iran and U.S./Israel
  • Colombian civil war
  • Egyptian government suppression of democracy


  • Australia’s new leader pro-Kyoto
  • Agreement with N. Korea to Disable Yongbyon


I will make the simple assumption that all these are equally important, leading to the following

November Global Governance Score: -11/+2

I challenge readers to propose logical, understandable ways to rank them.

I also hasten to note that these are not judgments about the ultimate outcome of anything - just what I see as having occurred this November. Thus, I rate the Annapolis meeting on Palestine negatively because of the way it was convened; leaders may still manage to pull a rabbit out of the hat. I also rate the Colombian civil war as continuing as it was, though there are some occasional signs that the government there may be trying to improve the way poor rural Colombians are treated. I also rate Darfur as continuing because the positive concept of an international peacekeeping force still remains more concept than practice.

Finally, would someone please send me some more improvements that occurred during November?

Monday, November 26, 2007

Islamic Political Fault Line

An Islamic political fault line is forming from Bangladesh to Somalia. If a unified upheaval does in fact erupt from one end of this region to the other simultaneously, it will present a far more serious threat to the global political system than anything we have seen since the end of the Cold War. Those who dream of a clash of civilizations could, in that case, get what they want.

The threat to the global political system is two-fold: first, instability per se, which will generate all manner of suffering for those immediately involved and financial harm to people everywhere; second, undermining of civil liberties and good governance everywhere, both in regions of violence and even in those Western countries that may be fortunate enough to escape violence within their territory. Populations will panic, governments will overreact, politicians will exploit the fear to gain personal power, and democracy everywhere will fall under attack.


If one draws a line from Afghanistan through the Mideast south to Somalia, that line will today go through the following conflicts:

  • Afghanistan & Pakistani Northwest Territories – rising attacks by the Taliban;
  • Northern Pakistan – new anti-government conflict with domestic Islamists;
  • Southwestern Pakistan – long-time, simmering civil war with Baluchi minority;
  • Iraq – combined insurgency, civil war, and exploitation by outside Islamic elements;
  • Palestine – struggle for Palestine independence;
  • Somalia – Islamists vs. Ethiopians.

The following new conflicts are now threatening:

  • Bangladesh – radicals filling space left by endlessly feuding political parties;
  • Pakistan – general civil disorder against military dictatorship;
  • Kurdistan – Turkish invasion;
  • Iran – U.S. or Israeli attack;
  • Lebanon – breakdown of civil order and reemergence of civil war;
  • Ethiopia/Eritrea – renewed war.

Today, violence along this “Islamic political fault line” is broken up by several regions of relative stability. Two of these regions are Iran and Kurdistan. Both have relatively stable governments that, if faced with external threats, can count on an outpouring of nationalist support from their populations. It is also worth noting that Kurdistan is the only stable part of Iraq. And these are two of the most threatened regions.

Islamic Regions of Stability: Kurdistan and Iran

There is no doubt that each part of this region has its own individual issues. Bangladeshi political instability goes directly back to the Bengali war for independence from Punjabi military control more than a generation ago and the corrupt political process that followed (which in turn opened the door to rising extremist influence. In Afghanistan, the inability of the Kabul regime and its Western supporters to provide the Afghan people with any viable means of livelihood other than poppy-growing combined with the pressures to give up poppy-growing generates mass popular frustration. Pakistan’s increasingly harsh military dictatorship is alienating the middle class that should be the core of support for the military (were it to behave as a nationalist force rather than an exploitative one). The Turkish-Kurdistan issue comes out of Turkish refusal to give consideration to the nationalist aspirations of Kurds living in Turkey. Ethiopia and Eritrea have a long-standing disagreement over their joint border.

Neither Islamic extremism nor Western interference can be held responsible for creating this fault line. The problems have a host of local causes. Nevertheless, many underlying similarities exist, and these similarities threaten to turn a long list of local conflicts into a single political quake zone stretching from Central Asia to the Horn of Africa. Both Islamist extremism and Western interference can most certainly be held responsible for exploiting and aggravating the process of merging these individual, local conflicts into a single globe-cutting political fault line.

  • Islamic extremists justify their own global violence by blaming the West and corrupt, brutal local dictators under Western protection for everything that is wrong with the Islamic world.

