Category Archives: Lebanon, Yemen, Etc

Diego Garcia: “Unsinkable Carrier” Springs a Leak

Diego Garcia: “Unsinkable Carrier” Springs a Leak

Dispatches From The Edge

April 8, 2019

 

 

The recent decision by the Hague-based International Court of Justice that the Chagos Islands—with its huge US military base at Diego Garcia—are being illegally occupied by the United Kingdom (UK) has the potential to upend the strategic plans of a dozen regional capitals, ranging from Beijing to Riyadh.

 

For a tiny speck of land measuring only 38 miles in length, Diego Garcia casts a long shadow. Sometimes called Washington’s “unsinkable aircraft carrier,” planes and warships based on the island played an essential role in the first and second Gulf wars, the invasion of Afghanistan and the war in Libya. Its strategic location between Africa and Indonesia and 1,000 miles south of India, gives the US access to the Middle East, Central and South Asia and the vast Indian Ocean. No oil tanker, no warship, no aircraft can move without its knowledge.

 

Most Americans have never heard of Diego Garcia for a good reason: no journalist has been allowed there for more than 30 years and the Pentagon keeps the base wrapped in a cocoon of national security. Indeed, the UK leased the base to the Americans in 1966 without informing either the British Parliament or the US Congress.

 

The Feb. 25 Court decision has put a dent in all that by deciding that Great Britain violated United Nations Resolution 1514 prohibiting the division of colonies before independence. The UK broke the Chagos Islands off from Mauritius, a former colony on the southeast coast of Africa that Britain decolonized in 1968. At the time, Mauritius objected, reluctantly agreeing only after Britain threatened to withdraw its offer of independence.

 

The Court ruled 13-1 that the UK had engaged in a “wrongful act” and must decolonize the Chagos “as rapidly as possible.”

 

While the ruling is only “advisory,” it comes at a time when the US and its allies are confronting or sanctioning countries for supposedly illegal occupations—Russia in the Crimea and China in the South China Sea.

 

The suit was brought by Mauritius and some of the 1500 Chagos islanders, who were forcibly removed from the archipelago in 1973. The Americans, calling it “sanitizing” the islands, moved the Chagossians more than 1,000 miles to Mauritius and the Seychelles, where they have languished in poverty ever since.

 

Diego Garcia is the lynchpin for US strategy in the region. With its enormous runways, it can handle B-52, B-1 and B-2 bombers and huge C-5M, C-17 and C-130 military cargo planes. The lagoon has been transformed into a naval harbor that can handle an aircraft carrier. The US has built a city—replete with fast food outlets, bars, golf courses and bowling alleys—that hosts some 3,000 to 5,000 military personal and civilian contractors.

 

What you can’t find are any native Chagossians.

 

The Indian Ocean has become a major theater of competition between India, the US, and Japan on one side, and the growing presence of China on the other. Tensions have flared between India and China over the Maldives and Sri Lanka, specifically China’s efforts to use ports on those island nations. India recently joined with Japan and the US in a war game—Malabar 18—that modeled shutting down the strategic Malacca Straits between Sumatra and Malaysia, through which some 80 percent of China’s energy supplies pass each year.

 

A portion of the exercise involved anti-submarine warfare aimed at detecting Chinese submarines moving from the South China Sea into the Indian Ocean. To Beijing, those submarines are essential for protecting the ring of Chinese-friendly ports that run from southern China to Port Sudan on the east coast of Africa. Much of China’s oil and gas supplies are vulnerable, because they transit the narrow Mandeb Strait that guards the entrance to the Red Sea and the Strait of Hormuz that oversees access to the oil-rich Persian Gulf. The US 5th Fleet controls both straits.

 

Tensions in the region have increased since the Trump administration shifted the focus of US national security from terrorism to “major power competition”—that is, China and Russia. The US accuses China of muscling its way into the Indian Ocean by taking over ports, like Hambantota in Sri Lanka and Gwadar in Pakistan that are capable of hosting Chinese warships.

 

India, which has its own issues with China dating back to their 1962 border war, is ramping up its anti-submarine forces and building up its deep-water navy. New Delhi also recently added a long-range Agni-V missile that is designed to strike deep into China, and the rightwing government of Narendra Modi is increasingly chummy with the American military. The Americans even changed their regional military organization from “Pacific Command” to “Indo-Pacific Command” in deference to New Delhi.

 

The term for these Chinese friendly ports—“string of pearls”—was coined by Pentagon contractor Booz Allen Hamilton and, as such, should be taken with a grain of salt. China is indeed trying to secure its energy supplies and also sees the ports as part of its worldwide Road and Belt Initiative trade strategy. But assuming the “pearls” have a military role, akin to 19th century colonial coaling stations, is a stretch. Most the ports would be indefensible if a war broke out.

