Monthly Archives: September 2019

How the Saudi Oil Field Attack Overturned America’s Applecart

Overturning The Apple Cart

Dispatches From The Edge

Sept. 28, 2019

 

In many ways it doesn’t really matter who—Houthis in Yemen? Iranians? Shiites in Iraq? — launched those missiles and drones at Saudi Arabia. Whoever did it changed the rules of the game, and not just in the Middle East. “It’s a moment when offense laps defense, when the strong have reason to fear the weak,” observes military historian Jack Radey.

 

In spite of a $68 billion a year defense budget—the third highest spending of any country in the world—with a world-class air force and supposed state-of-the-art anti-aircraft system, a handful of bargain basement drones and cruise missiles slipped through the Saudi radar and devastated Riyadh’s oil economy. All those $18 million fighter planes and $3 million a pop Patriot anti-aircraft missiles suddenly look pretty irrelevant.

 

This is hardly an historical first. British dragoons at Concord were better trained and armed than a bunch of Massachusetts farmers, but the former were 5,000 miles from home and there were lots more of the latter, and so the English got whipped. The French army in Vietnam was far superior in firepower than the Viet Minh, but that didn’t count for much in the jungles of Southeast Asia. And the US was vastly more powerful than the insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq, but we still lost both wars.

 

The Sept. 14 attack on Saudi Arabia’s Aramco refineries at Abqaiq and Khurais did more than knock out 50 percent of Saudi Arabia’s oil production, it shook the pillars of Washington’s foreign policy in the region and demonstrated the fragility of the world’s energy supply.

 

Since 1945, Washington’s policy in the Middle East has been to control the world’s major energy supplies by politically and militarily dominating the Persian Gulf, which represents about 15 percent of the globe’s resources. The 1979 Carter Doctrine explicitly stated that the US reserved the right to use military force in the case of any threat to the region’s oil and gas.

 

To that end Washington has spread a network of bases throughout the area and keeps one of its major naval fleets, The Fifth, headquartered in the Gulf. It has armed its allies and fought several wars to ensure its primacy in the region.

And all that just got knocked into a cocked hat.

 

Washington blames Iran, but the evidence for that is dodgy. The Americans have yet to produce a radar map showing where the missiles originated, and even the Trump administration and the Saudi’s have scaled back blaming Teheran directly, instead saying the Iranians “sponsored” the attack.

 

Part of that is plain old-fashioned colonial thought patterns: the “primitive” Houthis couldn’t pull this off. In fact, the Houthis have been improving their drone and missile targeting for several years and have demonstrated considerable skill with the emerging technology.

 

The US—and, for that matter, the Saudis—have enormous firepower, but the possible consequences of such a response are simply too costly. If 18 drones and seven cruise missiles did this much damage, how much could hundreds do? World oil prices have already jumped 20 percent, how high would they go if there were more successful attacks?

The only way to take out all the missiles and drones would be a ground attack and occupation. And who is going to do that? The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has already begun withdrawing its troops from Yemen and has been holding talks with the Houthis since July, (which is why UAE oil facilities were not attacked this time around). The Saudi army is designed for keeping internal order, especially among Shiites in its Eastern provinces and Bahrain. The princes in Riyadh are far too paranoid about the possibility of a coup to build a regular army.

 

The US? Going into an election with prices already rising at the pump? In any case, the US military wants nothing to do with another war in the Middle East, not, mind you, because they have suddenly become sensible, but as Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chair of the Joints Chiefs of Staff put it, it drains resources from confronting China.

 

Starting with the administration of George W. Bush, and accelerated during the Obama presidency’s “Asia Pivot,” the U.S. military has been preparing for a confrontation with China in the South and/or East China Sea. The Pentagon also has plans to face off Russia in the Baltic.

 

One suspects that the generals made it clear that, while they can blow up a lot of Iranians, a shooting war would not be cost free. US Patriot missiles can’t defend our allies’ oil fields (or American bases in the region) and while the anti-missile capabilities on some US naval ships are pretty good, not all of them are armed with effective systems like the Sea Sparrow. Americans would be coming home in boxes just as the fall election campaign kicked into high gear.

 

Whether the military got that message through to the Oval Office is not clear, but Trump’s dialing down of his rhetoric over Iran suggests it may have.

