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Elizabeth T. Gray, Jr. Headshot

Obama and the Middle East: Complex Systems, Poorly Planned Interventions, and The Law of Unintended Consequences

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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:

  1. What if the Israeli Government felt truly abandoned by the United States and no longer felt that it could count on its protection? What if therefore it felt that American public opinion was no longer a restraint on Israeli policy? What actions might the IDF take as a result, especially if it felt its position would only weaken over time, or if it felt truly threatened by the possibility of an Iranian nuclear bomb, and did not feel it could count on American support?
  2. What if the Palestinians felt that the Israeli Government no longer had the firm support of the United States? What if they felt that Israel would consequently become weaker and weaker over time? Why would the Palestinians become more flexible as a result? Wouldn't it be rational for them to become more intransigent, realizing that time and demographics were both on their side? Why would the situation become calmer while the Palestinians waited, and what might Fatah or Hamas, or Iranian proxies like Hezbollah, decide to do?

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?

  1. Avoid proposing simple solutions to complex problems. Look for causal linkages, not just proximity. Stopping movie downloads won't stop the rain, and stopping the construction of new settlements won't end centuries of misunderstanding and grievances.
  2. Work with these linkages and with the situation as it is, not as he would want it to be. For example, if the Palestinians think they can get all of Palestine just by waiting, President Obama needs to create a better option, either by making it clear that they cannot just wait, or by offering them something they cannot get just by waiting.
  3. Understand the complexity of the problem as it is. Making a problem undiscussable does not make the problem go away. President Obama seems to believe that use of phrases like "radical Islam" suggests Americans view Islamic states as terrorists and that the phrase should be banished; actually, this phrase suggests that the United States does make important distinctions between violent terrorists and others who disagree with us strongly but express this through different means. But denying the existence of radicals does not make them or their grievances go away. As long as the Islamic world feels it has real grievances, then palliatives, as expensive as they may be for the Israelis, are not a real solution. And as long as there are Islamic radicals there will be threats to the West, some of them quite severe. While some of these grievances and the problems they create may require real concessions from the West, others may require a truly forceful, even violent military response instead.
  4. Above all, President Obama should do no harm. Although this is a Medical School takeaway, not a law school one, it is worth mentioning in conclusion. The law of unintended consequences suggests that any time anyone adjusts a complex system, the results may be surprising. In this instance, we suspect that President Obama and the rest of the world would find the results of this stare-down with Israel disappointing as well.


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.