Bryan Caplan  

Four Decades of Middle Eastern Disaster: The Proximate Cause

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Counter-factual history is really hard.  If World War II hadn't happened, one could easily imagine it being replaced by a global thermonuclear war in the 1960s.  But the history of proximate causes is much easier.  Let A, B, C, and D be highly specific major events.  A good historian can credibly determine that A caused B, B caused C, and C caused D, so if not for A, D almost certainly wouldn't have happened.  The assassination of the Austrian Archduke caused World War I, which caused the rise of Marxism-Leninism and Nazism, which caused World War II, which caused the Korean War, which caused Kim Jong Un to be the present dictator of North Korea.  This doesn't prove the world today would be better-off if Princip's assassination plot had failed; something worse could have happened instead.  But we can still chronicle the path of history's dominoes.

My favorite recent example: almost all of the Middle East's disasters over the past four decades can be credibly traced back to a single highly specific major event: the Iranian Revolution.  Let me chronicle the tragic trail of dominoes:

1. In late 1977, political resistance to the Shah comes into the open, with demonstrations, civil resistance, and strikes.  Rather than crushing it with an iron fist as you'd expect, the Shah is indecisive, erratically mixing conciliation with brutality.  By 1979, Iran is officially an Islamic Republic under the dictatorship of Ayatollah Khomeini.

2. Smelling revolution-induced weakness, Saddam Hussein attacks Iran in 1980, starting the Iran-Iraq War.  The war drags on until 1988, killing roughly a million people.

3. During the Iran-Iraq War, Kuwait lends Iraq $14B.  Afterwards, Hussein pressures Kuwait to forgive the debt, and Kuwait refuses.  This leads to an unraveling of relations, and ends in Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

4. The U.S. organizes an international coalition to expel Iraq from Kuwait, culminating in the Gulf War.  Part of the deal: the U.S. gets military bases in Saudi Arabia.

5. Iraq is defeated and becomes an international pariah, but Saudi dissidents, most prominently Osama bin Laden, are outraged by the U.S. military presence in the land of Mecca and Medina.  In 1996, bin Laden issues a fatwa calling for the U.S. to leave.

6. Bin Laden tries to give his fatwa teeth by calling for and organizing terrorist attacks against the U.S., culminating in the events of September 11, 2001.

7. The same year, the U.S. responds by giving the Taliban (the rulers of Afghanistan) an ultimatum to hand over bin Laden and his whole organization.  When the Taliban refuses, the U.S. invades.  Though victory is swift, it is far from total.  The war continues to this day, though the body count is lower than you'd think - Wikipedia counts under 100,000 cumulative deaths in a country of over 30M.

8. In early 2003, the U.S. invades Iraq as well.  While the U.S. government does not officially accuse Hussein of involvement in the 9/11 attacks, the wartime hysteria silences most domestic opposition.  Years later, Bush's CIA director concedes that they knew of no actual al Qaeda-Iraq cooperation.

9. After a crushing military victory, the U.S. swiftly loses the peace - unsurprisingly, since the Bush team made almost no plans for the post-war era.  Civil war breaks out, mostly calming down by late 2008.  At this point, the Bush Administration agrees to remove all U.S. forces by 2011Body counts vary widely, but all are much higher than Afghanistan's.  Obama tries to renegotiate a delay, but fails.

10. While there's no blatant link between the Iraq War and the start of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, chaos in post-war Iraq is crucial for the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and the long length of the civil war in Syria.  ISIL soon begins launching high-profile terrorist attacks around the world, and sharply aggravates the Syrian refugee crisis.

11. And here we are.

While you could quibble with a few of my points, the basic story is pretty clear.  But notice: If Cassandra had foretold the future of the Middle East in 1977, she would have seemed totally crazy to the entire world.  "One wishy-washy dictator is going to cause all this?!  Yeah, right."

All of which make me wonder: Which thinkers in the 70s came closest to predicting what actually happened?  The Cassandras may already be dead, but it would be nice to know their names.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (18 to date)
Nodnarb the Nasty writes:

Dr Caplan,

The Middle East has been a basket case for more than 4 decades. I think your argument would have more gusto if you had said US involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster for 4 decades.

I enjoyed your post on counterfactuals, but this piece by your GMU colleague Mark Koyama is way more fun.