 

What happens now? The White House has clearly ruled out a military response in the short run. Trump’s speech at the UN focused on attacking globalism and international cooperation, not Iran. But the standoff is likely to continue unless the Americans are willing to relax some of their “maximum pressure” sanctions as a prelude to a diplomatic solution.

 

The US is certainly not withdrawing from the Middle East. In spite of the fact that shale oil has turned the United States into the world’s largest oil producer, we still import around one million barrels per day from Saudi Arabia. Europe is much more dependent on Gulf oil, as are the Chinese and Indians. The US is not about to walk away from its 70 plus year grip on the region.

 

But the chessboard is not the same as it was six months ago. The Americans may have overwhelming military force in the Middle East, but using it might tank world oil prices and send the West—as well as India and China—into a major recession.

 

Israel is still the dominant local power, but if it picks a fight with Iran or Hezbollah those drones and cruises will be headed its way. Israel relies on its “Iron Dome” anti-missile system, but while Iron Dome may do a pretty good job against the primitive missiles used by Hamas, mobile cruises and drones are another matter. While Israel could inflict enormous damage on any of its foes, the price tag could be considerably higher than in the past.

 

Stalemates can be dangerous because there is an incentive to try and break them by introducing some game changing weapon system. But stalemates also create the possibility for diplomatic solutions. That is certainly the case now. If a more centrist government emerges from this last round of Israeli elections, Israel may step back from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s relentless campaign against Teheran. And Trump likes “deals,” even though he is not very good at them.

 

“This is the new strategic balance,” says Newclick Editor-In-Chief Prabir Purkayastha in the Asia Times, “and the sooner the US and its NATO partners accept it, the quicker we will look for peace in the region.”

 

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Climate Catastrophe Comes for Europe

Europe: The Water Crisis Comes Home

Dispatches From The Edge

Sept. 5, 2019

 

  • On Aug. 18, several dozen people gathered around a patch of snow in Iceland to commemorate the demise of the Okjokull glacier, a victim of climate change. Further to the west, Greenland shed 217 billion tons of ice in the month of July alone.
  • Paris reached 108.7 degrees on July 25, and normally cold, blustery Normandy registered 102 degrees. Worldwide, July 2019 was the hottest month on record.
  • Melting Russian permafrost—which makes up two-thirds of the country—is buckling roads, collapsing buildings, and releasing massive amounts of methane, a gas with the ten times the climate-warming potential of carbon dioxide,
  • Some 1.500 residents of Whaley Bridge were recently evacuated when a dam—overwhelmed by intense rainfall that pummeled northern England—threatened to break. The rains washed out roads and rail lines and swamped homes and business.

 

Ever since coal was partnered with water to generate steam and launch the industrial revolution, Europeans have been pouring billions of tons of atmospheric warming compounds into the planet’s atmosphere. While scientists were aware of the climate-altering potential of burning hydrocarbons as early as 1896, the wealth generated by spinning jennies, power looms and drop forges was seductive, as was the power it gave countries to build colonial empires and subjugate populations across the globe.

 

But the bill is finally coming due.

 

When most people think of climate change, what come to mind are the poles, Asia’s fast vanishing glaciers, or Australia, where punishing droughts are drying up the sub-continent’s longest river, the Murray. But climate change is an equal opportunity disrupter, and Europe is facing a one-two punch of too much water in the north and center and not enough in the south.

 

According to recent projections, drought regions in Europe will expand from 13 percent of the continent to 26 percent and last four times as long, affecting upwards of 400 million people. Southern France, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece will be particularly hard hit, though how hard will depend on whether the planet’s temperature hike is kept to 1.5 degrees centigrade or rises to 3 degrees centigrade.

 

Northern and Central Europe, on the other hand, will experience more precipitation and consequent flooding. Upward of a million people would be effected and damage would run into the hundreds of billions of Euros. While weather is battering away at Europe, sea rises of from four to six feet over the next century would inundate Copenhagen, the Netherlands, many French and German ports and London. If the Greenland ice sheet actually melted, the oceans would come up 24 feet.

 

Food production will be another casualty. According to David Wallace-Wells in “The Uninhabitable Earth,” cereal crops will decline 10 percent for every degree the temperature goes up. When crops fail, people will move and the logical place to go is north. It is not just war and unrest that is driving refugees toward Europe, but widespread crop failures brought about by too little or too much water.

 

The warming climate also allows insects, like the bark beetle, to attack Europe’s forests. The beetles are increasingly active in the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Norway and, particularly, Russia, which host the largest temperate forests in the world.