  • Western extremists, those politicians who use military force to control the political process in Islamic countries rather, provide a fertile field for Islamic extremism by marginalizing moderate, national forces that are trying to bring democracy and sovereignty to Islamic societies.

The danger of such a merging is obvious: failure to have genuine sympathy for the aspirations of Islamic societies creates precisely the threat of global terrorism that extremist Western politicians so loudly claim to be fighting against. But this process of merging local issues into a global Islamic issue also offers opportunities. To the degree that all the problems in the Islamic world constitute one problem, then one solution will, in principle, exist. Determining the degree to which that is true and identifying a single solution that can serve to ameliorate all the violence in the Islamic world will be among the most important challenges facing international relations thinkers and decision makers for a long time to come.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Pakistan & Iran: Two Very Different Crises

The world now faces two political crises simultaneously demanding resolution: Iran and Pakistan. Each crisis deals with an Islamic country that has for years, not coincidentally, been under extreme pressure from the West to alter its policies, and each country is in a region where an Islamic political fault line appears to be emerging that could generate a single crisis stretching from South Asia to the Horn of Africa. Nevertheless, a fundamental distinction between the Pakistani and Iranian crises needs to be kept in mind.

Pakistan is a genuine crisis, in which a nuclear state is sliding toward political collapse. The Taliban which Pakistan worked so hard to create as a proxy to extend the influence of the ruling Punjabi military elite into Afghanistan is now morphing into a domestic Pakistani rebellion of Pashtuns—not just against the middle class but against that very military elite. Musharraf’s curious coup against his own dictatorship directly attacked the middle class, further alienating the moderate, pro-democratic middle. Islamic feeling that has for years been spreading within the military raises real questions about the attitude toward nuclear weapons and the West and liberal, Western democracy on the part of whichever general may eventually take over from Musharraf. Whatever role the US may have had over the years in pushing Pakistan into this situation, there is at this point no way that the US can simply snap its fingers and eliminate the crisis: it is real.

Iran is a made-up crisis. It is a crisis because Tel Aviv and Washington treat it as a crisis and threaten to use “all options” to resolve it. The voluntary use of nuclear weapons within the Earth’s biosphere is the ultimate crime against humanity. When nuclear powers threaten to use “all options,” a crisis exists, by definition. End that threat and you end the crisis.

Of course, the problems in US/Israeli relations with Iran would not end. There are all sorts of perfectly real problems:

  • The US and Iran both want to dominate the Persian Gulf.
  • The US wants to maximize its control over sources of oil.
  • The US wants the dollar to be the official currency for the global oil market; Iran prefers the Euro.
  • Many powerful Israeli and U.S. politicians (though by no means all the thinkers in either country) want Israel to continue to be the unchallenged (and nuclear) superpower of the Mideast; Iran does not.
  • The Administration apparently wants to retain complete control over Iraq; Iran wants to see the U.S. depart quickly, leaving Iran comfortably cosy with its long-time Shi’ite allies, who are now running the Iraqi government.

But problems are not crises. Problems are the normal issues of life that require measured, thoughtful attention, mutual willingness to listen, and—almost certainly—genuine efforts to reach creative compromise. Crises may require all of this but have an unplanned immediacy that gives them a very different and far more dangerous short-term nature. The two need to be distinguished. Global political affairs are fully dangerous enough as it is. Pretending that a problem is a crisis is not just an amateurish mistake…it’s irresponsible.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Conflict in the Islamic World

You may think that the media focus on bad news, but actually the American mainstream media generally does precisely the opposite - it ignores most of the bad news. So here's a visual reminder of the conflicts currently under way in the Islamic world and additional conflicts that threaten to explode in our faces at any moment.


1. Complex civil war in Ethiopia between weak pro-U.S. regime supported by Ethiopian army and Islamic party.

2. Potential new outbreak of border conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea.

3. Palestinian conflict to end Israeli occupation now complicated by internal Palestinian violence between Hamas and al-Fatah.

4. Potential renewal of generation-long Lebanese civil war.

5. Iraqi violence composed of war vs. U.S. occupation plus civil war plus Islamic extremist exploitation of the domestic Iraqi situation.

