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.





On Madness

8 01 2009

I’ll break the ice with a little joke. A man was driving down an unfamiliar road which had a very tall chain-link fence running alongside it. He soon passed a gate with a sign saying, Sunnyvale Mental Health Facility. The man could see scores of people wandering aimlessly around the immaculately-groomed lawn beyond the fence, all wearing identical pajama-like garments in various pastel colors.

A few minutes later, his car lurched and gave off the distinctive whopwhopwhop sound of a flat tire. Cursing, the man pulled onto the shoulder next to the fence to change the tire. Several of the inmates had apparently seen or heard the blowout and wandered toward the fence nearest to him. He was nervous, but did his best to ignore the small crowd of observers, who watched his every move in an eerie silence. He had enough presence of mind to place the lug nuts from the flat tire inside the upturned hubcap to keep them from getting lost in the weeds near the shoulder of the road, but the ever-growing crowd of loonies watching him in spooky silence was really getting to him. He tried to hurry, but the spare slipped off the wheel lugs and fell out of his hands. The tire landed on the edge of hubcap holding the lug nuts and flipped it into the weeds like a tiddlywink.

More cursing ensued. The man finally managed to get the tire onto the wheel lugs, but could only find one lug nut of the original five. After several fruitless searches through the weeds, the man sighed heavily and tried to figure out what to do next. As he stood and glared at the car, he heard someone say, “Hey!“.

He quickly turned around,  and one of the inmates at the fence called out, “Take one lug nut from each of the other wheels. That will give you four lug nuts on each wheel, which ought to get you into town if you drive carefully.”

He thought about it for a second, then broke out in a broad smile. “You know,” he said cheerfully. “That will work! Thanks for the tip.” He quickly put the inmate’s words into practice and grinned in satisfaction. He turned around to thank his benefactor.

“I’d probably still be trying to figure that out if you hadn’t chimed in,” he said. “What on Earth are you doing in a loonie bin?”

The inmate replied, “I’m crazy- not stupid.”

Just because someone is goofier than bug shit doesn’t necessarily mean they’re stupid. You may wish to remember that when you deal with people who have mental problems- and there are lots of people in this country who fit that description. Whenever possible, try to treat the mentally ill with the same courtesy as everyone else. Being condescending or rude is both needlessly cruel and counterproductive. After all, the loonie you just ignored might be able to point out some fact or otherwise help out.

Consider, for example, the case of Norton I, Emperor of America and Protector of Mexico.

Briefly, Joshua Norton was a San Fransisco businessman during the California Gold Rush who went round the bend while enduring a painful bankruptcy. On September 17th, 1859, he delivered a proclamation to several newspapers in that city declaring himself to be Emperor of the United States. At least one paper printed the proclamation, and for the next couple of decades he marched around the city inspecting public works and officials for proper functioning and issuing proclamations whenever the fancy struck him. Several of these proclamations were useful or prophetic: he called for the construction of a bridge or tunnel connecting Oakland and San Francisco, which came to fruition nearly a century later. He also demanded the establishment of  a “League of Nations” to prevent wars. Other useful decrees called for the dissolution of Congress and the abolition of the Republican and Democratic parties. Clearly, the Emperor was a man ahead of his time.

San Francisco being the city that it is (even in the late 19th century), Emperor Norton became a beloved (or at least tolerated) fixture of the city. The city paid for upgrades to the Royal uniform, and police officers would salute him as he passed. At intervals during his reign, he would issue bonds or scrip for US currency, which were duly honored as cash in many establishments. Several establishments which the Emperor frequented (because of their “free lunches”) adopted brass plaques boasting, “By Appointment to His Imperial Majesty, Norton I“.

One hundred and twenty-nine years ago today (January 8th, 1880), the first and only Emperor of the United States was walking to a meeting of the Academy of Sciences when he collapsed and died on a rainy sidewalk. People in the city paid for a royal funeral, which was attended by an estimated twenty thousand residents. When San Francisco closed and moved all the cemeteries outside the city in the 1930s, the city paid to move Norton’s remains to Woodlawn cemetery, and a large stone marks his grave- inscribed with the words, “Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.”

The best epitaph for Joshua Norton was given by a city official more than ten years before the Emperor died: “He has shed no blood; robbed no one; and despoiled no country; which is more than can be said of his fellows in that line.

This is exactly the sort of ruler our modern civilization needs- one who rules best by ruling least. Norton’s demands upon his subjects were few and limited largely to basic needs. He provided both foresight and the benefit if a good example to others.

Tonight I will raise a glass in his memory. We could use a few more gentle madmen.

Current status: Amused

Current music: Mandlebrot Set by Jonathan Coulton





Unintended Consequences

1 12 2008

There used to be a very good show on BBC called Connections. I highly recommend this series (actually three separate seasons) for anyone curious about how things happened in just the way they happened. In one episode, James Burke (the host) explained how an Indian prince suffering from a headache in the 8th Century led more-or-less directly to the US space program. Fascinating stuff- especially if you’re interested in the unintended consequences of various actions and/or inactions.

