Missed Opportunities

11 09 2011

The past ten years have been a litany of botched opportunities and profoundly stupid mistakes. For one brief moment, a large part of the world was united in purpose. Such moments are more precious than diamonds, pearls of such rarity that they stand out like beacons in history books amid the clutter of dates and place names. For an instant, we had the chance to change the world and make it better for everyone. Instead, we tossed away the opportunity in favor of short-term political and economic gain for a privileged few.

Under similar circumstances in the past, governments have mobilized their people to face an existential threat posed by power-hungry madmen ruling other countries. We face no such external threat to the very existence of our country and way of life today. Those who attacked us ten years ago were not particularly interested in the United States per se, but rather wanted to decrease our influence with their real target- the House of Saud. For all the hype about our enemies’ hatred of our liberties, the US was (and is) a side issue for our enemies. Our enemies wish to rule Mecca and Medina, and thereby gain control of all of Islam. The US government is closely tied to the ruling family of Saudi Arabia, and this influence was an obstacle to our enemies’ primary goal. In order to remove that obstacle, our enemies struck at what they saw as the heart of US power in the hope of provoking a general war between the west and Islam. In the ensuing chaos, our enemies could topple the House of Saud and become masters of “a billion muslims” already at war with the west.

When you buy into the media and political hype about remembering 9/11, think well on the facts listed above. The worst attack on US soil in history was basically a tactical sideshow in a larger strategic drama in which we were only bit players.

In response, we have endured a decade of increasing loss of essential liberties and a profound sense of dislocation between the general population and the US military. There used to be a sign posted in a Marine barracks which said, “America is not at war. The Marines are at war. America is at the mall.” If the US was truly facing a threat to our very existence as a nation, why were we not called upon to make sacrifices as was the case when previously threatened with destruction? Unless one was a member of the uniformed services or a relative of a service member, most of the US acted as if nothing had happened. The only sacrifices we (the People) were called upon to make were in our individual liberties. Under the fallacious guise of keeping Americans safe, ever-more intrusive government agents routinely violated the civil rights of millions of Americans to fight the “war on terror”. Legislation passed by our elected representatives to make this task easier was almost never used to arrest and convict terrorism suspects, but was used extensively to convict thousands of marijuana growers and users.

Aided and abetted by Congress, the administration at the time kept the costs of all this activity separate from the actual budget. Trillions of dollars and thousands of US servicemen were expended in the “war on terror” to what end? It’s been ten years- has terror been defeated yet?

Let us examine this “war on terror”. Terror is a tactic, a tool used to force one’s political adversaries into certain courses of action favorable to the terrorists. There is a way to fight terrorism, and that is the Russian method of demonstrating to the terrorists that the costs of using such tactics is too high. We, as a culture, are unwilling to employ the methods necessary to win such a war. I’m still naive enough to think that is a good thing, but where does that leave us? We are unwilling to become terrorists ourselves to dissuade others from committing terrorism, but we are in a war against terrorism. Can we win this “war on terror” without becoming what we fight against? I’m not sure we can.

Our military can handily defeat any number of enemies with guns, but classical use of military power is not what is needed here. A far better use of our overwhelmingly potent military force would be to isolate and destroy our enemies in detail (such as the methods used to drive the Taliban out of Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002) and long-term political action to deny our enemies bases from which to strike. Another way would be to decide whether or not supporting the House of Saud is worth the odd terror attack and its attendant civilian casualties, and make our national security policy based upon a rational appraisal of that question.

The ruling family of Saudi Arabia gets its power and prestige from two main sources: the oil they sell to Japan, China, and Europe and their control of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. As a country, Saudi Arabia exhibits the very worst traits of a theocratic monarchy. As an economy, they demonstrate the worst traits of monopolistic capitalism. The combination of these traits results in a profoundly poor and uneducated population ruled harshly by a political and religious elite.  Since such conditions are normally ripe for revolution, the House of Saud deflects popular unrest from the ruling family to outside forces by means of their support for the Wahabbi sect of Islam. The royal family funds Wahabbist schools throughout their country, providing a means of identifying and re-targeting disaffected youths. Those identified and re-purposed are used as purity police throughout the country when possible, or exported to other countries to become someone else’s problem. Note that 17 of the 19 attackers on 9/11 were Saudis, and you might start to understand why US support for the Saudi royal family is a big part of the problem. I fail to understand how allowing the House of Saud to fall could be any worse for American interests than the current state of affairs.

