Thursday, October 27, 2005

Modeling Iraq: Mutually-Exclusive Overlap

This week the Iraqi government announced that the constitution passed in the recent referendum. If three or more provinces had more than 2/3 “no” votes then the constitution would fail, but only two provinces—predominantly Sunni—met that mark. Salah-ad Din voted 82% “no” and al-Anbar voted 97% “no.” The most likely third province, Ninewa (Nineveh), failed to meet the 2/3 no requirement, with only 55% of the population voting “no.” In large part, this is due to gerrymandering which included a large Kurdish population within the predominantly Sunni province. In fairness, this gerrymandering was done by Saddam Hussein in an effort to marginalize the Kurds, not by the current Iraqi government or the US administration. Regardless, pressing forward with a constitutional vote using the provincial boundaries engineered by Saddam is a tacit endorsement of their underlying processes—even if it supports an opposite result of marginalizing the Sunni, not guaranteeing their overrepresentation.

While it’s an interesting story, the maneuvering surrounding the referendum also illustrates a fundamental problem in geopolitics: overlapping and mutually-exclusive networks of power. Conceptually, this is a common theme around the world, but it is perhaps most clearly illustrated by the present situation in Iraq. Power structure—like the Ottoman Empire, British Colonial Iraq, or the regime of Saddam Hussein—make a lasting imprint on the geopolitical landscape over time. Then things change, and a new landscape partially overwrites the old. When the British took control of Iraq after the fall of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, they intentionally placed the Sunni minority in power because they could be more easily controlled than the majority Shi’a (see "Exploitation Model" post). If they Sunnis refused to cooperate the British could just leave them at the mercy of the Shi’a—effectively the British leveraged a sizeable local population with local knowledge to do their bidding at zero cost. Over time, deep channels of Sunni power were worn into the landscape—the Sunnis were not willing to return the power and privilege they had become accustom to, and their control of the mechanics of hierarchy within Iraq increased the proportional power of their relatively small population. The result was that after the British left, the Sunni grip on power was sufficiently calcified that the Shi’a majority was not able to take it back. Now the US is using their military power to impose an entirely new geopolitical landscape—one that is ostensibly representative by population, a fundamentally opposite method of power distribution to the one set up by the British in the 1920s. The former system is in no way gone—it’s long presence has etched its pathways of power firmly into the cultural and geopolitical landscape. Therefore the two systems—mutually exclusive because it is not possible to have both Shi’a majority government and Sunni minority rule—are both present, overlapping. The fundamental cause of the Sunni insurgency is this area of overlap. Failure to address this cause of the conflict—as the US is currently failing by addressing only the symptom: insurgent violence—virtually guarantees failure.

There are, of course, other areas of mutually exclusive overlap in Iraq: Saddam’s “Arabization” of oil-rich former Kurdish regions, the border overlap of historically Persian and Arab territories, the overlapping loyalties to ethnicity and religion (Arab Sunni and Shi’a Muslims vs. Kurdish Sunnis and Arab Sunnis), etc. The significant point here is that this concept of mutually exclusive but overlapping networks of power is widespread, perhaps even a fundamental result AND cause of history. It appears that this entire concept is broadly ignored by those who seek to affect history. Is it an intractable force, one that is fundamentally impossible to resolve, or can awareness of it facilitate the resolution by addressing either the “mutually exclusive” nature of demands, or their areas of overlap? US efforts to educate the Japanese in the “ways of democracy” after World War II were an attempt to address the perceived mutual exclusivity of the tendencies of Japanese culture with the US demand that Japan never again imperil their influence. Many resettlement programs—such as some proposed in the former Yugoslavia—are intended not to eliminate the mutual-exclusivity of the fundamental demands of diverse ethnic groups, but to resolve their areas of overlap. Critically, neither of these programs derived a proposed solution after consciously framing the problem in terms of mutually exclusive and overlapping demands. By framing the “Iraq Problem” in such terms, can we arrive at a realistic solution, or does it support the intractable nature of such problems? Specifically: while we CAN effectively work to stop creating instances of mutually-exclusive overlap, but can we do anything to resolve the problems that history has created for us? George Friedman (of suggests that the only solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (a similar case of mutually exclusive overlap) is to ignore it until time softens the sharp contours of the overlapping geopolitical landscape. Essentially, Friedman suggests that the same process that leads to the calcification of networks of power over time also erodes them—witness the gradual softening of the conflicts between the Scots and the English. It only took 300 years—perhaps not a realistic suggestion for a solution to the conflict in Iraq.

Since the course of history through time creates conflict through mutually-exclusive overlap, the first step must be to stop building new sources of conflict—a lesson that would serve the current administration well in its “Global War on Terrorism.” At a minimum, proceeding with a conscious awareness of this model will facilitate a decision making process that accounts for this source of conflict.

Is it possible to proactively soften already established cases of mutually-exclusive overlap—to greatly accelerate the healing powers of time? That is a much more difficult question—and one which I do not have an answer to. The problem seems deeply rooted in the dynamics of hierarchal civilization and its effect on human psychology, economic necessity, patterns of growth, etc. Perhaps the solution lies in a reassessment of this fundamental pattern of hierarchy? That is certainly the panacea that I gravitate towards on most issues, but in reality it is quite the Catch-22: Our best hope for a gradual and peaceful transition to a superior form of human organization—one without conflict due to mutually-exclusive overlap—will demand the cooperation of the very groups that are barred from effective cooperation due to the problem of mutually-exclusive overlap.

In a few weeks, Jason Godesky will make an argument that collapse is an economizing process. Perhaps it is also means of systemic conflict resolution—the only one capable of effectively dealing with the problem of mutually-exclusive overlap?


Jason Godesky said...

The aforementioned piece, "Thesis #20: Collapse is an economizing process," is now up.

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