6. Conflict between Turkey and Iraqi Kurds that now reportedly includes both Kurdish guerrilla attacks from Iraq into Turkey and Turkish helicopter attacks on Iraqi Kurdish villages.

7. Potential Israeli and/or U.S. attack on Iran.

8. Civil war by Baluchi minority against Pakistani government.

9. Civil war in Afghanistan.

10. Taliban offensive against the Pakistani government.

11. Potential civil war in Bangladesh.

Even this list is not complete, for it omits the Kashmir conflict, Darfur, and the Pakistani military dictatorship's crackdown on middle class demands for democracy. This list also omits the revolt against Manila by Moslems in the southern Philippines that has more or less been going on since the Spanish invasion 500 years ago and which may be on the verge of solution through compromise! However, the above list provides a picture, if incomplete, of the number of distinct issues that either currently involve violence or may soon do so within the Islamic world...issues about which one might reasonably expect to read updated information in the media on a regular basis. If you don't see such updates, that does not mean nothing is happening: the tens of thousands of soldiers positioned to fight and hundreds of thousands of refugees will not have vanished. With so many long-lasting issues to report on, perhaps the media need some new tools - e.g., a daily conflict graph showing at a glance the trend for levels of troops in offensive positions, violence, use of particularly vicious weapons (e.g., white phosphorus, cluster bombs, attacks on civilians), numbers of refugees. Hmmm, might that be a role for bloggers?

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Spatio-Temporal Distribution of Lessons

Continuing yesterday's discussion of the spatio-temporal distribution of dynamics in an Islamic political complex adaptive system.

Considering the treatment of nuclear Pakistan (not to mention nuclear Israel and nuclear North Korea) in comparison with the treatment of non-nuclear Iran and Iraq, an Islamic thinker might be excused for concluding that a state needs nuclear weapons to be treated with respect. Were such a conclusion to become the predominant view in the Islamic world, it would be most ominous for the future of the whole world. The following question therefore arises:

How might the non-Islamic world behave so as to minimize the tendency of Islamic peoples to equate the possession of nuclear weapons with

To the extent that the Islamic world constitutes a complex adaptive system, the various parts--whether in Africa, the Mideast, or Asia--will adapt in response to each other: a lesson learned in one part will be learned in the other parts as well. The spread of education and modern communications notwithstanding, the dynamics of how this learning process actually occurs will be affected by all sorts of local conditions; the message will be filtered through local experiences.

  • A society that feels itself to be under extreme threat will be likely to learn this lesson faster than a society that feels secure enough to focus on lifestyle.

  • A society led by politicians who exploit fear to retain control will be vulnerable to the temptation to reach this simplistic conclusion, as well.

In brief, the dynamics of how the lesson spreads throughout the Islamic world over time can be influenced.

  • Non-nuclear states can be offered security guarantees.
  • A system of penalties could be defined and publicized...and consistently mandated for non-nuclear countries that go nuclear.
  • A policy of supporting the denuclearization of regions could be promoted.

If one opposed the spread of nuclear weapons, many relatively (i.e., relative to the cost of war) low-cost steps could be taken to teach the lesson that acquiring nuclear weapons is not a rational policy option.

If the goal were to teach a system-wide lesson, at some abstract level, a single policy would need to be applied to the whole system. The implementation of the policy, however, would be another matter: specific policies to fit local conditions but consistent with the general lesson. Viewing the Islamic world as a complex adaptive system raises the level of policy debate from a state-centric level (where one must ask, for every single state, what policy should be) to a more easily managed system level. Then, instead of an endless series of questions (what about Country A, what about Country B…), one would be led to a logical series of questions, such as:

  • Which countries are most likely to adopt the wrong lesson?
  • What changes in our own policy might convince them to adopt the right lesson?
  • Which changes in our own policy would be most effective and in what order and over what period of time?
  • What is the rate at which lessons are learned?
  • How hard is it to change viewpoints after a new lesson is learned?
  • How do lessons propagate from one part of the system to another?

The more education spreads, the more rapid and accurate the news becomes, the more the various states of the Islamic world come to constitute a complex system. The more the individual states become a system, the more necessary it becomes to devise system-level policy in order for policy to be effective.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Time & Space in One Complex System: Islamic Politics

Continuing remarks on how complex dynamics act across time and space in international relations, and, more particularly, Islamic politics.

