Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Unstable Regimes

Reexamination of our Cold War relationships with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan is long overdue. Counterbalances to Marxist and Soviet-backed regimes are out of date and our alliances with those nations no longer serve a rational purpose in many ways.

Our nation’s opposition to Iran and a practical desire to fight terrorism have drawn us into supporting unstable nations that are vulnerable to collapse. Pakistan is a mess of a country (locked in a feud with India from birth – like Jacob and Esau grappling in the womb) that is beset by institutional, infrastructural, and political failures. Pakistan faces overwhelming challenges in its future. Only about 60% of the population is literate and millions of children are not enrolled in school. What kind of future do those children have in our modern world if they are not receiving any substantial education? Of course, if a nation cannot guarantee security for its people it cannot begin to educate them either. If the United States supports the nation of Pakistan, it should come with severe pressure to reform the country. But they are an important source of information and a sometime friend in the War on Terror. Bordering Afghanistan is also a mark in their favor as we pursue a never-ending conflict in that nation. Our nation has decided to support Pakistan in pursuit of immediate interests without thought for the longterm consequences of supporting that tortured country in the way we currently do.

Saudi Arabia is another tricky nation with whom we should be more enemy than friend. During the Cold War it made a lot of sense for the United States to support the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as a bulwark against Soviet-backed states in the region. Since the region is so integral to the oil economy it was a key part of American Cold War strategy to not allow the Soviet Union to dominate that area. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War the United States has lost its reason to be in a strong alliance with Saudi Arabia.

The Kingdom is a repressive absolute monarchy. Homosexuality, women’s rights, and political opposition are forbidden. Besides their socially and politically regressive policies, which are anathema to the liberal west, they are the wellspring of the radical Muslim theology that inflames terrorists around the world. Wahabism, as the totalitarian version of Islam is generally known, is funded, supported, and globally disseminated by the government of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia supports this idea because it is anti-democracy and therefore bolsters the authority of the government of Saudi Arabia. In a bid to strengthen their own existence in their own country, the government of Saudi Arabia exports an idea that helps to radicalize young Muslims all over the world. For this reason alone we should not support Saudi Arabia. If the national security of the country is truly threatened chiefly by terrorism, then one of our chief allies outside of the English-speaking nations of the world is one of our greatest enemies.

Donald Trump’s emerging policy of strengthening an anti-Iranian alliance muddies the clear water through which we should see Saudi Arabia. Since those two nations are the key rivals in the Middle East over politics and oil, the United States has chosen the side of Saudi Arabia. A house divided against itself cannot stand, and the United States cannot ally with and fight the same nations at the same time.

An entire re-imagining of who our allies are and why, what we give them, and what we should demand of them in return for support is necessary. The careening foreign policy of the United States since the beginning of the new millennium has not brought any stability to the government’s positions in the Muslim world and elsewhere.

After 9/11 the United States under the George W. Bush Administration invaded Afghanistan and then Iraq. Because of the invasion of Afghanistan, and the lack of clear and achievable goals there, the US was forced to try to work closely with Pakistan, another nation that is beset by terrorism that it spawned itself. By invading Iraq and overthrowing the bulwark against Iranian hegemony in the Euphrates Valley, the United States invited greater power and adventurism on the part of the Iranian government. Lacking the manpower and will to fight Iran as well as the other two wars the government was involved in, we settled for supporting an anti-Iranian alliance and got involved with sectarian politics. Along with these actions a security apparatus, focused on fighting terrorism, was founded in the United States and significant tenets of US foreign policy were based around this apparatus. Then, in a jerking reversal, the Obama administration tried to disengage from the region directly and withdraw from the ugly alliances and wars which it found itself in. In a series of half-measures the United States bumbled away from the messes we made while changing nothing significantly in the security apparatus, in our system of alliances, or in the facts on the ground in the contested nations. Now, in another stunning reversal, the Trump administration is pursuing a doggedly anti-Iranian strategy, for which the conditions would not exist if it were not for the invasion of Iraq. The US has therefore, entangled itself with nations with whom it has few common interests, allowed avowed enemies to gain power, and then doubled-down on those entanglements to fight the enemies whom we allowed to become powerful. Containment this is not.

