Archive

Geopolitics

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, or MBS as his branding efforts have dubbed him, made quite a splash in the American media recently, with a major interview in The Atlantic, and lengthy profiles in The New Yorker and the New York Times. The idea that the new de facto ruler of the kingdom is a Dynamic Young Reformer is catnip for these outlets. The stories drool over the possibility that he might end both the cultural domination of Wahabi theology and the 70 year Arab-Israeli Cold War.

I’m going to toot my own horn a little here. I saw this all coming last fall, when the Crown Prince announced plans for a Special Economic and Cultural Zone in northwestern SA, a place where the religious police would have little power and high-tech companies encouraged. The region in question is far from the population centers of the Arabian Peninsula—but right next to Eilat, the Israeli port on the Gulf of Aqaba.

Since that announcement, the SA and Israeli governments have been dancing a minuet. Though nothing is being rushed on either side, for right now the momentum looks to be going toward greater contact, and perhaps moves toward full relations. And then alliance?

The geopolitical advantages are obvious. Iran, SA and Israel’s mutual arch-enemy, has established a zone of influence across the Middle East, through Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. The Saudis appear to be attempting to establish a counterzone: the Gulf States, Jordan, Egypt and…Israel?

It’s a good strategy. The Saudi Zone would have its back to the sea, whereas the Iranian Zone has to watch out for the Turks and Russians. The U.S. would, in most ways, be pleased to see greater co-operation between two of its closest allies.

The trick is that Iran has deposited a rabid badger in the Saudi backyard, in the form of Yemen. If the Saudis wants to pursue a full-on press against the Iranian Zone, they’re going to have to pacify Yemen first, and there is no sign of that happening so far.

(It occurs to me that if the Saudis wanted to set a similar rabid badger in the Iranian Zone, they might make overtures to the Kurds—but that would decisively swing Turkey to the Iranian side.)

The big question is how likely all of this is to develop into open conventional line warfare. It’s is a dicey prospect for both sides, since the Persian Gulf—the principal economic engine for both zones—would become a battlefield. Even a short conflict would wreck years of carefully built-up infrastructure. Granted, the two Gulf Wars demonstrated how quickly oil & gas production can be re-established, but still, it’s a considerable risk.

And if open war broke out, what would be the greater effect in the Roomful of Dust? What would the Russians do? Would Pakistan take a side, and if so, what reaction would this get from India? Would China consider this a problem or an opportunity?

For now, it will be interesting to see how far MBS can push his new policies without risking popular backlash. The Crown Prince appears to be betting that the young adults of the Middle East are sick of hearing about the wonders of Sharia & the evils of the Zionist Entity. Can the Arab Street—that amorphous mass on which so much ink has been spilled these past 17 years—give up the old sureties for a high-tech future? We’ll see.

Addendum: If you compare the armed forces of Iran to those of the Saudis/Gulf States, Iran looks better. The Saudis have a lot of expensive equipment, but the Iranians have more, and the conventional wisdom is that Saudi troops aren’t very good.

So if the Saudis want to pose a credible military threat, they need some help. There are two obvious possibilities: Israel and the U.S.. The Israelis are at the wrong end of the Middle East for a land offensive into Iran, and if MBS were to invite an Israeli Expeditionary Force onto the sacred soil of the Two Shrines, he’d really be tap-dancing through a minefield. Could the Saudis actually swing American involvement? Even given Iranian unpopularity in the States, the cost in blood and treasure would make it a very tough sell.

Dust is dangerous. Anyone who works in a grain elevator or a sugar refinery knows this. When dust reaches a certain concentration in the air, the atmosphere becomes literally explosive. A spark ignites one mote of dust, which then ignites its neighbors, which ignite their neighbors, all of this happening in microseconds, until the room erupts with the collective force.

Our world is roomful of dust. There is now a broad band of conflict stretching from the Mediterranean/Black Sea to the Sea of Japan. In that band are numerous points of antagonism. Any one of them could be the spark that lights the explosion.

