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Geopolitics

The past two weeks have led to some paradigm revisions here at the Library You See In Dreams.

Turns out there is no Roomful of Dust, ready to ignite. There is instead a large pile of wet newspaper.

The United States assassinated one of the highest ranking Iranian military leaders. And in return…the Iranians gave advance warning they were going to bomb an American airbase, so any Americans could be cleared out of the way.

Not exactly Pearl Harbor.

Last year Pakistan and India got so far as to actually carry out airstrikes on each other. No war. Iran and Saudi Arabia have been carrying out a proxy fight in Yemen for some time now. No war.

So this requires some thought. All conclusions must hang tentative.

My developing hypothesis is that war no longer works for the purposes of the modern nation-state. It’s too expensive and risky. Self-preservation is the name of the game. Make one error and Syria, now a fractured, war-ravaged mess dependent on outside powers, is your best case scenario.

The trick is, of course, that if this ceased to be true—if any one nation decided that the possibilities of gain were worth the risk—they wouldn’t say so. They’d just go and start the war. It would only be visible in hindsight.

But for now, it doesn’t look like that moment is anywhere near.

There’s a roomful of dust

And there’s some idiot flicking his Bic.

We’re at war, if the Iranian government wants it. There’s few casus belli clearer than assassinating a high-ranking general. Although if anyone in the Middle East wanted a line war, we’d have had about eight of them in the past two years.

Iran is not a superpower. A few years back, I looked it up: the Iranian defense budget was roughly equal to that of the United States Coast Guard. The theocracy is shaky. The economy is shot.

But therein lies the problem. The more desperate the Iranian ruling class feels, the more willing they will be to forget what the smart move is, and try to do something wild. To drop a dirty bomb on the Ghawar oil field. To spread nerve gas over one of our aircraft carrier—or an Israeli city. To carry out 9/11 scale attacks on American soil. To do something we won’t know they had the capability to do, until it’s too late.

Twice in my lifetime, the United States has unleashed major military offenses in the Persian Gulf region. Twice, the worst has not happened—although what did happen was pretty damn bad. Still, though, chaos did not run wild.

Yet it could have. Have we gotten too secure? Are we going to keep poking the rabid dog until we get well and truly bit?

Only a fucking idiot would try. Unfortunately, we have just such a fucking idiot for a president.

All I know is this. Around the world, in Iran, in Iraq, in Saudi Arabia, in Israel, in India & Pakistan, in China & Russia, and certainly right here in the United States:

We need more hippies.

(a juxtagraph is a prose poetry form, best described as “a collage of facts.”)

OIL: A JUXTAGRAPH
-DW Twiddy

In 2018, the world produced thirty-six billion, seven hundred and eighty-eight million, three hundred and fifty thousand barrels of oil, or about one thousand, one hundred, and sixty-six barrels per second.

In 1975, Gulf Oil held a series of seminars to educate the Nigerian public on the benefits of the crude Gulf was lifting from that nation’s Delta Region. For comic relief, out came Mr. Emmanuel Omatshola’s Magic Barrel, a magician who produced an endless bounty from a steel drum: gasoline, kerosene, insecticides, nylon socks, rubber shoes, lipstick & rouge, paint for houses, cellophane to wrap fish and meat.

All humanity clusters around Mr. Omatshola’s barrel. We depend on its generous depths. No one knows where lies the barrel’s bottom.

Read More

Every so often I remember this post and think I should do an update.

At this point, it is obvious that the Roomful of Dust is less explosive than I feared it was. In the past six months, Pakistan and India, then Iran and everybody, have stood on the brink of war, yet no war has appeared. This is a potent reminder that war is not only not healthy for children and other living things, it’s also not healthy for existing power structures. All the players have their own cold-steel goals, but they all have a lot to lose as well. The lack of line warfare in recent decades, combined with jumps of weapons technology, means that it’s impossible to know what could happen once the reins are off.

In fact, it’s possible war might bring nothing good even for the winners. Saudi Arabia and Israel want regime change in Iran—but if the collapse of the Islamic Republic led to a massive failed-state zone, they might end up longing for the ayatollah’s time. China’s neighbors would like the PRC to cool it with the efforts to become hegemon of East & Southeast Asia—but they might like mass chaos in interior even less. Everyone’s aware just how economic stability, let alone growth, would pop like a soap bubble under wartime conditions. Any war in the Persian Gulf would immediately chop world oil supplies by more than half, instantly creating a global depression.

So I’m not as nervous as was. And yet.

The problem is that most of the time, war is always the stupid move. Peace is the result of geopolitical equilibrium; geopolitical equilibrium is the product not of universal satisfaction with the state of affairs, but with universal acquiescence that there’s nothing that can be done about it. Generally speaking, peace is always the smart move. Wars occur when someone, out of arrogance or desperation or both, decides to forget what the smart move is. Austria forgot in 1914. Japan forgot in 1941. Israel forgot in 1967. Sometimes it works out. Usually it doesn’t.

So the question is: will someone in the Room choose to forget? They haven’t. There’s been ample opportunity, yet they haven’t. May they continue to not forget.

Saudi Arabia and Israel have formed what I’ve come to refer to privately as “The Aqaba Connection” (after the Gulf of Aqaba, on which both nations border) What, exactly, that connection consists of is hard to say. There is some loose diplomatic co-ordination. There are signs of outreach, like the new economic zone Mohammed bin Salman wants to establish across the Gulf from Israel. I guess the extreme theory would be that they are official secret allies, but I don’t think that’s the case—yet.

The force bringing them together is Iran. Iranian extension of force into Iraq and Syria has made historic dislike into active opposition. For the first time, the Islamic Republic has a line of communication to the Israeli border, through Iraq and Syria. A shaky one, to be true, but it’s there. If the Iranians want to attack the Golan Heights, they can.

Israel will not allow this situation to continue. For a while in April I honestly thought they might launch a ground offensive. They did not, and in retrospect that seems a little off. A ground offensive would be far too risky a proposition, and Israel has other avenues of attack.

For instance: it now seems that Israel and the Saudis have successfully brought Donald Trump onto their side. Maybe they’re bribing him, maybe they’re blackmailing him, or maybe they just have the Republican-stimulating juice he wants. The Aqaba Connection seems to have lobbied Trump to scrap the nuclear deal with Iran and reimpose sanctions. At the same time, they’ve apparently been urging him to lift sanctions on Russia, in hopes that Russia in return will squeeze the Iranians out of Syria.

John Bolton this week said regime change in Iran is not a U.S. goal. I doubt that. Certainly, neither of the Aqaba Connection will feel 100% safe until the Islamic Republic is replaced. All three parties are hoping the resulting economic decline from the reimposed sanctions topples the regime. The trick is what happens afterwards. Will Iran become another Syria? The Saudis might wish they had stayed with the ayatollahs.

So I don’t expect open warfare at this point, with one hitch. If the militant wing in Iran becomes convinced they could lose either their foothold in Syria or their power at home, they might decide, out of desperation, launch an offensive against Israel. Like the Japanese in 1941, withdraw would be psychologically impossible, so attack is the only option. But that is unlikely to happen.

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.