Propaganda when Nobody is Looking

America and NATO’s war in Afghanistan has continued for almost 17 years now, and hardly anyone is paying any attention. There was much fuss and excitement over the dropping of the so-called “MOAB” on an Islamic State camp on April 13th of this year. Apparently it takes the dropping of a massive bomb to get the citizens of our country to pay attention. What has gone generally unnoticed is the generally poor showing of Afghan National forces and the remaining NATO troops against the resurgent Taliban.

In the much contested Helmand province, the center of many bloody fights over the last decade and a half, the Taliban recently seized the city of Sangin. After withdrawing from the town center the press office of the NATO mission tried to claim that the town wasn’t lost, but that the town center was moved. This is a lie. It would be an injustice to call it “spin” or up-to-date information. This kind of blatant lie should alarm those nations which have a stake in fighting in Afghanistan.

They can only get away with this because no one is paying attention in the first place. But what does it say when the military lies to the public to cover a loss? Questioning American participation in wars is an old habit, generally of the political left, but when those in charge of making life and death decisions for American soldiers begin to actively lie to the public about what is going on everyone should begin to question their nation’s participation in that war. “What’s the point of being there at this point anyway?” There are many reasons, but these have not been deemed important enough to tell the American public in any sort of serious, visible, or coherent way.

NATO and the government of Afghanistan need to make a deal with the Taliban, that is clear. Fighting an unpopular, ignored, and limited war will never lead to any kind of measurable success.

I met an Afghan man and we discussed life under the Taliban. He told me that the Taliban was popular because they were more likely to be honest and just than the secular government. “You cannot bribe the Taliban,” he told me. Dishonesty and a lack of justice, aided and abetted by NATO, are what makes the Taliban attractive and powerful, even if they are brutal totalitarians. For that reason, NATO should find a way out instead of trying to increase the number of soldiers fighting there. Lies cannot win wars alone, and if the war cannot be won by soldiers either, then it should not be fought.

The Anglo-German Naval Arms Race and Edward Snowden

100 years ago the United States entered the first great modern military catastrophe. Unfortunately it would not be the last. There were many, many factors contributing to the First World War, but one of them was a naval arms race between Germany and Great Britain.

As a rising power, Germany saw a strong navy as a deterrent to Great Britain’s ambition and as a way to expand their own Imperial ambitions. As for the British, they had a policy of having a navy larger than the other two largest navies combined. Tremendous strain was placed on the British industrial capacity and government funding when the United States and Germany both put their industrial might to use on their burgeoning naval fleets. Germany never did quite catch up to Britain before the war started, but they came close, and they came close for one reason: the British switched their ships’ fuel from coal to oil.

In an instant the new classes of oil-powered warships made all other warships obsolete. The British and German navies began at the same point because they both possessed the same technologies. Germany strove to produce as many new oil-powered warships as quickly as they could. In turn, the British attempted to do the same in order to maintain their superiority. Intensifying the arms race destabilized the world. Feeling pressured, the British became increasingly prepared to use force to counter the Germans and the pressure for decisive military confrontation to defeat the other side increased.

When reviewing the Anglo-German naval arms race as a historical precedent, it is easy to see how Edward Snowden, and other leaks of the United States’ technical ability in cyberspying and cyberwarfare, have made the world less safe.

Leaks from the NSA, and now the CIA, revealed both advanced methods and means of attacking computer networks. Every other major power in the world now has the ability to do exactly what the NSA and CIA have the ability to do. This inflames a cyber arms race that was already raging. United States intelligence agencies now have increased incentive to strike other powers harder and more often preemptively than they had in the past. Other powers may now have abilities to seriously damage or infiltrate US assets that they could not in the past. A wider range of actors have the ability to do more damage than they did previously.

