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Foreign Policy, Lord Palmerston & Appendectomies

Foreign Policy, Lord Palmerston & Appendectomies
Dispatches From The Edge
Sept. 15, 2014

Thinking about U.S. foreign policy these days brings to mind a line from songwriter/comedian Tom Lehrer: if you are feeling like a Christian Scientist with appendicitis you have good reason.

1) The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is creating a Rapid Reaction Force to challenge Russian “aggression” in Ukraine, and the U.S., the European Union, and Russia are lobbing sanctions at each other that have thrown Europe back into a recession. Russian planes are buzzing U.S. and Canadian warships in the Black Sea.
2) The U.S. is bombing Iraq and Syria in an effort to halt the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), while at the same time supporting insurgents trying to overthrow the Assad regime in Damascus, the pool from which ISIL was created.
3) After 13 years of war, Afghanistan is the verge of a civil war over the last presidential election, while the Taliban have stepped up their attacks on the Afghan military and civil authorities.
4) Libya has essentially dissolved as a country, but not without supplying insurgents in central Africa and Nigeria with greatly enhanced firepower.
5) The U.S. encouraged the Japanese government to bypass Article 9 of Japan’s peace constitution that restricted deploying its military outside of Japan. Washington also committed the U.S. to support Tokyo in the event of a clash with China over the ownership of a handful of islands in the East China Sea. American, Japanese and Chinese warships and military aircraft have been playing chicken with one another in the East and South China seas.

What is going on? Did some Greek open a box she shouldn’t have? Is the Obama administration—take your choice—incompetent? Trying to wind down two of America’s longest wars? Giving liberal cover to a neo-conservative strategy to re-institute a new cold war? Following an agenda?

How about all of them?

There certainly has been incompetence. The 2009 surge into Afghanistan did nothing but kill a lot of people, and the Libya intervention substituted Chaos Theory for diplomacy.

It is also true that old wars are winding down. In 2008 there were 110,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan and 182,000 in Iraq. By the end of 2014 there will be no U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and—at this time—only a handful in Iraq.

Cover for the neo-cons? The Obama administration did help engineer the coup in Ukraine, and Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland—who oversaw the action and handpicked the interim coup president—was Dick Cheney’s principle foreign policy advisor.

And the U.S. certainly has an agenda, which may best be summed up by 19th century British Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary Henry Lord Palmerston—England’s hammer of empire, who oversaw the Opium Wars with China and the Crimean War with Russia: “We have no eternal allies and we have no eternal enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and these interests it is our duty to follow.”

What are our “interests” in Ukraine?

Certainly not spreading democracy. We supported a coup against a corrupt, but legally elected oligarch, and replaced him with another oligarch in an election that excluded half the country.

There are, in fact, multiple currents at play. During the Cold War disagreements about foreign policy among the ruling elites were suppressed by the overarching need to defeat what was perceived as a real threat to capitalism, the socialist world. “Politics stops at the water’s edge” was the watchword back then. But once that threat evaporated with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, those disagreements were free to come pouring out. Democrats and Republicans now openly sabotage one another’s policies in Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East, and different wings of both parties battle over using the American military.

Which doesn’t mean there isn’t common ground.

One shared interest is pushing NATO east, something the U.S. been doing since the U.S. double-crossed Soviet Prime Minister Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990. Gorbachev agreed to pull 380,000 Soviet troops out of East Germany provided NATO did not fill the vacuum. “Not one inch east,” U.S. Secretary of State James Baker promised. Now, virtually every Warsaw Pact country is a member of NATO.

There is also general agreement—underlined at the recent Alliance meetings in Wales—to expand NATO into a worldwide military alliance, although that creates a certain dilemma for Washington. Currently the U.S. foots 75 percent of NATO’s bill, but is finding that increasingly hard to do, given the enormous costs of the Afghan and Iraq wars, the pivot to Asia, and the expanding war in Iraq and Syria.

The Ukraine crisis has served as the perfect excuse to dragoon other members of NATO into increasing their contributions, though that won’t be a slam-dunk. Most of Europe is in recession, and while the NATO ministers are all for becoming global policemen, their constituents are less enthusiastic. European publics turned sharply against the Afghan War, and most polls show strong opposition to any more “out of area” deployments or increased military spending at the expense of social services.

One strong current at work these days are the neo-conservatives, whose goals are not to just break Ukraine away from Russia, but go for regime change in Moscow. They also lobby for overthrowing the Assad regime in Syria, and for war with Iran. They are overwhelmingly Republicans, but include Democrats.

Allied to the neo-cons in policy—if not politics—are the liberal interventionists, most of whom are Democrats. The interventionists led the charge on Libya and also lobbied for bombing Assad. Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and UN Ambassador Samantha Powers may not have the same politics on all issues as the neo-conservatives, but in places like the Ukraine they share common ground.

A leading “interest” in Ukraine is challenging Russia’s designation as the world’s top energy exporter and throttling its oil and gas industry. With Siberian fields almost tapped out, Russia is developing offshore and arctic sources, and the sanctions are aimed at blocking Moscow from getting the technology it needs to do that. The sanctions are also aimed at the South Stream pipeline, which, when completed, will run from the Caspian basin, across the Black Sea, to Europe. South Stream will eventually supply Europe with 15 percent of its gas and generate $20 billion in yearly revenue for Moscow. The U.S. and Turkey have been trying to derail South Stream for over a decade.

There are minor currents and back eddies as well.

Eastern Ukraine has large shale deposits that Chevron has been sniffing around, and—if you like conspiracies—one of U.S. Vice-president Joe Biden’s kids, Hunter, is on the board of Burisma Holdings, the Ukraine group exploring the country’s energy potentials. Joe Biden has been particularly hawkish on the Ukraine, comparing it to the Munich appeasement with Nazi Germany in 1938.

But the overriding “interest” of American foreign policy—regardless of the different currents—is to marginalize competition. Russia’s economy is no competition for Washington’s, but Moscow is a major supplier of energy to China. The two countries recently inked a $400 billion pipeline deal.

China’s economy is on the verge of passing the U.S. as the world’s largest, and it has already replaced the U.S. as the leading trade partner for most of the world. It is also the globe’s number one consumer of oil and gas.

This latter fact is a sensitive one, particularly given growing tensions between the U.S. and China. Some 80 percent of Beijing’s energy arrives by seas currently controlled by the U.S. Sixth and Seventh fleets.

Russian supplies, however, travel mostly by train and pipelines, and are, thus, out of the U.S. Navy’s reach. China is also negotiating with Iran over energy, and once again, those energy supplies would mostly move through pipelines.

To understand U.S. interests in the Ukraine involves tracking all of these currents, some of which may run at cross purposes. Obama’s push to damage the Russian energy industry is not popular with the American oil company ExxonMobil. He wants to push NATO east, but there is no indication he is seeking regime change in Moscow, and he has even tried to reduce some of the sturm und drang around the crisis. The neo-conservatives, on the other hand, want to arm Ukraine and put Putin’s head on a stake.

