[ by Charles Cameron — with a pinch of humility which, if you ask me, burns hotter than any pepper ]
Micah Zenko at the Council on Foreign Relations‘ Politics, Power, and Preventive Action blog raised a question yesterday that I found irresistible:
To be more exact, and exercise just a little humility, the question I found so exciting was really the one Crispin Burke posed, in a tweet pointing to Zenko’s piece:
So I read Zenko’s post with Burke’s term “hot spot” in the back of my head, and when I responded to Zenko, did so in terms of hot spots. Which because they’re like the celebrated “dots” we’re often told we’ve failed to connect, triggered some thoughts that I think are worth repeating, even if the phrasing is a little off from Zenko’s own.
And the only real benefit I can see from my carrying Burke’s “hot spots” over into Zenko’s post is that it raised the issue of peppers, which adds a little spice to my response, and gave me a great graphic to go at the top of this post.
Okay, here’s the key sentence that frames Zenko’s post:
If you ask ten forecasters to predict the next conflict, you’ll likely get ten very different answers. But, they will agree on one thing: it is impossible to know for sure where and when the next conflict will emerge.
Zenko may not mention hot spots as such, but already two things stand out for me: he uses the words “where and when” and “the next” — so he’s thinking in geographic terms and short timelines. In his title, he asks about 2013, which is almost in the greetings card section of my local Safeway by now. And he sees trouble in terms of places, not systems.
Here’s the response I posted at his CFR blog:
A given hot spot may only be hot when coupled with another spot in a feedback loop – and the two spots may be widely separated geographically.
To my way of thinking, an assessment of incipient troubles needs to look for feedback loops, blowback systems, echo chambers – all of them patterned phenomena that are likely to feature both sides of a potential or ongoing conflict from a systems analytic point of view. A microphone isn’t a hot spot, a loudspeaker isn’t a hot spot, but put the two of them in the same acoustic system and you can generate an ear-shattering howl…
I’d look at “strong” versions of Islamophobic rhetoric and “strong” versions of Islamist rhetoric as a single system transglobally, for example, and I’d want to figure out what would cause dampening effects on both sides.
Another tack I’d take is to ask questions like “what’s in our blind spots” and “what’s under the radar” – I vividly recall hearing Ali Allawi tell a session at the Jamestown Foundation that within Iraq, “most of the dissident Shi’a movements not within the ambit of the political process have very strong Madhist tendencies” and that they were “flying under our radar” — despite the fact that US forces had been involved in a major battle with one such group outside Najaf.
I’ll post a more extended response on Zenpundit – but for now, I’d just like to throw in one additional question: is there a Scoville Scale for the “hotness of spots” as there is for peppers? It’s hard to know how to think through potential vulnerabilities without some sense of both intensity and probability of risk…
Forget Scoville and his habaneros — let’s get to the meat and potatoes.
I’ll be straightforward about this. I suspect we’re doing our intelligence analysis and decision-making with only one cerebral hemisphere fully functioning — ie with only half a brain — like halfwits one might almost say, but in a strictly metaphorical manner — without benefit of corpus callosum.
We don’t have the leaf > twig > branch > limb > tree > forest > watershed > continent > world zoom down yet.
We don’t think in systems, we think in data points.
Blecch, or d’oh! — your choice.
So my questions — and I don’t claim by any means to have an exhaustive list, that’s why we have many and varied bright people instead of just one or two — would be along the lines of:
how many kinds of metaphorical dry kindling are there in the world, which could turn into metaphorical wildfires? and what sorts of metaphorical sparks could trigger them? where are the rumblings? what are the undercurrents of strong emotion running in different sociological slices of the world, that can be discerned from open sources such as the comments sections of online news media, conspiracy sites, religious group and subgroup (sect/cult) teachings, eccentric political movements, strands of pop culture — fanfic, comics, graffiti — single issue blocs? where are the feedback loops, the parallelisms and oppositions, the halls of mirrors, the paradoxes, the koans, the antitheses, the conceptual antipodes? where does energy drain from the system, and where does it collect, pool, and stagnate? and perhaps most of all, what do we do, ourselves, wittingly or unwittingly, that tends to irritate others enough that they do unto us? and do we consciously want to keep doing those things, and the blowback be damned?
Where do we go from here. I think Zen (the Zen of Zenpundit, not the Zen of Zenko in this case) is right: we need to cross-weave our “vertical thinking” tendencies with “horizontal thinking” — see Zen’s posts on understanding cognition 1 and 2, which I take to be foundational for this blog.
It’s the horizontal part that I’m trying to develop here, in my series of posts under the rubric of “form is insight” — because I think we have the other half of the equation, or the other cerebral hemisphere if you prefer, fairly well in hand.
As always, it’s our vulnerabilities, dependencies, deficits and blind-spots we should be paying most attention to.