Michael Totten

Catastrophe Theory and War

Those who claim the invasion and election in Iraq didn’t cause the upheaval in Lebanon are absolutely correct. One did not cause the other. Those of us who have been advocating the destabilization of tyrannical order in the Middle East mustn’t mistake cause for correlation.
When you press your foot on a car’s accelerator you cause the car to speed up. The proof is that it’s predictable. If the car is in good working order, if the engine is running and it’s in gear, you know well in advance that pressing the accelerator will make it move forward — or backward if it’s in reverse. You can conduct this experiment over and over again and always get the same predictable result as long as the car is working correctly and has gas in the tank.
No one was able to predict the Arab street revolution in Beirut at the time of the invasion or the election in Iraq. The events are related, but their relationship is not a cause-and-effect one.
It’s more nuanced and slippery and unpredictable than that. The fact that some upheaval would erupt somewhere in the Middle East was predicted by lots of people. This wasn’t like predicting “it is going to be warm somewhere in the world at some point in the future.” Any idiot can do that. Rather, it was like predicting a general warming trend in the face of skepticism. There hasn’t been any successful new revolutionary turmoil in the Middle East since the 1970s, and that was in Iran. The Arab Middle East has been revolution-free for longer than that. Yet all of a sudden — bang – right after the Iraqi election, almost on schedule, revolutionary street-level fury toppled a government.
Fellow blogger TmjUtah succinctly summed up the indirect connection between these events in my comments section.

The weapon that will kill the mentality that has generated transnational terrorists/jihadis is not one that we can use. We can carve out a bloody breathing space, but the final act of victory will not be by our hand. I have never doubted this. The ultimate weapon is hope. In the end, victory will be bought ONLY with the sacrifices and efforts of the people who live in those countries.

I’m not saying we don’t deserve some of the credit. We do. The demolition of Saddam Hussein’s Baath regime and the free election that followed sent a powerful shock wave through the region that changed the emotions, the politics, and the psychology of its people. But we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking we control the chaos that we have unleashed. (Remember that the Sunni Baathist insurgency is also something that wasn’t caused, but was made possible, by our actions.)
In the Washington Post David Ignatius explains the dynamic.

There’s an obscure branch of mathematics known as “catastrophe theory,” which looks at how a small perturbation in a previously stable system can suddenly produce dramatic change. A classic example of the theory is the way a bridge, after bearing immense weight for many years, can suddenly collapse because of a new stress.

We are now watching a glorious catastrophe take place in the Middle East. The old system that had looked so stable is ripping apart, with each beam pulling another down as it falls. The sudden stress that produced the catastrophe was the American invasion of Iraq two years ago. But this Arab power structure has been rotting at the joints for a generation. The real force that’s bringing it down is public anger.

Glenn Reynolds made a different but related point three years ago in Tech Central Station.

This illustrates, in a mild way, the reason why totalitarian regimes collapse so suddenly…Such regimes have little legitimacy, but they spend a lot of effort making sure that citizens don’t realize the extent to which their fellow-citizens dislike the regime. If the secret police and the censors are doing their job, 99% of the populace can hate the regime and be ready to revolt against it – but no revolt will occur because no one realizes that everyone else feels the same way.
This works until something breaks the spell, and the discontented realize that their feelings are widely shared, at which point the collapse of the regime may seem very sudden to outside observers – or even to the citizens themselves. Claims after the fact that many people who seemed like loyal apparatchiks really loathed the regime are often self-serving, of course. But they’re also often true: Even if one loathes the regime, few people have the force of will to stage one-man revolutions, and when preferences are sufficiently falsified, each dissident may feel that he or she is the only one, or at least part of a minority too small to make any difference.
One interesting question is whether a lot of the hardline Arab states are like this. Places like Iraq, Syria, or Saudi Arabia spend a lot of time telling their citizens that everyone feels a particular way, and punishing those who dare to differ, which has the effect of encouraging people to falsify their preferences. But who knows? Given the right trigger, those brittle authoritarian regimes might collapse overnight, with most of the population swearing – with all apparent sincerity – that it had never supported them, or their anti-Western policies, at all.

A blogger who calls herself Neo-neocon is a professional therapist who addresses this phenomenon from yet another angle.

If you happen to have read my earlier post on intrapersonal change and how it occurs, I want to add that this knowledge about the desire for liberty has comes to us through images that affect us on both the cognitive and the emotional level, through observation. We view the photos and are moved; at the same time, we are processing them cognitively for what they mean, and we (even the NY Times) are changed as a result.

I believe that one of the reasons this “purple finger revolution” has been able to move with such rapidity is that the worldwide media are able to spread those images quickly and effectively to people who in years past would never have had access to them. These people see those images, do the same sort of processing, and come to their own changed conclusions: it’s possible; we can do this, too. And, for those people who actually participate in the demonstrations or the elections, and directly experience their own newfound power, further personal change occurs not just through observation but through action. The whole thing is a feedback loop in which the observations and the attendent feelings and cognitions lead to action, and that action leads to other feelings and cognitions, which can in turn lead to changed beliefs and even further action.

Interesting times ahead. Fasten your seat belts.