Of course the “interests” the Obama administration is pursuing in Ukraine are not the “interests” of the majority of Americans—or Ukrainians, for that matter. They are the “interests” of the neo-cons, energy companies, arms manufacturers, and international financial organizations like the International Monetary Fund and the European Bank. In short, the interests of the 1 percent over the 99 percent.

Up until ISIL started cutting American journalists heads off, U.S. polls reflected overwhelming exhaustion with foreign wars. The Center for Public Integrity found 65 percent of Americans would choose to cut military spending. But Americans are also easily stampeded by bombast: The “Russians are coming” (while it was the West that marched east). “Chinese cyber warriors are going to crash our national power grid” (except we don’t have a national power grid and the only countries that have engaged in cyber war are the U.S. and Israel). “And the turbans are going to get you in your bed” (even if U.S. intelligence agencies say the ISIL has not threatened the U.S.).

Since the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, the U.S. has spent almost $70 million an hour on security and around $62 million on domestic needs. Since 9/11 some 23 Americans have died as result of “Muslim terror plots” in the U.S., while the number of those killed by right-wing extremists is 34.

The reality is the U.S. cannot do much about climate change, growing economic inequality, infrastructure deterioration, and the slow motion collapse of our education system without confronting the $1 trillion it spends annually on military and defense related items, or the $4 to $6 trillion that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq will eventually cost us.
With the U.S. about to begin an open-ended air war in Iraq and Syria (to join those in progress in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia) the cost of fighting an almost non-existent “terrorist” threat to the U.S. is about to sharply escalate. In whose interest is that?

Increasingly, what is in the interest of the few is incompatible with the interest of the many.

Conn Hallinan can be read at disptchesfromtheedgeblog.wordpress.com or middleempireseries.wordpress.com

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Turkish Plots

Turkey’s Crisis: More Than Meets The Eye

Dispatches From The Edge

Jan. 1, 2014

The current corruption crisis zeroing in on Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyio Erdogan has all the elements of one of his country’s famous soap operas that tens of millions of people all over the Middle East tune in to each day: Bribes, shoe boxes filled with millions in cash, and dark whispers of foreign conspiracies.

As prosecutors began arresting leading government officials and businessmen, the Prime Minister claims that some foreign “ambassadors are engaging in provocative actions,” singling out U.S. Ambassador Frank Ricciardone. The international press has largely dismissed Erdogan’s charges as a combination of paranoia and desperation, but might the man have a point?

The corruption story is generally being portrayed as a result of a falling out between Erdogan’s conservative brand of Islam and the Gulen Community, a more moderate version championed by the Islamic spiritual leader Fethullah Gulen, who currently resides in Pennsylvania. Both are Sunnis. More than a decade ago the two men formed a united front against the Turkish military that eventually drove the generals back to the barracks and elected Erdogan’s Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002.

There are differences between the two currents of Turkish political Islam. Erdogan’s brand comes out the “National Outlook” tradition that tends to be suspicious of the West and democracy, cool to wide-open free market capitalism, and more socially conservative. Erdogan has recently told Turkish women how many children they should have—three—and railed against abortion, adultery, coed housing, public kissing, and alcohol. The AKP is also closely allied with the Muslim Brotherhood, and Erdogan was a strong supporter of the Brotherhood government in Egypt that was overthrown by a military coup this past July.

In contrast, Gulen’s brand of Islam is pro-West, strongly in favor of a free market, and socially flexible. Gulen supporters were active in last summer’s demonstrations against Erdogan, although their commitment to democracy is suspect. For instance, Gulen has a more hard-line nationalist approach to the Kurds, Turkey’s largest ethnic minority, and only recently began challenging the AKP’s authoritarian streak.

Gulen was also critical of Erdogan for breaking relations with Israel following the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident, when Israeli commandos killed eight Turks and a Turkish-American trying to deliver aid to the Palestinians in Gaza. Gulen accused Erdogan of provoking the clash.

The current falling out came to a head when Erdogan proposed closing down one of the Gulen Community’s major sources of financing, the “dershanes” or tutorial schools that prepare Turkish students to take exams. The Community has expanded such schools to over 140 countries, including the U.S. The schools also serve as effective recruiting conduits for his movement. The Russians recently closed down the schools, accusing them of being fronts for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

Gulen called the move against the dershanes a “dagger stabbed in our hearts.”

But the timing of the corruption investigations suggests this is more about regional politics—with global ramifications—than a spat over influential schools and interpretations of Islam.

Erdogan’s supporters charge that the investigation is coming from Gulen-dominated prosecutors and judges, and that it is little more than a power play aimed at bringing down the Prime Minister and damaging the AKT on the eve of local elections scheduled for March. “It is clear that I am the real target,” Erdogan told the media.

Gulen supporters counter that corruption is widespread, and that the Erdogan government has alienated former allies throughout the region.

There is certainly truth in that charge. From a former policy of “zero problems with the neighbors” Turkey finds itself embroiled in the Syrian civil war, and feuding with Israel, Egypt, Iraq, and Iran. Even what looked like a breakthrough peace accord with the Kurds appears to be turning sour.

But this past fall, the Erdogan government began reversing course and patching up relations with the locals.

Turkey and Iran jointly agreed that there was “no military solution” to the war in Syria, and Ankara expelled Saudi Arabian intelligence agents, who it had accused of aiding the more extremist elements fighting the government of Bashar al-Assad.

Turkey also buried the hatchet with Iraq. Instead of setting up a separate oil and gas deal with the Kurds in Northern Iraq, Ankara has agreed to work through the central government in Baghdad and is pushing to increase cross border trade between the two countries. Of course much of this is practical: Turkey needs energy and Iran and Iraq can provide it more cheaply than anyone else.

These recent policy turnarounds make the timing of the corruption charges suspicious. For two years Erdogan’s government has played spear-carrier for the U.S. and its allies in Syria and courted the reactionary Gulf Cooperation Council. The latter consists of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, and newcomers Jordan and Morocco.

But the Syrian civil war has not gone as planned, and, despite predictions that Assad would quickly fall, his government is hanging on. It is the forces fighting him that are spinning out of control. Ankara’s allies in the Gulf—in particular Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—are funding Islamic extremists fighting in Syria, who are turning the war into Sunnis Vs. Shiites. The Assad government is dominated by the Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Those groups are now also destabilizing Lebanon and Iraq by attacking Shiite communities in both countries. Most these extremists are contemptuous of Turkey’s Islamic government.

From the U.S. point of view, Turkey is no longer a completely reliable ally. It is quarreling with Israel, Washington’s number one friend in the region. It has fallen out with Saudi Arabia and most of the GCC—the new government in Qatar is an exception—and has essentially broken off relations with the U.S.-supported military government in Egypt. Most of all, it is developing ties with Iran, and both countries are suddenly issuing joint communiqués calling for a diplomatic resolution to the Syrian civil war.