 

Diego Garcia is central to the US’s war in Somalia, its air attacks in Iraq and Syria, and its control of the Persian Gulf, and would be essential in any conflict with Iran. If the current hostility by Saudi Arabia, Israel and the US toward Iran actually translates into war, the island will quite literally be an unsinkable aircraft carrier.

 

Given the strategic centrality of Diego Garcia, it is hard to imagine the US giving it up, or, rather, the British withdrawing their agreement with Washington and de-colonizing the Chagos Islands. In 2016, London extended the Americans’ lease for 20 years.

 

Mauritius wants the Chagos back, but at this point doesn’t object to the base. It certainly wants a bigger rent check and the right eventually to take the island group back. It also wants more control over what goes on at Diego Garcia. For instance, the British government admitted that the Americans were using the island to transit “extraordinary renditions,” people seized during the Afghan and Iraq wars between 2002 and 2003, many of whom were tortured. Torture is a violation of international law.

 

As for the Chagossians, they want to go back.

 

Diego Garcia is immensely important for US military and intelligence operations in the region, but it is just one of some 800 American military bases on every continent except Antarctica. Those bases form a worldwide network that allows the US military to deploy advisors and Special Forces in some 177 countries across the globe. Those forces create tensions that can turn dangerous at a moment’s notice.

 

For instance there are currently US military personal in virtually every country surrounding Russia: Norway, Poland, Hungary, Kosovo, Romania, Turkey, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Georgia, Ukraine and Bulgaria. Added to that is the Mediterranean’s 6th Fleet, which regularly sends warships into the Black Sea.

 

Much the same can be said for China. US military forces are deployed in South Korea, Japan and Australia, plus numerous islands in the Pacific. The American 7th fleet, based in Hawaii and Yokohama, is the Navy’s largest.

 

In late March, US Navy and Coast Guard ships transited the Taiwan Straits, which, while international waters, the Chinese consider an unnecessary provocation. British ships have also sailed close to Chinese-occupied reefs and islands in the South China Sea.

 

The fight to de-colonize the Chagos Islands will now move to the UN General Assembly. In the end, Britain may ignore the General Assembly and the Court, but it will be hard pressed to make a credible case for doing so. How Great Britain can argue for international law in the Crimea and South China Sea, while ignoring the International Court of Justice on the Chagos, will require some fancy footwork.

 

In the meantime, Mauritius Prime Minister Pravard Jugnauth calls the Court decision “historic,” and one that will eventually allow the 6,000 native Chagossians and their descendents “to return home”

 

–30—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Iran & Sanctions: A Prelude to War?

Iran: Sanctions & War

Dispatches From The Edge

May 29, 2018

 

The question is: has the Trump administration already made a decision to go to war with Iran, similar to the determination of the Bush administration to invade Iraq in the aftermath of the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington?

 

Predictions are dicey things, and few human institutions are more uncertain than war. But several developments have come together to suggest that the rationale for using sanctions to force a re-negotiation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is cover for an eventual military assault by the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia aimed at regime change in Teheran.

 

As clueless as the Trump administration is on foreign policy, the people around the White House—in particular National Security Advisor John Bolton—know that sanctions rarely produce results, and unilateral ones almost always fail.

 

Sanctions aimed at Cuba, North Korea, Iraq and Libya did not dislodge any of those regimes and, in the case of North Korea, spurred Pyongyang into producing nuclear weapons. Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi were eventually overthrown, but by American firepower, not sanctions.

 

The only case in which sanctions produced some results were those applied to Iran from 2010 to 2015. But that embargo was multi-lateral and included China, India, and one of Iran’s major customers, the European Union (EU). When the U.S. unilaterally applied sanctions to Cuba, Iran and Libya in 1996, the move was a conspicuous failure.

 

This time around, the White House has made no effort to involve other countries. The Trump plan is to use the power of the American economy to strong-arm nations into line. Back our sanctions, threatens the administration, or lose access to the US market. And given that the world uses the dollar as its de-facto international currency, financial institutions may find themselves barred from using the Society for Worldwide Interbank Telecommunications (SWIFT), the American-controlled network that allows banks and finance centers to transfer money from country to county.

 

Those threats have not exactly panicked the rest of the world. China and India, which between them buy more than 1 million of Iran’s 2.1 million barrels per day production, say they will ignore the sanctions. According to Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign affairs minister, “The European Union is determined to act in accordance with its security interests and protect its economic investments.”

 

Adding up all the countries that will go along with the sanctions—including South Korea and Japan–will cut Teheran’s oil exports by 10% to 15%, nothing like the 50% plus that Iran lost under the prior sanctions regime.

