We all know about incentives: Reward behavior that you want to promote and to encourage. However, organizational behavior theorists also offer examples of the Fallacy of rewarding A to encourage B. You know, you want teamwork and cooperation but you reward only individual performance, or you want to encourage customer satisfaction but you reward only sales. But this past week President Obama provided our first exposure to punishing A to encourage D. Bear with us for a short motivational detour about families and behavior; this is really about Israel, Jerusalem, North Waziristan, and a number of places in between.
Punishing A to encourage D? Imagine my son is downloading pirated Tarentino films (A), and it's raining outside (B). His downloading the Tarentino film really bothers me -- first it's illegal, and second, I'm not sure I want him watching stuff where phrases like "I'm a get Medieval on yo ass" will be made all too graphically clear. I want him to go outside and play (C) so that he will have more friends (D).
Right now I have A and B, and I don't want either of them. So I exercise parental controls on his laptop so he can't access the website he wants, which I hope means he'll go out and play, and thus have more friends. Except that it's still raining, and even when it stops raining he would rather stay in and watch Kill Bill on his laptop, which he downloaded weeks ago. And even when he does go outside, he takes solitary walks, hangs out in the Arms and Armor collection at the Met, or goes to visit his grandmother. No surprise: my intervention doesn't work -- the links from A to B to C to D are all too tenuous. This example is pretty obvious. And no one would assume that blocking a kid's access to a website would make it stop raining, or that sending him outside would make him popular. "Where are the causal mechanisms?", as we scientists like to say.
But you're not interested in my son. How about this instead: President Obama has to deal with the fact that the Israelis intend to build a housing project in a disputed part of East Jerusalem (A) and also with the fact of Arab intransigence in moving toward a two state solution to the Palestinian Problem (B). He faces intense resentment in the Islamic world, resentment toward the U. S. and European powers, and towards the non-Islamic world more generally, which has been building for decades or centuries, depending on how you count. He wants this resentment to diminish, or even vanish. Let's call this (C). And his real problem, of course, is the complex combination of wars and counter-insurgency operations that America faces in Iraq and the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. He believes that reducing Islamic resentment will reduce the opposition that the American military faces in Iraq and Afghanistan saving American "blood and treasure" (D).
Okay. This is more interesting than a Tarentino-addicted son. President Obama clearly believes that there is a linkage from A to D, and that achieving a settlement to the Palestinian Problem has become a "vital national security interest of the United States", but can action on A even get us to B? Just as blocking my son's website access doesn't stop the rain, one can wonder why stopping a housing project in East Jerusalem should end Arab intransigence on a two-state solution to Palestinian demands for statehood?
What if the core bases of Palestinian resistance are inherently rational? Maybe the Palestinians feel they can wait long enough to ensure that any single-state solution to the Palestinian Problem would result in an Arab majority. Could the Palestinians and their supporters take actions that within two or three decades force Israel to become either a Muslim-majority democracy or a Jewish apartheid state? The former would be the end of Israel as a Jewish homeland, while the second would result in Israel becoming an international pariah state and would be unsustainable. Either way, the Palestinians are better off waiting than making serious concessions now. There is no reason to assume the Palestinian negotiators are unaware of this scenario; indeed, if they were previously unaware, they would simply need to pick up a recent copy of Foreign Affairs to have it explained to them. So, stopping A may not stop B.
But let's move on with our analysis of Obama's reasoning: why would stopping B have any effect on C? The creation, and continued existence, of Israel is only one item on a long list of Islamic grievances. Egypt remembers Napoleon and the venal British occupation. Syria remembers its dismemberment by the League of Nations. Iran remembers the British manipulation of its oil revenues, the overthrow of Mossadegh, and U. S. support for the Shah. Afghanistan remembers the nineteenth century "Afghan Wars" and Pakistan remembers Partition. Osama bin Laden's grievances go well beyond the existence of the State of Israel and include the expulsion of the Moors from Spain under Ferdinand and Isabella in the 1400s and The Crusades four hundred years earlier. A solution to the Palestinian Problem will not end militant incursions into "Indian Occupied" Kashmir, bombing in Mumbai or in Bali, unrest among the Uighurs, or the standoff in Darfur (C).
So if punishing settlement-building (A) won't end Palestinian intransigence (B), and ending B won't end Islamic anger (C), how does this get us to the final objectives of ending the snarl of conflicts between the Tigris and the Indus (D), or of successfully working with the Taliban in North Waziristan or Afghanistan? It doesn't. Achieving D will require thoughtful, astute, patient efforts by many players inside and outside the region over a long period of time.
Still, solving any part of this conundrum is a good thing. Is punishing A to get at least B worth a try? Might stopping settlements in Jerusalem, with luck, at least get us to Palestinian statehood and an end to the Palestinian Problem?
We're not sure. The study of systems sciences suggests that changing one part of a complex system can have unanticipated effects. Let's assume that we do publicly rebuke and punish the Israelis, and look at two possible outcomes:
Mr. Obama is our president, and we wish him well. We live in a dangerous world, and anything he can do to make it safer for us, for the Middle East, for our armed forces, and for everyone else, would be a good thing. Mr. Obama has made great strides over his predecessor and is attempting to solve the problems of the Middle East systemically and systematically, not merely one piece at a time. However, he has not yet mastered the matrix of interactions that tie causes to diverse effects in this complex system. We simply wish that the Harvard Law School curriculum included more courses in logic and military history.
But what, then, should President Obama do?
Eric Clemons is Professor at Wharton and an expert in modeling the behavior of complex and unpredictable system. Elizabeth T. Gray, Jr. is an expert on complex negotiations and a translator of Persian texts.