Snowden, and others, may have sparked a debate in the United States about how much the government should be monitoring citizens, but in the grander view, the leaks have made all citizens less safe.

The Death of Politics

In a corrupt, almost-Dystopian state, men armed with clubs, sheathed in body armor, masks covering their faces, and carrying banners with symbols representing their ideologies fought for control of city blocks. 

Distressing scenes like this are no longer found exclusively in the pages of novels or in the corrupt states of the Third World. In Greece throughout 2013, Nazi’s and Communists fought each other in the streets of Athens. 80 years earlier the two most destructive ideologies of the 20th century physically battled for supremacy across Europe – and much of Europe was eventually devastated by the fruits of those politics. Eight years after the worst moments of the American economic collapse, those politics have inched their way into the United States and embedded themselves firmly into the political discourse.

The election of Donald Trump was an indictment of the American political system and institutions. The institutions failed in their purpose and design, and the political system has been exposed as being aloof from the concerns of the American people. Decades of collusion between corporate interests, pressure groups, unions, and other special interests and the American government at the expense of populist policies have undermined American political institutions. Government and special interests have separated the political discourse from the good of society. People have become increasingly disillusioned with centrist policies that seem to benefit private interests and have turned toward the edges of the political spectrum. In our Republic this has increasingly resulted in legislative gridlock which further undermines faith in traditional and centrist politics. American politics’ weak center, with leaders lacking charisma and lacking a vision beyond maintaining the status quo, is giving way toward ideas of radical change. Wholesale changes in the economy have granted an urgency to this transformation.

In so many ways since the global catastrophe (it should never have been so meekly termed “The Great Recession”) the modern political world mirrors the upheaval of the 1930’s. Democracy is being discredited, powerful populists are emboldened in both domestic and foreign adventures, and tremendous uncertainty and economic pain are promised to be assuaged through resurgent chauvinistic nationalism. Modern anti-democratic regimes are not founded on extreme ideologies though, they are mostly run on the principles of petty theft. Disillusioned citizenries become the fertile soil for venal political structures to grow, which serve their leaders’ bank accounts well and not much else.

Anomie is a greater danger than ideology. The same vague, nihilistic lack of meaning that infects youth in the United States with pretensions of fighting grand battles against “political correctness”  or “fascism” also makes disenfranchised, disillusioned Muslim men join ISIS. The ossification of the American political system, uncertainty over the future of the planet due to global warming and technology, the slow death of religion, and the simultaneous rise and retreat of globalism all conspire to confound strong attachments of community identity and place.

The grand visions of the fringe left and the fringe right are particularly weak. In the ideological dictatorships of the 20th century, enormous things were promised – and done. Many people sincerely believed in the total transformation of societies. Efforts to end capitalism were pursued with vigor, as well as efforts to strengthen the will of the nation-state through complete purity. The vague and toothless goals of the current crop of ideologues are pathetic in comparison. Vague support for socialism and incoherent pleas for xenophobic nationalism squawk from so-called “thought-leaders” on the right and left.

The threats and aspirations are nowhere near as real, achievable, or present to modern societies as they were in the roiling 1930’s. The Spanish Civil War from 1936-1939 was as close as anything ever seen to a pure military struggle between the ideological left and ideological right. Liberals and conservatives murdered one another on the scale of the hundreds of thousands. Fascism (in its form of extreme and holistic nationalism) transformed Spain under a repressive and rigid dictatorship while pockets of the Spanish Republicans created systems of anrcho-syndicalism. This was true, radical political change and experimentation that Spain experienced. The stakes were plain in the loss of life and destruction of property. Now, in the US, lightly armed mobs of liberals and conservatives do battle at political rallies with no chance of changing the political system and with little danger of the loss of life. Unfounded anxieties about fascist dictatorships and concerns over the elimination of white majoritarianism animate fights and debates. The internet has most certainly played its part in this. In anonymous forums, incubators of hysteria and sound-proof political echo-chambers, disillusioned youth come to terms with and attempt to reanimate dead ideologies. The sin of the political left: arrogance, and the sin of the political right: ignorance, are displayed perpetually.