 

In short, the sanctions won’t work, but were they really meant to?

 

It is possible that the White House somehow thinks they will—delusion is a characteristic of the Oval Office these days—but other developments suggest the administration is already putting in place a plan that will lead from economic sanctions to bombing runs.

 

For starters, there is the close coordination between the White House and Tel Aviv. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s April 30 speech shortly before Trump withdrew from the Iran agreement was tailored to give Washington a casus belli to dump the agreement. Virtually all of what Netanyahu “revealed” about the Iranian nuclear program was old news, already known by US, Israeli and European intelligence services.

 

Four days before Netanyahu’s speech Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman met with his American counterparts and, according to Al Monitor, got a “green light” for any military action Tel Aviv might take against Iran.

 

The same day Liberman was meeting with the Pentagon, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Saudi Arabia to end its campaign against Qatar because the Americans wanted the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to be united around a campaign against Iran.

 

Each of these moves seems calculated to set the stage for a direct confrontation with Iran involving some combination of the US, Israel and the two most aggressive members of the GCC, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The latter two are currently waging war on the Iranian-supported Houthis in Yemen.

 

It is almost impossible to imagine what the consequences of such a war might be. On paper, it looks like a cakewalk for the anti-Teheran axis. Iran has an antiquated air force, a bunch of fast speedboats and tanks that date back to the 1960s. The military budgets of the US, Israel and the GCC are more than 58 times those of Iran. But, as the Prussian military theorist Karl von Clausewitz once remarked, the only thing one can determine in war is who fires the first shot.

 

Military might does not translate into an automatic win. After almost 17 years of war, the US is still bogged down in Afghanistan, and it basically left Iraq with its tail between its legs. Indeed, the last time the American military won a war was in Grenada. As for the GCC, in spite of more than two years of relentless warfare in Yemen, the monarchs are no nearer victory than they were when the war started. And Hezbollah fought Israel to a stalemate in 2006.

 

While Iran does not have much in the way of military force, it has 80 million people with a strong streak of nationalism who would certainly unite against any attacker. It would be impossible to “win” a war against Iran without resorting to a ground invasion.

 

But none of Iran’s antagonists have the capacity to carry that out. The Saudis have a dismal military record, and the UAE troops are stalemated in their campaign to take Yemen’s capital, Saana from the rag-tag Houthi militia. The Israelis don’t have the troops—and, in any case, would never put them in harm’s way so far from home—and the Americans are not about to send in the Marines.

 

Most likely this would be a war of aircraft and missiles to destroy Iran’s military and civilian infrastructure. There is little that Teheran can do to stop such an assault. Any planes it put up would be toast, its anti-aircraft weapons are obsolete, and its navy would not last long.

 

But flattening Teheran’s military is not winning a war, and Iran has other ways to strike back. The Iranians, for instance, have shown considerable skill at asymmetric warfare in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, and it does have missiles.

 

The real damage, however, will be the fallout from the war. The price of oil is already on the rise, and hostilities in the middle of one of the world’s largest petroleum repositories will likely send it through the roof. While that will be good for the GCC, high oil prices will put a dent into the economies of the EU, China, India, and even the US.

 

What a war will almost certainly do is re-ignite Iran’s push to build a nuclear weapon. If that happens, Saudi Arabia will follow, and the world will be faced with several new nuclear powers in one of the most volatile regions of the world.

 

Which doesn’t mean war is inevitable.

 

The Trump administration hawks broke the JCPOA because they hoped Iran would then withdraw as well, giving the anti-Iranian axis an excuse to launch a war. Iranians are divided on this issue, with some demanding that Teheran re-start its uranium enrichment program, while others defend the agreement. Europe can play a key role here by firmly supporting the Joint Agreement and resisting the American sanctions, even if it means taking a financial hit. Some European firms, however, have already announced they are withdrawing their investments.

 

The US Congress can also help stop a war, although it will require members—mostly Democrats—to put aside their anti-Iranian bias and make common cause with the “stay in the pact” Iranians. This is a popular issue. A CNN poll found that 63 percent of Americans opposed withdrawing from the agreement.

 

It will also mean that the Congress—again, mainly Democrats—will have to challenge the role that Israel is playing. That will not be easy, but maybe not as difficult as it has been in the past. Israel’s brutality against Palestinians over the past month has won no friends except in the White House and the evangelical circuit, and Netanyahu has made it clear that he prefers Republicans to Democrats.

 

Lastly, Congress should cut the arms pipeline to the GCC and stop aiding the Saudis in their war on Yemen

 

If war comes, Americans will find themselves in the middle of an unwinnable conflict that will destabilize the Middle East and the world’s economy, and pour more of this country’s resources into yet another quagmire.

