Zero-sum conflict and its tragic consequences

And thus the desire of liberty caused one party to raise themselves in proportion as they oppressed the other. And it is the course of such movements that men, in attempting to avoid fear themselves, give others cause for fear; and the injuries which they ward off from themselves they inflict upon others, as though there were a necessity either to oppress or to be oppressed.
– Niccolò Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy, Chapter XVI

In Beware of Small States: Lebanon, Battleground of the Middle East (Nation Books, 2010), David Hirst presents a gripping history of modern Lebanon within an implicit but powerful analytical framework. The group – internal, external, Maronite, “Muslim/leftist,” Hizbullah, Zionist, the US, Iran, etc. – is the primary actor and the unit of analysis. The individual is but an agent of a group, his actions hence representative of the group as a whole, and his considerable and not unexpected error of judgment accounting for the relatively minor deviations from behavior that the group, given its set of preferences , can be seen exhibit. The state of Lebanon is the tragic setting of the conflict between groups; it is the output, the dependent variable of the analysis, so to speak. In this case, the conflict between groups is a zero-sum game, one in which the advance of the one actor’s interests must necessarily be accompanied by the deterioration of another’s. The conflict that racks Lebanon to this day is thus the only possible outcome of mutually incompatible objectives and means. Hirst’s book is thus less about Lebanon itself than about Lebanon as the battleground of conflict in the Middle East.

An important implication is that each of the many internal and external factors – among them, sectarian politics, the (post)colonialist drawing-up of artificial states, the Cold War, and, not least, Zionist aggression – Hirst outlines is a necessary but not sufficient cause of Lebanon’s tragic fate, namely, that without any one of the factors, say, for instance, Israeli expansionism – perhaps his favorite factor –, the Lebanese civil war would not have occurred, but no single factor alone would have led to the same outcome without the presence of every single one of the others; such is the nature of zero-sum conflict.

Hirst’s analysis has greater implications for the region as a whole. When the game is zero-sum, institutionalist “cooperation” serves not to achieve Pareto optimality, but rather to move along the Pareto frontier; it is inevitably about relative rather than mutual gains, and actors submit to institutional process only when unilateral action and aggression is too costly to contemplate. The Palestinian “peace process” will thus remain one where the participants put the emphasis on the “process” rather than the “peace,” and any hint of a conclusion must necessarily lead an actor to pull out because it will be able to achieve a better outcome unilaterally than through an imposed “peace.”
It is difficult to reconcile the above analytical framework and implications, which so befit the history that Hirst writes, with his conclusions. When Hirst deems as outrageously immoral Israel’s realism and details with sadomasochistic relish its worst abuses, he is implicitly arguing not that Israeli means are unbefitting of its preferred ends, but that the ends are evil; when he claims that Hizbullah’s means were those of an oppressed minority, and its military capabilities all but explicitly celebrated, he is implicitly adjudging its motives just. In other words, when he makes these claims, Hirst is not an impartial observer of the conflict in Lebanon; he is a partisan, a sectarian with preferences that run counter those of some of its major actors. This sectarianism renders his normative conclusions useless in practical terms; his implicit counterfactual argument – that were Israel and the West not meddling in Lebanese affairs, it would not be the violent battleground that it remains today – is in fact invalid because his counterfactual antecedent is not cotenable with the facts and theory, as summarized in the above analytical framework, on which he makes this inference in the first place.

A conclusion, not so powerful and even less controversial, but more appropriate, is simply that the Middle Eastern question is not one that can be resolved to the satisfaction of all, or even most, of its current disputants. It is not even one, like the twin questions of state capitalism and post-crisis capitalist reconfiguration, on which the relevant actors can even begin to move in the same direction. Should we be resigned to intractable conflict in the Middle East, with small state Lebanon as its battleground? At least until exogenous changes – be they demographic, ideological, military, economic, or whatever else – lead to the realignment of preferences of at least one of the conflict’s primary actors or fundamentally, irrevocably alter the balance of power between them, the above analytical framework would certainly suggest so. Even when these changes render conclusion possible, we must be prepared for a result that will in all likelihood be deeply, agonizingly tragic from the present standpoint of at least some those involved.

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