Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The New Mideast...Simplified

Are you confused about the Mideast? Are you an overworked decision-maker, too busy running the world to figure out what is going on? Stay calm. Just a bit of political science theory can actually make your life easier. Try it!

The Mideast has irrevocably changed—at the fundamental social level, just as the Soviet Bloc irrevocably changed after Prague Spring, although, again like the Soviet Bloc, it may take some time for these changes to impact the visible political structure. Given the change, new policy is necessary, but given the undeniable complexity of current events, how is one to simplify the picture—or, perhaps to put it better, how is one to perceive the real currents and topography of the New Mideast beneath the whitecaps of the stormy sea of daily events?

Decision-makers are clearly confused, yet if one focuses correctly, one can perceive a relatively simple underlying political system that, while surely only one view of a vastly more complex reality, nevertheless sufficiently exposes the core attributes of the new political Mideast to serve as a practical foundation for effective policy-making.

This perspective sets to the side all discussion of the personalities of individual leaders, whose “friendship” or “hostility” is discounted as so much fluff on a wind-swept sea. Professional decision-makers do not base national security on the “loyalty” of foreign leaders (they do not say, as politician Reagan did, that Marcos is my “friend,” as though that were a responsible basis for determining interstate relations). This perspective sets to the side the national distinctions among the two dozen or so regional states. This perspective also sets to the side the particular goals of this or that political faction.

The core attributes of the new Mideast are a simple combination of four actors and the dynamics that link them. “Simple” is obviously a relative term, since a system of four actors linked by multiple dynamics working at cross-purposes and according to different time-scales would not really be “simple” even if we knew exactly what the dynamics were. Unfortunately for those readers hoping to have the Mideast “explained,” even naming those dynamics correctly will, upon reflection, be seen to be perhaps just a bit beyond anyone’s capacity, and determining how they interact certainly will be. Nevertheless, a perspective that focuses on core attributes offers some hope:

  1. Only four actors;
  2. A goal of identifying a minimal set of dynamics;
  3. Two further goals of estimating A) the direction and B) the relative power of those dynamics.

I propose that the essential list of Mideast actors decision-makers need to consider is simply this:

Actor 1. The Population. This is a new actor, a group we all knew existed but have always pretended, without many negative consequences, did not exist. Decision-makers wishing to avoid the charge of being in a state of “terminal denial” must now avoid that pretense. All populations of all states should now be assumed to be: politically aware and willing to fight for the hope of a better life. Take their interests into account or earn their enmity and pay the price.

Actor 2. The Elites. Elites want privilege: Arabs, Americans, Christians, Jews, Muslims, fundamentalists, secularists…it does not matter. Based on the first premise, elites all cut deals, but the existence of Actor 1 means that deals with Actor 2 come at a new price.

Actor 3. The Boss. It is still a unipolar world, and it is still U.S.-centric. Much that occurs will be in reaction to the behavior of the boss. The first thing Washington needs to understand about the Mideast is the impact of what Washington does; for the Boss, nothing can ever come out of the blue; sorry, Boss, that excuse just won’t fly.

Actor 4. The Pretender. A pretender to the throne will always exist. The big secret that the Boss never understands is that eliminating the pretender will only create an environmental niche for a new pretender, perhaps one better adapted to succeed. The hidden message in this secret is that the influence of the pretender is usually more a function of the behavior of the Boss than a result of anything the Pretender can do. The barbarians did not destroy Rome; Rome, through the unbelievable stupidity of corruption and financial mismanagement, destroyed itself. Revolution usually is the fault of the Boss not the revolutionaries. In the Mideast, there is really only one serious pretender – Iran.

Dynamic 1. Control provokes resistance. Dynamics are much harder to identify, but one is both easy (at least for those in charge) to ignore and utterly predictable: control provokes resistance. The harder the boss tries to control, the greater will be the resistance: micromanagement is counterproductive. Much of politics at every level is attributable to the irony that the only actor incapable of seeing the idiocy of micromanagement is the micromanager.

Dynamic 2. Power corrupts. No matter how much wealth or power an elite accumulates, it tries to get more, even to the point of destroying the goose that lays the golden egg. Henry Ford made an exception when he advocated paying his workers enough so they could afford to buy the cars he was selling.

Dynamic 3. People are self-organizing. This is a new one, more-or-less. Any reader of Dickens (Tale of Two Cities) or Hugo (Ninety-Three) will know that the people have always had the theoretical ability to self-organize, but in today’s tightly connected world, self-organization is moving from the exception to the norm.

The New Mideast
Ignoring, for the moment, the admittedly important issue of whether or not the above list of dynamics is sufficiently all-inclusive, this vastly simplified model of the political disputes raging across the Mideast today already contains some key lessons:

  • The traditional practice of indulging in deals with corrupt leaders will henceforth come at a price; cutting the masses in for a share might have a better pay-off since failure to do so can easily provoke their self-organization and lead quickly to the needless empowerment of the Pretender.
  • Relying on elites is naïve; rather, the Boss should anticipate that they will betray their own people and prepare to deal with the trouble that these short-sighted elites will cause. Like Henry Ford, give the people the means to be productive supporters because opposition to your plans is now a very live alternative.
  • Rather than trying to eliminate the Pretender, consider how his pretense can be exposed. What is it that the people think the Pretender can provide that you cannot? The chances are that you could perfectly well afford to offer more than enough to satisfy them.

Most of all, decision-makers need to appreciate the degree to which this is a system in flux (hence the metaphor of the storm-swept sea). A bit too much acquisitiveness on the part of a domestic elite can generate a huge amount of hostile popular self-organization and vastly inflate the influence of an otherwise hapless pretender. Once a tipping point is reached (say, an unknown worker burns himself in public protest or the idiot thugs employed by a careless dictator abuse a bunch of kids), the time-frame over which a dynamic plays out can shrink far faster than a distant decision-maker can react. Read that sentence again: dynamics are…dynamic! They not only cause behavior to change but are themselves capable of pushing faster or slower. If reaction is ineffective because always behind the curve, then planning ahead—which increasingly will mean offering a better deal to one’s adversaries than “appears” necessary—becomes the better part of valor.

As for what to do with the simplified perspective on the new Mideast, it's not quite as obvious as you may think. More later...
Disclaimer: If you are thinking about this, then all the above probably strikes you as rather obvious. Great. You passed your test and are appointed “Decision-Maker-in-Chief.” If, conversely, you find yourself tensing up and feeling insulted, then you may be terminally in denial. In the new, fast-moving World in Flux, good luck, buddy. Emotion really is not a cost-effective approach to decision-making.

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