One of the many patterns that seems to be cropping up with disturbing frequency across the Islamic world is a process of burden shifting that is needlessly intensifying local political instability and, as an unintended consequence, enhancing the power of external patrons over local clients. When external patrons gain influence over local actors, a society’s political process is warped to serve the interests of the patrons rather than the society. The numerous clients in the Mideast who knowingly sell their freedom to external patrons in return for help in fighting their domestic battles are playing with fire.
Burden-shifting is a very common but subtle dynamic in human affairs. We are usually rather good at perceiving symptoms and, perhaps unfortunately, quick to identify solutions that have at least some success in addressing those symptoms. This is arguably unfortunate because those “symptomatic solutions” tend to be short-term “solutions” that provide false assurance and thus blind us to the more fundamental solutions that the situation actually requires. Tricked into thinking we have solved the problem once the particular symptom we have noticed takes a temporary turn for the better, we walk away from the underlying problem, which proceeds to worsen.
But that is just the beginning of the problem. Often, the short-term palliative we have come up with creates a new problem that intensifies underlying problem, perhaps by aggravating the symptom we were complaining about in the first place or perhaps by inhibiting implemention of the fundamental solution (that we haven’t even figured out yet). The “Shifting the Burden” diagram illustrates this whole process. Note that the actual problem is not even in the diagram! Think of the REAL PROBLEM as something hovering in the background, messing up your life but as yet unrecognized by you.
Any number of different specific examples of burden shifting may exist, the research challenge being to identify which ones are operative in any specific situation. One example that appears particularly common today in the Islamic world is “Shifting the Burden of Political Compromise,” illustrated in the graphic. The implied problem in the background is poor functioning of the political system. This problem generates a variety of symptoms, such as political instability and the rise of militias.
A common symptomatic solution to address these symptoms is for the regime to adopt a hardline stance toward domestic political opponents, entailing:
- neglect of social services to those represented by the opposition (e.g., to Palestinians both in conquered territory and even in Jerusalem by Israel, to tribal regions in Pakistan, to the rural Shi’a in Lebanon, to the residents of Sadr City in Iraq, to the rural poor in Colombia, Bolivia [under the previous regime], and Venezuela [under the previous regime]);
- the closing of opposition media;
- efforts to minimize opposition participation in the political process (e.g., refusal by the Siniora-Hariri regime in Lebanon to allow Hezbollah additional ministers);
- the organization of pro-regime militias (e.g., the AUC in Colombia, Hariri’s funding of a Sunni militia in Lebanon over the last two years);
- military strikes against opposition militias (e.g., al Maliki’s attack on the Mahdi Army in Basra and Sadr City).
This hardline stance may initially reduce instability and the activity of militias but over time is likely to increase those symptoms because it will in practice tend to minimize efforts to resolve the real underlying problem, which is the absence of power-sharing. One could imagine a sophisticated two-track effort by a regime to, say, attack opposition militias but invite the opposition to participate in the political process. Indeed, both Qatar vis-à-vis Lebanon and Iran vis-à-vis Iraq seem to be advocating such a process at the moment. However, most politicians seem to find it too difficult to juggle a combined hardline/softline policy. Even if a politician happened to have the creativity and open-mindedness to advocate such a sophisticated policy, the hardline aspects will provoke radicalization of the opposition (e.g., Hizballah’s tough reaction to Siniora’s recent attempt to destroy its communications network) and politicians frequently fall into the simplistic trap of labeling the opposition as “evil,” making compromise much more difficult. In brief,
H1 = the more the regime adopts a hardline stance, the more political instability and related symptoms will be provoked.
H2 = the more the regime adopts a hardline stance, the less power-sharing will occur, and the less power-sharing occurs, the more
instability will be generated.
That describes the dynamics of the blue arrows.
The red arrows represent an additional set of dynamics. A hardline stance is difficult (e.g., military confrontation is expensive and provokes domestic opposition so it gets increasingly expensive over time). Therefore,
H3 = the more a regime implements a hardline policy toward the domestic opposition, the more tempted it will be to request the support of an external patron.
But that support will come at a cost (patrons want payback), and the cost is likely to be that the patron is getting involved because it has broader reasons of its own to desire the suppression (or at least marginalization) of the opposition, so the cost is insistence of the patron on an even more extreme hardline stance. Thus,
H4 = the more a regime asks for external support for a hardline
policy, the more hardline that policy will become, and the less opportunity there will be for power-sharing.
Of course, like H1- H3, that is just an hypothesis. Such need not be the case: it depends on the attitudes of the various external patrons. The lesson for client regimes: choose your patron wisely.
In today’s Islamic world, the following process is all too common: governance is poor, but the burden of political compromise is deemed too great by the regimes, which therefore adopt a hardline stance in order to alleviate the symptoms. This hardline stance threatens to provoke a domestic reaction that will get the regime overthrown, so it calls in external support, which gets the regime involved in a much bigger game, one that it cannot control, and the influence of the patrons rises. But two can play that game, and the opposition also calls on external patrons. As the process continues cycling, both sides become radicalized. Political disputes turn military; policy differences are distorted into sectarian differences; and each side increasingly thinks and speaks of the opponent as “evil,” thus defining any solution aside from a “final” one as immoral. In practice, a “fundamental solution” has now been defined as impossible, so the society disintegrates.
The subtle process of burden shifting is bad enough by itself. When it aggravates the process of selling out one’s independence to an external patron, it should come as no surprise that the result may well be aggravation of sectarian strife that may lead to years of turmoil, the undermining of economic progress, and the destruction of society. The most critical lesson here is that the many societies we see engulfed in sectarian strife today got there less because of “traditional hatreds” than as a result of external interference that intentionally enflamed local divisions in order to facilitate the manipulation of local actors.