Saturday, August 17, 2013

The New World Disorder or How the West Must Learn to Live With Planet Chaos

It seems that not a day passes without news of some bombing in Iraq or massacre in Afghanistan, atrocities in Syria and Sudan and Somalia.   Now we watch Egypt transform into the latest charnel house of brutal misery and despair.   And these are just the nations that still make our papers, sometimes.

It's interesting how we treat these countries and their woes.   There seems to be one category where we act, a second category where we toss around the idea of intervention but hold back, and a third category, the largest, where we just shrug our shoulders and say "meh!"

When you look at our scorecard for interventions, we've not been doing that well.  Iraq?  Not much to boast of there, unless you're a Mullah in Tehran.   Afghanistan?  Ooh, ooh, child - don't go there.  Libya?  We tried, sort of.

Syria and Egypt?  We tried to visualize intervening in Syria and couldn't figure out what that might look like in the short or the long-run.   So we settled for channeling arms to the Sunni resistance on their promise to make sure they don't get passed on to their Islamist allies (remember, they're the bad guys - 9/11 get it?) while the Russians channel arms to Assad and his Shia-Alawite coalition.   Assad seems determined to repay our support for the rebels by filtering some of those Russian arms to Hezbollah in Lebanon which, naturally, invites Israeli air strikes.   Clear as mud, eh?

Egypt, oh damn!  We don't know what to do.  We don't like Morsi or his Muslim Brotherhood but we can't pretend they weren't democratically elected either.  We, and especially the Israelis, do like the generals but we can't let on that we're okay with this coup, not for a while at least.  Now the U.S. has a law that says no aid for any country whose democratically-elected government is toppled by a coup but, hey, this is Egypt and the guys doing the toppling are our guys.  Not much point sending arms to the resistance when the Egyptian military is up to its eyeballs in F-16s and M-1 Abrams tanks.

We in the West seem to have lost our mojo in these dirty little wars.  There was a time when we snapped our fingers and somebody would salute.   That was a time when little people were vying to be on our team if only out of fear of other little people on the other team.

They don't fear us any more.  We showed them in Iraq and Afghanistan just how immensely strong and yet pathetically weak we really are.  They know they don't have to defeat us, just outlast us.  We can't win. We're just not up to it.

Thanks to the Chinese, the team thing is still working in Asia-Pacific at least for now.   The Chinese have overplayed their hand with aggressive territorial demands.  That has given the little people the willies and created a dandy market for big power security.

The Pentagon has supposedly conducted a "pivot" to Asia-Pacific, whatever that means.   One thing it means is a little show of force, sailing around showing the flag.  In an earlier time that was called sabre-rattling.

The current American military doctrine for Asia-Pacific is termed "Air-Sea Battle."  The U.S. Army gets to sit this one out.  For decades American military policy has been "no land war in Asia."

U.S. planners are working furiously trying to figure out how to wage war on China.   Although America has plenty of allies in the region there aren't many who want to invite war with China.  Because of the distances involved, if America was going to launch an air attack on China, most of the necessary assets would have to be massed in the vicinity and there's not an airbase within range that China couldn't target.   Simply massing that sort of aerial armada, however, would give China more than ample justification for launching pre-emptive strikes on those airfields and aircraft carriers.

You know how desperate the Americans are getting when they resort to talk of attacking China with swarms of rechargeable, long-distance micro drones.   That is seriously whacked, folks.

All the King's horses and all the King's men probably aren't going to make much of a dent in China.  It's conceivable that the U.S. and India could set up a naval blockade but the blowback would probably take down America's economy in the process.  The Corporate States of America would have none of that.

Worse yet, the Chinese know they don't have to shoot a single American to topple the United States (and most of the rest of us in the process).  An attack on the GPS satellite network would probably be enough.  It would drive home the total insecurity of our communications and commerce and, in today's world, once you destroy confidence you've taken down the economy.  They wouldn't have to hack our water and electrical utilities.  That would kill an awful lot of people.  No, they don't have to get us riled up and mad for revenge to get us to yield.

So why the sabre-rattling in Asia-Pacific?   For starters, that's where the action is.   Add to that the little guys are understandably nervous about China which opens a market for us to sell them a heaping (and lucrative) dose of security even if it is more fantasy than anything else.

Eventually the little people of Asia-Pacific are going to have to make their deals with China.  China knows that.  We know it.  The little people are coming to accept it themselves.  Hell, even the Australians are coming to accept it.   For a while our backing might give them a little better leverage in reaching their deal with China but that advantage has a limited shelf life.

The West is in a very gradual and limited decline.   The East stands at the threshold of the path of ascendancy.   Theirs, however, is not the smooth, broad path that we traveled so successfully.   Their path is rocky and rutted and full of perils we did not confront.  They have to clear hurdles such as overpopulation, climate change (in their corner of the world a huge threat), resource depletion and exhaustion, their enormous freshwater problem, air/soil/water contamination of every sort, social upheaval and the distribution of their newfound wealth.

We in the West had two centuries to grow into our prosperity and, even then, our trek was littered with massively destructive wars and shameless exploitation.   India and China have landed atop their prosperity with a thud.   Both are facing enormous challenges with few obvious answers.

Within a decade, two at the outset, we may have little incentive to continue our presence in Asia-Pacific.   By then we'll be confronting plenty of problems of our own at home.