Many longstanding local political crises exist in Moslem countries, each with its own local origins and explanations.
  • Palestinians continue their long struggle for statehood.
  • Ethiopian and Eritrean visions of how the Horn of Africa should move into the future continue to clash.
  • Pakistan continues to struggle over the choice of military dictatorship or liberal democracy or an Islamic form of government.
  • Kurds continue to fight for recognition without even being able to agree on whether it should be statehood or differing versions of autonomy or absorption within Turkey, Iran, and Iraq.
  • Afghanistan continues its long struggle to figure out what system it wants to employ to restore its shattered society.
  • Bangladesh continues to struggle to improve the quality of governance in its vigorous but weak democracy, even as that system comes under increasing attack from radical Islamist forces that reject it.

However, on top of this local variation, a new phenomenon seems to be emerging, which it seems reasonable to call “Islamic politics,” i.e., a particular type of politics centered around Islamic activism where the activists perceive themselves as members of a global community with a shared history, moral perspective, and set of grievances. Moreover, politics in the region where Islamic politics dominates the political scene seems to be taking on more and more of the characteristics of a complex adaptive system. To what degree that is currently true and to what degree it is becoming the case are important questions that go far beyond this brief post and, indeed, merit serious research. Suffice it to say for the moment that an Islamic political fault line extending from South & Central Asia to the Horn of Africa appears to be emerging.

Research Challenge: We need a research program to investigate the degree to which an Islamic political complex adaptive system may be emerging in the region from, at the very least, Bangladesh up to Afghanistan, through the Mideast, and down into Africa as far as Somalia (if not in addition including Indonesia and North Africa).

However, the question I wish to address at the moment concerns the particular spatial and temporal characteristics of the evolution of this emerging complex system. How dynamics play out over time and across space in a complex adaptive system is in general an interesting subfield of complexity. As it concerns the alleged Islamic political fault line cutting through this emerging complex system, the role of space and time are important because it is precisely the possibility of a single, unified political crisis occurring simultaneously throughout this region that makes the issue of such critical importance for the peace of the world. In a word, will political trends and attitudes spread rapidly throughout this region and unify it at some significant level so that the problems of the whole region will have to be resolved simultaneous or will politics remain primarily local, crises separate and amenable to solution one by one? If the former becomes the case, it is not at all clear that the international community will be able effectively to meet the challenge that will result.

A system is complex because it is made up of parts that have both some freedom of movement and some mutual dependence; they are distinct but also must react and, indeed, adapt in response to the behavior of the other parts. The parts are thus constantly changing, not moving back and forth like a thermostat but evolving into something new, and not something they planned to evolve into but something at least in part unforeseen: what they become depends in part on the behavior of the other parts.

How will the fact that this series of separate countries is strung out in a long line along the Indian Ocean coast affect their potential for constituting a meaningfully complex system? Can we anticipate spatial variations in, say, the intensity of Islamic activism as a function of the geographic location of the particular society? Might the rate of change also be in part a function of the geographic location? Might there consequently be “sweet spots” where intervention of a particular type would have particularly beneficial system-wide impact or “danger zones” where intervention of the wrong type would have particularly harmful system-wide impact?

Such questions may sound academic, but the alternative to identifying some overarching patterns is the almost overwhelmingly complex challenge of simultaneously dealing with a dozen crises (and pretending that they are in fact "separate" crises), of which half are already at the stage of actual warfare. The record so far offers little hope that the global political system is sufficiently sophisticated to achieve this. Therefore, it is to be hoped that complexity theory can offer insights to guide the development of practical political solutions to the grievances of Islamic societies.

Rejecting the Politics of Fear

One can be excused for wondering what is happening when a
democracy has to rely on military leaders for cautious, professional,
unemotional judgment about foreign policy…I don’t think these remarks require
any interpretation.