Rather than joining in the newly forged Saudi-Israeli-Egypt alliance against Iran, Turkey is feuding with all three countries and breaking bread with Shiia-dominated governments in Teheran and Damascus.

In short, from Washington’s point of view, Erdogan has gone off the reservation.

Seen from this perspective, Erdogan’s suspicions do not seem all that bizarre. Despite denials that the U.S. and its allies are not involved, and that the corruption issues is entirely an internal Turkish affair, Washington and its allies do have a dog in this fight.

For instance, one target of the corruption probe is Halkbank, which does business with Iran. “We asked Halkbank to cut its links with Iran,” U.S. Ambassador Ricciardone reportedly told European Union (EU) ambassadors. “They did not listen to us.” Did the U.S. influence Turkish prosecutors to single out Halkbank?

If Erdogan falls and the Gulen forces take over, it is almost certain that Turkey will re-align itself in the region. If that happens, expect Ankara to patch up its fight with Tel Aviv and Cairo, chill relations with Iran, and maybe even go silent on a diplomatic solution in Syria. The free market section of the Turkish economy will expand, and western investments will increase. And the current roadblocks in the way of Turkey’s membership in the EU may vanish.

Whether this will be good for Turkey or the region is another matter. The Gulf monarchies are not nearly as stable as they look. The military government in Egypt will always be haunted by the ghost of the Arab Spring. Israel’s continued settlement building is gradually turning it into an international pariah. And, in the end, the West does not really care about democracy, as the U.S.’s endorsement of the military coup in Egypt made clear.

Erdogan’s political instincts seem to have deserted him. His brutal suppression of last summer’s demonstrations polarized the country, and his response to the corruption investigations has been to fire or reassign hundreds of police and prosecutors. He has also gone after the media. Turkey has jailed more journalists than Iran and China combined.

There is little doubt but that the Prime Minister has played fast and loose with zoning laws and environmental regulations in order to allow his allies in the construction industry to go on a tear. But Erdogan hardly invented corruption, and the question about the investigations is, why now?

Maybe the charge that this Turkish corruption scandal is orchestrated is just paranoia, but, then, paranoids do have enemies.

 

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Middle East: The Next Four Years

Middle East: The Next Four Years

Dispatches From The Edge

Nov.11, 2012

 

Over the next four years the U.S. will face a number of foreign policy issues, most of them regional, some of them global. Dispatches From The Edge will try to outline and analyze them, starting with the Middle East.

Syria

The most immediate problem in the region is the on-going civil war in Syria, a conflict with local and international ramifications. The war—which the oppressive regime of Bashar al-Assad ignited by its crushing of pro-democracy protests— has drawn in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Iran, and the monarchies of the Persian Gulf, in particular Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The U.S., France and Great Britain are also heavily involved in the effort to overthrow the Assad government.

The war has killed more than 30,000 people and generated several hundred thousand refugees, who have flooded into Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq. It has also badly damaged relations between Turkey and Iran. The former supports the insurrection, the latter supports the Assad regime. Pitting Shite Iran (and to a certain extent, Shite Iraq and the Shite-based Hezbollah in Lebanon) against the largely Sunni Muslim opposition has sharpened sectarian tensions throughout the region.

The war itself appears to be a stalemate. So far, the regime’s army remains loyal, but seems unable to defeat the insurrection. The opposition, however, is deeply splintered and ranges from democratic nationalists to extremist jihadist groups. The US and Britain are trying to weld this potpourri into a coherent political opposition, but so far the attempts have floundered on a multiplicity of different and conflicting agendas by the opponents of the Assad regime.

Efforts by the United Nations (UN) to find a peaceful solution have been consistently torpedoed, because the opposition and its allies insist on regime change. The goal of overthrowing the government makes this a fight to the death and leaves little room for political maneuvering. A recent ceasefire failed, in part, because jihadist groups supported by Qatar and Saudi Arabia refused to abide by it and set off several car bombs in the capital. The Sunni extremism of these groups is whipping up sectarian divisions among the various sects of Islam.

There are a number of things the Obama administration could do to alleviate the horrors of the current civil war.

First, it should drop the demand for regime change, although this does not necessarily mean that President Assad will remain in power. What must be avoided is the kind of regime change that the war in Libya ushered in. Libya has essentially become a failed state, and the spinoff from that war is wreaking havoc in countries that border the Sahara, Mali being a case in point. In the end, Assad may go, but to dismantle the Baathist government is to invite the kind of sectarian and political chaos that the dissolution of the Baathist regime in Iraq produced.

Second, if the US and its allies are enforcing an arms embargo against Assad’s government, they must insist on the same kind of embargo on arms sent to the rebels by Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

Third, China and Russia should be asked to negotiate a ceasefire and organize a conference aimed at producing a political settlement and transition government. China recently proposed a four-point peace plan that could serve as a starting point for talks. A recent Assad government controlled newspaper, Al Thawra, suggested the Damascus regime would be open to such negotiations. A key aspect to such talks would be a guarantee that no outside power would undermine them.

Palestinians

The conflict that will not speak its name—or at least that is the way the current impasse between Israel and the Palestinians was treated during the 2012 US elections. But as U.S. Gen. James Mattis, head of U.S. Central Command, the military formation responsible for the Middle East, said last spring, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is a “preeminent flame that keeps the pot boiling in the Middle East, particularly as the Arab Awakening causes Arab governments to be more responsive to the sentiments of their populations” that support the Palestinians.

Rather than moving toward a solution, however, the government of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu recently announced yet another round of settlement building. There are approximately 500,000 Jewish settlers currently on the West Bank and East Jerusalem, although all such settlements are a violation of international law. While Netanyahu says he wants negotiations, he continues to build settlements, which is like negotiating over how to divide a pizza while one of the parties is eating it.

Proposals to annex the West Bank, once the program of far-right settlers, have gone mainstream. A conference this past July in the West Bank city of Hebron drew more than 500 Israelis who reject the idea of a Palestinian state. The gathering included a number of important Likud Party officials and members of the Knesset. Likud is Netanyahu’s party and currently leads the Israeli government.

“Friends, everybody here today knows that there is a solution—applying sovereignty [over the West Bank]. One state for the Jewish people with an Arab minority,” Likud Knesset member Tzipi Hotovely told the audience.

Conference organizer Yehudit Katsover put the matter bluntly “We’re all here to say one thing: the land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people. Why? Because!”

A major argument against absorbing the West Bank is that it would dilute the Jewish character of Israel and threaten the country’s democratic institutions. “As long as in this territory west of the Jordan River there is only one political entity called Israel it is going to be either non-Jewish or non-democratic,” Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak argues. “If this bloc of millions of Palestinians cannot vote, that will be an apartheid state.”

But right-wing conference goers dismissed that argument because they reject that there is a demographic threat from the Palestinians. According to The Times of Israel, former ambassador to the US, Yoram Ettinger, told the crowd that estimates of the Palestinian population are based on “Palestinian incompetence or lying” and that there are actually a million fewer than the official population count.