 

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The Tortured Politics behind the Persian Gulf Crisis

Middle East Chaos

Dispatches From The Edge

June 14, 2017

 

 

The splintering of the powerful Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) into warring camps—with Qatar, supported by Turkey and Iran, on one side, and Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), supported by Egypt, on the other—has less to do with disagreements over foreign policy and religion than with internal political and economic developments in the Middle East. The ostensible rationale the GCC gave on June 4 for breaking relations with Qatar and placing the tiny country under a blockade is that Doha is aiding “terrorist’ organizations. The real reasons are considerably more complex, particularly among the major players.

 

Middle East journalist Patrick Cockburn once described the Syrian civil war as a three-dimensional chess game with five players and no rules. In the case of the Qatar crisis, the players have doubled and abandoned the symmetry of the chessboard for “Go,” Mahjong, and Bridge.

 

Tensions among members of the GCC are longstanding. In the case of Qatar, they date back to 1995, when the father of the current ruler, Emir Tamin Al Thani, shoved his own father out of power. According Simon Henderson to of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Saudi Arabia and the UAE “regarded the family coup as a dangerous precedent to Gulf ruling families” and tried to organize a counter coup. The coup was exposed, however, and called off.

 

Riyadh is demanding that Qatar sever relations with Iran—an improbable outcome given that the two countries share a natural gas field in the Persian Gulf—and end Doha’s cozy ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. Indeed, if there is any entity in the Middle East that the Saudis hate—and fear—more than Iran, it is the Brotherhood. Riyadh was instrumental in the 2013 overthrow of the Brotherhood government in Egypt and has allied itself with the Israelis to marginalize Hamas, the Palestinian version of the Brotherhood that dominates Gaza.

 

But fault lines in the GCC do not run only between Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar. Oman, at the Gulf’s mouth, has always marched to its own drummer, maintaining close ties with Saudi Arabia’s regional nemesis, Iran, and refusing to go along with Riyadh’s war against the Houthi in Yemen. Kuwait has also balked at Saudi dominance of the GCC, has refused to join the blockade against Doha, and is trying to play mediator in the current crisis.

 

The siege of Qatar was launched shortly after Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia, when the Saudi’s put on a show for the U.S. President that was over the top even by the monarchy’s standards. Wooed with massive billboards and garish sword dances, Trump soaked up the Saudi’s view of the Middle East, attacked Iran as a supporter of terrorism and apparently green-lighted the blockade of Qatar. He even tried to take credit for it.

 

Saudi Arabia, backed by Bahrain, Egypt, and the UAE, along with a cast of minor players, made 13 demands on Doha that it could only meet by abandoning its sovereignty. They range from the impossible—end all contacts with Iran—to the improbable—close the Turkish base—to the unlikely—dismantle the popular and lucrative media giant, Al Jazeera. The “terrorists” Doha is accused of supporting are the Brotherhood, which the Saudi’s and the Egyptians consider a terrorist organization, an opinion not shared by the U.S. or the European Union.

 

On the surface this is about Sunni Saudi Arabia vs. Shiite Iran, but while religious differences do play an important role in recruiting and motivating some of the players, this is not a battle over a schism in Islam. Most importantly, it is not about “terrorism,” since many of the countries involved are up to their elbows in supporting extremist organizations. Indeed, Saudi Arabia’s reactionary Wahhabi interpretation of Islam is the root ideology for groups like the Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda, and all the parties are backing a variety of extremists in Syria and Libya’s civil wars.

 

The attack on Qatar is part of Saudi Arabia’s aggressive new foreign policy that is being led by Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammad bin Salman. Since being declared “monarch-in-waiting” by King Salman Al Saud, Mohammed has launched a disastrous war in Yemen that has killed more than 10,000 civilians, sparked a country-wide cholera epidemic, and drains at least $700 million a month from Saudi Arabia’s treasury. Given the depressed price for oil and a growing population—70 percent of which is under 30 and much of it unemployed—it is not a cost the monarchy can continue to sustain, especially with the Saudi economy falling into recession.

 

Underlying the Saudi’s new-found aggression is fear. First, fear that the kind of Islamic governance modeled by the Muslim Brotherhood poses a threat to the absolutism of the Gulf monarchs. Fear that Iran’s nuclear pact with the U.S., the EU and the UN is allowing Tehran to break out of its economic isolation and turn itself into a rival power center in the Middle East. And fear that anything but a united front by the GCC—led by Riyadh—will encourage the House of Saud’s internal and external critics.

