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Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Lebanon alive and well

Raja from Lebanese Bloggers recently wrote about a “law of unintended consequences” as something that is bringing Lebanese together despite the terrorism that is being inflicted on them by the likes of Bashar Assad and his cohorts. Commenting on a report of a thwarted bomb attack on a holy Druze shrine in the Bekaa valley, Raja wrote that “efforts to destabilize the country” have so far failed because of this unwritten law:
In Lebanon, our salvation lies in that law.

Hariri's assassination brought about March 14.

Other assassinations brought us closer together rather than farther apart.

The political elite's desire to foment popular support rejuvenated patriotism and discourse on democracy like never before.

The drive to bring Bashar el Assad and his clique to justice, as opposed to simply attempting to overthrow him, has probably hammered in a new idea of justice to Lebanese and (hopefully) Arabs.

These unintended consequences, as well as others are what I am counting on for Lebanon. Hopefully, this attempted murder of hapless Druze sheykhs and sheykhat, will bring us even closer together.

Raja’s post reminded me of a recent time when most Lebanese bloggers came together to condemn the failure of the Arab press and the Arab public opinion in general to come out in support of the Lebanese cause. There was near-unanimity in rejecting all attempts to dismiss the Lebanese pursuit of justice as a foreign plot against a regime many Lebanese believe is murderous and not worth defending. From that point onwards, and despite our different experience and backgrounds, many of us dropped the shackles of expired historical arguments and allowed our discourse to progress and evolve. In a way, the seeds of Lebanese unity are found in the posts and comments of the Lebanese blogs.

If this is indicative of anything, it is that at times of great tragedy, just like warring radio stations unwittingly preserved Lebanese identity by airing Fairuz songs and Ziad Rahbani plays, the Lebanese blogosphere became a symbol and promoter of that identity.

I have no scientific study to back up what I said above, and I am fully aware that the blogosphere has limited influence within Lebanon. But I do believe that it is a reflection of Lebanese public sentiments inside the country. Confirming this is a recent poll conducted by Zogby International. The results of the poll are not all positive or encouraging, but they do reveal an unprecedented level of consensus in the country about Lebanese identity. James Zogby wrote:

The best news for Lebanon however, is the degree to which Lebanese, from all groups, self-identify with the country – higher than in any other Arab country. When asked to describe their principle identifier, more than 70 percent say “being Lebanese” –double what it was in 2002.

While they remain divided over several political issues, our poll found strong points of consensus among Lebanese of all background: a strong identity with the country, a growing optimism about the future; a consensus to fight against corruption and expand employment; and the need to reform the political system, while protecting Lebanon’s pluralism.

The Lebanon that Fairuz sang about, the Lebanon that we bloggers worry about and defend—our Lebanon is alive and well in the hearts and minds of its people. It’s a comforting thought to carry into what will be a challenging new year.

Kais, I would not usually encourage quiblling about a seeminglt academic issue through the medium of a political blog but in this case I feel that it is important to state that the phrase "law of unintended consequences"is a wrong expression for a rather narrow concept that does not rise to the level of being "law".

The most common and popular usage of the concept is called Blowback and that is usually a reference to an unintended consequence of a policy promulgated by the state. One of the most popular recent examples for a Blowback is the rise of the Taliban/OBL in response to the covert CIA efforts against the Soviets in Iran. As you can see there is no lawinvolved. The most that one can say is that somewhere along the time path a policy grounded in ignorance or what is called by Rob Nerton the sociologist "imperious immediacy" there will arise an unintended consequence to the policy in question. One cannot predict what that consequence will be , when would it occur or even if it would ever occur.

The Protestant Ethics that is given by many major credit for the development of capitalism is also another example of this isea. The success of the Protestant etrhics would ultimately lead to its downfall.

I understand the spirit in which one could argue that the Syrian policy in Lebanon has resulted in a blowback i.e. the cedar revolution but it is very dangerous to speak of the "law of unintended consequences" and imply that certain unwelcome actions will have a specific reactio that is unanticipated. If the reaction is known or anticipated then it is no longer unintended.

This concept has never been used and can never be used as a positive plan to achieve a specific objective and there lies its danger. It is absolutely useless as a compass to guide future action.
I suppose the term "law" might be incorrect since it signifies something with a predictable outcome, but I doubt Raja meant it as a guide for future actions. The gist of what he said, and what I tried to build on, is that the assassination unintentionally awakened a sense of unity. I think we all would have preferred that unity to have come before and through other means, perhaps the country would not be in its present predicament...
Gassan, I agree with you when you say...

"This concept has never been used and can never be used as a positive plan to achieve a specific objective and there lies its danger. It is absolutely useless as a compass to guide future action."

But that does not mean that we cannot take advantage of unintended consequences! We are not the policy makers... we are civil society - the counter elite! ;-)

By the way, i got curious and googled the phrase. I thought the wikipedia definition was a little more structured and, no doubt, more consise.

The law of unintended consequences, often cited but rarely defined, is that actions of people—and especially of government—always have effects that are unanticipated or "unintended." Economists and other social scientists have heeded its power for centuries; for just as long, politicians and popular opinion have largely ignored it.

The concept of unintended consequences is one of the building blocks of economics. Adam Smith's "invisible hand," the most famous metaphor in social science, is an example of a positive unintended consequence. Smith maintained that each individual, seeking only his own gain, "is led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention," that end being the public interest. "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, or the baker, that we expect our dinner," Smith wrote, "but from regard to their own self interest."



The Law of Unintended Consequences holds that almost all human actions have at least one unintended consequence. In other words, each cause has more than one effect including unforeseen effects. The idea dates to the Scottish Enlightenment, which influenced people such as Thomas Jefferson. In the twentieth century, sociologist Robert K. Merton once again popularized it, sometimes referred to as the Law of Unforeseen Consequences.


Raja, my intention was not to start a major debate about the origin of Blowback. I have personally used the idea in a few of my papers and lectures. I just wanted to highlight the fact that we recognize un unintended consequence only when the initial plan fails. This implies that "unintended consequences"are another way of saying that a plan has failed in achieving its goal. The failure of any plan results in an unintended consequence, otherwise the plan would have succeeded.

BTW, as an economist, I take strong exception to the Wikipedia example regarding "The Invisible Hand". The idea has been the corner stone of capitalism precisely because it is thought to promote freedom and prosperity. Its outcome IS NOT unintended.Wikipedia is assembled by thousands of individuals and is not viewed as a serious reference:-)
I am fascinated by the increasing use of that word "blowback," kind of like the use of "impact" as both noun and verb (much to the chagrin of my English teachers back in the early 1900s, so to speak). "Blowback" as an unintended consequence is derived from its military usage. When firing a large caliber weapon like an anti-tank missile, troops must keep clear from the rear of the weapon to avoid the explosive back-blast. Blowback is generally considered not just a consequence, but a negative one, and one that is fully realized and probably controllable under most circumstances.
The term Blowback has been popularized by the various schemes promoted by the CIA and other secret services. Yes, you are absolutely correct, a blowback occurs when the initial plan does not work but results in an unintended outcome that is often the opposite of the original goal. As a result one can indeed say, but only in retrospect, that the assassination of PM Harriri by the Syrian agents has backfired and gave the Lebanese an opportunity to reclaim their sovereignty. My only point is to stress the fact that "unintended consequences" or Blowback is a valid description of a plan that goes awry and that misfires by ultimately injuring the executioner instead of the victim. This however should not be used , and cannot be used, as an instrument for guiding any kind of a future action or policy.
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