Why do we put up with the Saudis? Contrary to popular belief, it is only partially about oil. The US gets very little of its oil from Saudi Arabia. Our interest in Saudi oil is primarily in keeping the fuel taps open for our allies and trading partners elsewhere in the world. A larger part of the American backing of the Saudis is as a counterweight for Iran. Why is this important to US interests? I have no idea.

In a rational world, the US should be closely tied to Iran in lieu of Saudi Arabia. Iran has less oil than the Saudis, but more than triple the population. Furthermore, Iran’s Shi’a sect is philosophically better suited to a partnership with America than the Wahabbist butchers in Riyadh. Why, then, is America courting the Saudis?

We’re back at missed opportunities. Iran had a democratically elected government once, back in the 1950s. For reasons which (presumably) seemed good at the time, the US decided to help overthrow this democratically-elected government and replace it with a dictator presumed to be more amenable to American interests. The resulting tyranny and autocratic excesses of the Shah led inexorably to the rise of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and the subsequent overthrow of the Shah. In lieu of welcoming the new rulers of Iran to the international community, the US government decided to cut them off from the Shah’s expatriated fortune and give weapons to Iran’s unpleasant neighbor- Iraq. Iran responded by taking a few dozen US citizens hostage and giving the US nose a very public tweaking for several years.

At some point during this time, it became US policy to dislike Iran. In order to “punish” Iran for giving us the finger back in the late 1970s, we gave Iraq the go-ahead to start a long and bloody war with Iran. After nearly ten years of increasingly bloody fighting, both sides were too exhausted to continue- particularly Iran, which relied heavily on “human wave” assaults. Iran lost a generation of young men in the war, which has created an enormous philosophical and cultural gap between the survivors of that war and the generations which followed. Iraq, by contrast, ended up with a moderately well-trained military increasingly under the thumb of the often unstable Saddam Hussein.

During all this time, Saudi Arabia was relatively stable, and was therefore increasingly seen as a useful tool to use against Iran. The US sucked up to the House of Saud to help “contain” Iran, when it should have been the other way around. Because the US was increasingly involved in helping maintain the theocratic rulers of Saudi Arabia, we became a target of those who wish to tear down the Saudi royal family and install themselves in their place. The end result of that was four hijacked airliners and more than three thousand dead US civilians.

So let us take this opportunity to take a long, hard look at exactly what US policy is and why. Short of becoming as ruthless as our enemies, there is little prospect of a military solution to the “war on terror”. The long-term solution would be to remove the root causes of the conflict, which is less about religion and more about the monopoly on power and economic might enjoyed by a handful of despots and their courtiers throughout the middle east. Let us concentrate on taking out the bad guys when we find them while working on loosening the bonds of the massive underclasses in north Africa and the middle east.

We’re Americans. We should start acting like it.


Lost Opportunities

12 09 2010

It’s the 12th of September. I made a point of not posting anything relevant to 9/11 yesterday to allow more time for people to get over the national spasm of media hype surrounding the attack. For those of you who have just emerged from ten years of suspended animation, here is what happened: a bunch of religious zealots took over four commercial aircraft and conducted coordinated kamikazi attacks on targets in Washington DC and New York. They were ordered to do so by a ruthlessly intelligent man whose primary goal was the overthrow of the ruling family in Saudi Arabia. Nearly three thousand innocent civilian died in the attacks.

Some people may be asking why flying airplanes into buildings here in the US would have any effect on overthrowing the House of Saud. Bin Laden knew that overthrowing the Saudi dynasty would be next to impossible so long as they were supported economically and politically by the United States. In order to remove the House of Saud from power, Bin Laden would have to reduce American power in the region. The intermediate strategic goal was to instigate a war between the West and all of Islam. If the West fell into that trap, they would remove the Saudi royal family for him- and he was pre-positioned to take advantage of the resulting power vacuum. Whether or not the West waged war on all of Islam, the inevitable counter strikes would likely inflame public opinion in the House of Peace against the West, making it possible for Al Qaeda to successfully take power on a wave of populist anger.

