Iraq’s Future

Neither Pessimism nor Optimism

On the eve of battle between a small, ill-equipped and unmotivated army and the greatest power on earth, most observers agree that the military outcome is a forgone conclusion. Naturally, the civilian population, especially in Baghdad, are concerned with immediate questions of safety. They are promised some 400 cruise missiles a day augmented by an assortment of bombs, traditional and experimental. All indications suggest that most of the fighting will be concentrated on the capital.

However, beyond these immediate concerns, Iraqis are also pondering their future under the new regime promised by the USA, whenever it becomes a reality and whatever it might ultimately prove to be. Speculation over this topic is a recurring theme in the comments and questions I have received in the last few weeks. My response is somewhat disappointing for those seeking reassurance and certainty. For this reason, I decided to present my views in writing to explain the cause of this uncertainty. Put simply, both pessimism and optimism are inappropriate. Present events, as argued below, might loom large but they have to be placed in some context. They are important, but equally they are not the end of the story. As always, life goes on.

Iraq is a Complex Adaptive System

I hope the reader will forgive me for using what might appear to be technical jargon, but this is unavoidable for the present purpose. It is traditionally taken for granted that nations behave and evolve in an orderly manner and in accordance with well-understood laws that offer universal applicability. Within that frame of reference, it is presumed that given causes lead to known effects. These assumptions provide the bedrock for present-day policies in the national and international arenas. Saddam Hussein, George W Bush, and Tony Blair (like most other leaders) are at one on that single fundamental issue. They see the affairs of humankind as a collection of Newtonian systems that operate, clockwork fashion, in a predictable manner that could be managed through  command-and-control from the top.

Evidence has emerged in recent years, however, to suggest that societies do not behave in this orderly way. Scholars now argue that nations are Complex Adaptive Systems that evolve over time along diverse paths that could not be determined in advance. Such systems are referred to as being ‘Complex’ because they have a very large number of internal elements (people in the case of nations) that interact in a chaotic manner at the local level to produce system-wide order. In the field of economics, this feature of local chaotic interactions leading to overall self-organisation, or ‘equilibrium’, was referred to by Adam Smith as the invisible hand of the market. Adam Smith’s remarks, made in the eighteenth century, came from observation and intuition rather than from knowledge of Complex Systems. Nowadays we know enough about this topic for us to draw other reliable conclusions on the way nations evolve.

Basically, there is a fundamental difference between orderly and predictable systems that respond well to command-and-control, as seen on an industrial assembly line, and those that present a mix of local chaos and global order that makes prediction and control less tenable.

What Does All This Mean for the Future of Iraq?

Nations, as Complex Adaptive Systems, develop and evolve over long periods of time. The process has no beginning or end. The short-term, and the events that crop up every now and then, are important but not very significant. (Readers wishing to learn more about this are invited to read my book on the subject,. but that is not necessary to follow the arguments put forward in this article.)

What do I mean by ‘important but not very significant’? In the evolution of nations the past casts a long shadow over the present. At any point in time, a nation arrives at a set of conditions produced by the accumulation of, and interactions between, a vast number of events and internal and external influences that go back decades, and often centuries. The effects of individual past events (that might seem quite cataclysmic at the time) is less critical because the process is dynamic and long-winded, and hence uncertain.

A game of chess helps to illustrate the way dynamic systems behave. There are only a few pieces on a chess board and they can only be moved in accordance with a few simple rules. However, it is virtually impossible to predict the outcome of a game by simply observing the initial moves. Each move is important but not significant in determining the final result. The pattern on the chess board at any stage is of course determined by the combination of all the moves made up to that point. Powerful computers are now required to play against chess grand masters, and the outcome is not always certain. This ‘complexity’ explains why chess has enjoyed popularity for many centuries.

Nations, and economies, are comprised of vast numbers of interacting ‘pieces’ (human beings). Their ‘complexity’ is infinitely higher than a simple game of chess. And yet, so-called experts and leaders continue to delude themselves and others by claiming that they could foresee the future. This is the ultimate folly that lies behind actions undertaken by the likes of Bush, Blair and Hussein. The present state of any nation, and hence its future, is coloured by the accumulation of many events over a long period of time. Depth, in the parlance of Complex Systems, is highly significant in the evolution of nations. In other words, it is foolish to attempt to predict a nation’s future by looking at one or a few events over a short period no matter how important they might seem to be at the time.

The Long-term Future Is Uncertain

The course of the forthcoming war is reasonably (but not totally) predictable. Massive resources could be thrown at a Complex Adaptive System, Iraq in the present case, to make certain that desired ends are obtained in the short-term. But that is the sum total of what could be achieved. The process is unsustainable and, therefore, unstable in the longer-term: inevitably the resources at hand will shrink to viable levels. From that point onwards conditions in Iraq could follow a number of unpredictable paths.

Fears have been expressed about conflict between the different factions in post-war Iraq. Factions exist in almost all societies. There is no God-given law that decrees they should get at each other’s throat at every opportunity. On the other hand, they might well do just that. And these two contrasting possibilities could emerge even if it is rashly assumed that external forces did not intervene to seek to sway the matter one way or the other.

The same could be said of ‘democracy’. There is nothing in the character of Iraq, or any other nation for that matter, that predetermines its attitude to democracy and human rights. Will Iraq turn to democracy after the war? Who knows? Rightly, there will be numerous calls for democratic reforms. Nations could not make progress on the human and economic development fronts in the absence of such reforms; a simple lesson that most Arab countries seem to be reluctant to learn. Why? Because there are numerous influences, and interest groups, whose views do not coincide on this score. The end result is a compromise at best. And yet again, this analysis does not take into account external parties who might have set views on the virtues and threats that come with the dawn of democracy in Iraq.