Legal expert Yitzhak Bam said he expected there would be no fallout from the Americans if Israel unilaterally annexed the West Bank, since Washington did not protest the 1981 annexation of the Golan Heights from Syria. Both areas were conquered in the 1967 War.

The Times reporter Raphael Ahern writes that that the conference reflects “The annexationists are growing in confidence, demanding in outspoken fashion what they always dreamed of but have never dared to say quite so publically.”

The expanding settlements are rapidly making the possibility of a viable two-state solution impossible. Eventually there will be no pizza left to divide.

The Obama administration has dropped the ball on this issue and needs to re-engage, lest the “pot” boil over.

First, the Tel Aviv government needs to be told that all settlement expansion must cease, and that failure to do so will result in a suspension of aid. At about $3.4 billion a year, Israel is the US’s number one foreign aid recipient.

Second, the US must stop blocking efforts by the Palestinians for UN recognition.

Third, negotiations must cover not only the West Bank and Gaza, but also the status of East Jerusalem. The latter is the engine of the Palestinian economy, and without it a Palestinian state would not be viable.

Iran

The immediate danger of a war with Iran appears to have slightly receded, although the Israelis are always a bit of a wild card. First, the Obama administration explicitly rejected Netanyahu’s “red line” that would trigger an attack on Teheran. The Israeli prime minister argues that Iran must not be allowed to achieve the “capacity” to produce nuclear weapons, a formulation that would greatly lower the threshold for an assault. Second, there are persistent rumors that the US and Iran are exploring one-on-one talks, and it appears that some forces within Iran that support talks—specifically former president Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani— are in the ascendency.

Netanyahu continues to threaten war, but virtually his entire military and intelligence apparatus is opposed to a unilateral strike. Israeli intelligence is not convinced that Iran is building a bomb, and the Israeli military doesn’t think it has the forces or weapons to do the job of knocking out Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. Polls also indicate overwhelming opposition among the Israeli public for a unilateral attack. This doesn’t mean Netanyahu won’t attack Iran, just that the danger does not seem immediate. If Israel should choose to launch a war, the Obama administration should make it clear that Tel Aviv is on its own.

US intelligence and the Pentagon are pretty much on the same page as the Israelis regarding Iran’s nuclear program. Even with its powerful military, US generals are not convinced that an attack would accomplish much more than delaying Iran’s program by from three to five years. At least at this point, the Pentagon would rather talk than fight. “We are under the impression that the Iranian regime is a rational actor,” says Gen. Martin Dempsey, chair of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. Polls also indicate that nearly 70 percent of the American public favors negotiations over war.

In short, a lot of ducks are now in a row to cut a deal.

However, the US cannot make uranium enhancement a red line. Iran has the right to enhance nuclear fuel under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and as long as inspectors are in place—as they currently are—it is virtually impossible to create bomb-level fuel in secret.

Not only has intelligence failed to show that Iran is creating a nuclear weapons program, the country’s leader has explicitly rejected such a step. “The Iranian nation has never pursued and will never pursue nuclear weapons,” says the country’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei, calling nuclear weapons “a great and unforgivable sin.”  The Iranian government has also indicated that it will take part in a UN-sponsored conference in Helsinki to create a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East.

The Obama administration should endorse this effort to abolish nuclear weapons in the Middle East, although this will force it to confront the only nuclear power in the Middle East, Israel. Israel is not a NPT signatory and is thought to have some 200 nuclear weapons. Such a monopoly cannot long endure. The argument that Israel needs nuclear weapons because it is so outnumbered in the region is nonsense. Israel has by far the strongest military in the Middle East and powerful protectors in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).  While Egypt and Syria did attack Israel in 1973, it was to recover territories seized by Tel Aviv in the 1967 war, not an attempt to destroy the country. And that was almost 40 years ago. Since then Israel has invaded Lebanon twice and Gaza once. Countries in the region fear Israel, not visa-a-versa.

While the White House has recently eased restrictions on the sale of critical medicines to Iran, the sanctions are taking a terrible toll on the economy and the average Iranian. So far, the US has not explicitly said it will remove the sanctions if talks are showing real progress. Since no one likes negotiating with a gun to the head—in this regard Iranians are no different than Americans—there should be some good faith easing of some of the more onerous restrictions, like those on international banking and oil sales.

Lastly, the option of war needs to be taken off the table. Threatening to bomb people in order to get them not to produce nuclear weapons will almost certainly spur Iran (and other countries) to do exactly the opposite. A war with Iran would also be illegal. The British attorney general recently informed the Parliament that an attack on Iran would violate international law, because Iran does not pose a “clear and present danger,” and recommended that the US not be allowed to use the British-controlled island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean to launch such an attack.

The Gulf

Because US relies on the energy resources of the Persian Gulf countries, as well as strategic basing rights, it is unlikely that the Obama administration will challenge the foreign and domestic policies of its allies in the region. But then Washington should not pretend that its policies there have anything to do with promoting democracy.

The countries that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council, led by Qatar and Saudi Arabia, are monarchies that not only suppress dissent but also systematically oppress women and minorities and, in the case of Bahrain, the Shite majority. The extreme jihadist organizations that the countries of the Gulf fund and arm are destabilizing governments across the region and throughout Central Asia. Washington may bemoan extremism in Pakistan, but its Gulf allies can claim the lion’s share of the credit for nurturing the groups responsible for that extremism.

The Gulf Council is not interested in promoting democracy—indeed, political pluralism is one of its greatest enemies, nor does it have much interest in the modern world, aside from fancy cars and personal jet planes. This past summer Saudi Arabia executed a man for possessing “books and talismans from which he learned to harm God’s worshippers,” and last year beheaded a man and a woman for witchcraft.

Lastly, the Obama administration should repudiate the 1979 Carter Doctrine that allows the US to use military force to guarantee access to energy resources in the Middle East. That kind of thinking went out with 19th century gunboats and hangs like the Damocles Sword over any country in the region that might decide to carve out an independent policy on politics and energy.

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Iran Sanctions: War By Other Means

Iran Sanctions: War By Another Name

Dispatches From The Edge

Conn Hallinan

July 9, 2012

Now that the talks with Iran on its nuclear program appear to be on the ropes, are we on the road to war? The Israelis threaten it almost weekly, and the Obama administration has reportedly drawn up an attack plan. But in a sense, we are already at war with Iran.

Carl von Clausewitz, the great theoretician of modern warfare, defined war as the continuation of politics by other means. In the case of Iran, international politics has become a de-facto state of war.

According to reports, the annual inflation rate in Iran is 22.2 percent, although many economists estimate it at double that. In the last week of June, the price of chicken rose 30 percent, grains were up 55.8 percent, fruits up 66.6 percent, and vegetables up 99.5 percent.   Iran’s Central Bank estimates unemployment among the young is 22.5 percent, although the Financial Times says “the official figures are vastly underestimated.” The production sector is working at half its capacity.

