by Gary Sick
In the parlance of political risk assessment, a Black Swan is an event regarded as highly improbable or even impossible before it happens. A Black Swan is not only surprising but has the capacity to disrupt or severely alter the anticipated course of events. Once a Black Swan is sighted, however, the expert community quickly adjusts to the new reality and begins to explain why, under the circumstances, a Black Swan was likely to appear and, perhaps, was even inevitable.
As a card-carrying member of the chattering class, I am intimately familiar with all aspects of this phenomenon. And as someone who focuses on the Middle East, I can produce a number of historical examples. The Iranian revolution was a Black Swan. The Saudi-led oil boycott of 1973 was a Black Swan, even though the self-inflicted wounds of the embargo persuaded the Saudi leadership and its Arab allies to renounce the use of such tactics in the future. Some of the wars and coups in modern Middle East history might count as Black Swans. However, once the dust settled, things frequently returned to approximately their previous state, little changed except perhaps the cast of characters and the national balance sheet. The persistence of a seemingly unshakeable, if highly disagreeable, status quo made outcomes more predictable.
The Middle East today is in a new stage altogether. It seems as though an entire flock of Black Swans has descended on the region, confounding both experts and local populations. Since the region shows no signs of returning to what we came to regard over a period of generations as “normal,” it is worth cataloguing some of these events and their implications.
The Swans of Spring
The obvious starting point is the self-immolation of a Tunisian street vendor five years ago that touched off a series of political consequences that are still ongoing. Originally labeled the Arab Spring, it has produced anything but spring-like conditions across the region. Governments have fallen in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Yemen. Associated revolts have reduced Syria to abject civil war and have shaken Bahrain and the Arab oil monarchies in the Persian Gulf. In only one of the cases of regime change – the Egypt of General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi – does the present in any way resemble the past.
The original incident and its repercussions were truly Black Swans. In hindsight it is possible to see conditions that contributed to this outcome, but the sequence of events was unpredictable. More important, at least in the foreseeable future, there is no evidence that things will snap back to anything resembling the previous status quo.
One could, of course, go back a little further. The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 was arguably a Black Swan, and the invasion of Iraq produced some irreversible effects of its own. Iraq, which had been ruled by Sunnis for centuries, suddenly was transformed into a dominant Shia state by the George W. Bush administration. The United States thus removed Iran’s greatest rival to the west (after having removed Iran’s greatest rival to the east by its invasion of Afghanistan two years earlier) and insured that Iran would emerge as the superpower of the Persian Gulf. That was clearly not the intent, but it transformed the landscape of the Middle East and led to the emergence of a Sunni resistance that in time morphed into what we now know as the Islamic State (ISIS or IS).
IS is another Black Swan. Radical Sunni Islam had been around for a very long time. But this combination of political anger, a ready-made ideology in the form of hyper-Salafi jihadism, and the availability of swathes of ungoverned territory in Syria and Iraq turned a fringe movement into a political force that burst onto the scene in 2014 and erased a border that had stood since the Sykes-Picot arrangement after World War I. IS may or may not survive as a political entity. But the concept of an Islamic caliphate is a potent idea, and this is its most tangible manifestation in more than a century. It will not easily vanish.
The nuclear agreement between Iran and the world’s leading powers is not exactly a Black Swan, particularly since Iran had signaled its willingness to place severe restrictions on its nuclear activity as early as 2003 and had even made such a proposal to the U.S. government in 2005. Still, the successful completion of the very complex formal agreement that emerged from nearly two years of intense negotiations could have occurred only under a U.S. president who was willing to put serious political capital into the endeavor and a secretary of state who was not only persistent but also exceptionally skilled. Similarly, it required a team of sophisticated Iranian negotiators under the leadership of Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and President Hassan Rouhani, with the backing of a skeptical Supreme Leader in Tehran.
Finally, and no less important, was the political cooperation and active contributions of an unlikely array of individuals and governments from Russia and China to the often quarreling members of the European Union. The improbability of all those factors coming together at the same time prompted widespread predictions of failure from the very beginning of the talks to the present. This Very Gray Swan will, however, affect the politics of the region for the foreseeable future by taking the Iranian nuclear threat off the table while perhaps slowly reintroducing Iran into regional politics as a difficult but potentially constructive player.
The Saudi decision to let the price of oil fall was also, strictly speaking, not a Black Swan since Saudi Arabia had insisted for years that it was no longer going to play the role of swing producer. Still, even the Saudi technocrats who decided to raise production at a time of over-supply did not likely anticipate that the price would drop below $30 a barrel. The effects of this 70 percent plunge in the price of oil will reverberate around the globe for years to come. While Saudi actions have slowed the fracking industry in the United States and battered the economies of Russia and other competitors, the Saudis may find it far more difficult in the future to raise the price of oil back to a more budget-friendly number. As pointed out by Ed Morse, a veteran analyst of the oil industry, the fracking industry in the United States can recover far more quickly than traditional oil and gas drilling. The price of recovering undersea oil has fallen dramatically, as have the production costs of solar, wind, and other renewables. There is a lot of oil in Iran, Libya, Iraq, and the Saudi-Kuwaiti Neutral Zone ready to come back on the market depending on political and market conditions. So, if the price begins to rise, it will trigger additional supply from both traditional and non-traditional sources that could bring the price down again. This is the real Black Swan: the dominance of Persian Gulf oil in the world’s energy markets may be waning—not just for the moment but potentially for the long term.