The reason I bring this up is that it hit me recently that there was no single World War II. There was no inherent connection between the war in Europe from 1939 to 1945 and the war in Asia from 1937 to 1948. They were two separate conflicts that coincided, because the world had grown “war-ish.” By that I mean the idea of putting armies on the march and violating borders by invasion had become thinkable, eventually typical. Once that mindset was in place, events took momentum of their own, going in directions that no one could foresee.

I worry we are getting close to a recurrence of that spiral.

Since the end of the Cold War, the overwhelming size of the American military has put a blanket on open international warfare. The U.S. Defense budget is the size of the next five largest military budgets in the world plus. There’s nothing like it. By that score, it’s difficult to imagine any nation’s decision makers thinking themselves capable of going on the offensive.

However, that very power makes the U.S. resented. One possible scenario is that China, facing economic troubles and wanting to distract the masses by foreign expansion, decides it is simply no longer willing to endure being limited by American squeamishness, and attacks anyway. If this sound familiar, it’s a contracted version of what happened in Japan between 1932 and 1941. Should China attack Japan, Taiwan or the Philippines, the U.S. will certainly intervene. Even Bernie Sanders or Ralph Nader would feel compelled to strike back under those circumstances.

With that occupying the American war machine in the Pacific, Putin may decide that he will never get a better opportunity to strike in Europe. This would not be an all-out war of conquest. It would be an attempt to impose an atmosphere of co-operation with Russian foreign policy objectives, along with annexation of Belarus and the rest of Ukraine (and the Baltics, if he can get away with it). The main idea would be to cow Western/Central Europe and stop the current drift toward anti-Russian unity (as demonstrated by Sweden and Finland seeking to join NATO). Europe would fight—but it’s hard to say to what degree, and how much support an already burdened US could give them.

And then what becomes of the Saudi/Iran conflict or Indo-Pakistani tensions? We can’t know. It’s impossible to tell how any war will turn out until you fight it. Warfare is inherently chaotic and unpredictable. Might turn out that the Russian economy has less warmaking potential than it seems. Or that might turn out to be the case for the U.S.. Or here’s an odd one: China goes to war with Japan and the South Koreans swing in on the Chinese side. Unlikely, but not impossible. The Korean people consider Japan to be a threat, and being in the middle the ROK govt would be under strong pressure to pick a side. Strange things will happen. The Nazi/Soviet pact that opened the gateway to the European theater seemed unthinkable right up to the moment it was announced. That’s when wars starts, when folks do something unexpected.

I remind myself that it once seemed inevitable that the Cold War would turn hot, yet that never happened. I’m hoping this is the case again. Dona nobis pacem. Dona nobis pacem. Dona nobis pacem. Amen.

Since this month is the quarter-century anniversary of the First Gulf War:

In the early summer of 1990, my father taught me how to drive. Franklin County, New York is threaded with semiuninhabited back roads, excellent for the novice driver, and we spent hours practicing, me driving, us talking. Among the things we talked about was the situation then developing in the Middle East. Saddam Hussein, the dictator of Iraq, was threatening to invade the tiny, oil-rich Emirate of Kuwait. America’s pundit class was talking itself hoarse in debate as to whether or not he had the guts to go through with it.

Yes, he will, I said, with the excitement of an adolescent who thinks they’re onto something. I had read a profile of the man in a recent Reader’s Digest. It had described him as a gambler, akin to Hitler in that way, a man who would keep on taking risks until he was bodily prevented from doing so. To my eye, that seemed perfectly astute.

No, he won’t, my father replied, with the weariness of a man who’s seen too much power politics in his lifetime. He just got off a treasury-draining, army-destroying, eight-year war with Iran. If he’s managed to stay dictator this long, he must have sense enough to know the United States government would never allow him to get away with it. Nothing’s going to happen.

My father was absolutely right. It was absurd of me to think (on the basis of a Reader’s Digest article!) that Saddam Hussein was that foolish. I was indulging my teenage sense of wanting events to be more dramatic than they were. Anyone with an ounce of brains could tell that despite all the saber rattling, the man astute enough to be a dictator for so long would know he was taking an unwinnable risk.