The value of the Iranian rial has fallen 40 percent since last year, and there is a wave of business closings and bankruptcies due to rising energy costs and imports made expensive by the sanctions.

Oil exports, Iran’s major source of income, have fallen 40 percent in 2012, according to the international Energy Agency, costing the country just under $32 billion over the past year. The 27-member European Union (EU) ban on buying Iranian oil will further depress sales, and a EU withdrawal of shipping insurance will make it difficult for Teheran to ship oil and gas to its diminishing number of customers. Loss of insurance coverage could reduce Iran’s oil exports by 1/5 million barrels a day, or $4.5 billion a month. Energy accounts for about 80 percent of Iran’s public revenues.

Whipsawed by energy sanctions, the worst may be yet to come. The U.S. has already made it difficult for countries to dealing with Iran’s Central Bank, and the U.S. Congress is considering legislation that would declare the Iranian energy sector a “zone of proliferation concern” that would strangle Teheran’s ability collect payments for its oil exports. Other proposals would essentially make it impossible to do business with Iran’s banks. Any country that dared to do so would find itself unable to conduct virtually any kind of international banking.

If the blizzard of legislation does pass, “This would be a significant ratcheting-up of the economic war against Iran,” Mark Dubowitz told the Financial Times. Dubowitz is executive director of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, who has lobbied for a series of economic assaults against the Palestinians, China, and Hezbollah.

But the “war” has already gone far beyond the economic sphere.

In the past two years, five Iranian nuclear scientists have been assassinated. The hits have been widely attributed to the Israeli intelligence service, Mossad, and the People’s Mujahidin of Iran (MEK), an organization the U.S. designates as “terrorist.”

Last year a massive explosion rocked the Bid Ganeh military base near Teheran, killing 17 people, including the founder of Iran’s missile program, Gen. Hassan Tehrani Moghaddam. According to Israeli media, the camp was sabotaged by the MEK working with Mossad. Deadly attacks directed at Iran’s Revolutionary Guard have been tied to Jundallah, a Sunni group with ties to U.S. and Israel intelligence.

It is no secret—indeed, President Obama openly admitted it—that under the codename “Olympic Games,” the U.S. has been waging cyber war against Iran. The Stuxnet virus shut down a considerable portion of Iran’s nuclear program, although it also infected infrastructure activities, including power plants, oil rigs, and water supplies. The virus was designed to attack systems made by the German company Siemens and has apparently spread to China, Pakistan and Indonesia.

The U.S. is also suspected of being behind the Flame virus, spyware able to record keystrokes, eavesdrop on conversations near an infected computer, and tap into screen images. Besides Iran, Flame has been found in computers in the Palestinian West Bank, Lebanon, Hungary, Austria, Russia, Hong Kong, and the United Arab Emirates.  Because “malware” seeks out undefended computers no matter where they are, it has a habit of spreading beyond its initial target.

Most of the media is focused on whether the failure of the talks will lead to an Israeli or American attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, and there is certainly considerable smoke out there.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have been threatening to attack Iran for the past two years. According to Gideon Rachman, a leading columnist for the Financial Times, some Israeli officials have told him Tel Aviv will attack sometime this summer or early fall. One source told him “Israel will wait until September or October because the weather is better and it’s closer to the US elections.”

But the Independent’s (UK) Patrick Cockburn, one of the more reliable analysts on the Middle East, thinks the Israeli threats are “the bluff of the century.” Cockburn argues that there is simply no reason for Tel Aviv to go to war, since the Iranian economy is being effectively strangled by the sanctions. But the saber rattling is useful because it scares the EU into toughing up the siege of Teheran, while also shifting the Palestinian issue to a back burner.

There are serious divisions within Israel on whether to go to war, with the Israeli intelligence and military generally opposed. The latter’s reasons are simple: militarily Tel Aviv couldn’t pull it off, and politically an attack would garner worldwide sympathy for Iran. Recent statements downgrading the threat of Iran by Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz suggest the Netanyahu government is finally feeling the pressure from divisions within its own ranks and may be backing off from a military confrontation.

And the US?

According to Paul Rogers, a Department of Peace Studies professor at Bradford University and OpenDemocracy’s international security editor, the Pentagon has drawn up plans for a concentrated attack on Iran’s nuclear industry, using a combination of bombers and cruise missiles. The U.S. recently beefed up its military footprint in the region.

But while the possibility of such an attack is real—especially if congressional hawks get their way—the Pentagon and the U.S. intelligence establishment are hardly enthusiastic about it. And in any case, the US is carpet-bombing Iran’s economy without firing a shot or sending air crews into harm’s way.

While Iran is generally depicted as the recalcitrant party in the current nuclear talks, it has already compromised, even agreeing to ship some of its enriched uranium out of the country and to guarantee the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) access to all nuclear facilities. Teheran has also converted one-third of its 20 percent enriched uranium into plates, making it almost impossible to use the fuel for nuclear weapons. Weapon’s grade uranium is enriched to 90 percent.

In return, Teheran is demanding the right to enrich to 3.5 percent—the level one needs to power a civilian reactor—and an end to sanctions.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty does not ban enriching uranium—indeed, it is guaranteed by Articles III and IV—as long as the fuel is not weaponized. “Iran is raising eyebrows,” says Yousaf M. Butt of the American Federation of Scientists, “but what it is doing is a concern—not illegal.”

However, the P5+1—the permanent UN Security Council members, Britain, France, the US, Russia, China, plus Germany, is demanding an end to all enrichment, shipping the enriched fuel out of the country, and closing the enrichment plant at Fordo: “stop, shut, and ship.” In return Iran would get enriched fuel for medical use and some spare parts for its civilian airlines. The sanctions would remain in place, however, although it would open the subject up for discussion. The problem is that many of the more onerous sanctions are those independently applied by the U.S. and the EU. Russia and China have expressed opposition to the independent sanctions, but so far have not shown a willingness to openly flaunt them.

It will be hard for Teheran to make further concessions, particularly if there is no light at the end of the sanction tunnel. Indeed, some of the demands seem almost crafted to derail a diplomatic solution, raising the suspicion that the dispute is less about Iran’s nuclear program than a concerted drive to marginalize a country that has resisted European and U.S. interests in the Middle East. Isolate Iran enough, the thinking goes, and it might bring about regime change. Moscow or Beijing don’t support such an outcome, but they have little influence over what Washington and Brussels do independently.

There is no evidence that Iran is trying to build nuclear weapons. Indeed, the body of evidence suggests the opposite, including the 2007 US National Intelligence Estimate that Teheran mothballed its program in 2003. But evidence is irrelevant when the enormous economic power of the US and the EU can cow the rest of the world, and force a country to its knees without resorting to open hostilities.

In short, war by other means.