Fazal Majid writes:

Using Iran's Islamic Revolution as a starting point is highly arbitrary, as that event itself is a direct consequence of the 1953 coup against Mossadegh by the CIA, urged on by a waning British Empire trying to protect BP (then Anglo-Iranian), one of its crown jewels. Ironically the British would have been much better off accepting Mossadegh's terms, as the US gave them nothing (unsurprising, as it was the CIA that did all the work and to the victor go the spoils).

Similarly, the toxic Wahhabi ideology that inspired Al-Qaeda or ISIS was the result of the faustian bargain the house of Saud agreed to with Al-Wahhab in 1744, long before any Western colonialism could reasonably be blamed for it. Petrodollars only amplified and spread it. The prototype of ISIS, the Ikhwan, were used by Abdulaziz ibn Saud to conquer the Hejaz and expel the rival Hashemites, so it would be counterfactual to hope for a more sane government in Central Arabia—no foreign power would have given the Sharif of Mecca the military aid needed to withstand the Saudi onslaught.

The US establishing bases in Saudi Arabia was not the quid pro quo for defeating Saddam Hussein. It was asked for by the Al-Saud family, which had cut a deal with Nixon shortly after the 1973 oil embargo: military protection in exchange for investing their petrodollars in the US. Their concordate with the Wahhabi clerics no longer seemed adequate for self-preservation.

The Syrian conflict was caused by Turkey damming the Euphrates, diverting water from Syria and driving poor pastoralists and farmers into the cities where the country's marginal economy could not offer jobs for them. The Arab Spring was the spark that lit the resulting powder keg, but it would have occurred anyway.

Like Fromkin you could make the case that all of this is a consequence of the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire, but Iran was never part of it and something like the creation of Israel would have occurred anyway, with the resulting impact on the Arab World.

John Alcorn writes:

@ Bryan Caplan,


“If Cassandra had foretold the future of the Middle East in 1977, she would have seemed totally crazy to the entire world.  ‘One wishy-washy dictator is going to cause all this?!  Yeah, right.’”

Hypothetical Cassandra’s prediction should have seemed not crazy, but at once plausible and quite uncertain. Her prediction was plausible insofar as each link in the long causal chain is realistic. And her prediction was quite uncertain because competent observers could have sketched alternative, similarly plausible long causal chains. Cassandra predicted what might happen, not what must happen.

Jon Elster notes:

“we can have explanatory power without strong predictive power [… .] the reason is that in many cases we can identify a causal mechanism after the fact, but not predict before the fact which of several possible mechanisms will be triggered.”—Explaining Social Behavior, 3rd ed. (Cambridge U. Press, 1995) p. 20.

I would add the element of free will, which contributes to uncertainty in history. (You often insist on free will in your other writings.) At any of the links in the long causal chain, key actors might have chosen differently.

Consider the specificity of Cassandra’s overall prediction: The Shah’s wishy-washy behavior in Iran will cause ISIL and the Syrian refugee crisis, forty years later. What odds should Cassandra have offered to bettors?

Paging Philip Tetlock!

Had I been venturing predictions in 1977, I wouldn’t have gone much beyond the following:

The Middle East seems a political tinderbox. If the Shah mismanages the protests, he probably will embolden the revolutionaries. If a revolution succeeds, it will almost certainly cause great disequilibrium in the Middle East. And then who knows where that will lead!

Ahmed writes:

[Comment removed. Please consult our comment policies and check your email for explanation.--Econlib Ed.]

DMXRoid writes:

You could pretty easily take it one step further to the US's overthrow of Mosaddegh on behalf of the British.

Lawrence writes:

I'm struggling to see the point of this.

The reason the counterfactual is so often indulged, even though it is essentially mere fantasy, is that it gives apparent meaning to the truth that the present is contingent on an approximately infinite number of variables.

Stripped of the counterfactual, the 'history of proximate causes' saves its truth, but loses its point.

In other words: If past things happened differently, then things would be different now. Yes, of course. So what?

toby writes:

@Bryan, but how would you know that the Cassandras were right for the right reasons? For all we know the current path of history was highly improbable. There are so many little things that could've prevented all these events from happening that the Cassandra who predicted this is indistinguishable from a madman foretelling the end of times.