Events in Perspective

Does this mean that Saddam Hussein, the Iran-Iraq war, the Gulf war, and the punishing war that Iraqis are expected to endure over the next few weeks are meaningless and unimportant? Far from it: these events are important and will have some bearing on the future of Iraq. However, the effects are limited and they should be seen in the context of what has happened in that country during the last few centuries. The impact is cumulative. Moreover, the future depends on unknown circumstances that would influence the path followed by Iraq.

Similar problems to those that beset Iraq at present have been seen in the past in that country, to a lesser and also to a greater extent. Equally, other nations have experienced similar trials and tribulations, interspersed with good times as well. A look at the history of Britain, with its civil wars and conflicts, that included two world wars in the twentieth century alone, would readily illustrate the process that nations go through in the course of their evolution. The tumultuous upheavals that Britons enjoyed and endured in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (Industrial Revolution, civil wars, end of feudalism, etc.) led, in some vague way, to the emergence of the the British Empire. And the two world wars from which Britain came out as the victor coincided with the loss of its empire and set that country on a radically different path. The process of transformation, however, was a long time coming. It was caused by numerous factors, and not simply the debilitating world wars.

Clearly, the war on Iraq will be a horrendous calamity for ordinary Iraqis. There will be numerous casualties. What happens next is totally unpredictable; including an enlightened and reasonably independent government, colonial rule by the US and its allies, or disintegration into feuding factions. The actual outcome would not be discernible quickly. Things may seem to go America’s way initially but it would be foolish to rely on that as a precursor for the future. History tells us that welcome liberators turn rapidly into resented occupiers as far as the local populations are concerned. Basically, the might of America and its allies is not sufficient to ensure that one or another outcome would prevail for long.

Nonetheless, whatever happens next will be added to what transpired in Iraq’s past to shape the long-term future. This is no consolation to today’s Iraqis who will suffer much in the next few months, and possibly years. Equally, the difficulties being experienced now are necessary for the development of Iraq, whatever that development might prove to be. Nations evolve through good experiences and bad. There is no other way. One thing is absolutely certain: democracy, peace, progress, or whatever could not be imported, or imposed, from abroad.

Do We Give Up Then?

Not at all. Nations are ultimately responsible for their own future. In this context, the population of Iraq are not helpless bystanders in the process of Iraq’s evolution. There could not be a process of development unless most of the population are engaged in the project. That is one definite (scientific if you wish) conclusion that emerges from treating nations as Complex Adaptive Systems as opposed to mere mechanistic entities.

A fundamental point that would set Iraq on a more effective course would be for the leadership, whoever they might prove to be, to ensure that ordinary people are empowered to deal with their own affairs. To state this in more explicit terms, the time has come for Iraqis at all levels to accept that the era of the ‘sole leader’, the ‘inspired father of the nation’, the ‘wise guardian of the people’, etc. should be consigned to history. This is not as easy as it might seem. Listeners to Arabic radio and television stations are bombarded with such sycophantic expressions day in and day out. It is expected, mostly demanded, by those in power! If there were a regime change in Iraq the new people in government might insist on continuing this self-deluding, and very harmful, tradition.

What else? Those in charge of Iraq’s affairs after the war will have to take a conscious decision to treat the country as a system that evolves over long periods of time; mostly in uncertain ways. However, the driving forces behind that process are the chaotic interactions that must take place freely between people, as individuals and groups. The task for the government is to make certain that the bruised and tired population is turned into free people capable of interacting effectively in all walks of life. This task has to be put at the top of the agenda. Little can be achieved before this step is taken.

How should such a task be undertaken? There is no magic here: as always basic services (health, education, etc.) must be treated as the immediate priorities. That is obvious. What is less obvious is that this should not be seen as a series of major projects; a tempting prospect for companies seeking quick profits. Much could be, and should be, done at a smaller, more local scale. To be specific, the main urban areas should not absorb the lion’s share of resources.

The emphasis on small scale would begin the process of bringing ordinary people into the frame. People have to shoulder their responsibility in rebuilding their shattered communities. If this is seen as socialism (which it is not), then so be it. This is what is presently needed; a pragmatic mix of liberal market economics and local collaborative initiatives.

And finally, whoever is in charge, respect for human and property rights must be embedded into post-war Iraq. A tall order considering Iraq’s history over the last forty years, but nothing is impossible when there is will and determination to try a different path.

PS. This is a postscript added on 20 March 2003, a few hours after the start of military operations against Iraq.

First, it would seem that even the limited bombardment left some civilian casualties in the Dora district of Baghdad. The target was an oil refinery. As feared, so-called smart bombs do not come with guarantees.

Second, even at this very early hour in the invasion of Iraq unexpected developments are emerging. In a programme broadcast on Saudi radio (The Family and Society, 09:00GMT), speakers such as Dr Nora who is a professor at a Saudi university came forward to express what can only be described as strident criticisms of the war, its aims, and its consequences for the region. Interestingly, the contributors openly questioned the current close ties with the USA and likened Bush to Hitler. The remarks made were unprecedented and were not simply presented for public consumption. The need for a radical change in direction on the part of the Saudi government and society was stressed repeatedly. For the first time in living memory, the speakers mentioned hefty bribes made by the Bush administration to leaders of various (including Islamic!) countries in the quest for international support. As outlined in the above article, whether the war is right or wrong, the consequences could take many forms; not all of which would be to the liking of the US elite.