Sharp Blue: Simple “solutions”, complex failures


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In physics it’s often that case that if you find the right way to view a difficult problem then its solution becomes almost obvious. When I started writing this weblog, one of my intentions was to try to share with non-physicists some of these ways of viewing physical theories. The weblog’s subtitle - “making the complex simple” - and its title are both references to this intention[1]. However, as Einstein said, things should be made as simple as possible but no simpler. This is especially true of the political realm, where there’s a widespread, deplorable and dangerous tendency towards vastly oversimplifying problems and applying unsubtle “solutions” which make the situation worse and increase human suffering. The debate about the best way to deal with the problem of international terrorism - as well as the actions actually taken to do so - is full of such oversimplifications. For example, after I recently criticised the absurd view that Allied forces are in Iraq to fight against an international terrorist network controlled by Iran, someone commented:

Are you all claiming there is NOT a world wide terrorist network, or that we are just going after the wrong people?

The idea that there’s a single world-wide terrorist network is clearly a gross misunderstanding of the situation. In fact there are a number of terrorist organisations, some of which have links to others and some of which receive various kinds of support from one or more states. The specifically Islamist terrorist organisations clearly divide into one class which are Sunni and another class which is Shia. These two classes of organisations are generally hostile towards each other even though they have a number of enemies (foremost amongst them the United States and Israel) in common. Some, but not all, of the latter groups receive backing from Iran.

Out of all of these various terrorist groups, it’s my belief that we should primarily be targetting the ones affiliated with al-Qaeda, which is a network of Sunni terrorist organisations. (This is not to say that Iranian-backed terrorist organisations such as Hezbollah should not also be considered our enemies, but I think that the defeat of al-Qaeda should be our primary aim.) This is clearly not the reason that Allied forces attacked Iraq, as al-Qaeda and the former [secular, semi-socialist] Iraqi regime were hostile towards each other. Until the invasion, Al-Qaeda was only active on Iraqi soil in the Kurdish regions in the north of the country, which were more or less out of the control of the Baathist regime. Following the invasion, groups affiliated with al-Qaeda have been busy fighting in Iraq against Shia terrorist groups backed by Iran. Regardless of whether the primary enemy is al-Qaeda or the Shia groups, the situation is a total mess and it’s likely to become worse before it gets better.

However, the real problem with Allied strategy is much larger than operational difficulties or confused objectives in Iraq. The Islamic world is a vast and varied place, and its problems are many, deep and very complex. The current American and British governments, however, seem to view it as a homogeneous region with a simple problem - lack of democracy - that can be solved using a simple means - the application of military force to overthrow governments. This doesn’t seem to me to be a particularly sensible approach, no matter how much its supports claim that they are “morally serious” and any dissenters are not. As I’ve argued previously, terrorism is a symptom of failure and defeat. The core regions of the Islamic world have failed to provide an effective social and economic model that can support a modern industrial society, or to borrow one from elsewhere. It’s this failure, especially when contrasted with the past glories of the Islamic world, that has provided the breeding ground for terrorism, and the obviously successful western states (which during the 19th and 20th century almost casually dismembered and colonised the last of the great Islamic empires) have provided its clearest target.[2] Further military humiliation is unlikely to ameliorate this seething resentment.

Furthermore, even if it could be imposed by force, democracy is not a panacea nor is it something that can be separated from the whole fabric of a society. I don’t doubt that democracy could in principle thrive across the whole Middle East but for it to do so the people there will have to build a whole supporting infrastructure: ubiquitous respect for the rule of law and for individual rights, a much greater degree of freedom of expression, an educated populace, newpapers and television stations representing a plurality of positions (which are free of the taint of propaganda), a citizenry that shares some minimal feeling of fraternity, a sufficiently egalitarian distribution of wealth, and so forth. This will take many, many years to put into place by the cumulative effect of a myriad small steps. Any realistic Allied strategy to help the peoples of the Middle East to achieve this democratisation and modernisation will have to take a very long view (decades to a century) and use the full spectrum of resources available to western states. There will be a place for intelligence work, covert action and military strikes against specifically terrorist targets. But softer power will play the key roles, engaging with, encouraging and supporting the progressive elements within the region. In the end, the western Allies must be the junior partners in the building of a brighter, more hopeful, freer and more peaceful Middle East, a development that will benefit everyone.

Cooking up an exit strategy for the forces deployed to Iraq is an almost trivially simple problem in comparison to these real challenges.

[1] In Iain Banks’ Culture books, citizens of the Culture can secrete a chemical called Sharp Blue that acts as an “abstraction modifier”, making complex problems appear simple.

[2] It’s also the reason that fundamentalist Islam doesn’t even remotely pose an “existential threat” to the West, regardless of the hysterical commentary in the blogosphere and elsewhere. If the Islamic fundamentalists posed an existential threat then we’d currently be worrying about, say, dozens of Islamic armoured divisions flooding across Russia in the direction of Europe or Islamist ballistic missile submarines incinerating the key cities of the western states with a rain of thermonuclear fire.

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