Sam writes:

In a proper 'domino effect' historical sweep, each event would follow necessarily from the last. This is just a sequence of events, with many contingent events stashed away in the spaces between. Nice punchy little summary but, so what?

Mm writes:

Except the exit was Obama's idea-in no way did the Obama administration attempt to negotiate a delay ( read Endgame by Gordon & Trainor). The Obama administration wanted out & looked for excuses-why else send Biden who was best known for wanting to dismember Iraq-not exactly a popular idea when trying to negotiate with the Iraq federal authorities. The precipitous exit was the cause for the collapse & rise of ISIL. If the US hadn't insisted on approval by the Iraqi parliament the status of forces agreement would most likely have been worked out to our satisfaction-our insistence was a poison pill meant to be rejected. Tellingly we went back into Iraqi under Obama with the same SOF agreement Obama rejected as inadequate when he pulled us out a few years earlier. There is no chance Iraq would be peaceful if we stayed, but it would've been better.

Ghost writes:

Proximate causes (dominoes) can be identified, but what is the context in which they matter?

My not-Cassandra starts with Henry Ford. His popularisation of the automobile will eventually create a vast, price-inelastic demand for crude oil. Geological accident means that this will be most easily satisfied from the Middle East. Huge resource rents will be concentrated in the hands of the local rulers. This will let them accumulate the weapons with which to cause all kinds of mayhem. And the price-inelasticity of demand will also lead the U.S. to believe that the Middle East is a vital strategic interest...

The point is that as John Alcorn suggests, the tinderbox has been created - if the CIA, or the Shah, or Saddam doesn't throw a match, someone else will.

Hazel Meade writes:

You could pretty easily take it one step further to the US's overthrow of Mosaddegh on behalf of the British.

Or even a step further to the USSR's meddling in Iran to establish a foothold in the oil-rich Persian Gulf.

I think the thing is that in these chains of events, there are lots of steps where one actor or another could have taken a different action. At the end of this long chain of actions, any on of those steps can be regarded as the cause of the end state.

But one can also look at broader underlying causes that are driving the various actors to take the actions they did.
I.e. Oil. The US and the USSR's main motivation for being involved in all of these actions is because of the need to import oil from the Persian Gulf states. Absent that, everyone's actions would have been quite different.

This is not to endorse the theory that the US is trying to "steal" their oil, or that there's anything immoral about having an interest in buying oil. There isn't. It's just a recognizable motivation that is ultimately driving the geopolitics in the region.

Hazel Meade writes:

It's not just Henry Ford and automobiles - it's tanks and warships and airplanes. Control of Persian gulf oil was critical to supplying ground forces during WWII. So was keeping it out of enemy hands. Oil was a strategic asset throughout the Cold War.

Michael Rulle writes:

I agree with Lawrence and Sam above.

While I very much enjoy reading History, it is impossible to really nail down ultimate causes (and therefore any meaningful conjecture about counterfactuals is impossible). What one can do is understand what specifically happened. History is "a description" which is truly fascinating.

While the assassination of Ferdinand began a series of events which did, in fact, culminate in WWI, none of these events were preordained by events that came before it. Rather, History is the clash of thousands, maybe trillions, of free will decisions made by anyone from leaders to the "man on the street". After all, Princip himself was the last man standing in a parade of failed assassins along the route the Sarajevo. He was literally a man in the street.

etc., etc.

Weir writes:

Have a read of the cables and intelligence briefings. For example, the National Intelligence Estimate of August 12th, 1953: "As a general proposition, we believe that the odds still favor Mossadeq's retention of power at least through 1953." Oops.

Or the telegram finally declassifed two months ago but written by a CIA agent on August 18th, 1953, "that operation has been tried and failed and we should not participate in any operation against Mossadeq which could be traced back to US and further compromise future relations with him which may become only course of action left open to US." Tried, but failed. "We must regret we cannot consider going on fighting with prospects as stated by US official ('operation not quite dead') and with no fresh supporting evidence." So not quite dead but mostly dead. "In view foregoing and in absence strong contrary recommendations from you and Ambassador Henderson, operations against Mossadeq should be discontinued."

