It is amazing that no one has discussed the events of North Africa and Middle East in terms of Chaos Theory.
It is sad that linearity (the direct, invariant linking of cause and effect) has become so central to the punditry and national policymakers that nonlinearity (the tangential linking of cause and effect) is totally unrecognized!
The political pundits who preach in the news media and draw straight, parallel lines between disparate events (separate by decades, ethnicities, religious diversities, cultural chasms, etc.) are indeed lost in their infatuation with linearity. They fail to recognize that human societies are by definition highly nonlinear and rarely follow the same path (unlike our politicians who are permanently stuck in a repeating loop, something akin to the proverbial broken record!)
To analyze events it may be worthwhile to take a lesson from the military. They developed the OODA Loop (an acronym for Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) – a feed back loop to improve combat operations. This paradigm is also a great tool for analyzing political upheavals (another “combat” operation). Specifically, “Orient” -the second criterion (a visualization of interlinking the nonlinear parameters of cultural traditions, ethnic heritage, new information, experience as well as “Analysis and Synthesis”) – accentuates the importance of minute local conditions on the potential outcome of events. The OODA really is a good parallel with the “Butterfly Effect (Lorenz attractor)”, an integral part of Chaos Theory. This was originally designed to describe the weather; but, after all, combat operations and the weather have a great deal in common; the long term consequences are totally unpredictable!)
The butterfly effect phenomena dictates that a very small variation of input conditions of a nonlinear, interlinked system (described by differential equations) can, over time, cause highly random outputs. A simple conceptual example would be – paraphrasing James Gleick in Chaos Theory- that a butterfly stirring the air today in Peking could transform storm systems the following month in New York. In short minor perturbations in feedback systems can cause strange results. And, human societies, when disturbed, are naturally “unstable feedback loops” and they do produce some really strange results. (Unfortunately pundits and policymakers are totally ignorant of the OODA loop and only consider the last concept, the “Act” part, since it makes them look good on TV.)
So, a police officer in an unknown village in Tunisia (Sidi Bouzid is a village so inconsequential that presumably three quarters Tunisians had never heard its name) slaps a fruit seller. Bear in mind that, for police forces of the Middle East, this is not even a reportable incident; it occurs routinely every hour, if not every minute, everywhere. It is expected action by the vendor and is the natural reaction of any officer. But, this time, it constituted the very small local change of “orient” parameter of the OODA loop, setting up a random but highly linked chain of events.
This event -the slap- went locally viral. It led to chaos and the collapse of a functional, 23-year-old dictatorship that was fully supported by every European and American democracy as well as most other governments.
And the pundits went wild! Unable to see the butterfly, they jumped to 1977 and Tunisia became the new Iran! After all look at the linearity, there was a pro-western dictator in Tunisia with a secular agenda virtually identical to a pro-western dictator in Iran with a secular agenda, etc., etc. (The fact that the entire population of Tunisia could fit into the capital of Iran and have room left over for another 4 million people or that some 30 years had past did not deter them from drawing their predetermined conclusions.)
However, in spite of the pundits’ pronouncements or because of them, the slap’s effect was compounded and became a contagion, crossing borders, and traveling miles. It became equivalent to the shoe an Iraqi reporter threw at President Bush that caused a rash of world-wide shoe throwings (even in the United States).
The slapping and the resulting self-immolation of the village fruit vendor caused every Middle Eastern society to become acutely aware of their inherent inequalities. They began to question the very foundations of the entire feudal empire that the West had imposed on them. (Bear in mind that virtually all Middle Eastern borders are drawn by the Europeans and have very little to do with local populations.)
So suddenly a butterfly flapping its wings in the form Mohammad Bou Aziz of the village of Sidi Bouzid caused the stable lynchpin of Western Policy in the region, Egypt, to go up in a chaotic storm and the Pharaoh of the time, Mr. Mubarak, to abandon his bed, causing consternation in every capital from Riyadh to Washington DC and the collapse of a regional policy.
And, as usual, the pundits immediately drew new linear cause-and-effect lines between Egypt and Iran; i.e., a pro-western dictator in Egypt with a secular agenda similar to a pro-western dictator in Iran with a secular agenda, etc., etc. They chose to ignore the fact that, even in Iran today, you could not replicate that event, let alone in Egypt!
The pundits ignored the fundamental structural problems of a western-imposed geopolitical paradigm on the Middle East and jumped straight to Iran of thirty years ago. Perhaps the pundits and the policymakers should have checked the current writing on the wall. They would have known that imposed and socially unacceptable structures and policies are inherently destabilizing. They would have realized that the endurance of Egyptians and other struggling regional populations under the obvious economic burdens, abuses and unpopular domestic and foreign policies could not go on forever.
But that would be expecting too much from these “acting jocks”. Perhaps if one of them had stepped unescorted on to a public plaza in Egypt, Tunisia or any other part of the Middle East to buy fruit from a vendor, they might have developed some insight to the pressing issues of those societies and would not have been shocked by the turn of events. Unfortunately neither pundits nor policymakers care for direct human contact; their game is the afternoon Martini and whatever they choose to smoke before pontificating on current events and collecting their rather substantial, undeserved salaries.
So while everyone can blame the poor intelligence analysts for not forewarning the “powers to be”, i.e., the net work pundits and/or policy makers; the real question remains: Do the “powers to be” want to be forewarned? Is it part of their agenda or their life style? Furthermore, even if forewarned, would they have understood the warning?
Chances are they don’t have time for details and they would have ignored the warnings unless, such as now, it hits them in the head with a two by four. Non linearity is quite an intellectual jump for these very small minds!
Besides, the “powers to be” pride themselves on seeing the big picture, a worldview based on moving nations, armies and economies; big linear events with direct cause-and-effect. They tend to ignore minute changes in initial conditions, the day-to-day events that constitute peoples’ lives. When moving nations around the chess board it is easy to ignore the initial conditions of nonlinear systems, the very perturbation that can lead to cataclysmic, unexpected and unimaginable results!
Let us not forget the ditty that due to the loss of a nail, a horseshoe and eventually a kingdom was lost. Perhaps checking on the nails in the horse’s shoe, from time to time, is not a bad idea.
But that would be really expecting too much!