We need to find some clarity in what the future holds for the West and Asia.  This isn't the Asian replay of the Cold War that dragged on for half a century.  We should have no expectation that we can repeat the outcome we experienced in Europe.  That's just not in the cards.  Because of that, we need to measure our involvement in Asia on a strict cost/benefit analysis.  We can't afford to get in over our heads and we can't afford to outstay our welcome either.


LeDaro said...

Mound, very well thought out post. Unfortunately no solution sounds possible in the near future. U.S will not interfere in Egypt as it needs Egyptian military basis to supply arms/food to their forces in Afghanistan and in other Middle Eastern countries.

About Iraq you write:
Not much to boast of there, unless you're a Mullah in Tehran. Yes it brought together Iran and Iraq as Shiites rule Iraq now. But also U.S achieved some of its objectives and that is control of oil wells. U.S has left behind sectarian conflict/war but that does not bother them as long as oil keeps flowing to U.S and other NATO nations.

Very troubled world and sad state of affairs.

The Mound of Sound said...

I'm not sure that America has cinched up Iraq's oil, L.D.

Anyong said...

"Thanks to the Chinese, the team thing is still working in Asia-Pacific at least for now. The Chinese have overplayed their hand with aggressive territorial demands. That has given the little people the willies and created a dandy market for big power security." From the following article, could it be, some people have an inclination to stand up to China?
Chad has suspended all activities of a China National Petroleum Corporation subsidiary for violations of environmental standards while drilling for crude oil in the south of the country.
Chad's oil minister Djerassem Le Bemadjiel told state radio late on Tuesday that a decision had been taken to indefinitely suspend CNPC's operations after a visit at the Koudalwa field about 200 km (124 miles) south of the capital.
"We found flagrant violations of environmental standards by the company ... CNPC's behavior was unacceptable," said Le Bemadjiel.
"Not only do they not have facilities to clean spilled crude, there were also intentional spillages in order reduce costs," the minister said.
Le Bemadjiel said China National Petroleum Corporation International Chad (CNPCIC) dug trenches and dumped crude without safeguards and then later asked local Chadian workers to remove the crude without giving them protective gear.
CNPC's Chad subsidiary was not immediately available to comment. Calls placed to CNPC's office in Beijing were not picked up. The firm has been operating in Chad since 2003 and recently won rights to begin exploration on new blocks in the south of the Central Africa state.
The dispute is the latest in a rocky relationship between Chad and CNPC. The government shut down their joint venture 588-million-euro ($780 million) 20,000 bpd refinery for several weeks in January 2012 in a row over prices for the local market.
Chad became a crude producer in 2003 and production peaked at about 176,000 barrels per day in 2005 before declining primarily due to ageing wells in the country's Doba oil field.
(Reporting by Madjiasra Nako; writing by Bate Felix; editing by Keiron Henderson)

The Mound of Sound said...

Chad, of course, has nothing to do with Asia-Pacific and I don't understand how a country that became an oil producer in 2003 can see its industry collapse due to "ageing" infrastructure just one decade later. In any case, if it peaked at 176,000 bpd, it's small potatoes.

Bear in mind that China doesn't have a wealth of experience in trading with the Third World. They are ham-fisted and often trigger resentment. With a little more time, self-interest will lead them to figure that out.

As for Chad standing up to China, we'll have to wait until after the next coup or the one after that to see if there's anything in that. When you're among the poorest, least stable and most corrupt countries in Africa, it's pretty hard to stand up to anyone for very long.

kootcoot said...

"China doesn't have a wealth of experience in trading with the Third World"

They seem to be getting their game together when it comes to dealing with the third world tin-pot dictatorship that is Harper's Canada!

Purple library guy said...

The Chinese don't have to do any of the stuff you're talking about to bring down the US economy. All they have to do is stop buying and then sell off a bunch of US dollars and T-bills. Maybe sell off some of the US assets held by Chinese government-owned companies.

Sure, it would be terrible for their economy too, so they don't want to do it. But if it's that or real fighting . . . the risk of escalation to nuclear war would be substantially lower than if they started shooting down satellites.

LeDaro said...

Mound, CNN has a good article on Iraq war and oil.

From ExxonMobil and Chevron to BP and Shell, the West's largest oil companies have set up shop in Iraq. So have a slew of American oil service companies, including Halliburton, the Texas-based firm Dick Cheney ran before becoming George W. Bush's running mate in 2000.

You can read more here:

The Mound of Sound said...

That's certainly true, L.D., but they didn't get the deals contemplated by Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfie et al. At one time the neo-cons were looking at virtual ownership of Iraq's oil fields. And they didn't get the monopoly they wanted either. They've had to compete with and share the market with Iraq Petroleum, North Oil, Iraq Drilling, China National, Petronas, Total, Lukoil, Statoil, Korea Gas, Elf and South Oil. That wasn't the deal or the market the U.S. majors were originally expecting.

The Mound of Sound said...

I agree to a point, PLG. Yet the Pentagon is clearly apprehensive even to the point of developing a terrestrial navigation system to partially fill in should sat nav be taken down.

The risk of confrontation, even if mainly inadvertent, remains very real. We in the West expect the Chinese leadership to act rationally but there have been numerous signs of a truly intense animus among China's military leadership. Many of China's generals speak of avenging what they perceive to have been China's century of humiliation.