Some people think that a bad and unstable situation is the worst of all worlds. But for scenario consultants and other humans, there may be one situation that is worse.
That is a situation that is bad and also stable. Today's example: the situation between Gaza and Israel.
When a situation is terrible and unstable, it tends to resolve itself. Instability is often its own cure. It's often a waypoint between states of equilibrium.
But when a situation is merely bad and stable, there's no obvious solution.
For much of the past decade, the Israeli-Palestinian problem has been on a back burner, as far as the rest of the world is concerned. The Israeli response to the last intifada – invading Gaza, killing or capturing as many of the Hamas militants as they could find, and then building walls between Palestinian and Israeli areas to stop the wave of terror attacks coming mainly from Gaza – caused a great deal of dislocation and misery in Gaza, but it succeeded in stopping the terror wave, for the most part.
That terror wave, in turn, caused majority Israeli public opinion to turn away from thoughts of a long-term peace deal with Palestinians that had previously been the goal of all previous Israeli governments, as well as the cherished hope of most Israeli citizens. The Israeli public, sick of the constant danger, was satisfied with the short-term ugly solution of the wall, and they mainly abandoned their previous hopes for lasting peace, and have relaxed a bit and begun to enjoy life in a way that most of us take for granted, but which had been an impossible dream for them for many years.
On the other side, a mirror-opposite situation seems to have developed. The "kinetic" invasion of Gaza in response to attacks that most Palestinians, of course, had little to do with, inspired more hatred of the enemy among the Palestinians; the building of the wall kept them from exacting retribution, but also kept many of them from their jobs in Israel, the only viable economy in the area. So a short-term equilibrium was created in which anger and resentment built on one side of the wall, while a sort of inward-looking, understandably present-fixated enjoyment of their newfound relative security built on the other side.
Now, the problem with short-term merely-bad equilibria is that they cannot last forever. Eventually the forces that worked to create the equilibrium – in this case Israeli military dominance and determination to protect their citizens, and Palestinian resentment at being walled in – start to overspill their container, and a crisis occurs, as is happening as I write this (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/17/world/middleeast/israel-gaza-assault.html?hp ).
But the long-term, larger-scale equilibrium may not be immediately endangered by this particular crisis.
The Israelis will probably invade Gaza and seek to locate the missiles that have killed a number of their citizens, as well as the Hamas militants that have been lobbing those missiles into southern Israel. No American can possibly imagine that we would respond with more restraint if missiles were being lobbed into El Paso from Ciudad Juarez.
Palestinians will respond with even more outrage, echoed by their Arab allies and many other sympathizers around the world; pictures of dead children and an overwhelming military force steamrolling an apparently defenseless populace will always cause sympathy. But the wall will still be there, the Israeli military advantage will remain, and things may well, for the moment, go back to the sort of low-grade short-term-acceptable equilibrium that has prevailed since 1967 through one crisis after another.
On the other hand, even this sort of longer-term, crisis-punctuated equilibrium cannot last forever. There are simply too many potential sources of disruption for it to continue forever.
Iran's nuclear program may spur Israel (and the United States) to attack; such a move will likely unite many currently divided or diffident anti-Israeli forces. At the same time, such a move might also expose certain fault lines in the Islamic world that are not much discussed: specifically those between Shiite (Iran, Iraq, some Lebanese and Syrians, a minority population in Saudi Arabia, and majority populations in some other small Gulf sheikdoms) and Sunni (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, North Africa, Lebanon, majority of Syria, minority in Iraq, Pakistan, India, Indonesia); and those between Arab Muslims (North Africa, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Lebanon, Gulf states) and non-Arab Muslims (Turks, Iranians, Pakistanis, Afghans, Indians, Indonesians). These divisions have in the past proven even more powerful than the alleged primal hatred for Israelis by Middle Eastern Muslims.
It is an open secret that the Sunni Saudi Arabian regime sees Shiite Iran as a far more dangerous enemy than Israel. It also sees its own Shiite population and its own Islamist Sunnis as a greater danger than Israel. An Israeli attack on Iran might not, then, cause more than a cursory complaint from the most powerful military force in the Arab world.
But an Israeli attack on Iran could also spur revolutionary tendencies in the Saudi populace, and could ironically cause a second wave of the Arab Spring to sweep across the Gulf, giving policy expression to popularly-held negative opinions about Israel.
Even if the Israelis refrain from attacking Iran, an Iranian nuclear bomb could cause a nuclear arms race in the entire region; the Saudis reportedly have the ability to move toward nuclear weapons quickly.
Throw in the huge effects of such instability on world oil markets (and the US's own suddenly increased independence from Middle Eastern oil), and the number of potential large-scale outcomes becomes dizzying.
In short, this short-term "bad" equilibrium may be doomed by a longer-term near-inevitability of a larger radical instability. Something seems likely to give, with all the mines that populate the battlefield of the Middle East; the outcome is strictly unpredictable, and could range from a broad, generally peaceful democratization a la the end of the USSR, all the way to World War III.
It is, if nothing else, a natural venue for scenarios: a situation in which the large-scale outcome is strictly unpredictable, with a combination of large-scale forces that could drive events anywhere from tragedy to an equilibrium of greater comity, prosperity and democracy. Scenario planning at its best ought to be a way for leaders to break out of bad short-term strategic equilibria, to imagine a broader playing field and some moves that can remove them from a miserable but momentarily survivable cul-de-sac.
But at the moment, Israel and the Palestinians remain in a grim equilibrium of short-term thinking that is not optimal for civilians on either side, but a better alternative to which appears to be lacking. If it was easy to imagine a safe way out of the confined strategic space in which both sides find themselves, it would already have been done long ago.
At this moment, our thoughts are with the innocents on both sides – and the leaders who must at some point imagine the currently unimaginable.