General William Fallon, Centcom commander, referring to Iran:

  • "I expect that there will be no war and that is what we ought to be working for….We ought to try and to do our utmost to create different conditions." source
  • "We have to figure out a way to come to an arrangement with them…" source
  • “There has got to be some combination of strength and willingness to engage. How to come up with the right combination of that is the real trick.”
  • “Getting Iranian behaviour to change and finding ways to get them to come to their senses and do that is the real objective. Attacking them as a means to get to that spot strikes me as being not the first choice in my book.” source

General George Casey, Army Chief of Staff:

  • "We are consumed with meeting the demands of the current fight and are unable to provide ready forces as rapidly as necessary for other potential contingencies." source

Defense Secretary Robert Gates:

  • "The challenges we face in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere are fundamentally political, economic and cultural in nature, and are not going to be overcome by military means alone." source

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

What Future Do We Want?

Political forces in the huge region from Afghanistan to Somalia appear to be moving toward confrontation (e.g., the Lebanese civil war, the Ethiopian-Eritrean border conflict). Problems fester unresolved, indeed frequently unaddressed, even unacknowledged. Both elite and popular frustrations seem to be growing. It is difficult to find evidence that would suggest that things will improve over the next few years. The region seems to be moving deeper and deeper into an historical era characterized by confrontation rather than consultation, anger rather than empathy, the intentional disregard of opportunities for cooperation, the exploitation if not the manufacturing of excuses for hostility.

The longer such trends exist, the more momentum they acquire. The more accustomed people become to extreme positions, the more they think their positions are reasonable and the less willing they become to listen to reason. Behavior that yesterday might have been just rude may tomorrow come to be seen as justification for war. Increasingly, those desiring to make trouble find opportunities, those desiring peace are accused of “treason.”

It’s time to do some hard thinking about the long-range implications of our behavior.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

A New Global Wave of Terror?

Another question that I was asked during my discussions here in Anchorage was whether or not a new global wave of terror might be likely in the near future.

Over the last century, terrorist waves have occurred repeatedly. Perhaps the first was Russian in the 1800s, and no doubt everyone remembers or has heard about the wave in protest by a variety of Palestinian political groups in the 1960s and 70s. Terror could of course arise from a lunatic on a rampage but is far more likely to be a tactic adopted because those who use this tactic calculate (limited rationality) that they will benefit. The purpose may be:

  • as the only military weapon a disadvantaged population has available;
  • to attract attention to a cause the opponent refuses to recognize;
  • as a means of demonstrating to internal opponents that one deserves to be acknowledged as the group leader (a concept so well explained by Ian Lustick).

The perpetrator of the terror may be an actor on the outside of the political system trying either to gain entry or overthrow the system. The perpetrator may also be a regime trying to terrify a population into submission because it calculates that this is cheaper than trying to defeat an insurgency on the battlefield, soldier vs. soldier. To summarize the varieties of terror:

I.) Actor outside the political system:
A. desires permission to participate;
B. wants to overthrow the system.

II.) State actor:
desires to maintain exclusive control by terrorizing a hostile population rather
than meeting rebels on the battlefield.

A key unresolved issue regarding Palestine today is whether Hamas falls more nearly in Category A or B. Al Qua’ida would seem to be a clear example of Category I.B., though no effort to test that proposition by offering to negotiate over its articulated demands has ever, to my knowledge, been made. Most of the insurgency in Iraq would seem to exemplify Category I.A. Examples of Category II include Israel during its 2006 invasion of Lebanon (attacking infrastructure, conducting ethnic cleansing of South Lebanon, dropping cluster bombs) and Colombia clearing peasants out of whole regions of rural Colombia, driving them into the cities.

That said by way of overview, I believe the participant’s question related to Category I – a global terrorist campaign by some unofficial, non-state group unwilling to tolerate the current global political system.

We have, I fear, little ground for optimism. First, al Qua’ida, although wounded as a result of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, was never tightly bound to any physical location, and gained valuable time to restructure itself as attention was shifted to the unrelated issue of Iraq from 2003 on. Since then, at least four issues have provided cover for al Qua’ida’s reinvention:

  • The Iraqi insurgency;
  • Failure of the effort to provide security and economic progress (aside from narcotics) in Afghanistan;
  • Socio-political conflict in Pakistan;
  • Worsening of the Palestine situation with the internal conflict between Hamas and Fatah and the ensuing illegal overthrow of the democratically elected Hamas government.

Thus, it seems logical to conclude, even in the absence of evidence, that al Qua’ida continues to exist, has been busy reinventing itself, and will reemerge. I invite readers who actually have evidence one way or the other to offer it for our education.