Perhaps the most startling Black Swan to appear in recent months was the total transformation of leadership and political style in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. King Salman was next in line for the throne, so that was no surprise. And it was understood that a transfer of power to the next generation of leaders drawn from the Saudi royal family was imminent. Still, no one expected that the new king would in the matter of a few weeks overthrow the line of succession and place unprecedented power in the hands of his 30-year-old son Mohammad.
For generations, Saudi Arabia had managed its role as the custodian of world oil markets with skill and caution. It played its role with modesty, mostly operating behind the scene with dollops of money for projects both good and bad. It was subject to error, but it never lost sight of its function as a responsible broker for international commodities and trade. Whatever one thought of the way the Kingdom was run, the world of oil would have been far different had Saddam Hussein rather than the Saudi royal family been in charge. But those days are over. The new Saudi leadership is out to demonstrate that it can act boldly, engineer change, and lead the charge into a new Middle East.
Years ago, Saudi Arabia cautioned the United States not to invade Iraq because of the political consequences. They were right, as they never tired of reminding their American colleagues. But now they have invaded Yemen and seem poised to repeat all of the worst errors of the U.S. debacle in Iraq. Quite apart from the damage being done to Yemen, the war is placing huge demands on the Saudi treasury just at the moment when low oil prices have slashed revenues. It is a supreme test for the brash young deputy crown prince, who is seen as the architect of this unprecedented burst of Saudi activism.
Another Thirty Years War?
Any of these dramatic changes—and others that might occur in the near future such as Kurdish independence, the end of Christianity in the region, or a radical Islamist Syria—would stand as historic inflection points. However, their interaction elevates the changes to a total that is greater than the sum of its parts. Complexity is the norm in the Middle East, and prediction there has always been a fool’s game. However, the current level of uncertainty is an order of magnitude beyond anything that we have seen for at least a century. And the past provides few reliable clues about what may happen next. In fact, the past has been so very different from the present that it may be the worst of all possible guides.
This violent chaos and unpredictability have prompted comparisons between this moment in the Middle East and the Thirty Years War in Europe (1618-1648). That terrible time, which started as a religious war but which was actually a restructuring of the power relationships in the center of Europe, destroyed entire regions and killed or displaced so many people that it took many generations to recover. In that case, the warring parties fought themselves to exhaustion and then settled their disputes in a series of agreements that defined a new rule-based political order—the Westphalian system—that is widely regarded as the essential underpinning of modern Europe and the West.
The Middle East could follow such a trajectory out of the current chaos. Certainly the process of peace-making after all other avenues have been exhausted—the so-called Lebanonization of the crisis—seems to be the way events are presently moving. But the timing and nature of the end game are impossible to know.
Obama and the Swans
Under these circumstances, the Obama Doctrine, in which the United States will intervene only in the event of an external attack against one of its allies or to prevent a threat to the U.S. homeland, appears to be the least worst of the available options. It is a cruelly pragmatic strategy. It starts with the assumption that the United States cannot solve all the problems of the region—even those for which the United States bears a considerable degree of responsibility—and is unwilling to act as a surrogate for our friends in the region. This is a huge change from the unilateral containment doctrine adopted during the Clinton administration, and it is a total reversal of the Bush Doctrine of actively reshaping the Middle East. It is perhaps a distant relative of the Nixon Doctrine of the early 1970s when the United States relied primarily on local allies to protect U.S. interests in the region, while providing them with military training and support.
American friends and allies have been conditioned for more than a quarter of a century to rely on the United States to act unilaterally to deal with major disruptions in the region. Although they did not always agree with U.S. actions, they took it for granted that their American friends would take care of most of the heavy lifting in any crisis. To put it quite bluntly, they were free riders on a very costly policy that basically defined U.S. interests as identical to, or at least congruent, with those of our friends and allies. The Obama administration is adopting a much narrower definition of U.S. interests, and regional states such as Israel and Saudi Arabia resent what they perceive as a withdrawal of U.S. support. Critics of the Obama administration call it a lack of leadership. However, despite the rhetoric of a presidential campaign, none of the candidates would likely, as president, go back to a policy that was politically and financially costly, often related only distantly to actual U.S. interests, and prone to repeated failure. Proactive U.S. intervention in every Middle East crisis was a historical anomaly, even though it came to be regarded as the norm.
Still, the United States today has more regional bases and facilities, more deployed aircraft, ships and personnel than the British had at any point in their 150-year suzerainty of the Persian Gulf. The United States has become a Middle East power, and that is not coming to an end. Instead, what we are seeing is a more judicious use of U.S. political and military might. One may take exception to specific decisions in specific cases. But the broad elements of the policy itself are very likely to extend into the next U.S. administration, regardless of party or ideology.
The future of the Persian Gulf and the wider Middle East is impossible to discern. But in any serious discussion of strategy, it is imperative to recognize that we are in uncharted waters, beset with Black Swans on all sides. Old formulas will not work and should be regarded with suspicion. The end of this process, to borrow a phrase from Shakespeare, will be unknown to the beginning.
Gary Sick, a scholar at Columbia University, served on the National Security Council under Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan and was the principal White House aide for Iran during the Iranian Revolution and the hostage crisis.