 

So far, the attempt to blockade Qatar has been more an annoyance than a serious threat to Doha. Turkey and Iran are pouring supplies into Qatar, and the Turks are deploying up to 1,000 troops at a base near the capital. There are also some 10,000 U.S. troops at Qatar’s Al Udeid Airfield, Washington’s largest base in the Middle East and one central to the war on the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Any invasion aimed at overthrowing the Qatar regime risks a clash with Turkey and the U.S.

 

While Egypt is part of the anti-Qatari alliance—the Egyptians are angry at Doha for not supporting Cairo’s side in the Libyan civil war, and the Egyptian regime also hates the Brotherhood—it is hardly an enthusiastic ally. Saudi Arabia keeps Egypt’s economy afloat, and so long as the Riyadh keeps writing checks, Cairo is on board. But Egypt is keeping the Yemen war at arm’s length—it flat out refused to contribute troops and is not comfortable with Saudi Arabia’s version of Islam. Cairo is currently in a nasty fight with its own Wahhabist-inspired extremists. Egypt also maintains diplomatic relations with Iran.

 

Besides the UAE, the other Saud allies don’t count for much in this fight. Sudan will send troops—if Riyadh pays for them—but not very many. Bahrain is on board, but only because the Saudi and UAE armies are sitting on local Shiite opposition. Yemen and Libya are part of the anti-Qatar alliance, but both are essentially failed states. And while the Maldives is a nice place to vacation, it doesn’t have a lot of weight to throw around.

 

On the other hand, long-time Saudi ally Pakistan has made it clear it is not part of this blockade, nor will it break with Qatar or downgrade relations with Iran. When Riyadh asked for Pakistan troops in Yemen, the national parliament voted unanimously to have nothing to do with Riyadh’s jihad on the poorest country in the Middle East.

 

The largely Muslim nations of Malaysia and Indonesia are also maintaining relations with Qatar, and Saudi ally Morocco offered to send food to Doha. In brief, it is not clear who is more isolated here.

 

While President Trump supports the Saudis, his Defense Department and State Department are working to resolve the crisis. U.S. Sec. of State Rex Tillerson just finished a trip to the Gulf in an effort to end the blockade, and the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee is threatening to hold up arms sales to Riyadh unless the dispute is resolved. The latter is no minor threat. Saudi Arabia would have serious difficulties carrying out the war in Yemen without U.S. weaponry.

 

And the reverse of the coin?

 

Doha’s allies have a variety of agendas, not all of which mesh.

 

Iran has correct, but hardly warm, relations with Qatar. Both countries need to cooperate to exploit the South Pars gas field, and Tehran appreciated that Doha was always a reluctant member of the anti-Iran coalition, telling the U.S. it could not use Qatari bases to attack Iran.

 

Iran is certainly interested in anything that divides the GCC. The Iranians would also like Qatar to invest in upgrading Iran’s energy industry and maybe cutting them in on the $177 billion in construction projects that Doha is lining up in preparation for hosting the 2022 World Cup Games. Also, some 30,000 Iranians live in Qatar.

 

Figuring out Turkey these days can reduce one to reading tea leaves.

 

On one hand, Ankara’s support for Qatar seems obvious. Qatar backs the Brotherhood, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party is a Turkish variety of the Brotherhood, albeit one focused more on power than ideology. Erdogan was a strong supporter of the Egyptian Brotherhood and relations between Cairo and Ankara went into the deep freeze when Egypt’s military overthrew the Islamist organization.

 

Qatar is also an important source of finances for Ankara, whose fragile economy needs every bit of help it can get. Turkey’s large construction industry would like to land some of the multi-billion construction contracts the World Cup games will generate. Turkish construction projects in Qatar already amount to $13.7 billion.

 

On the other hand, Turkey is also trying to woo Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies for their investments. Erdogan even joined in the GCC’s attacks on Iran last spring, accusing Tehran of “Persian nationalist expansion,” a comment that distressed Turkey’s business community. As the sanctions on Iran ease, Turkish firms see that country’s big, well-educated population as a potential gold mine.

 

The Turkish President has since turned down the anti-Iran rhetoric, and Ankara and Tehran have been consulting over the Qatar crisis. The first supportive phone call Erdogan took during the attempted coup last year was from Qatar’s emir, and the prickly Turkish President has not forgotten that some other GCC members were silent for several days. Erdogan recently suggested that the UAE had a hand in the coup.

 

Is this personal for Turkey’s president? No, but Erdogan is the Middle East leader who most resembles Donald Trump: he shoots from the hip and holds grudges. The difference is that he is far smarter and better informed than the U.S. President and knows when to cut his losses.

 

His apology to the Russians after shooting down one of their fighter-bombers is a case in point. Erdogan first threatened Moscow with war, but eventually trotted off to St. Petersburg, hat in hand, to make nice with Russian President Vladimir Putin. And after hinting that the Americans were behind the 2016 coup, he recently met with Tillerson in Istanbul to smooth things out. Turkey recognizes that it will need Moscow and Washington to settle the war in Syria.

