How can we evaluate the real impact our country's behavior is having on global developments?
The habit of identifying patterns, looking for the causal dynamics that generate those patterns, and considering the conditions under which those patterns can be expected to continue into the future constitute key steps. Although we may all “know” that this makes sense, whether at the level of daily discourse or at the highest reaches of policy-making, this basic advice is all too often ignored. Good luck, better tactics, a change in parties, great leadership, or faith in the curious American belief that the future is bound to be better than the past are thin reeds on which to place one’s hopes in the face of underlying dynamics that push events where they will.
To get a handle on the future, look first not at who is in charge or what events are occurring but at the enduring patterns of behavior that constrain future choices: population dynamics, trends in education, willingness of the current generation to conserve for the benefit of the next generation, quality of governance, attitudes toward common goods (e.g., air, oceans), cultural openness, degree of tolerance toward opponents, and degree of sympathy for the weak.
Whether "you" are president of the United States or Joe the Plumber, you probably do not have time to follow every important detail of what is happening in the world. So, to make the job feasible, try snapshots. Can you take the time to look at three shapshots right now? OK, here they are:
1. SNAPSHOT ONE - After years of Soviet occupation back in the 1980s, Afghan insurgents were recognized to be slowly tightening a noose around Kabul.
2. SHAPSHOT TWO - A report just released portrays Afghan insurgents slowly tightening a noose around Kabul again...after years of U.S. occupation.
3. SNAPSHOT THREE - Pakistani media are now portraying the Taliban as doing much the same to border city Peshawar.
This simple analytical technique gives you two patterns with real significance - a pattern of insurgent warfare defeating a stronger military power that repeats over time and that repeats over space. No mass of detail you don't have time to memorize; just disturbing patterns to think about.
Stop here if you are busy; if you have another five minutes, let's go into a bit more detail...
In terms of the troubled relationship between the West and Islam, the patterns are sobering.
Whatever reasons Moslems may have had to be angry with Western governments in September 2001, by 2008 those reasons had become amplified and intensified. The most fundamental reason may be the sudden global crisis in the cost of grain, which has put the core of human diet out-of-reach of much of the world’s population, indicating a basic breakdown of the West’s pet project of globalization. Beyond this non-negotiable need for food are Israel’s barbaric economic war against the population of Gaza, the dramatic rise in the frequency of U.S. missile strikes on Moslem countries with which the U.S. was not at war, a highly menacing U.S. campaign against Iran, the combination of U.S. support for friendly Moslem dictators combined with coldly unsympathetic and blatantly intolerant behavior toward Moslem actors taking independent stands, and the final pulverization of already stateless Somali society by a U.S.-backed Ethiopian army. Coming on top of the deepening Moslem-Western confrontation of the last seven years, the events of 2007-8 make highly probable an intensified level of Moslem resentment and resistance over the next seven years. Such resistance can be expected to radicalize, fragment, and destabilize Moslem states, undermining moderates and empowering extremists.
That list of patterns that seemed--in my opinion--to be visible by the middle of 2008 is of course debatable. One might argue that the list is biased by omission or flat-out wrong. No doubt plenty of folks might compose a different list and come to different conclusions. How do we resolve such disagreement? That's a hard question to answer, but a good approach is the obvious one of seeing how the above list of patterns sheds light on current events.
Think of the hubris with which Washington invaded Afghanistan and then quickly turned its focus and its resources toward Iraq, leaving the social crisis in Afghanistan unresolved. Seven years later, the re-emergence of the shattered Afghan Taliban should come as no surprise. Think of the lack of progress in integrating Pakistani border regions with the rest of the country since 9/11. The spread of the Afghan insurgency into Pakistan should come as no surprise. Think of the failure of all who are involved to provide the Kashmiri people with hope for a decent future after half a century of being forced to take orders from outsiders. The repeated occurrence of violence between India and Pakistan should come as no surprise.
Given the decline in living conditions resulting from the unsustainable rise in food prices for the poor of South Asia, we can only anticipate even more instability and violence in the future. It does not require detailed information about this or that fundamentalist Moslem or Hindu or Jewish or Christian group, or about this or that expansionist regime, or about this or that rogue intelligence agency or rogue retired intelligence operative to make the prediction that violence will continue. All it requires is recognition of the patterns and the background conditions. Yes, it is very interesting to talk about who did what when. But what is really important to understanding our world is to observe the patterns that are generated by various background conditions. What is really important to improving the world in which we live is to change those background conditions.