The second reason for pessimism about the likelihood of a new global terrorist campaign is the rising pressures along—and now, most ominously, all along--the political fault line of Islamic politics from Afghanistan to Somalia. The rising tensions are a far broader issue than simply the question of whether or not widespread terrorism will occur, but it seems probable that if these tensions explode, some actor will decide to employ terrorism on a large scale. What these tensions are is no secret (threats to destabilize Iran, conflict between Turkey and the Kurds, Ethiopian military involvement in Somalia and Ethiopian-Eritrean tensions, and the danger of collapse of governance in Pakistan are among the most obvious). But the nature of the political quake we may expect in the near future along this enormous Islamic fault line from Afghanistan to Somalia is a topic for another day.

Reasoning solely on the basis of logic, without any access to facts about any non-state terrorist activity, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the evolution of the political situation in the region from Afghanistan to Somalia is so fraught with frustration, anger, short-sighted exploitation, and insensitivity to the perceptions and needs of others that a new wave of terror could hardly come to the observant as a surprise.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Time & Space in Complex Adaptive Political Systems

My sincere thanks to the friendly, gracious, and enthusiastic folks of Anchorage who are making my visit so stimulating.

A participant in one of the discussions here on Iran and complexity challenged me to think about the implications of interactions in a complex adaptive political system over space and time. I suspect this is way beyond the state of the art of anyone's understanding of the dynamics of a political system, but I thought I would at least lay down a marker that this issue merits some serious consideration. I hope others will chime in...

Remarks are based on the assumption that the system is one containing at least two countries.
I wonder if we need to discuss what is meant by "spatial distribution." Surely it includes geographic distribution, but that would seem to be losing significance with the spread of education and instant communication. Should we include other types of "distance," e.g., cultural distance?

Hypothesis 1 = The greater the cultural distance, the more
irregular the process of adaptation will be over time.

Explanation: Cultural distance will inhibit understanding,
which will interfere with one side's response to the other side by interposing delays between the impact on Side A of some event and Side B's recognition of it.

If the process of adaptation that enables a complex system to evolve is hindered, the implications in international affairs may well be serious, e.g., the provocation of a needless crisis because one side is irritated about the lack of sensitivity on the part of the other side simply because the other side remains clueless rather than because it intends to be dismissive. Progress in relations may be indefinitely retarded because Side A expects a response within a time frame too short for Side B to respond, so Side A gives up and perhaps behaves in a negative way that is more rapidly seen by Side B, which then responds in kind (I.e., also negatively), perhaps leaving Side A wondering why “they only understand the language of force.”
Consider the following quotation on the human heart from

“There are many systems in nature in which a large assembly of autonomous parts
(agents) interacting locally, in the absence of a high-level global controller,
can give rise to highly coordinated and optimized behavior. The complex adaptive
behavior of global-level structures that emerges is a consequence of nonlinear
spatio-temporal interactions of local-level processes or subsystems. This form
of nested co-optation (across levels of organization) constitutes isolated
cells, organisms, societies and ecologies. Systems of this type are governed by
universal principles of adaptation and self-organization, in which control and
order is emergent rather than predetermined and have come to be known as complex adaptive systems (CAS).”

Countries are autonomous parts that interact locally without a controller (except for the UN). If adaptation is hindered by cultural distance, the rate of optimization of behavior is likely to be slowed. Does this help to understand the oft-remarked relatively high speed of technological progress in comparison to the slow progress toward improving the quality of world governance?

Monday, November 5, 2007

Setting Ourselves Up

Conservative groups from several countries with faith in the efficacy
of simple-minded military solutions are making the Persian Gulf situation more

A long-term contest for supremacy in the Persian Gulf is being fought by a number of players, with Iran, Israel, and the U.S. currently pouring gasoline on the troubled waters. But making the situation even more dangerous is a second level of short-term goals being pursued by conservative groups who believe in the efficacy of simple-minded military solutions. The fact that these groups, all supported by religious fundamentalists in their respective countries, are currently in power in Washington, Tel Aviv, and Tehran makes the situation particularly dangerous. Hubris on all sides is pushing the situation to the point where a miscalculation or the intentional intervention of some third party could easily provoke a war even if the three parties to the dispute decide to pull back from the brink. This is not, to put it politely, rational behavior: all three parties are setting themselves up.