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Iran, Israel and the U.S.: The Slide To War

Iran, Israel & the U.S.: The Slide To War

Dispatches From The Edge

Feb. 22, 2012

Wars are fought because some people decide it is in their interests to fight them. World War I was not started over the Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination, nor was it triggered by the alliance system. An “incident” may set the stage for war, but no one keeps shooting unless they think it’s a good idea. The Great War started because the countries involved decided they would profit by it, delusional as that conclusion was.

It is useful to keep this idea in mind when trying to figure out if there will be a war with Iran. In short, what are the interests of the protagonists, and are they important enough for those nations to take the fateful step into the chaos of battle?

First off, because oil and gas are involved, a war would have global ramifications. Iran supplies China with about 15 percent of its oil, and India with 10 percent. It is a major supplier to Europe, Turkey, Japan and South Korea, and it has the third largest oil reserves and the second largest natural gas reserves in the world. Some 17 million barrels per day pass through the narrow Strait of Hormuz, a significant part of the globe’s energy supply.

In short, the actors in this drama are widespread and their interests as diverse as their nationalities.

According to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Iran is building nuclear weapons that pose an “existential” threat to Israel. But virtually no one believes this, including the bulk of Tel Aviv’s military and intelligence communities. As former Israeli Chief of Staff Dan Halutz said recently, Iran “is not an existential” threat to Israel. There is no evidence that Iran is building a bomb and all its facilities are currently under a 24-hour United Nations inspection regime.

But Israel does have an interest in keeping the Middle East a fragmented place, riven by sectarian divisions and dominated by authoritarian governments and feudal monarchies. If there is one lesson Israel has learned from its former British overlords, it is “divide and conquer.” Among its closest allies were the former dictatorships in Egypt and Tunisia, and it now finds itself on the same page as the reactionary monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC): Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, and Oman.

Iran is not a military threat to Israel, but it is a political problem, because Tel Aviv sees Teheran’s fierce nationalism and independence from the U.S. and Europe as a wildcard. Iran is also allied to Israel’s major regional enemy, Syria—with which it is still officially at war— and the Shiite-based Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, and the Shiite-dominated government in Iraq.

In the Netanyahu government’s analysis, beating up on Iran would weaken Israel’s local enemies and at little cost. Tel Aviv’s scenario features a shock and awe attack, followed by a United Nations mandated ceasefire, with a maximum of 500 Israeli casualties. The Iranians have little capacity to strike back, and, if they did attack Israeli civilian centers or tried to close the Hormutz Strait, it would bring in the Americans.

Of course that rose-colored scenario is little more than wishful thinking. Iran is not likely to agree to a ceasefire—it fought for eight long years against Iraq—and war has a habit of derailing the best-laid plans. In real life it will be long and bloody and might well spread to the entire region.

Iran’s leaders use a lot of bombast about punishing Israel if it attacks, but in the short run, there is not a lot they could do, particularly given the red lines Washington has drawn. The Iranian air force is obsolete, and the Israelis have the technology to blank out most of Teheran’s radar and anti-aircraft sites. Iran could do little to stop Tel Aviv’s mixture of air attacks, submarine-fired cruise missiles, and Jericho ballistic missiles.

For all its talk about “everything being on the table.” The Obama administration appears to be trying to avoid a war, but with the 2012 elections looming, would Washington remain on the sidelines? On the “yes” side are polls indicating that Americans would not look with favor on a new Middle East war. But on the “no” side are a united front of Republicans, neo-conservatives, and the American Israeli Political Action Committee pressing for a confrontation with Iran.

Israeli sources suggest that Netanyahu may calculate that in the run-up to the 2012 American elections, an Israeli attack might force the Obama Administration to back a war and/or damage Obama’s re-election chances. It is no secret that there is no love lost between the two leaders.

But the U.S. also has a dog in this fight, and one not all that different than Israel’s. American hostility to Iran dates back to Teheran’s seizure of its oil assets from Britain in 1951. The CIA helped overthrow the democratically elected Iranian government in 1953 and install the dictatorial Shah. The U.S. also backed Saddam Hussein’s war on Iran, has had a longstanding antagonistic relationship with Syria, and will not talk with Hezbollah or Hamas. Tel Aviv’s local enemies are Washington’s local enemies.

When the Gulf monarchs formed the GCC in 1981, its primary purpose was to oppose Iranian influence in the Middle East. Using religious division as a wedge, the GCC has encouraged Sunni fundamentalists to fight Shiites in Lebanon, Iraq and Syria, and blocked the spread of the “Arab Spring” to its own turf. When Shiites in Bahrain began protesting over a lack of democracy and low wages, the GCC invaded and crushed the demonstrations. The GCC does not see eye-to-eye with the U.S. and Israel on the Palestinians—although it is careful not to annoy Washington and Tel Aviv—but the GCC is on the same page as both capitals concerning Syria, Lebanon and Iran.

The European Union (EU) has joined the sanctions, although France and Germany have explicitly rejected the use of force. Motivations in the EU range from France’s desire to reclaim its former influence in Lebanon to Europe’s need to keep its finger on the energy jugular vein. In brief, it isn’t all about oil and gas but a whole lot of it is, and, as CounterPunch’s Alexander Cockburn points out, oil companies would like to see production cut and prices rise. A war would accomplish both.

Iran will be the victim here, but there will be some who would take advantage of a war. An attack would unify the country around what is now a rather unpopular government, allow the Revolutionary Guard to crush its opposition, and give cover to the current drive by the Ahmadinejad government to cut subsidies for transportation, housing and food. A war would cement the power of the most reactionary elements of the current regime.

There are other actors in this drama—China, Russia, India, Turkey, and Pakistan for starters, none of whom support a war—but whether they can influence events is an open question. In the end, Israel may just decide that its interests are served by starting a war, and that the U.S. will go along because it is much of the same mind.

Or maybe this is all sound and fury signifying nothing?

The sobering thought is that the three most powerful actors in this drama—Israel, the U.S. and its European allies, and the Gulf Cooperation Council—have many of the same interests, and share the belief that force is an effective way to achieve one’s goals.

On such illusions are tragedies built.

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The U.S., Indonesia & the NY Times

The U.S., Indonesia & The Times

Dispatches From The Edge

Jan. 20, 2012

Why is the New York Times concealing the key role that the United States played in the 1965 coup in Indonesia that ended up killing somewhere between 500,000 and 1 million people? In a story Jan. 19—“Indonesia Chips Away At the Enforced Silence Around a Dark History”—the Times writes that the coup was “one of the darkest periods in modern Indonesian history, and the least discussed, until now.”

Indeed it is, but the Times is not only continuing to ignore U.S. involvement in planning and carrying out the coup, but apparently doesn’t even bother to read its own clip files from that time that reported the Johnson administration’s “delight with the news from Indonesia.” The newspaper also reported a cable by Secretary of State Dean Rusk supporting the “campaign against the communists” and assuring the leader of the coup, General Suharto, that the “U.S. government [is] generally sympathetic with, and admiring of, what the army is doing.”

