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Predicting the Unpredictable: Discussions at the ICT’s World Summit on Counterterrorism

Although there are several versions of the story, the famous Middle East parable about the frog and the scorpion goes something like this: a frog and a scorpion want to cross a river, but the scorpion cannot swim. He asks the frog to carry him on his back, to which the frog responds, “How can I trust that you won’t sting me?”

The scorpion promises he will not attack the frog and they sign a treaty. The frog then carries the scorpion to the other side of the river. Once the scorpion finds himself on safe ground again, he immediately turns around and delivers a fatal sting to the frog. As the frog lays on the ground dying, he gasps, “How could you do something so dishonest? You promised you wouldn’t attack me!”

To which the scorpion casually replied, “Hey, man, this is the Middle East.”

(Another version of the story describes how the scorpion stings the frog halfway across the river instead and they wind up drowning together. When the dying frog asks why he would do something so illogical and mutually destructive, the scorpion has the same response: “This is the Middle East!”)

At one of the conference’s workshops, titled “Iran: Exerting Influence in the Middle East“, Professor Raymond Taylor from the U.S. National Security Council provided his own twist on the story: when the frog asks the scorpion how he could break his promise and attack him, the scorpion replied, “Because it’s my nature.”

The most critical variable that makes the trajectory of international relations and power politics so difficult to predict is the gamut of human nature. Game-theoretic models attempt to present mathematical models of strategic decision-making, suggesting that one can predict the likelihood of conflict and cooperation between “intelligent rational decision-makers”. Yet, claiming that Iran is a “rational player” means very little if you do not understand what Iran itself considers rational. Mirror-imaging has plagued many an intelligence agency because when it comes to analyzing the strategic calculus of your enemy, the analyst has to overcome his most basic assumptions of the world as he perceives it. Not an easy task.

This issue was an underlying theme throughout the majority of workshops at the Conference, hosted annually by the International Institute for Counterterrorism (ICT) and held at the Israel Air Force Center and the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya. Hundreds of leading security experts, government officials, academics, and decision-makers from across the world attended the ICT’s four-day summit to discuss the Iranian threat, cyber-warfare, border infiltration, the ongoing conflict in Syria, and the global impact of the Arab Spring, as well as the proliferation of Islamic fundamentalism. The Israeli security community sends plenty of its own heavy hitters to the event, including heads of the Mossad, the Shin Bet, Military Intelligence, and other various defense agencies.

In another workshop titled “The Challenges and Implications of the Arab Spring”, Israelis Maj. Gen. (Res.) Danny Rothschild and Ambassador to Egypt Yitzhak Levanon discussed the dilemma of how various players must shift their perceptions of conflict as the excitement of revolutions fizzle out and the hard reality of building a new government must be considered. The same people who united under similar goals to topple their repressive regimes oftentimes found themselves afterwards struggling to form a united ruling party. The result is a clash of ideologies and motivations, forcing people once again to take different sides and form a multiplicity of smaller factions vying for dominance.

And thus, new conflicts emerge to replace the old.

Addressing the issue of mirror-imaging again, Barak Seener from the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA) wisely pointed out that from a Western perspective we expect that the objective of a leadership is to encourage growth in their societies. With autocratic regimes, however, the leaderships’ interests often focus on defining identity and control instead.

“The tides of tyranny have never been deterred by economic incentives, for example,” claimed Seener. “In fact, such incentives have tended to only embolden these leaders.”

During one of the coffee breaks between lectures, a young Israeli government worker made an observation that emphasized that even if we were able to neatly measure the capriciousness of human behavior with some kind of magic formula, we would still never be able to fully grasp the minute and seemingly random occurrences that can make the difference between failure and success. According to her experience, she explained, “Most people with high offices in the government are actually mediocre. Just because you take all the right steps to get to the top doesn’t mean you’ll actually get there, and many of those who do make it to the top got there through a lucky series of events and not necessarily because of merit.”

Even the most brilliantly thought-out strategy is still just a designed pattern in a stream of decisions that are at the mercy of complex human perceptions and volatile events. And yet, the stakes are too high to capitulate.

As the Jewish adage goes, “The time is short, the work is much, the workers are often lazy, but the reward is great.”

2 Comments

  1. Barak Seener

    9/19/2012 at 7:45 pm

    Dear Jessica,

    I am not associated with the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. I have only published there.

    I am however an associate fellow of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).

    Regards,

    Barak Seener

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