 

The Russians have been carefully neutral, consulted with Turkey and Iran, and have called on all parties to peacefully resolve their differences.

 

There is not likely to be a quick end to the Qatar crisis, because Saudi Arabia keeps doubling down on one disastrous foreign policy decision after another, including breaking up the Arab world’s only viable economic bloc. But there are developments in the region that may eventually force Riyadh to back off.

 

The Syrian War looks like it is headed for a solution, although the outcome is anything but certain. The Yemen War has reached crisis proportions—the UN describes it as the number one human emergency on the globe—and pressure is growing for the U.S. and Britain to wind down their support for the Saudi alliance. And Iran is slowly but steadily reclaiming its role as a leading force in the Middle East and Central Asia.

 

There is much that could go wrong. There could be a disastrous war with Iran, currently being pushed by Saudi Arabia, Israel and neo-conservatives in the U.S. and Russia, the U.S. and Turkey could fall out over Syria. The Middle East is an easy place to get into trouble. But if there are dangers, so too are there possibilities, and from those spring hope.

 

 

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Hillary and the Urn of Ashes

Hillary & The Urn of Ashes

Dispatches From The Edge

Conn Hallinan

Jan.30, 2016

 

“They sent forth men to battle.

                           But no such men return;

                           And home, to claim their

                                   welcome.

Comes ashes in an urn.”

Ode from “Agamemnon”

in the Greek tragedy

the Oresteia by Aeschylus

 

Aeschylus—who had actually fought at Marathon in 490 BC, the battle that defeated the first Persian invasion of Greece—had few illusions about the consequences of war. His ode is one that the candidates for the U.S. presidency might consider, though one doubts that many of them would think to find wisdom in a 2,500 year-old Greek play.

 

And that, in itself, is a tragedy.

 

Historical blindness has been much on display in the run-up to the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries. On the Republican side candidates were going to “kick ass” in Iraq, make the “sand glow” in Syria, and face down the Russians in Europe. But while the Democratic aspirants were more measured, there is a pervasive ideology than binds together all but cranks like Ron Paul: America has the right, indeed, the duty to order the world’s affairs.

 

This peculiar view of the role of the U.S. takes on a certain messianic quality in candidates like Hillary Clinton, who routinely quotes former Secretary of State Madeline Albright’s line about America as “the indispensible nation” whose job is to lead the world.

 

At a recent rally in Indianola, Iowa, Clinton said that “Senator [Bernie] Sanders doesn’t talk much about foreign policy, and, when he does, it raises concerns because sometimes it can sound like he really hasn’t thought things through.”

 

The former Secretary of State was certainly correct. Foreign policy for Sanders is pretty much an afterthought to his signature issues of economic inequality and a national health care system. But the implication of her comment is that she has thought things through. If she has, it is not evident in her biography, Hard Choices, or in her campaign speeches.

 

Hard Choices covers her years as Secretary of State and seemingly unconsciously tracks a litany of American foreign policy disasters: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Georgia, Ukraine, and the “Asia pivot” that has dangerously increased tensions with China. At the heart of Hard Choices is the ideology of “American exceptionalism,” which for Clinton means the right of the U.S. to intervene in other countries. As historian Jackson Lears, in the London Review of Books, puts it, Hard Choices “tries to construct a coherent rationale for an interventionist foreign policy and to justify it with reference to her own decisions as Secretary of State. The rationale is rickety: the evidence unconvincing.”

 

Clinton is undoubtedly an intelligent person, but her book is remarkably shallow and quite the opposite of “thoughtful.” The one act on her part for which she shows any regret is her vote to invade Iraq. But even here she quickly moves on, never really examining how it is that the U.S. has the right to invade and overthrow a sovereign government. For Clinton, Iraq was only a “mistake” because it came out badly.

 

She also demonstrates an inability to see other people’s point of view. Thus the Russians are aggressively attempting to re-establish their old Soviet sphere of influence rather than reacting to the steady march of NATO eastwards. The fact that the U.S. violated promises by the first Bush administration not to move NATO “one inch east” if the Soviets withdrew their forces from Eastern Europe is irrelevant.

 

She doesn’t seem to get that a country that has been invaded three times since 1815 and lost tens of millions of people might be a tad paranoid about its borders. There is no mention of the roles of U.S. intelligence agencies, organizations like the National Endowment for Democracy, and of openly fascist Ukranian groups played in the coup against the elected government of Ukraine.