What the Indonesian Army was doing was raping and beheading communists, leftists, and trade unionists. Many people were savagely tortured to death by the military and its right-wing Muslim allies in the Nahdlatul Ulama and the Muhammadiyah. A number of those butchered were fingered by U.S. intelligence.

According to a three-part series in the July 1999 Sydney Morning Herald, interviews with Indonesian political prisoners, and examinations of U.S. and Australian documents, “Western powers urged the Indonesian military commanders to seize upon the false claims of a coup attempt instigated bu the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), in order to carry out one of the greatest civilian massacres of the 20th century and establish a military dictatorship.”

General Suharto claimed that the PKI was behind the assassination of six leading generals on the night of July 30, 1965, the incident that ignited the coup. But the Herald series included interviews with two of the men involved in the so-called September 30 putsch, both of who claim the PKI had nothing to do with the uprising. At the time, the PKI was part of a coalition government, had foresworn violence, and had an official policy of a “peaceful transition” to socialism. In fact, the organization made no attempt to mobilize its three million members to resist the coup.

The U.S. made sure that very few of those communists—as well as the leaders of peasant, women, union, and youth organizations— survived the holocaust. According to U.S. National Security Archives published by George Washington University, U.S. intelligence agents fingered many of those people. Then U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia, Marshall Green, said that an Embassy list of top Communist leaders “is being used by the Indonesian security authorities that seem to lack even the simplest overt information on PKI leadership at the time…”

The U.S. was well aware of the scale of the killings. In an April 15, 1966 telegram to Washington, the Embassy wrote, “We frankly do not know whether the real figure [of PKI killed] is closer to 100,000 or 1,000,000, but believe it wiser to err on the side of the lower estimates, especially when questioned by the press.”

Besides helping the military track down and murder any leftists, the U.S. also supplied the right-wing Kap-Gestapu movement with money. Writing in a memo to then Assistant Secretary of State McGeorge Bundy, Green wrote “The chances of detection or subsequent revelation of our support in this instance are as minimal as any black bag operation can be.”

States News Service reporter Kathy Kadane interviewed several former diplomats and intelligence agents and found that the list turned over to the Indonesian security forces had around 5,000 names on it. “It was really a big help to the Army,” former embassy political officer Robert J. Martens told Kadane. “They probably killed a lot of people, and I probably have a lot of blood on my hands, but that is not all bad. There is a time when you have to strike hard at a decisive moment.”

At the time, Washington was beginning a major escalation of the Vietnam War, and the Johnson administration was fixated on its mythical domino theory that communists were about to take over Asia. The U.S. considered Indonesia to be a strategically important country, not only because it controlled important sea passages, but also because it was rich in raw materials in which U.S. corporations were heavily invested. These included Richfield and Mobil oil companies, Uniroyal, Union carbide, Eastern Airlines, Singer Sewing Machines, National Cash Register, and the Freeport McMorRan gold and copper mining company.

At the time, Indonesian President Sukarno was one of the leaders of the “third force” movement, an alliance of nations that tried to keep itself aloof from the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The 1955 Bandung Conference drew countries from throughout Asia and Africa to Indonesia to create an anti-colonialist, non-aligned movement. It also drew the ire of the U.S, which refused to send a representative to Bangdung.

In the polarized world of the Cold War, non-alignment was not acceptable to Washington, and the U.S. began using a combination of diplomacy, military force and outright subversion to undermine countries like Indonesia and to bring them into alliances with the U.S. and its allies. The CIA encouraged separatist movements in the oil-rich provinces of Sumatra and Sulawesi. The British and the Australians were also up to their elbows in the 1965 coup, and France increased its trade with Indonesia following the massacre.

The relations between Jakarta and Washington are long and sordid. The U.S. gave Indonesia the green light to invade and occupy East Timor, an act that resulted in the death of over 200,000 people, or one-third of the Timorese population, a kill ratio greater than Pol Pot’s genocidal mania in Cambodia. Washington is also supportive of Indonesia’s seizure of Irian Jaya (West Papua) and, rather than condemning the brutality of the occupation, has blamed much of the violence on the local natives.

The Cold War is over, but not U.S. interests in Asia. The Obama administration is pouring military forces into the region and has made it clear that it intends to contest China’s growing influence in Asia and Southeast Asia. Here Indonesia is key. Some 80 percent of China’s energy supplies pass through Indonesian-controlled waters, and Indonesia is still a gold mine—literally in the case of Freeport McMoRan on Irian Jaya—of valuable resources.

So once again, the U.S. is turning a blind eye to the brutal and repressive Indonesian military that doesn’t fight wars but is devilishly good at suppressing its own people and cornering many of those resources for itself. The recent decision by the White House to begin working with Kopassus—Indonesia’s equivalent of the Nazi SS—is a case in point. Kopassus has been implicated in torture and murder in Irian Jaya and played in key role in the 1999 sacking of East Timor that destroyed 70 percent of that country’s infrastructure following Timor’s independence vote. Over 1500 Timorese were killed and 250,000 kidnapped to Indonesian West Timor.

It appears that Indonesians are beginning to speak up about the horrors of the 1965 coup. Books like Geoffrey Robinson’s “The Dark Side of Paradise” and Robert Lemelson’s documentary film, “40 Years of Silence: an Indonesian Tragedy,” are slowly wearing away at the history manufactured by the military dictatorship.

But the U.S. has yet to come clean on its role in the 1965 horror, and the New York Times has apparently decided to continue that silence, perhaps because once again Indonesia is pivotal to Washington’s plans for Asia?

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Obama’s Dangerous Asia “Pivot”

Obama’s Dangerous Asia “Pivot”

Counterpunch

Conn Hallinan

Dec. 8, 2011

“On his recent trip to Asia Pacific, the President made it clear that the centerpiece of this strategy includes an intensified American role in this vital region,” Financial Times Nov. 28, 2011

–Tom Donilon, President Barak Obama’s national security advisor

“An Indo-Pacific without a strong U.S. military presence would mean the Finlandisation by China of countries in the South China Sea, such as Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore,” Financial Times Nov. 30, 2011

–Robert Kaplan, senior fellow Center for a New American Security and author of Monsoon: The Indian Ocean the Future of American Power

Donilon is a long-time Democratic Party operative and former lobbyist for Fannie Mae and a key figure in the Clinton administration’s attack on Yugoslavia and the expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe. Kaplan is a Harvard Business School professor and advisor on the Mujahedeen war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, as well as current U.S. military intervention in the Horn of Africa.

Something is afoot.

Indeed, it is. The Obama administration is in the middle of a major shift in foreign policy—a “strategic pivot” in the words of the White House—in two regions of the world: Asia and Africa. In both cases, a substantial buildup of military forces and a gloves-off use of force lie at the heart of the new approach.

The U.S. now has a permanent military force deployed in the Horn of Africa, a continent-wide military command—Africom—and it has played a key role in overthrowing the Libyan government. It also has Special Forces active in Uganda, Somalia, and most of the countries that border the Sahara.

