Biden Must Navigate Between Complexity and Chaos in the Middle East
Biden Must Navigate Between Complexity and Chaos in the Middle East
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By Ariel I. Ahram
The Biden administration confronts a Middle East where chaos reigns, both in popular imagination and in policy discussions. President Trump repeatedly described the Middle East as suffering “absolute chaos.” The UAE Foreign Minister opined that “perpetual resistance and sectarian extremism have delivered a deadly and decades long pandemic of chaos and strife. In the Emirates, we are trying to set a different example.” But chaos is never constant, nor always what it seems. As I discuss in my new book, War and Conflict in the Middle East and North Africa, the Middle East is experiencing flux and fragmentation, but with discernible and emergent patterns. Leaders instinctively respond to chaos by trying to impose order unilaterally and forcefully. This may work in the short-term, yet it often forecloses opportunities for long-term innovation and creates unpredictable backlash. The Cynefin framework, adapted from systems engineering to statecraft, explains how to stop reacting to chaos and start managing complexity in the Middle East. Focusing on enabling constraints can help the US better deploy resources in ways that help to navigate regional volatility and build more sustainable connections and alliances within the region.
Chaos and Complexity in the Middle East
The Cynefin framework, developed by management theorist David Snowden, highlights how different contexts and challenges require different types of leadership and decision making. Cyenfin (pronounced ku-ne-fin) derives from the Welsh word for habitat and loosely translates to the idea of context. Simple contexts are arenas where routine and best practices are most valuable and effective. This is the arena of day-to-day diplomacy, protocols and ritual– how ambassadors and heads of state are seated, how countries serve in different international committees and working groups. Protocols can seem silly or fastidious. But they determine, often literally, who gets a seat at the table when collective decisions are made. In this sense, protocols provide a ballast of stability, expressing basic rules of interaction. Leaders rely on best practices to handle day-to-day, regular task of maintaining relationships.
Higher order statecraft, like treaty negotiation or conflict mediation, cannot be accomplished through protocols alone. In these complicated contexts, best practices are linked to expert assessment, analysis, and judgement. Here again, the US has cultivated specialists who monitor policy briefs and regions to assess potential reactions. They work at country desks and functional bureaus, in policy planning staff and national security councils, as well as in thinktanks, academia, media and business. They strive to uncover information necessary to make sound decisions. These experts are often disparaged for their bureaucratic churning and endless interagency memos. Their ministrations may reveal multiple concurrent challenges and several plausible policies responses. Yet this mode of functioning has enabled the US to cultivate alliances, deter adversaries, and maintain influences in the Middle East. For decades American policy makers and regional experts treated the Middle East as part of a geopolitical chessboard, with Egypt, Algeria, Iraq, Iran, and other states shaded different colors depending on their alignment with larger global powers.
Today, however, the region trends toward a more fractal mode of politics where there are more unknowns than ever before. Regional states share power with a range of armed non-state actors — forces, militias, criminal gangs, and terrorist organizations– across a pockmarked security landscape. Interactions between these actors are fissiparous, sometimes cooperative and sometimes competitive. Actors are repelled and attracted to each other through ideological affinities and ethno-sectarian kinship as well as by calculations of power and interests. Yemen, for instance, faces concurrent civil wars precipitating one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world. Aden and the south are under the nominal control of the internationally recognized government of Yemen (GoY). Yet southern separatists, who had initially backed GoY, have carved out their own state-within-a-state. Al-Qaeda, allied with tribal chieftains, have periodically seized ports and inland cities. In the north, the Houthis are actually the only force approaching a monopoly over force, even though they lack international recognition. Mobilizing marginalized Shi’is, they control Sana’a, with a strong repressive security force and a makeshift governing apparatus. These local conflicts intersect with crosshatching regional and global agendas. GoY enjoys support from Saudi Arabia, which has deployed a massive American-equipped army to help defend it, while Iran backs the Houthis, who are fellow Shi’is. Tehran’s reach has grown dramatically across the region, with Iranian-supported proxies operating in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, as well. Stopping Iran has been a primary Saudi foreign policy objective. Yet in Libya, the Kingdom finds itself on the same side as Iran’s most important patron, Russia, as both Riyadh and Moscow support the renegade Khalifa Haftar and the eastern government in opposition to the internationally-backed government in Tripoli.