This is the CIA's Office of National Estimates, August 17th, 1953: "The unsuccessful attempt to remove Mossadeq from power this weekend, culminating in the flight of the Shah to Iraq, greatly advances the progressive deterioration of political stability in Iran." Unsuccessful. "On the one hand, Mossadeq's numerous non-Communist opponents have been dealt an almost crippling blow and may never again be in a position to make a serious attempt to overthrow him. The chief figures in the attempt to oust Mossadeq are already in jail or in hiding, thus at least temporarily eliminating or neutralizing the most vigorous of these opponents. Even more important, the Shah's flight--a move which may well be followed by the appointment of a regency council and may even lead to designation of a new Shah or abolition of the monarchy--greatly weakens the ability of Mossadeq's opponents to combine against him in the future."

Eisenhower was informed directly by his friend and aide, Walter Bedell Smith, "the move failed." And not just failed: "We now have to take a whole new look at the Iranian situation and probably have to snuggle up to Mossadeq, if we're going to save anything there."

So American intelligence, having admitted defeat and accepted their failure, was surprised to learn on August 20th that they were wrong, and didn't know what they'd been talking about.

Ambassador Henderson, August 20th, 1953: "Morning August 19 supporters Shah had arranged pro-Shah demonstration for purpose of showing sentiment continued exist in country for him. This demonstration began in small way in bazaar area but initial small flame found amazingly large amount combustible material and was soon roaring blaze which during course of day swept through entire city. Security forces sent to put down demonstration refused to resort to violence against crowds some joining demonstrators and others remaining passive. As crowds increased in volume in various parts city they destroyed offices of those newspapers which during recent days had been most scurrilous in their attacks on Shah including most violently pro-government and pro-Communist organs. One of first strategic points seized was Office of Posts and Telegrams which was used in sending messages to stir up whole country. From center city huge crowds commandeered vehicles of all kinds and rushed northward engulfing Tehran Radio station. Members of Embassy had good opportunity observe character these crowds at this time. They were primarily civilians interspersed with members security forces some of whom bore arms. Crowds however appeared to be led and directed by civilians rather than military. Participants not of hoodlum type customarily predominant in recent demonstrations in Tehran. They seemed to come from all classes of people including workers, clerks, shopkeepers, students, et cetera. Crowds seemed to be imbued with strange mixture resolution and gaiety."

Where American professionals had tried and failed, Iranian amateurs tried and succeeded.

John B writes:

I spy logcal fallcy... post hoc ergo propter hoc.

Kevin Jackson writes:

Without getting into the rest of the post, I disagree with the premise. Even if I agree that A caused B, B caused C, and C caused D, the removal of A is no guarantee that D does not happen. You need to prove that A is both sufficient and necessary.

So it isn't enough to describe the causes, you must also prove the absence of any other sufficient causes. I believe this is as difficult as counter factual history. There are many ways to knock over a domino.

John Alcorn writes:

@ Kevin Jackson:

Well put!

I would like to add another point about historical explanation. I limit my point to Prof. Caplan's topic: proximate causes of massive, protracted, shifting conflicts. I consider only the triggers of the first links in the long causal chains that cover decades.

Historians don't (and perhaps can't) identify sufficient proximate causes—i.e., the full set of direct causes—of events like the Iranian Revolution or World War I.

Rather, historians identify one or another proximate cause, or one or another subset of proximate causes, that substantially changed the probability of the event.

For example, the Shah's erratic responses to protests in 1977 were not sufficient proximate causes of the Iranian Revolution. Rather, the Shah's behavior greatly increased the chance that a revolution would occur.

Similarly, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, on June 28, 1914, was not a sufficient proximate cause of World War I. Rather, the assassination substantially increased the likelihood of war among the great powers.

Perhaps historians who wish to explain the occurrence of a revolution or a war often aspire to identify sufficient proximate causes. In practice, however, it is exceedingly difficult (or perhaps impossible) to identify the full set of all causes that directly increased the probability of the Iranian Revolution, or the likelihood of World War I.

John Alcorn writes:

Four takeaways about historical inquiry into proximate causes of events like major wars and revolutions, from the blogpost and comments:

1) Counterfactual history is really hard. (Bryan Caplan)

2) Identifying necessary causes is really hard. (Kevin Jackson)

3) Identifying sufficient causes is really hard.

4) Historians mostly identify causes that substantially increased the probability of the event.

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