But it is in Asia that the administration is making its major push, nor is it coy about whom the target is. “We are asserting our presence in the Pacific. We are a Pacific power,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said at the National Defense University in August, “we know we face some long-term challenges about how we are going to cope with what the rise of China means.”

There is whiff to all this of old fashioned Cold War hype, when the U.S. pumped up the Russian military as a world-swallowing force panting to pour through the Fulda Gap and overrun Western Europe: the Chinese are building a navy to challenge the U.S.; the Chinese are designing special missiles to neutralize American aircraft carriers; the Chinese are bullying nations throughout the region.

Common to Clinton’s address, as well as to Kaplan’s and Donilon’s opinion pieces, were pleas not to cut military spending in the Pacific. In fact, it appears the White House is already committed to that program. “Reduction in defense spending will not come at the expense of the Asia Pacific,” Donilon wrote, “There will be no diminution of our military presence or capabilities in the region.”

The spin the White House is putting on all this is that the U.S. has been bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, allowing China to throw its weight around in Asia. Donilon’s opinion piece was titled “America is back in the Pacific and will uphold the rules.”

It is hard to know where to begin to address a statement like that other than with the observation that irony is dead.

Asia and the Pacific has been a major focus for the U.S. since it seized the Philippines in the 1899 Spanish-American War. It has fought four major wars in the region over the past century, and, not counting China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), it deploys more military personnel in the Pacific than any other nation. It dominates the region through a network of bases in Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, the Marshall Islands, and island fortresses like Guam and Wake. The White House just announced the deployment of 2,500 Marines to Australia.

The American Seventh Fleet—created in 1943 and currently based in Yokosuka, Japan—is the largest of the U.S.’s naval fleets, and the one most heavily armed with nuclear weapons.

We aren’t “back,” we never went anywhere.

But the argument fits into the fable that U.S. military force keeps the peace in Asia. Kaplan even argues “A world without US naval and air dominance will be one where powers such as China, Russia, India, Japan and others act more aggressively toward each other than they do now, because they will all be far more insecure than they are now.”

In short, the kiddies will get into fights unless Uncle Sam is around to teach them manners. And right now, China is threatening to upend “the rules’ through an aggressive expansion of its navy.

China is indeed upgrading its navy, in large part because of what the Seventh Fleet did during the 1995-96 Taiwan Strait crisis. In the middle of tensions between Taipei and Beijing, the Clinton administration deployed two aircraft carrier battle groups into the Taiwan Straits. Since there was never any danger that China was going to invade Taiwan, the carriers were just a gratuitous slap in the face. China had little choice but to back down, but vowed it would never again be humiliated in its home waters. Beijing’s naval buildup dates from that crisis.

And “buildup” is a relative term. The U.S. has made much of China acquiring an aircraft carrier, but the “new” ship is a 1990 vintage Russian carrier, less than half the size of the standard American Nimitz flattop (of which the U.S. has 10). The “new” carrier-killer Chinese missile has yet to be tested, let alone deployed. Only in submarines can China say it is finally closing the gap with the U.S. And keep in mind that China’s military budget is about one-eighth that of the U.S.

If the Chinese are paranoid about their sea routes and home waters, it is not without cause. Most invasions of China have come via the Yellow Sea, and 80 percent of China’s energy supplies come by sea. China ships much of its gas and oil through the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. With major suppliers based on the west coast of Africa, the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf, it has little choice. Those sea-lanes are controlled by the U.S. Fifth Fleet based in Bahrain and the Seventh in Japan.

China is also building friendly ports for its tankers—the so-called “string of pearls”—and why Beijing is suspicious about the sudden thaw in U.S.-Myanmar relations. China plans to build a “pearl” in Myanmar.

Indeed, a major reason why China is building pipelines from Russia and Central Asia is to bypass the series of choke points through which its energy supplies pass, including the straits of Hormuz and the Malacca Strait. The Turkmenistan-Xingjian and Eastern Siberia Pacific Ocean pipelines are already up and running, but their volume is not nearly enough to feed China’s 11 billion barrels of oil a day appetite.

In spite of protests, the U.S. recently carried out major naval operations in the Yellow Sea, and Washington has injected itself into tensions between Beijing and some of its neighbors over the South China Sea. In part, China has exacerbated those tensions by its own high-handed attitude toward other nations with claims on the Sea. In responding to protests over China’s claims, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi remarked, “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that is just a fact.”

China’s initial arrogance on the issue has allowed the U.S. to wedge itself into the dispute and portray itself as the “protector” of small nations. Less than 40 years ago it was trying to bomb several of those nations back into the Stone Age, and Vietnam just recorded its 100,000th casualty since 1975 from explosives left over by the American war.

Beijing has since cooled its tone on the South China Sea and is backing away from defining it as a “core” Chinese area.

Why the “strategic pivot?”  Undoubtedly, some of it is posturing for the run-up to the 2012 elections. Being “tough” on China trumps Republican charges that Obama is “soft” on foreign policy. But this “pivot” is more than cynical electioneering.

First, China does not pose any military threat to the U.S. or its allies in Asia, and the last thing it wants is a war. Beijing has not forgotten its 1979 invasion of Vietnam that ended up derailing its “four modernizations” drive and deeply damaging its economy.

Part of this “China threat” nonsense has to do with the power of the U.S. armaments industry to keep the money spigots open. When it comes to “big ticket” spending items, navies and air forces top the list. An aircraft costs in excess of $5 billion, and the single most expensive weapons program in U.S. history is the F-35 stealth fighter.

But there is more than an appetite for pork at work here.

China is the number two economy in the world, and in sharp competition with the U.S. and its allies for raw materials and human resources. It is hard to see the aggressive U.S. posture in Asia as anything other than an application of the old Cold War formula of economic pressure, military force, and diplomatic coercion. From Washington’s point of view, it worked to destabilize the Soviet Union, why shouldn’t it work on China?

“If you are a strategic thinker in China,” says Simon Tay, chair of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, “you do not have to be a paranoid conspiracy theorist to think that the U.S. is trying to bandwagon Asia against China.”

Since U.S. foreign policy is almost always an extension of corporate interests, squeezing China in Asia, Africa and Central Asia helps create openings for American investments. And if such a policy also protects the multi-billion dollar military budget, including the likes of Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics and Northrop Grumman, so much the better.

It is a dangerous game, first, because military tension can lead to war, and, while that is an unlikely event, mistakes happen. “If we keep this up, then we are going to leave the impression with China that we are drawing battle lines,” Douglas Paal of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told the Financial Times. In fact, the Obama administration has drawn up a plan called AirSea Battle to deny China control of the Taiwan Straits.

The consequences for those caught in the middle will be severe. China has pulled hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, but it still has a ways to go. An arms race will delay that. For the average American, racked by double-digit unemployment, a vanishing safety net, and the collapse of everything from education to infrastructure, it will be no less of a tragedy.

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