The regional chessboard is replaced by a neural network, with multiple nested circuits of power and influence. Small perturbations of minor players, like Hezbollah or the Syrian Kurdish forces, can lead to dramatic shifts and even tilt the entire region into war. But all is not chaos and entropy. Where central states collapse, order has reappeared on a smaller and more devolved scale. When states collapse, villages, cities, and districts are increasingly organizing for their own protection and service provision, some even evolving into their own islands of peace. Paradoxically, statehood retains great moral authority as an organizational mode, even as individual states in the region have proven functional failures. Citizens still want a state to provide security and social welfare. Separatists, holding territory in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen, further confirm this normative attraction as they launch their own endeavours at rebel governance that recreate alternative state institutions. If states did not exist in the Middle East, they would have to be invented. The governing dynamic of regional affairs, then, is the disputes over how to rebuild states.
America’s Rage for Order
The possibilities that terrorists would exploit chaotic, ungoverned spaces to strike the US homeland has preoccupied American policy since September 11, 2001. In his November 2001 United Nations address, President Bush claimed that “We choose lawful change and civil disagreement over coercion, subversion, and chaos.” Invading Afghanistan appeared a necessary response to an unprecedented threat. Confronting chaos, leaders often seek to impose order first. But, as Snowden also points out, repeatedly resorting to this unilateral, command-style leadership even after contexts shift and crises abate is dangerous and counterproductive. Chaos, after all, is transitional. But leaders adept at confronting chaos and crisis may be unable to tack back to handle other kinds of challenges. They become overconfident, attracting sycophants that cut them off from accurate information. After Afghanistan came Iraq, where the US also pointed to the danger of chaos to justify its attack. Intelligence assessments were doctored and dissent stifled, to unquestionably bad results. President Obama was more skeptical of the idea of chaos as compelling specific policy responses. There was increasing recognition, at least in academic circles, that zones of lawlessness did not necessarily become terrorist founts. Yet even he cited the potential of chaos in justifying support for Syrian rebels.
President Trump has further enunciated the impulses of America’s “chaos strategy” in the Middle East. The arguments in Iraq have been repurposed to depict Iran as a “fomenting chaos.” This was the justification for the US withdrawing from the multilateral Iran nuclear agreement (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA). Trump used similar acts of fiat in the assassination of Iranian military commander Qassem Sulaymani and in recognizing Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights and its recognition of Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem.
Combating chaos also takes a toll on US relations with other states, making makes coordination harder. “The whiplash of U.S. policy has left a sense of bewildered chaos” writes the Wall Street Journal diplomatic correspondent. One need not linger on the legacy of the Iraq war. With the more recent abandonment of the JCPOA, the US forsook the support of the European Union and Russia in trying to contain Iran. The US took a harder, but more unilateral line by imposing more draconian sanctions. Even as the Iranian people suffer economic hardship, Tehran shows no signs of quitting Iraq, Syria, Libya, or Yemen, and has become more defiant on the nuclear question. Likewise, the assassination of Iranian General Qassem Sulaymani has not rolled back Iran’s domination of Iraq, but likely cost the US potential allies in Baghdad who saw the action as a violation of Iraqi sovereignty. US-Iraq relations have reach a new low, with the US threatening to close its embassy if the Iraqi government can’t– or won’t– prevent attacks by Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias. Like a boat caught in its own wake, the US is at least partially to blame for its own turbulence.
Working with Enabling Constraints
The Middle East’s presumed chaos is ultimately what the US makes of it. Steven Cook, a senior Middle East fellow at the august Council on Foreign Relations, recently argued that the US must remain committed in the Middle East in order to “prevent a worst-case scenario, in which regional actors take matters into their own hands, sowing more instability, more chaos, and more bloodshed.” On the other hand, Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador and also a CFR fellow, opined that the US has proven sufficiently resilient in the face of regional chaos to begin disengaging from the Middle East.
