Originally published June 3rd, 2016 on the Huffington Post
“The days of clear-cut, satisfying victories overseas, like opening up China or tearing down the Berlin wall are over. U.S. foreign policy now is all about containing disorder and messes. It is the exact opposite of running a beauty pageant. There’s no winner, and each contestant is uglier than the last.” [Emphasis mine]
While it’s nothing more than a truism to say that the world is more complex than ever, and that it’s growing more complex every day, it’s a far different matter to pinpoint what’s different about today’s complexities, and of course, what if anything can be done about it.
One of the most pressing problems facing humankind is coping with the complex messy systems we’ve created, both intentionally and unintentionally. Not only do they impact every aspect of our lives, but in many cases, they pose major threats to our existence. Global Warming and ISIS are just two of the many pertinent examples.
If we are to have any hope of coping better, then our understanding of complex messy systems not only needs to improve dramatically, but it needs to be a top priority. In a word, understanding complex messy systems is more challenging than we ever dared to imagine.
In 1973, in a classic essay, “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,” Horst Rittel and Mel Webber introduced the concept of wicked problems. Rittel and Webber argued that social problems were fundamentally different from the vast majority of problems in engineering and the physical sciences. In a word, problems in the social and policy sciences, public policy in general, were the complete opposite of “tame problems.”
By “tame,” Rittlel and Webber meant that a problem was both bounded and well structured. Bounded problems were not only distinct, but limited and confined. One could “rope ‘tame problems’ off” and consider them independently of one another. Thus, in modeling bounded problems, other problems didn’t have to be considered. In addition, they were bounded in another important way. They generally involved only a few variables.
For instance, in computing the distance that a 5-pound weight falls in 2 seconds, one doesn’t need to take into account the material out of which the weight is made, or whether other weights are in the immediate vicinity, or at least one didn’t have to do so in introductory physics classes where one learned the formula Distance = ½ G T2, where G is the acceleration due to gravity (approximately 32 feet per second squared) and T is the time in seconds that a weight falls. Thus, a 5-pound weight will fall approximately 64 feet in 2 seconds.
“Well structured” meant that the problem could be encapsulated in a relatively simple physical model that could be expressed mathematically; as a result, it often had a neat mathematical solution. The Distance = ½ G T2 that a weight falls in T seconds is a prime example.
In sharp contrast, tame problems are the complete opposite from wicked problems.
Wicked problems have none of the supposedly desirable properties of tame problems. First, they are unbounded. They can’t be isolated and separated from a host of other problems to which they are connected. Thus, the problems of crime, employment, and housing are neither separate nor distinct. So-called solutions, assuming that they exist, for one problem not only affect, but are dependent on solutions to all of the others. And, they involve many variables, many of which are unknown, and worse yet, unknowable.
Wicked problems are also “wickedly ill unstructured.” No single discipline or profession has a monopoly on how a wicked problem is to be represented and thus modeled, if they even can. For another, wicked problems don’t stay solved, assuming once again that there are solutions to them in the first place. Even if it exists, a solution for one time and place is not necessarily a solution for other times and places, and certainly not for all political and social actors.
If this weren’t bad enough, the so-called solutions to wicked problems are more likely than not to give rise to other even worse problems. For instance, while necessary in many situations, aggressive policing has resulted in an epidemic of the shooting and resultant loss of lives of unarmed black teenagers. This has in turn resulted in huge, and sometimes violent, protests against police departments, and the severe loss of trust in the communities that police serve, and without which they cannot do their job
In 1979, in a highly critical speech—“The Future of Operational Research Is Past”—that he gave to the Operations Research Society of America, of which he was one of the early founders and past presidents, Russell L. Ackoff appropriated the word “mess” to stand for a whole system of problems that were so intertwined that one couldn’t take any problem out of the mess and study independently of all the other problems to which it was connected:
“…Managers are not confronted with problems that are independent of each other, but with dynamic situations that consist of complex systems of changing problems that interact with each other. I call such situations messes. Problems are abstractions extracted from messes by analysis; they are to messes as atoms are to tables and chairs. We experience messes, tables, and chairs; not problems and atoms.
“Because messes are systems of problems, the sum of the optimal solutions to each component problem taken separately is not an optimal solution to the mess. The behavior of a mess depends more on how the solutions to its parts interact than on how they act independently of each other.”
To put it succinctly, we don’t live in the nice neat world of mathematically precise, well-formulated technical problems. We live in a world of ever growing and more complicated messes. Increasingly, we live in a world of wicked messes.