It is not even the case that one can say, “At least we have a 50-50 chance of being the winner.” The range of potential outcomes is huge: there are all sorts of other players who may seize the opportunity to twist things to their advantage. Al Qua’ida, which would no doubt dearly like to provoke yet another war in the Persian Gulf, is only the most obvious. Moscow is working hard behind the scenes to contest Washington’s push for control over global oil resources. Beijing can certainly see the opportunity to improve its ties with Iran presented by the contest over the Persian Gulf. Indeed, Moscow and Beijing are being pushed in the direction of a new alliance by pressure from the world’s only superpower. Saudi Arabian leaders have their own calculations, including a desire to limit Iranian influence over the region and a fundamentalist Sunni antipathy for Shi'ite Iran.

One can imagine many outcomes of a war with Iran that are uncomfortably believable –

  • despoiling the environment of the Persian Gulf region
  • a war harming the economies of all three countries
  • a regional collapse into the type of chaos we are already seeing in Iraq and Palestine
  • the resurgence of al Qua’ida
  • a region-wide Sunni-Shi’ite religious war that might well involve Pakistan…

The truth is that whatever the outcome of the Washington-Tel Aviv-Tehran contest, if emotions are not brought under control, it will most likely be an outcome to the disadvantage of all three.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Defending Democracy

Imagine that a country's leader were nearing the end of his term and began to think that for the good of the country (of course), he needed to remain in power. How would he make the decision? Where does one draw the line? What if the situation were urgent and no one else was ready to lead? How should "urgent" and "ready" be defined?
  • Suppose that a leader denied the legal right to run for reelection decided that only he could provide the strong leadership needed by his country faced with imminent attack?
  • Suppose that a leader denied the legal right to run for reelection decided that only he could provide the strong leadership needed by his country to continue its path of aggressive expansion in an increasingly hostile world?
  • Suppose that a leader faced a judicial decision that would remove him from power?
  • Suppose that a leader faced a judicial decision that would remove him from power and give power to a much younger person with a totally different policy perspective or to a party he had spent much of his life opposing?
Where should a leader draw the line?
Democracy is a privilege that will exist only so long as it is defended. Perhaps those who think they might like to have a democracy or those who think they might like to keep a democracy they were lucky enough to be born into should think about the circumstances under which a leader might decide his august presence at the top was more important than democracy.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Why Tehran Needs Conflict with the U.S.

As in the U.S., power in Tehran is held by two generations of conservatives.

The Iranian revolution a generation ago was led by that society’s traditional conservatives - the clerical, landholding elite. During the near-decade-long war against Saddam Hussein in the 1980’s, a new generation grew up, a generation that attained political power in 2005 with Ahmadinejad’s election to the presidency. Both of these conservative generations--the land-owning clerics of the revolutionary generation and the younger super-patriotic war generation--see some real benefits to the tense atmosphere being created by American neo-cons and their right-wing Israeli fellow-travelers.

The traditional conservatives, although infected by the hubris of revolution in the early 1980s, have increasingly supported a cautious foreign policy. Their hostility toward Israel’s expansion and oppression of the Palestinians has been expressed in terms of military aid to resistance groups. Their hostility toward Iraq was held short of open warfare until Saddam invaded Iran. Their hostility toward the U.S., despite the memory of the U.S. coup against Mossadeq in 1953 and U.S. support for the Shah’s ensuing dictatorship and U.S. support for Saddam’s invasion, has been tempered by occasional willingness to do business. Iran rapidly expressed condolences over 9/11 and provided significant support to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, for example. Their response to the U.S. invasion of Iraq has been assiduous efforts to support their natural allies combined with care to avoid outright conflict with U.S. troops in their neighborhood. Iran under the Islamic revolution has not started a war or attempted regime change despite continuing its historical efforts to attain regional prominence.