 

Clinton takes credit for the Obama administration’s “Asia Pivot” that “sent a message to Asia and the world that America was back in its traditional leadership role in Asia,” but she doesn’t consider how this might be interpreted in Beijing. The U.S. never left Asia—the Pacific basin has long been our major trading partner—so, to the Chinese, “back” and “pivot” means that the U.S. plans to beef up its military in the region and construct an anti-China alliance system. It has done both.

 

Clinton costumes military intervention in the philosophy of “responsibility to protect,” or “R2P,” but her application is selective. She takes credit for overthrowing Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, but in her campaign speeches she has not said a word about the horrendous bombing campaign being waged by Saudi Arabia in Yemen. She cites R2P for why the U.S. should overthrow Bashar al-Assad in Syria, but is silent about Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Bahrain to crush demands for democracy by its majority Shiite population.

 

Clinton, along with Samantha Power, U.S. Ambassador to the UN, and Susan Rice, the Obama administration’s National Security Advisor, has pushed for muscular interventions without thinking—or caring—about the consequences

 

And those consequences have been dire..

 

Afghanistan: Somewhere around 220,000 Afghans have died since the 2001 U.S. invasion, and millions of others are refugees. The U.S. and its allies have suffered close to 2,500 dead and more than 20,000 wounded, and the war is far from over. The cost: close to $700 billion, not counting the long-term medical bill that could run as high as $2 trillion.

 

Libya: Some 30,000 people died and another 50,000 were wounded in the intervention and civil war. Hundreds of thousands have been turned into refugees. The cost was cheap: $1.1 billion, but it has created a tsunami of refugees and the war continues. It also produced one of Clinton’s more tasteless remarks. Referring to Gaddafi, she said, “We came, we saw, he died.” The Libyan leader was executed by having a bayonet rammed up his rectum.

 

Ukraine: The death toll is above 8,000, some 18,000 have been wounded, and several cities in the eastern part of the country have been heavily damaged. The fighting has tapered off although tensions remain high.

 

Yemen: Over 6,000 people have been killed, another 27,000 wounded, and, according to the UN, most of them are civilians. Ten million Yeminis don’t have enough to eat, and 13 million have no access to clean water. Yemen is highly dependent on imported food, but a U.S.-Saudi blockade has choked off most imports. The war is ongoing.

 

Iraq: Somewhere between 400,000 to over 1 million people have died from war-related causes since the 2003 invasion. Over 2 million have fled the country and another 2 million are internally displaced. The cost: close to $1 trillion, but it may rise to $4 trillion once all the long-term medical costs are added in. The war is ongoing.

 

Syria: Over 250,000 have died in the war, and four million Syrians are refugees. The country’s major cities have been ravaged. The war is ongoing.

 

There are other countries—like Somalia—that one could add to the butcher bill. Then there are the countries that reaped the fallout from the collapse of Libya. Weapons looted after the fall of Gaddafi largely fuel the wars in Mali, Niger, and the Central African Republic.

 

And how does one calculate the cost of the Asia Pivot, not only for the U.S., but for the allies we are recruiting to confront China? Since the “Pivot” took place prior to China’s recent assertiveness in the South China Sea, is the current climate of tension in the Pacific basin a result of Chinese aggression, or U.S. provocation?

 

Hillary Clinton is not the only Democrat who thinks American exceptionalism gives the U.S. the right to intervene in other countries. That point of view it is pretty much bi-partisan. And while Sanders voted against the Iraq war and criticizes Clinton as too willing to intervene, the Vermont senator backed the Yugoslavia and Afghan interventions. The former re-ignited the Cold War, and the latter is playing out like a Rudyard Kipling novel.

 

In all fairness, Sanders did say, “I worry that Secretary Clinton is too much into regime change and a bit too aggressive without knowing what the unintended consequences may be.”

 

Would Hillary be more inclined toward an aggressive foreign policy? Certainly more than Obama’s—Clinton pressed the White House to directly intervene in Syria and was far more hard line on Iran. More than the Republicans? It’s hard to say, because most of them sound like they have gone off their meds. For instance, a number of GOP candidates pledge to cancel the nuclear agreement with Iran, and, while Clinton wanted to drive a harder bargain than the White House did, in the end she supported it.

 

However, she did say she is proud to call Iranians “enemies,” and attacked Sanders for his remark that the U.S. might find common ground with Iran on defeating the Islamic State. Sanders then backed off and said he didn’t think it was possible to improve relations with Teheran in the near future.

 

The danger of Clinton’s view of America’s role in the world is that it is old fashioned imperial behavior wrapped in the humanitarian rationale of R2P and thus more acceptable than the “make the sands glow” atavism of most the Republicans. In the end, however, R2P is just death and destruction in a different packaging.

 

Aeschylus got that: “For War’s a banker, flesh his gold.”

