EXCERPT The repeated Western wars of choice against Muslim societies over the past generation show a consistent pattern of judgmental failure at the most basic level by Western decision-makers. In each case, the decision-makers exhibited naive faith in the inevitability of their visions of victory, irresponsibly ignored the price of failure, and were lost in amateurish denial about the danger of catastrophic surprise.
TEXT National security requires a much better understanding of international processes than Washington has exhibited in the confusing post-Cold War years. The impact of attack on a Muslim society by a Western industrial power is the most urgent example. The West has launched wars of choice against Muslim societies often enough in recent decades to enable us to begin to see some very consistent and very ominous patterns. Western invasions of Muslim societies are provoking and linking together the security threats those invasions were allegedly designed to resolve, i.e., Western decision-making on the most critical global security issue of the time has been counterproductive, thus irrational. Rational behavior is behavior that gets one close to one’s goal; the Western approach to Islamic activism has steadily undermined Western security. Might it be time to try a different approach?
Nassim Taleb starts the concluding chapter of The Black Swan, his study of how people miscalculate extreme risk, with the observations that he takes care to be “skeptical about confirmation—though only when errors are costly—not about disconfirmation” and that he is skeptical when he “suspect[s] wild randomness.”
["Black swans" are events so rare that they are judged impossible…until they happen. The 9/11 attack could be considered a minor black swan.]
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (1978-1989), the Israeli invasion of Lebanon (1982-2000), American invasion of Iraq (2003-2011?), and American invasion of Afghanistan (2001…) seem to share the following characteristics: the aggressors were confident about confirmation of their assumptions despite the obvious danger that error would be costly, arrogantly dismissive of disconfirmatory evidence, and oblivious to the high probability that their wars of choice might become characterized by wild randomness.
Failure to Anticipate the Cost. In each war, errors were costly, in ways far more extensive than just the casualties. Each war damaged the invading power’s moral stature, reputation, and economic health. Each war also undermined the very legitimacy of the invading country’s government in the minds of its own people. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, for example, contributed greatly to its collapse. Both the grossly unanticipated cost and the atmosphere of political irresponsibility engendered by the dishonest Bush Administration pursuit of the war against Iraq contributed in ways yet to be appreciated to the still deepening U.S. recession.
Failure to Anticipate Surprise. Each war was launched by an overwhelmingly superior power, yet each ended up provoking an insurgency that dragged on endlessly. This insurgency was the first class of wild randomness. Each war also provoked horrendous self-destructiveness, as the victim societies turned inward, ripping themselves apart. That was the second class of wild randomness. The spread of the war to neighboring countries—PLO escape from Beirut and eventual return to Palestine, followed by the intifadas; al Qua’ida’s turn to global jihad; Turkish attacks on Iraqi Kurds; the spreading war in tribal regions of Pakistan; and, arguably, the terror attack on Mumbai--constitute a third class of wild randomness. This pattern of randomness is a clear warning of danger whose probability and nature cannot be calculated.
Failure to Achieve Stated Goals. If the invader’s goal was the destruction of a society, then the invaders won, at least temporarily. But if the invader’s goal was a glorious military feat or “bringing Muslim peasants into the 20th century,” “removal of the Palestinian threat,” “elimination of al Qua’ida,” or “finding Saddam’s WMD,” then in each case the invader, to date, has lost. If the goal was stabilization of the invaded society so that it would no longer be a threat, the invader has also in each case failed to achieve its goal.
Aggravating Rather than Resolving the Issue. Each invasion not only failed to resolve the instability that provoked it but aggravated that instability both by leaving behind a broken society and by entangling other societies.
- The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan morphed into Soviet support for a post-invasion regime that was toppled after a bloody civil war paving the way for the rise of al Qua’ida and, thus, the American invasion of Afghanistan.
- The Israeli invasion of Lebanon, after provoking the creation of Hezbollah, “ended” in 2000 with the Israeli pullout but really continues, with the Israeli re-invasion of 2006 and Hezbollah’s continuing policy of “resistance.” As for Hezbollah, its power, a generation later, continues to grow, and the aggravation of Israeli-Iranian tensions provoked by the war threatens to generate a new war.
- The American invasion of Afghanistan has scattered without destroying al Qua’ida—a dangerous tactic against a networked opponent, provoked a boom in Afghanistan’s illegal narcotics exports, witnessed a resurgence of the Taliban that may yet achieve victory, destabilized Pakistan, and threatened to provoke war between India and Pakistan.