For example, Henry the VIIIth of England was tired of his wife, which has led more-or-less directly to the real possibility of a nuclear war in south Asia. Bear with me, here. I’m not nearly as good at this as James Burke, and I don’t have a BBC research team backing me up. I’m operating solely on remembered history, some fast Google searches, and a healthy dose of W.A.G.s (Wild-Ass Guesses).

Let us begin, Hank the 8th was tired of the lovely young thing he’d married, and wanted to bed a different lovely young thing. Since he was officially a Catholic, he couldn’t get a divorce. Since he was King, he figured he ought to be able to get rid of the wife and marry the new girl, so he drop-kicked the Catholic church and started the Church of England (basically the same except for that pesky no-divorce thingie). Unfortunately, England was now a Protestant country at a time when the superpowers of the era were very cognizant of the political benefits of being on the Pope’s side. When the Pope excommunicated Henry, the King of Spain was all too willing to enhance his public perception of piety by doing his best to undermine the English monarchy.

As a result of this long-term enmity between England and the Catholic monarchs of Europe, England was cut off from a lot of raw materials and manufactured goods from the Continent- and later from the Americas. The Brits did what they could by fighting the odd war at sea, making fast voyages to Protestant ports in Europe, and generally learning how to build and maintain a recognizably modern Navy (a wonderful asset for any island nation). When the Spanish and French tried to keep England out of the treasure troves of MesoAmerica, the English turned to piracy (improving their nautical abilities) and colonizing marginal areas in the Caribbean and in North America (giving them strongholds, supply ports, raw materials, and someplace to plant surplus population).

This simultaneous expansion of naval capabilities and overseas territories led England into multiple conflicts with the European powers. When the MesoAmerican plunder-fest finally died out with the last of the easily-accessible Incan and Aztec gold, the three major European powers (England, France, and Spain) found themselves increasingly locking horns over North American territories. Defeating near-equal military powers is expensive, so England started increasing the taxes on their North American colonists. When those colonists complained that they were getting excluded from the political process used to raise or lower taxes, England decided to spank their impudent behinds to remind them that mama knows best.

The colonists were understandably miffed, and foolishly decided to rebel against the most powerful nation on Earth at that time- hoping mainly to stay alive long enough to coax at least one other European power into the fight on their side. Luckily for the colonists, the French decided to play, and England lost their biggest and most prosperous overseas colony. Even handily spanking the fledgling country in another war two decades later couldn’t bring the Americans back into the fold, so the English and Americans eventually started doing business together. The British still had extensive colonies elsewhere overseas, and managed to hang onto many of them- partly as a result of lessons learned during the American affairs.

A century later, the new country even joined their British cousins and French former allies in a massive cluster-fuck of a war in mainland Europe. This was so successful that they decided to do it again thirty years later. By this time, the British Empire was huge- stretching across half the planet and including a significant percentage of the world’s population. One of the jewels in the British crown was India. Another was the area we now call the Middle East.

After WWII, Britain started to slowly divest itself of its various colonies. The vast tribal areas of the Middle East were divided into a patchwork of “nations” based on almost no ground research, a great deal of wishful thinking, and a modest amount of biblical misinformation. Thus the arbitrary lines on maps in Europe divided tribes and clans in Arabia, and their rulers were all propped up by British guns- so long as the rulers behaved themselves. Worse still, those arbitrary lines on the maps left clans and tribes which had been historical enemies in the new “nations”.

India managed to convince the British that trying to hold such a large country with the few thousand (at best) troops available was a losing proposition, and became their own country. The British managed one last attempt at guiding the future of the sub-continent by spinning off the easternmost and westernmost provinces into independent nations, using the high-quality decision-making processes that worked so well in the Middle East. Thus were Pakistan and Bangladesh created.

India had a huge population which was deeply stratified along caste and religious lines. The well-thought-out British partition of the sub-continent left millions of Muslims in the predominantly Hindu nation of India (and thousands of Hindus in the overwhelmingly Muslim nation of Pakistan.) Indian society (and human nature) being what it was, these minority groups immediately suffered the fate of most minority groups throughout history. Violence escalating to war was the result. Repeatedly.

In the Middle East, things were going beautifully. Everything was puppies and rainbows and unicorns. Wherever the population was overwhelmingly Muslim, sectarian violence flared up. Wherever large non-Muslim minority groups were present, the infidels often suffered from pogroms and violence. The only preventive measure against large-scale ethnic cleansing was the existence (or creation) of powerful dictators, who would keep order through overt military might. The presence of vast reserves of petroleum under the area drew the new power-brokers to the regional and sectarian conflicts. In the typically benevolent manner of such interactions, the two superpowers made things worse by adding ideological reasons for violence and hatred.