The Cynefin framework highlights the twin dangers of chaos and the rage to order which chaos often provokes. Whereas the former is resolvable only with bold action, the latter requires careful probing. One of the best ways to manage complexity, according to Cynefin theorists, is through enabling constraints. This relates to broader calls for restraint in US foreign policy. Placing hard deadlines and budget caps on nebulous, blue sky planning can stimulate creative solutions and can provide guiding parameters for making sense and finding ways through complex environments.
Several steps are worth considering. The first is to think of power derived from connectivity, not from sheer coercive mass. As a superpower, the US has often presumed it can blaze its own path, overwhelming opposition and dragging lesser actors along. But in the new networked regional landscape, sheer mass must be coupled with the ability to access multiple nodes simultaneously. It is the US’s immense advantage to occupy central positions in so much of the region’s circuitry of power. This centrality can often substitute for more direct, unilateral military and financial confrontations. Consider the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) network, the primary for inter-bank exchanges. The US has used its position as a financial hub to monitor and disrupt transactions heading to Iran. These measures are less risky and certainly cheaper than interdicting rogue tanker in the the Persian Gulf. Too often, though, the US has squandered its network centrality. Rejecting US’s unilateralism, France, Germany, and several other European states are launching an alternative transaction network immune to US surveillance.
Second, invest in institutions that can handle complicated and complex contexts, not individuals that deal with chaotic ones. A by-product of the US rage for order has been to seek to prop up regional strongmen who seem to share the aversion. Much of this is built on personal affinities, such as the bromance between Trump and leaders like Mohammed Bin Salman of Saudi Arabia. Joe Biden is also has a penchant for personalist touch, including learning the names of the grandchildren of KDP President Masoud Barzani. Personal connections are no doubt important to diplomacy, but they are also ephemeral. Dictators often have feet of clay; their downfall precipitates exactly the chaos they meant to forstall. The flip side of this personal fixation is blaming individual boogeymen, like Sulaymani, Osama Bin Laden, and Abu Bakr Baghdadi, for thwarting efforts to return to order. Decapitation strikes are most effective when there is a complementary effort to confront their deeper institutional and organization bases. Some American analysts begrudgingly admired Sulaymani as a charismatic super villain who built militia in Syria and Iraq out of force of personality and some well-placed bribes. Such analysis, through, forget that Sulaymani was an officer of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a military institutions whose cadres spent decades cultivating institutional partners among militants groups in Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen.
Instead of trying to find an American version of Sulaymani, the US can compete by building up institutional alternatives to Iran. The full faith and credit of the US treasury in the dollar is far more compelling than any rial or dinar, giving the US the immediate ability to broker deals and incentivize compliance. Institutional currency is not just monetary, though. Although many in the Middle East dislike US leaders and policies, there remains significant appreciation for American culture, arts, technology, and political institutions. Cultural and educational exchange, measures which the previous administration disparaged and hamstrung with its visa policies, are ways to maintain and grow the power of persuasion. These institutional responses are not as nimble as personalistic ties, but they can provide more robust and sustainable framework for making connections between disparate nodes in the Middle East network.
Dealing with complexity requires patient probing and receptiveness to new ideas. Talk is cheap. But its very affordability makes talking the ideal way to signal preference, reduce uncertainty, and build connectivity. Dialogs can be open or secret, bilateral or multilateral, semi-official or purely cultural. Talking itself does not preclude antagonism, as exemplified by the long-standing US-Taliban negotiations hosted in Qatar. Unlike the all-in commitment that occurs when confronting chaos, complexity is made most pliable through collaboration. Managing complexity rarely yields the kind of transformative victory promised by “shock and awe” or “deals of the century.” The Middle East will remain, to some extent, unpredictable. Adjusting to complexity, though, offers ways for the US to leveraging its discrete strengths and skills in order find an alternative to chaos.