As with good health and a good marriage, a successful foreign policy requires an all-emcompassing view; “just the facts” is no more the basis for understanding Western-Islamic relations than is “popping pills” the road to a healthy life. Just as good health depends on a combination of nutrition, exercise, sufficient sleep, cleanliness and a good marriage requires consideration of the overall environment within which the couple lives, successful management of relations with the Islamic world will require the West to understand how Muslims perceive the world, the constraints under which they live, and the processes that motivate them. Like health and marriage, politics is a complex adaptive system composed of interacting and evolving sub-systems.
Whether one views the situation from the traditional perspective or from the complexity perspective, one can see many of the same elements – the anger, the desperation, the violence, the retribution. The difference lies in the conclusions one draws. From the traditional perspective, one will conclude that a preponderance of force will win out in the end. From a complexity perspective, however, one can see that force does not equal effect; on the contrary, the preponderance of force is precisely the problem. Force, like heat applied endlessly to a pressure cooker, does not “solve” the problem. Force is either irrelevant or, more likely, an additional cause.
To return to the health analogy, every doctor knows nutrition matters, but it is all too easy, absent the complexity perspective, to prescribe an antibiotic without the simple addition of yogurt—because the ways in which yogurt can protect the digestive tract from the ravages of a broad spectrum antibiotic are anything but simple. Similarly, it is all too easy to focus on a violent counter-attack against extremists, overlooking the destabilizing impact on society of that counter-attack.
From a complexity perspective, one can also see the other side of the coin: the absence of violence does not equate to “stability.” It does not mean that force has been applied successfully and that the problem has been resolved. Rather, it simply means that the underlying instability has shifted from the group phase (insurgency) to the individual phase (disorganized and unnoticed anger, depression, starvation, abuse of relatives, divorce, dropping out of school, crime).
Just because random instability at the individual level remains beneath the notice of the international media does not mean that the problem has been solved. In a complex adaptive system, behavior at the individual level can give rise with unforeseeable speed to a new type of behavior at the group level. The social chaos of a Waziristan does not predict revolt or terrorism, but it does set up fertile ground for the sudden emergence of a type of behavior that conventional thinkers may find highly counter-intuitive. All it takes is a catalyst, and in the current era of a highly interconnected but deeply unjust world, many would like to serve as that catalyst.
Where the conventional perspective saw Iraq a few weeks after the U.S. invasion as subjugated and the problem as solved, the complexity perspective would have seen an evil group (the regime) as removed, leaving behind a chaotic mass of individuals (the destroyed Iraqi socio-political system) from which some new form of behavior would surely emerge (in the event, a not very surprising anti-invader insurgency). Similarly, when the Pakistani Army blithely announced “victory” over the Taliban in Bajaur after a brutal and highly destructive campaign of collective punishment that turned perhaps one-third of the district’s residents into refugees, a complexity thinker could easily have foreseen the resurgence of violence that is now occurring. The invasion broke up the organized resistance but left unresolved, and in fact enormously worsened, the underlying individual instability of absent social services, corrupt government, unemployment, and injustice. Re-emergence of some form of group behavior in reaction to the unacceptable situation (in the event, a second Taliban campaign of terror) should have been anticipated.
“Take two Predators, and you’ll feel better in the morning.” Well, not quite; “different,” perhaps, but whether or not your new condition will be “better” is another question. There are far more ways things can get worse than there are for things to get better. Strong medicine is only a good bet when the full range of its likely impact is considered in advance.