 

Each tree that dies is one less carbon sink to transmute CO2 to oxygen. And dead trees are also more susceptible to forest fires, which can pump yet more of the climate warming gas into the atmosphere. Fires are not only increasing in countries like Spain, Greece and Portugal, but also in Sweden and Finland.

 

For many years climate change deniers—funded by hydrocarbon industry think tanks and sophisticated media campaigns—managed to inject a certain amount of doubt concerning global warming, but a rash of devastating hurricanes and last year’s wildfires in California have begun to shift public opinion. Last spring’s European elections saw Green parties all over the continent do well, and polls indicate growing alarm among the public.

 

A number of different European parties, including the British Labour Party, are pushing a “Green New Deal For Europe” based on a call by the United Nations to reduce green house gas emissions to zero by 2050.

 

The European Green Deal proposes using public investment banks to fund much of the plan, which is aimed at keeping rising temperatures to 1.5 degrees centigrade. While the price for rolling back emissions will certainly be high, the costs for not doing so are far greater, including the possibility that worldwide temperatures could go by as much as 5 degrees centigrade, a level that might make much of the world unlivable for human beings.

 

A jump of that magnitude would be similar to the kind of temperature rise the world experienced at the end of the Permian Era, 250 million years ago. Called the “Great Extinction,” it killed 96 percent of life in the sea and 70 percent on land.

 

A major reason for the Permian die off was the expansion of cynobacteria, which produce a toxic cocktail that can kill almost anything they comes in contact with. Such cynobacteria blooms are already underway in more than 400 places throughout the world, including a large dead zone in the Baltic Sea. Some New York lakes have become so toxic that the water is fatal to pets that drink from them.

 

The major fuel for cynobacteria is warm water coupled with higher rainfall—one of the consequences of climate change—that washes nutrients into lakes and rivers.

 

Of the 195 countries that signed the Paris Climate Accords, only seven are close to fulfilling their carbon emission pledges. And one of the world’s biggest sources of global warming gasses, the US, has withdrawn. If all 195 countries met their goals, however, the climate is still on target to reach 3 degrees Celsius. Even if the rise can be kept to 2 degrees, it will likely melt the Greenland ice cap and possibly the Antarctic ice sheets. Greenland’s melt would raise ocean levels by 24 feet, the Antarctic by hundreds of feet.

 

As overwhelming as the problem seems, it can be tackled, but only if the world mobilizes the kind of force it did to fight World War II. It will, however, take a profound re-thinking of national policy and the economy.

 

The US organization most focused on climate change these days is the Pentagon, which is gearing up to fight the consequences. But our enormous defense apparatus is a major part of the problem, because military spending is carbon heavy. According to Brown University’s “Cost Of War” project, the Pentagon is the single largest consumer of hydrocarbons on the planet. Yet a number of European countries—under pressure from the Trump administration—are increasing their military spending, exactly the wrong strategy to combat the climate threat.

 

The world will need to agree that keeping hydrocarbons in the ground is essential. Fracking, tar sands and opening yet new sources for oil and gas in the arctic will have to halt. Solar, hydro and wind power will need to be expanded, and some very basic parts of the economy re-examined.

 

This will hardly be pain free.

 

For instance, it takes 1,857 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef, compared to 469 gallons for a pound of chicken. Yogurt uses 138 gallons. While beef production uses 60 percent of agricultural land, it only provides 2 percent of human caloric intake.

 

It is unlikely that people will give up meat—although growing economic inequality has already removed meat from the diet of many—but what we eat and how we produce it will have to be part of any solution. For instance, a major source of green house gases is industrial agriculture with its heavy reliance on chemical fertilizers.

 

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, close to 30 percent of food production goes to waste, most of it in wealthy countries. A fair distribution of food supplies would not only feed more people, it would use less land, thus cutting green house gasses up to 10 percent. Add to that curbing beef production, and hundreds of millions of square miles of grange land would be freed up to plant carbon absorbing trees.

 

Can this be done incrementally? It may have to be, but not for long. Climate change is upon us. What that future will be is up to the current generation to figure out, and while there is no question that concerted action can make a difference, the clock is ticking. When next the bell tolls, it tolls for us all.

 

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Conn Hallinan can be read at dispatchesfromtheedgeblog.wordpress.com and middleempireseries.wordpress.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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