The war generation is similarly conservative on social and religious issues but emboldened by the personal experience of its members in the endless years of trench warfare, poison gas attacks, and rocket strikes on cities - a time when the U.S., the Soviet Union, West Europe, and Arab countries all ganged up on Iran. The leaders of this generation of neo-conservatives are not armchair draft-avoiding militarists from the privileged classes; they personally fought in one of history’s worst wars. They are unlikely to allow themselves to be bullied. For them, it is not a question of whether or not they can survive with the whole world against them; been there, done that.

So why might Tehran, faced with unprecedented threats of nuclear attack from the world’s only remaining superpower and the Mideast’s regional superpower, see a silver lining in the thunderheads on its horizon?

1. Exploit War Fears to Consolidate Power. Conservatives use fear to hold on to power. The deal offered by conservatives is stability in return for sacrifice of civil liberties and economic progress for the poor. The fear of foreigners is what “justifies” the sacrifice. Iran’s conservatives trumpet warnings about the negative influence of corrupt Western culture, but that increasingly does not seem to play too well among Iran’s youth. Any evidence they can find of a Western threat to Iran strengthens their hold on power. Public insults, economic sanctions, labeling Iran part of an axis of evil, and--obviously--threats of attack are invaluable contributions to the conservative war chest. In the contest between the traditional conservatives and the neo-con war generation, such evidence is of particular value to Ahmadinejad’s neo-cons.

2. The “End of Days.“ Like certain fundamentalists in other religions, Iran’s neo-cons seem to believe they have a special link to God (ensuring they can do no wrong) and seem to expect a war to end the world as a vengeful God comes to earth to destroy all evil (namely, all humans except themselves). It is certainly not the case that all conservatives in Iran (or the U.S. or Israel) believe this, but to the extent that they do (and Ahmadinejad, for one, seems to), they may welcome conflict as the final solution to life’s trials.

3. Protecting the Neighborhood. Iran’s traditional ties with the Iraqi people are as close as U.S. ties with Canadians - common history (the area created as an independent country by Britain after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire has over the past 3,000 years frequently been part of Iran), common religion (both majority Shi’ite Moslems), much social intercourse, vast amount of travel for pilgrimages across the border, old school ties, etc. A foreign invasion of Iraq is as much a challenge to Iran as a foreign invasion of Canada would be to Americans. Iran cannot look with equanimity upon a US colonial project in Iraq or upon what appear to be permanent military bases designed for offensive action throughout the region. Given Iran’s success in stopping Western-backed Saddam in the 1980’s, America’s failure to pacify Iraq since 2003, and the exposure of U.S. forces in Iraq, Iran’s leaders may have good reason to think they can defeat a U.S. attack. Indeed, recent public comments by IRGC leaders about the benefits to Iran of asymmetric warfare suggest they do in fact have such a perception. Moreover, since they can certainly assume that Washington is capable of making the same calculations, it is not at all unlikely that Iranian decision-makers may calculate that bilateral tensions will in the end stop short of war, thus leaving the Iranian people scared and the conservatives and militarists with consolidated power. Tensions short of war work both ways: Tehran may well calculate that the tensions will end up persuading Washington to withdraw from Iraq.

4. The Ahmadinejad Administration Has Failed. The Ahmadinejad administration has failed to deliver upon its promise of economic progress. The greater the perceived foreign threat, the easier it is to make the Iranian people overlook this and rally around the flag. If anti-Iranian threats were to diminish, domestic attention to the price of gas and the absence of civil liberties would no doubt rise rapidly. Given the upcoming Iranian parliamentary elections, this could severely weaken Ahmadinejad for the rest of his tenure.

5. Becoming the new Nasser. The greater the perceived foreign threat to Iran, the more courageous Ahmadinejad appears, facilitating achieving his goal of becoming the new hero of the Mideast, a Nasser or Saladin capable of standing up to the West.

6. When You Have a Hammer….Iran is a developing country with a weak economy savaged by years of U.S. economic sanctions and surrounded by enemies, Shi’ite among Sunnis, Persian among Arabs, and surrounded by U.S. military bases. A rough and tumble conflict with the U.S. may well seem to some Iranian leaders to be a perfect opportunity to stride a world stage that today's Iran might otherwise have trouble climbing on to.

In brief, the leaders of the Islamic Revolution…and in particular the leaders of the conservative factions…and more particularly the leaders of the neo-con war generation faction benefit in numerous ways from a tense relationship with the U.S.