Republicans’ and Democrats’ failed political parties are currently incapable of rehabilitating the political discourse in the country. They are quickly becoming the hollowed slaves of populism. Populism on the left and right has no real guidelines other than satisfying the whims of populace without a deeper understanding of the structures and priorities of the state. Republicans and Democrats are each committing different sins. Republicans are acting as appeasers of an unethical and ignorant policy while Democrats are undermining democratic principles by moving away from compromise and free speech.

The establishment Republicans are much like upper-class British appeasers in the 1930’s. If the Nazi Party hated Jews and Communists so openly, it didn’t hurt to back them, it was mutually beneficial. Of course the modern American iteration of faux-fascism is venal and not homicidal, but history will not judge the Republican leadership kindly.

So we end up, especially in the United States, with collapsed political institutions and ideas and nothing with which to replace them. America faces a British Empire moment. It must radically rethink its role in the world and the government’s responsibility domestically. If the government can follow a rational policy, instead of spending almost half of our wealth on maintaining the world order through military force, and focus on the wellbeing of private citizens, the institutions of power could reassert order. A common sense, centrist policy can take back the strength of old ideas from the fringes and focus on the problems of a new age, where so many are displaced in our society.

Why Obama should be more like Ronald Reagan

Initiative is a paramount theme in the operational philosophy of warfare. The ability of an actor to impose their will on their opponent, to choose a time and place of conflict and place pressure on an opponent’s weakness is a valuable strategic advantage. The United States, while avoiding wasteful and costly foreign entanglements, has ceded strategic initiative in a variety of global affairs, but particularly in Iraq and Syria.

In the midst of America’s steep decline in its ability to project power globally at the end of the 1970’s, Ronald Reagan started a “crusade” against the Soviet Union. Confronting the “Evil Empire” directly with increased military spending (preying of their weak economy) and fighting proxy wars against them helped to destroy the Soviet system. There were, as there always are, unintended consequences and blowback that came to the fore only after the loftier goal had been achieved. Notably, and regrettably, the funding and supplying of radical Islamists would come to haunt the United States. There was also the diminished respect for many peoples of the world after the United States supported oppressive dictatorships in the name of anti-Communism and the dangerously increased tensions with the Soviet Union that could have led to a nuclear war. The aggressiveness and assertiveness, paid for with deficit spending, gave the United States the strategic initiative and allowed for American-advantaged negotiations to take place between the superpowers.

The disaster in Syria and Iraq is the result of many historical failures and murderous groups attempting to hold or seize power. It is also a vortex dragging in major world powers with the pull of the global disasters of social collapse and terrorism fears. In addition to the global problems, there are complex regional rivalries that have combined to make the countries (perhaps former countries) of Iraq and Syria bloody battlegrounds for proxy wars.

Many pundits have argued aggressively for US intervention or applauded the Obama Administration for its restraint in not fighting unwinnable wars. In many ways the President is an impossible bind when confronting the disasters in the Middle East. For the US, the prospect of a complete power vacuum in Iraq and Syria is untenable while at the same time reacting in a mild, or very targeted manner is not effective in the long term.

Admitting the fact that there is already a humanitarian disaster, and that the United States has partnered with dubious, and indeed, criminal, allies – the US has little to lose by facing its geo-strategic enemies with greater force and resolve. Bombing the Assad regime directly in Syria and arming our chosen militias with greater technical abilities would send a strong message to Russia and deter the Putin regime from greater aggression or, if it were strongly opposed, would spread Russia’s military thin. In a broader view it would allow the United States to dictate terms of peace and influence the rivalries between Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.

The enemies of the United States are emboldened, but weak. A strong show of force and resolve would likely strengthen the United State’s ability to conduct diplomatic enterprises effectively. The value of initiative is known, the disaster in the Middle East is already manifest, and long term consequences are unknowable for the greater part. It behooves the United States to control what it can, and for the Obama Administration to act more like the Reagan Administration.