Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Doing Things the Hard Way

Should we promote connectivity at any cost?

Thomas Barnett, a man whose opinion and insight I value greatly, posits that the Middle East's connection to the functional world through oil and natural gas provides a slender strand of connectivity on which to build, but I find this to be an imperfect linkage, destined to break. While I recognize the value of fossil fuel as an impetus to have some manner of connection with the source, I do not see that connecting an oil field to a major consumer requires the consent of the local populace or their participation. A global network must consist of innumerable tiny networks, networks of neighbors, networks based on common need. The connection of the Middle East to the more developed sectors of the world is flawed because there need be no real exchange, especially on the local level , only an extraction.

When dealing with many areas of the economic network there is an impetus to create stability. That impetus is "the long term," but with non-reneweable resources it is less of a factor for the simple fact that there is a forseeable end to the resources themselves, at least in a given form and geographic location. Certainly, the Middle East as a whole may have massive fossil fuel resources, however the long term stability of the entire region is not required to extract them, and it may in fact be less expensive to maintain the stability of a few oil platforms and buy concessions from "big man" type governments than to transform the region as a whole in "the long term."

It is for this reason that I believe that the Middle East will not likely be transformed by the intervention of nations largely interested in its natural resources, but by its more natural route of connectivity, Turkey. While we are clearly not intervening in Iraq for control of its oil reserves, our interest in the region as a whole is based on two things: oil and terrorism, or, more bluntly, greed and fear. I do not suppose to have an over-arching answer to the questions that this raises. I only wish to pose the question: "Should we build along the flawed link, or tear it down to create new, stronger ones? Can we do both at the same time?"

Balancing Act

Of course, networks are balancing acts of internal structuring and external forces, so while Turkey (hopefully as an EU member) provides the external connectivity to the developed world, Iran, I expect, will provide the internal structure to support that connectivity. Personally I do not forsee the obliteration of the Islamist regime in Iran the way many do. Instead I note that economic forces are forcing Iran to flirt with free-trade zones. Turkey's new government of moderate Islamists will provide a unique bridge between the Middle East and Europe as many policy analysts have noted. However, it is worth pointing out that the overthrow of the Ayatollahs is not really relavent to whether or not this bridge is functional. In fact, the functionality of that bridge is something that the West (note I do not say "developed world") should likely observe from a distance. That connectivity will be fostered through Islamists, not through secular capitalists. Being Islamist, after all, does not preclude being capitalist or interested in building a better future.

Our attempt to unilateraly create stability in Iraq is doomed. Our method of repairing the region resembles a man with a mallot striking a broken television in hopes that the picture will clear. This may work on the first or second attempt but after that... well... you know the old saying: "The definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over expecting different results." As the dust settles from Fallujah and we near the promised deadline for elections we shall see if the striking has worked or if it is time for us to change tactics dramatically.

I believe that should we hope to stabilize the Middle East, the link provided by oil is irrelavent at best. Should we wish to bolster it we will take more resources, and energy (read: blood and treasure) than would be necessary to push the solution of a Turkish bridge between Europe and the Middle East. Dr. Barnett is fond of noting that no oil = no impetus. As usual, he's right, but the statement is somewhat misleading. The oil will continue to be the impetus for someone for a long time to come, whether it is China, India, or another nation going through its industrial revolution. To suggest that the West should maintain its dependence on Middle Eastern oil (something I believe Dr. Barnett does inadvertently) is somewhat strange. The developing world will increase its rate of consumption faster than we can decrease ours. If demand increases, the focus on oil as the link between the global network and the Middle East will increase as well, and it will not likely serve to bolster is so much as to draw focus away from other, more lasting links. No decent network engineer would design a global computer network with a huge portion linked only by one massive fiber. That doesn't support network stability.

The Illusion

The problem with thinking of oil as the first in a series of linkages, is that the link is really an illusion. There is no extant network to connect to, so the network cannot naturally aggregate. By pushing the "Turkish Bridge" scenario we grow connectivity at the same rate as the local networks. By insisting on maintaining our own independent link to the Middle East, we are struggling to create an artificial network with which to connect ourselves.

Removing Saddam Hussein was not a flawed concept. It was merely the execution (for reasons to oft discussed to repeat here) that was horrific. Now it is time that we accept that failure and move towards a natural trifurcation of Iraq. Turkey will be best suited to steward the North. Iran will naturally gain influence in the South. In the former case we should do all we can to foster this. In the latter, we should be prepared to cut deals and involve as many moderating forces as possible. If executed with deftness this could even serve as an oportunity to create another bridge into Iran, a more moderate statelet of similar makeup. If executed poorly, this could serve as a propaganda victory for extremists. The Sunni Triangle presents a challenge, and it will likely come in the form of a military one. The most important thing is to prevent it from doing damage to the two more stable regions.

The network will grow. Of this I am certain, but beware the flawed links and the urge to press forward when a step sideways is more productive. Even network-oriented thinkers are susceptible to tunnel vision sometimes.

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