The ISIS Mess is one of the most wicked messes of all. Worse still, it’s not only pathological, but it’s a cancerous mess.
The ISIS Mess
“The US war against ISIS, President Obama’s iteration of George Bush’s much-heralded and long-failed ‘global war of terror,’ presents [a…] complex set of paradoxes and contradictions: The US is fighting against ISIS alongside Iran and the Iranian-backed Baghdad government in Iraq, and fighting in Syria against ISIS alongside (sort of) the Iranian-backed and US opposed government in Damascus. And all the while, the US and its Arab Gulf allies are arming and paying a host of largely unaccountable, predominantly Sunni militias that are fighting against the Syrian government and fighting—sort of—against ISIS. Meanwhile, in Iraq, the Iranian government is arming and training a host of largely unaccountable, predominantly Shi’a militias that are fighting against ISIS and -sort of—alongside the US backed Iraqi government.
“It’s a mess.”
A recent article in The Atlantic Monthly, “The Hell After ISIS,” provides powerful insights into The ISIS Mess. Indeed, it cuts straight to its heart. The author, Anand Gopal, has “been meeting with Sunnis from western Iraq in order to understand how the war against ISIS looked to members of the largest group still living in ISIS’s self-declared caliphate…They have found themselves caught between the Islamic State on one side and U.S.-allied forces—the Iraqi government, its army, and Shiite militias—on the other. In this telling, the anti-ISIS forces are just as violent as the entity they are fighting.”
“Many Sunnis in Anbar resented that the U.S. intervention not only benefitted certain tribes over others, but also produced a Shia-dominated government. After the Americans withdrew in December 2011, the Islamic State of Iraq and other insurgent groups sought to deepen these divides through a campaign of violence targeting Shiite civilian progovernment [sic] tribal sheikhs. In 2012, nearly 400 car bombs went off nationwide.”
The result is that the term “wicked” hardily begins to describe The ISIS Mess. It’s more akin to a “pathological, if not a cancerous disease.” One of the basic characteristics or properties of such messes is that every action that is undertaken to improve them is virtually guaranteed to do more harm than good. Alternately, every seemingly positive part of the mess has the high potential of mutating into something dangerously harmful. As the quotes from Phyllis Bennis and Anand Gopal illustrate, enemies become friends, and friends are enemies. It’s a complete topsy-turvy world.
The situation is directly akin to cancer where the body’s bad cells attack the good ones. Thus, under the guise of helping those who are besieged by ISIS, those who are the recipients of U.S. aid become worse off. The result is that what’s a “good cell” and what’s a “bad cell” are in doubt, if they can even be clearly distinguished or separated from one another.
As a result, one of the author’s previous heuristics for coping with messes—“examine a mess for the most improbable interactions between the parts, for if they hook up, they have the potential for producing a major crisis”—takes on a whole new meaning. (One only has heuristics or rules of thumb for coping with messes because once again they are not well-structured exercises with nice, neat bounded solutions.) It now becomes: “the most unlikely parts of a mess will not only hook up, but definitively cause major crises.” Indeed, every part of mess will hook in unexpected ways to cause a myriad of crises that can only be described as “cancerous.” In this sense, the term “wicked” is too mild for such messes.
This preceding represents more than the commonly understood notion of “unintended consequences,” which of course it is. The notion of “unintended consequences” is taken to a whole new level. There is no part of a cancerous mess that is not subject to “unintended consequences.” This above all makes such messes unmanageable at the present time. That is, every action that is undertaken in the hope of making them more manageable has a high probability of making them less manageable.
As is so often the case, one is left with military interventions as the last, if not only, hope of subduing as best one can an organized group with whom one can’t engage in rational negotiations. The supreme question is who should lead such military forces. The debate is between those who believe fervently that as a world leader, the U.S. has to be in command in assembling and leading a coalition to wage war against ISIS. Others believe just as fervently that ISIS wants nothing more than to see the U.S. get bogged down in another war in the middle-east that it can’t possible win. Acrimonious ethical and moral debates are fundamental parts of wicked messes.
Here’s precisely where another interaction rears its head. Wanting to ban all Muslins from entering the U.S. as Donald Trump and others have proposed does not help the U.S. in enlisting the aid of Muslims in identifying radical elements or in building coalitions with Arab states.
Finally, there are strong indications that the U.S. coalition is winning the military war against ISIS. However, as Anand Gopal has reported, given that considerable backlash is brewing against the U.S. with regard to how it’s treated some of the Sunni tribes,
The ISIS Mess may be a classic case of winning the war, but losing the mess!
It’s a mess!