That fact that Saddam Hussein did indeed invade Kuwait is irrelevant.

‘Cause really, what the hell was he thinking? I really do want to know. There was, around 1990, some talk about how the end of the Cold War meant the decline of both superpowers, that the U.S., saddled with strategic overstretch and a massive deficit, was on the fade as much as the U.S.S.R.. I suppose Hussein convinced himself that was true. I know that in the run-up to the First Gulf War, the Iraqi government released a transcript of a conversation between him and American ambassador April Glaspie, during which she appeared to state that the U.S. would stay neutral. Maybe Hussein convinced himself that was true.

Granted, nobody predicted Bush. George Bush was the man America elected because Ronald Reagan couldn’t have a third term. He was one of the last scions of the old WASP ruling class who climbed to power simply because they were used to it. It was difficult to take him seriously. Yet this George Bush and his team put together the greatest accomplishment in American diplomacy since the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the most impressive feat of American arms since MacArthur’s breakout from Pusan in 1950.

There was no reason to think any of this coming. It was all ridiculous. History is like that.

This question of Saddam’s intentions in the first war is matched with the question of Bush Jr’s intentions in the second. In both cases, the stated reasons cannot possibly be the whole story. So on what actual ideas were staked the fate of nations and the lives of millions? We don’t get to know. You and I, here in the realm of the common person, only get to live the consequences. We don’t even have the dignity of finding out what we’re being used for.

I’d like to just know. I really want to know.

Sometimes I wonder if we live in another 1930s, a runup to global war, with events spiraling out of control.

But today, rereading the post-WWI diaries of Count Henry Kessler (which I recommend to everyone), I noticed something. In his slow, ground-level account of that decade, there was a constant note of instability. That no one was sure what was going on with the Great Powers, what direction they would take, from Germany to the United States.

Whatever you want to say about the Great Powers of our age, they’re not unstable. I don’t know if it’s demographics or what, but all of the powers of our age have, as Tom Wolfe said, the same center of gravity as a deluxe sofa. There may be exceptions yet revealed–Russia and Saudi Arabia seem candidates–but for now, we know exactly what everyone will do.

That gives us one up on the Thirties. So far.

I would like to formally retract, this 9/11 morning, this post I wrote on my old blog. Not the part about what the day was like; that’s fine. What I mean is my subsequent analysis that 9/11 didn’t mean that much. That’s ridiculous, the worst kind of contrarian nonsense. I like to think the reason I couldn’t come up with anything better than the truly puerile conclusion of the post is because I didn’t really believe, in my heart of hearts, what I was saying.

What I now think about 9/11 is that it was, of course, the beginning of the era. The 90s were an indian summer for the world, a time of peace and prosperity between the end of the Cold War and the new century.

(I speak in general here. It doesn’t work if you’re, say, Rwandan).

9/11 revealed that The System of the World had quietly changed. In the 20th century, you had to watch out for nation states. They had vast armies, fueled by the power to tax and draft, war machines backed by bureaucracies, flanked by diplomats who argued their causes in vast and serious venues like the U.N.. In the 21st century, the danger has become anyone with a box cutter, a cause, and the knowledge of how to twist the complexities of postindustrial society against itself.

In William Gibson’s Neuromancer, there’s a scene where a corporate office is raided. The attackers (our protagonists) use various stimuli to induce a psychotic break in the employees, causing a riot, in order to steal something in the chaos. The attack is done with the aid of a group of mercenary hackers, and blamed on religious terrorists. Blood coats the lobby floor, but it’s nothing personal. The dead were just in the way.

Is this our time, when for any reason we can find ourselves caught up in the machinations of people acting in a sovereign fashion, for their own aims, unaccountable to any law or value, completely regardless of civilian lives?

Recently I’ve taken up the bad habit of watching too many 9/11 videos on Youtube.

This one, rare footage of the first plane hitting, gives us the sound of the future arriving Express.

This, with running, and screaming, and the ominous loss of feed.

But I keep coming back to this one, to the venomous clouds, skyscraper tall, billowing out to engulf the world.