After a few decades of coups, revolutions, wars, counter-coups, counter-revolutions, and more wars, one of the superpowers went home to nurse their wounds while the other started strutting about the planet like we owned the place. The fact that there was no longer a realistic military counter to American power made the covert and overt meddling in everyone’s business even more galling. Everybody started disliking American policy- not just American citizens and the French.

Mix loads of oil-created wealth in historically unstable nation-states created whole cloth from the remnants of the British Empire with swaggering American boorishness. Add in a healthy dose of longing for the mythical “good old days” of the Caliphate and several liberal helpings of Superpower guilt. Cook vigorously for years in a stew of extreme poverty, deliberate ignorance, and despotic ruthlessness. Sprinkle with plenty of religious whackjobs. Et voila! A feast of knives ensues.

The loons who planned and committed the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were hoping that the resulting American counterstrike would cause the Islamic world to rise up against American domination and return to the purity and glory of the early Islamic world, but with AK-47s and (hopefully) nuclear weapons. Instead of vaporizing Riyadh, Mecca, and Medina, however, the US struck first at the home bases of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Since Al Qaeda was allied with the fundamentalist ass-hats who ruled Afghanistan, they had to go. The US overtly aided the Taliban’s enemies with air power and special forces teams. With that kind of backing, the Northern Alliance eventually drove the Taliban (and their Al Qaeda allies) out of Afghanistan.

Into Pakistan.

Like the arbitrary and artificial “nations” created by the British in the Middle East, Pakistan was a hodge-podge of tribes and clans and long histories of mutual antipathy. Parts of Pakistan were not even nominally under the control of Pakistan’s “government”. Pakistan’s military was only nominally under the control of the government- and often it was the other way around. The Pakistani military was legitimately obsessed with the threat from India, and the military intelligence services had a history of using religious fundamentalist whackjobs to carry out proxy wars with India to help even out the conventional military disparity between the two rivals.

The Americans told Pakistan that they could either join in the Global War on Terror or the US would immediately and totally support India against Pakistan. Joining the GWOT would get Pakistan some international street cred (something the military dictatorship in power needed desperately), access to US military intelligence assets, and wads of US dollars. The Americans would even put pressure on India to warm relations with Pakistan, allowing the Pakistani military to devote time and assets to dealing with the obstreperous hill folk in the so-called “tribal areas”.  Giving aid and comfort to the Taliban and Al Qaeda, on the other hand, would earn Pakistan a sky full of hostile aircraft loaded with precision weaponry.

Unwillingly, and with plenty of private caveats, reservations, and dark thoughts, Pakistan agreed to join the GWOT. This proved to be a serious mistake for the military dictatorship, since American public opinion loathes dictatorships. Political pressure in the US caused the State Department and the White House to put increasing pressure on Pakistan’s ruler to open up his political processes. Dictatorships rarely last once the dictator stops applying the lash, and Pakistan was no different. Out with the latest in a long line of military overlords and in with a weak (but more-or-less democratically-elected) civilian government which was automatically at odds with the military and intelligence organizations. These groups chafed under US pressures to handle the increasingly-violent tribal areas and were in no mood to help the civilian government out with a Muslim population also unhappy with infidel troops occasionally raiding across the border from Afghanistan in pursuit of Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters.

With all of this nonsense going on, a lot of Pakistani militant groups got to thinking about ways to further reduce the military pressure from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Somewhere along the line, someone decided that starting a new face-off with India would do the job nicely. The last time an Islamic terror group from Pakistan had operated in India, a six-month bout of troop maneuvers and other saber-rattling had ensued, diverting Pakistani military attention away from the Tribal areas and toward the Indian border. So a group of local nutjobs trained hard for a few months while gathering intelligence on politically-worthwhile targets inside India, then they viciously and publicly murdered a couple of hundred people in Mumbai this past weekend. To make damned sure the blame would land on Pakistan, these terrorists broke most of the counter-intelligence rules and left obvious clues behind everywhere they went- such as a satellite phone with lots of calls to known Kashmir- based terrorist groups.

Now, public opinion in India is demanding an energetic response from their government. The US is trying very hard to keep the two nuclear-armed countries from going for each others’ throats, and so are the civilian governments of both India and Pakistan. If another blatant Pakistan-based terrorist attack occurs in the near future, India’s government might be forced to respond militarily- such as by mobilizing reserves and moving troops to the Pakistani border. Pakistan would be forced to respond in kind. A few more atrocities by hot-heads on either side of the border could easily precipitate a shooting war. India could crush Pakistan in a conventional fight, and both countries know it. Pakistan could very easily end up using nuclear weapons to defeat India’s vastly superior conventional military. This could very easily result in a full-scale nuclear exchange. Here’s an excellent article on the probabilities and possible consequences.

A bit long-winded, full of plausible historical notions and some guesswork on my part (along with a great many egregious shortcuts with history), but that is why Henry VIIIth’s inability to keep his codpiece at home could lead to a nuclear war between India and Pakistan.

Current status: Exhausted

Current music: War Pigs by Black Sabbath