- The American invasion of Iraq overthrew an evil dictator at the cost of ruining and impoverishing the rapidly modernizing Iraqi society. The invasion also raised Iran’s regional status within a hostile context, thus further aggravating Iranian-Israeli tensions. Although fighting has died down, Iraq is deeply divided, with a Shi’ite regime facing both Kurdish desires for autonomy and revitalized as well as rearmed Sunni tribalism (Steven Simon, “Will the Surge’s Success Backfire?” in Foreign Affairs, May-June 2008, p.67) that has perhaps only temporarily been bought off.
The result of these four invasions plus various smaller ones (e.g., Israel into Lebanon in 2006 and Israel into Gaza this past December) is an intensifying cascade of Muslim grievances combined with a steadily deepening Muslim organizational capacity for unified resistance. The list of Muslim grievances is endless. The majority of the population of Pakistan’s Bajaur Agency, some 400,000 people, were turned into refugees at the end of 2008 by a Pakistani army campaign to “protect” the region from insurgents. A prolonged Pakistani army campaign in neighboring Swat Valley resulted in a deal to institute sharia that looks very much like a Taliban victory. Two years of warfare against Ethiopians in Somalia further wrecked that hapless land before the Ethiopians gave up, leaving the Islamists more powerful and more radicalized than before the Ethiopians’ U.S.-supported intrusion. Iraq’s middle class society, perhaps once the most modern in the Mideast, has been destroyed, with many of its members still refugees somewhere else in the Mideast. Gaza exemplifies the barbaric extremes to which the policy of force against Muslim populations seeking freedom and justice can reach. In Lebanon, a Hezbollah created in response to one Israeli invasion (1982) was re-energized by another Israeli invasion (2006), and now is in reach of national electoral victory.
In addition to a lengthening list of grievances, Muslims appear to be strengthening their capacity for unified resistance. Qatari sponsorship of a Lebanese compromise that paved the way for Hezbollah’s strengthening political position, Iranian involvement in Gaza, and the recent formation of a united front of insurgent groups in preparation for this summer’s widely anticipated “Taliban surge” into Afghanistan are three examples of the improving organization of Islamic resistance.
Thunderheads on the Horizon. The story is clearly far from over. The effects of this series of invasions are becoming increasingly entangled. The invasion of Iraq accelerated the emergence of Iran onto the regional stage and gave al Qua’ida a powerful foothold in Iraq. The 2008 invasion of Gaza strengthened Iran’s influence in the Levant. The inconclusive nature of the war in Afghanistan empowered and radicalized activists in Pakistan even as it made both Washington and Islamabad appear ineffective. The result of these wars has been to weaken major powers, speed the emergence of new powers onto the world stage, empower non-state actors, radicalize Islamic activism, and provoke new conflicts at a rate that suggests the creation of a truly “wild randomness.”
Individual politicians trying to make a name for themselves may benefit from “wild randomness,” if they are lucky and don’t instead burn the house down with themselves inside. However, large, complex nations with sophisticated economies don’t do well in an environment characterized by bizarre and unforeseeable crises, whether the impact is a city-killing hurricane or a 9/11 terror attack or a housing bubble collapse. The more efficient and sophisticated a modern industrial society, the more painful the shock.
As for the big question of why such randomness, such a “richness” of the unexpected, is occurring, clues are provided by 1) the disconnect between methods and problems 2) and the disconnect between the perspectives of Muslim victim and Western invader. Military methods are being applied to resolve social problems. Modern ideologies are being forced upon societies that either reject these ideologies or reject being forced to accept them. Aggravating it all is the endless faith by powerful decision-makers in confirmatory evidence (“we have so many tanks,” “our way of life is superior,” “God [history] is on our side”), failure to calculate potential costs, and utter denial about the degree of randomness that war against pre-modern societies is capable of generating.
Western thinkers need to make a concerted effort to understand the overall process being generated by this series of Western invasions. With old wars expanding and new wars threatening, the urgency of such a project can hardly be overestimated.
Western decision-makers who wish to survive would be well advised to view assurances of “slam dunks” with skepticism, pay great attention to disconfirmatory evidence, and take measures to reduce randomness before their energetic...but thoughtless use of military force against Muslim societies generates a major Black Swan event.
 Steven Simon, “Will the Surge’s Success Backfire?” in Foreign Affairs, May-June 2008, p.67.