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A Few Thoughts on Simplicity, Power, and Complexity

A guiding assumption of strategic writing since the late Cold War era is that strategy is getting more complex. Enough ink has been spilled on the debate over whether today’s world is more or less complex that I can hardly add anything new to the discussion. But it may be that complexity requires greater simplicity.
      First, models by necessity are only really as good when taken with full knowledge of their limitations. M.L.R. Smith pointed this out a while ago:

“It is sometimes said that strategic theorists assume rationality on the part of those whom they study because they cannot assume anything else. To pass judgment on whether anyone is rational or irrational in political life is to assume that one exists in Olympian detachment with a unique insight into what constitutes supreme powers of reasoning (a self-evidently delusional position). The assumption of rationality, however, does not suppose that the actor is functioning with perfect efficiency or that all rational decisions are right ones, merely that an actor’s decisions are made after careful cost–benefit calculation and the means chosen seem optimal to accomplish the desired end.”

      Now contrast this with Douglas Ollivant’s new paper, which argues that the Iraqi Sunnis made a rational decision to align their community with the United States after massive attrition at the hands of Iraqi Shiite and Iranian-backed forces during the height of the “civil war” phase of the Iraq war. Or, for that matter, this quote from William F. Owen’s paper about counterinsurgency:

“The population is not the prize. The population are the spectators to armed conflict. The prize is the control the government gains when the enemy is dead and gone. Control only exists when it is being applied, and it exists via the rule of law. The population will obey whoever exercises the power of law over them. Power creates support. Support does not create power. This is the source of great confusion.”

      Here, simplicity is not being used to advance simplistic ideas–Ollivant and Owen are both drawing from rather complicated academic and experiential sources for their insights. Rather, it is that simplicity serves as an ordering principle for drawing coherent conclusions about complex social forces. We assume, in the case of both, that counterinsurgency is not so different from other forms of war and politics. The basic principle that politics equals “power over peoples” applies, and we observe that actors often alter their perceptions and goals based on informal assessments of relative power. Again, doing so does not erase the immense complexity inherent in political life and its armed sub-branch. But it does provide a useful way of approaching it.
      Simplicity brings out the most important element of politics: the “ghost in the machine” represented by the crucial importance of both internal and external forms of power in political life. Such a “ghost” is by definition hidden–sometimes purposefully. But I suspect most of the time it is because we sometimes mislead ourselves into thinking we’ve gotten to a more enlightened place where such coarse considerations are a thing of the past. The ghost occasionally rattles its chains and we catch a brief glimpse, only to discount it as an illusion or nightmare.
      Extraneous complexity can sometimes obscure our understanding of security policy problems. Mike Few had an interesting perspective based on his own experiences in Iraq a little while ago:

“We acknowledged that they were thinking, rational men acting over perceived grievances generated from either ideology or emotion. Unfortunately, we still had to fight it out for a bit until we exhausted the enemy, but we did not coddle, preach, or attempt to win their hearts, minds, or soul even when we disagreed with them. …I’m wondering if we really respect our enemy, or do we feel that he is just a confused, illiterate soul waiting to have his heart, mind, and soul converted by modernity?… He is not a victim of circumstance. He made a choice.”

       I’ve seen a lot of complex explanations about the role of root causes and structural inequalities for the actions of terrorists and criminals. But perhaps the simplest explanation is that they made a choice–for ideology, power, or whatever–that they were going to transgress what we understand as basic societal rules of conduct, and that they arrogated to themselves the unique right to do so. To add to my colleague Alex Olesker’s thoughts, there are plenty of disadvantaged people who are not killing each other over gang turf. Likewise, not every student radical upset over the Vietnam War or racial inequality chose to rob banks and strike poses with automatic weapons. This doesn’t mean that force and coercion will always be the answer to dealing with adversaries–whether small-time criminals and student revolutionaries or nuclear-armed states on the other end of the spectrum. But neither is development, aid money, or appeasement. Even on a good day both might fail, since the efficacy of any method of changing someone’s behavior is situation-dependent. We’ve learned from our dealings with Pakistan’s deep state and its Taliban proxies that neither impotent threats nor enlightened inducement will change the basic strategic choice they have made because our current policy objectives place a high premium on Pakistani cooperation.
       In closing, if our world is indeed getting more complex–and I’ve seen many convincing arguments for either side–we will need simple explanations and models even more–as long as we recognize their faults and limitations.