In the short term, this was a blitheringly stupid move. Bin Laden failed to appreciate the magnitude of the American response. He also failed to take into account the fact that Islam has a great many internal divisions which would also be jockeying for power. Governments all over the world started expending enormous resources to track and destroy the Al Qaeda organization and anyone affiliated with it (and- frequently- eliminate potential rebels and terrorists within their own countries). Still worse- from the terrorists’ point of view- much of the world started cooperating in this effort. Al Qaeda’s base of operations in Afghanistan was rapidly destroyed with contemptuous ease, transferring funds to the scattered units of the group became astronomically difficult, and Al Qaeda’s command-and-control structure was eviscerated. Further complicating Bin Laden’s plan was the US conquest of Iraq. Replacing one of the bastions of Sunni Islam with a largely Shi’ite government in Iraq meant that the Shi’a in Iran would be grow strong. Persian influence is now one of the most potent problems for Al Qaeda.

Sounds like a net loss for the Bad Guys, right?

In the short term, it was a loss for Al Qaeda. The long-term strategic goal has yet to be stopped. Al Qaeda shifted quickly (of necessity) to a widely dispersed, decentralized network of loosely-affiliated groups. These groups were directed to make trouble for the Americans in the Middle East. If American military and economic power could be thwarted- or appear to be thwarted- on the ground, then Al Qaeda could still move against the Saudi government, once the US was weakened internally and internationally. I challenge all and sundry to look at the current state of affairs in the Middle East and not see a net loss for the Good Guys.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, there was global support for action against Al Qaeda and similar groups. A huge opportunity existed to bring huge swaths of the world into closer contact, improve security, communications, and trade. That opportunity was carelessly discarded in favor of short-term political goals by governments across the globe. Seeing an excuse to hugely increase the power of the Executive Branch, the Bush Administration jammed a wide variety of legislation through Congress which would never have passed in the cold light of day. With national unity still waxing and a firm grip on public opinion, our elected representatives enacted sweeping limitations on individual liberties and began ignoring the Constitution whenever it suited their purposes. This is not solely aimed at the Republicans who were then in control. Huge numbers of Democrats joined in this collective raping of American ideals.

Individuals were arrested and locked up for years without benefit of trial. Government agencies forced their noses into the private phone calls and emails of American citizens without warrants- or any oversight by the courts. Individuals suspected of collusion or affiliation with terrorists were tortured by our government, or at our government’s behest by other governments with fewer qualms about violating human rights. Costly, time-wasting, and thoroughly useless so-called “security measures” were put in place at US airports.  American citizens could be prohibited from boarding any aircraft in the world if their names were on a secret list of suspected Bad Guys (and frequently if their names were just similar to a suspected Bad Guy), with no means of appeal and no way to tell if your name is on the list. Police agencies across the country were given millions of dollars worth of military equipment to help prevent terrorism, which was promptly used by those same police to commit terror attacks on the civilian populations they were supposedly protecting. In just nine short years, we have gone from enjoying individual liberties to cheerfully watching as those same liberties get stripped from our fellow Americans because they are “different”. Those who know their history will remember what happened in this country the last time we went down this road: thousands of innocent civilians- including children- were forced into internment camps because we were afraid they might “do something”.

Have we learned nothing from history? We, the People, are better than this. Irrational acts might be understandable in moments of blind panic, but they are still irrational. Sustaining a feeling of panic is one of the government’s goals, because it is easier to convince people to give up liberty in search of security when they are afraid.

In order to rally people, governments need enemies. They want us to be afraid, to hate, so we will rally behind them. And if they do not have a real enemy, they will invent one in order to mobilize us.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

Al Qaeda has won. We have become a nation frightened of the possibilities of the future we once embraced and created. They didn’t have to defeat us- we did it to ourselves out of fear.

Here is a short video clip on the subject.

Current status: somber

Current music: Total Eclipse of the Heart by Nikki French