The management guru C K Prahalad wrote a while ago about the permanence of rituals in the corporate workplace, often ushered in by age-old fears. To illustrate this, he quoted an example (generally considered to be apocryphal) involving monkeys in a cage. I have modified the experiment he quoted (it was fictional anyway) to illustrate slightly more complex systems:

Five monkeys are in a cage. The keepers put in a step ladder in the cage and on top of the step ladder put a basket of bananas. On another step ladder in the same cage he places a basket of sour apples.

Every time one of the monkeys climbs the ladder to get a fresh banana, hoses installed around the cage spew out scalding hot water at all the monkeys. But when a monkey climbs the other ladder to get a sour apple, nothing happens. Despite tasting awful, the apple is available and hence becomes acceptable to the monkey.

Over time, when the unsuccessful “banana” monkey comes back from the ladder, it is attacked by the other four monkeys. Any monkey that gets a sour apple is left alone in contrast. This goes on until all the monkeys are both scalded and beaten up, but all have eaten sour apples.

Then the zookeeper replaces one monkey with another from outside the cage. As the newcomer heads to the “banana” ladder, it is immediately stopped and beaten up by the other monkeys. No water is used to scald this monkey because it doesn’t get to the “banana” ladder. It too ends up eating the sour apples. The process is repeated until all four monkeys are replaced with four new ones (ie ones that have never been scalded).

Despite the fact that none of the monkeys in the cage now has ever been scalded, not one of the monkeys goes up the ladder to fetch a banana, and all now live on sour apples.

While Prahalad used this example to illustrate the principle of “that’s how things have always happened around here” in corporate workplace, the idea can be easily extended to other areas of human existence including social customs, religious rituals and even political choices.

Do note though that while the examples above discuss primates, I am not in any way insulting the population of the Middle East, but rather commenting on those who would rule them, as they appear to think and treat these peoples are mindless, giving them solitary choices whilst vilifying all alternatives. “Sour apples” and “bananas”.

Over in the Middle East, particularly in the minority community regimes in Syria and Iraq, the “fruit experiment” involved thugs from the ruling parties that denied the majority groups their rights. While in the predominantly Sunni country Syria, the Ba’ath party was run by a Shia; in neighboring Iraq, a Sunni from a minor tribe ran the predominantly Shia country.

Both rulers applied the “fruit experiment” to keep their populaces under control and far away from democracy. This involved avowed secularism, modern clothes and women’s education: the “sour apples” in the minds of those in the populace who opposed these regimes for a variety of reasons.

When the US effected a regime change, it tried to make it the choice of the people to have either sour apples or bananas in the name of bringing democracy to the population. Thus a whole bunch of things that had been taboo under Saddam were suddenly perfectly acceptable, as the bigger priority was to stabilize the armed forces and effect a smooth transition to majority rule.

Big mistake.

Along came the IS in both Syria and Iraq – and they suddenly pointed out to the Sunni tribes that “bananas” were what real regimes were made of – in other words, adherence to core religious principles behind the fig leaf of which a brutal dictator (or king or tribe) sits to manipulate the puppet strings.

So those poor souls who were crucified last week for being too moderate were, in effect, punished for pursuing the “sour apples”. The IS wants to let it be known that a “caliphate” is now in place – much like the Taliban-declared “emirate” in Afghanistan after it took over from the Najibullah regime.

Understandably, the population is controlled – they fear these new zookeepers who will punish them for eating “sour apples”, but also need to fear the US and its attempts to bring back something akin to the past regimes, which would of course punish the populace for eating “bananas”.

But this is a rerun, right? Oceania, Afghanistan … That strange sense of deja vu you are feeling now – congratulations, it simply means you remember what happened to Saddam and Najibullah when the zookeepers were replaced. In particular, the example of Najibullah must strike a chord – despite being a fellow Pashtun, the Taliban had him castrated and dragged behind a truck over the streets of Kabul to his death before his body (and that of his brother, who was given the same treatment) was left hanging in the town center to announce the establishment of the “emirate”.

IS may have considered the folks they crucified last weekend as the sort of people who could benefit from the US$500 million or so that President Barack Obama sought from his lawmakers to arm the “moderate” folks fighting both the Syrian regime and IS. Whether they were any of those things, we will never know: all that IS wanted to communicate to anyone even thinking about taking US money was – take a look at the corpses dangling in the town center.

Why all the barbarity accompanying regime change in the Muslim world? Did their mothers forget to teach them proper table manners? Perhaps, but the more likely explanation is that the acts of barbarity – Saddam, Najibullah and now those poor souls crucified by the IS – are all examples of effective announcements concerning regime change. How else would the populace accept that “sour apples” are now “bad” while “bananas” are “good”, or, indeed, vice versa when the next regime pops up.

This is all very Orwellian, isn’t it: the nightmares of populations living under mutually contradictory alliances in the totalitarian nation-states of Oceania, Eastasia and Eurasia. For those in the Middle East, these three states are respectively the ancient dictators, US-backed “new” democrats and terrorist organizations like the Taliban or the IS. One cannot envy their choices.

What we do know is that the lines between facts and fiction are fairly blurry over the Middle East. Whether art follows life or life follows art, we don’t know anymore.

How should the US respond?

As I wrote before in the article Lousy game theory in Syria (Asia Times Online, September 4, 2013), the very idea of the US president announcing a red line and then failing to follow through was bad enough, but then to follow it up with armed support to the very al-Qaeda offshoots the US had been determined to crush earlier was just policy lunacy.

Over and above all the crucifixions and other horrors in Syria, we have to also ponder the little matter of weapons at the disposal of the Bashar al-Assad regime, and what happens if they come into the hands of IS.

Then there is the vexing question of the chemical weapons that were supposedly used by Bashar al-Assad’s forces on civilians. If we take the West at face value and assume that such weapons exist in Syria (which is a rather big leap of faith after those non-existent chemical and nuclear weapon stacks that were supposedly stored and ready for deployment under every Iraqi bridge), why would you risk a regime change with no boots on the ground? Giving mustard gas bombs to either Hezbollah or al-Qaeda was what I thought the “War on Terror” was supposed to prevent, not achieve.

Both Israel and the US have much to fear from the new IS – on the one hand, there is the need to monitor and control every suspected site holding weapons of mass destruction of the Assad regime; on the other, there is a need to avoid the IS standing up and marching off into Saudi Arabia. To be sure, they already have oil but with Saudi, they actually have OIL.

Without boots on the ground, and strong support from the air (manned and drones) as well as a coalition of allies gathered from the rickety regimes of Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, that is far too fanciful to even contemplate in the current political climate of the US as well as these Arab states.

The thing about rickety regimes is that they need to focus on the important things, such as keeping their oil and passing around the colostomy bags between members of the royal family. For the US, with elections coming around later in the year, there is nary a chance of any action “out there”.

So the mess gets worse before it gets better; if it ever does. As for the monkeys, they have to keep alternating between sour apples and bananas.