 

                           —30—

 

 

 

 

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Why Did Turkey Shoot Down That Russian Plane?

Syria: Shooting Down Peace?

Dispatches From The Edge

Dec. 8, 2015

 

Why did Turkey shoot down that Russian warplane?

 

It was certainly not because the SU-24 posed any threat. The plane is old and slow, and the Russians were careful not to arm it with anti-aircraft missiles. It was not because the Turks are quick on the trigger. Three years ago Turkish President Recap Tayyip Endogen said, “A short-term violation of airspace can never be a pretext for an attack.” And there are some doubts about whether the Russian plane ever crossed into Turkey’s airspace.

 

Indeed, the whole Nov. 24 incident looks increasingly suspicious, and one doesn’t have to be a paranoid Russian to think the takedown might have been an ambush. As Lt. Gen. Tom McInerney (ret), former U.S. Air Force chief of staff commented, “This airplane was not making any maneuvers to attack the [Turkish] territory,” the Turkish action was “overly aggressive,” and the incident “had to be preplanned.”

 

It certainly puzzled the Israeli military, not known for taking a casual approach to military intrusions. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon told the press Nov. 29 that a Russian warplane had violated the Israeli border over the Golan Heights. “Russian planes do not intend to attack us, which is why we must not automatically react and shoot them down when an error occurs.”

 

So why was the plane downed? Because, for the first time in four years, some major players are tentatively inching toward a settlement of the catastrophic Syrian civil war, and powerful forces are maneuvering to torpedo that process. If the Russians had not kept their cool, several nuclear-armed powers could well have found themselves in a scary faceoff, and any thoughts of ending the war would have gone a glimmering.

 

There are multiple actors on the Syrian stage and a bewildering number of crosscurrents and competing agendas that, paradoxically, make it both easier and harder to find common ground. Easier, because there is no unified position among the antagonists; harder, because trying to herd heavily armed cats is a tricky business.

 

A short score card on the players:

 

The Russians and the Iranians are supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and fighting a host of extremist organizations ranging from Al-Qaeda to the Islamic State (IS). But each country has a different view of what a post civil war Syria might look like. The Russians want a centralized and secular state with a big army. The Iranians don’t think much of “secular,” and they favor militias, not armies.

 

Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and most the other Gulf monarchies are trying to overthrow the Assad regime, and are the major supporters of the groups Russia, Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah are fighting. But while Turkey and Qatar want to replace Assad with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, Saudi Arabia might just hate the Brotherhood more than it does Assad. And while the monarchies are not overly concerned with the Kurds, Turkey is bombing them, and they are a major reason why Ankara is so deeply enmeshed in Syria.

 

The U.S., France and Great Britain are also trying to overthrow Assad, but are currently focused on fighting the IS using the Kurds as their major allies—specifically the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party, an offshoot of the Kurdish Workers Party that the U.S. officially designates as “terrorist.” These are the same Kurds that the Turks are bombing and who have a friendly alliance with the Russians. Indeed, Turkey may discover that one of the price tags for shooting down that SU-24 is the sudden appearance of new Russian weapons for the Kurds, some of which will aimed at the Turks.

 

The Syrian war requires a certain suspension of rational thought.

 

For instance, the Americans are unhappy with the Russians for bombing the anti-Assad Conquest Army, a force dominated by the Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s franchise in Syria. That would be the same al-Qaeda that brought down the World Trade towers and that the U.S. is currently bombing in Yemen, Somalia and Afghanistan.

 

Suspension of rational thought is not limited to Syria.

 

A number of Arab countries initially joined the U.S. air war against the Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda, because both organizations are pledged to overthrow the Gulf monarchies. But Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar have now dropped out to concentrate their air power on bombing the Houthis in Yemen.

 

The Houthis, however, are by far the most effective force fighting the IS and al-Qaeda in Yemen. Both extremist organizations have made major gains in the last few weeks because the Houthis are too busy defending themselves to take them on.

 

In spite of all this political derangement, however, there are several developments that are pushing the sides toward some kind of peaceful settlement that doesn’t involve regime change in Syria. That is exactly what the Turks and the Gulf monarchs are worried about, and a major reason why Ankara shot down that Russian plane.

 

The first of these developments has been building throughout the summer: a growing flood of Syrians fleeing the war. There are already almost two million in Turkey, and over a million in Jordan and Lebanon, and as many as 900,000 in Europe. Out of 23 million Syrians, some 11 million have been displaced by the war, and the Europeans are worried that many of those 11 million people will end up camping out on the banks of the Seine and the Ruhr. If the war continues into next year, that is a pretty accurate assessment.

 

Hence, the Europeans have quietly shelved their demand that Assad resign as a prerequisite for a ceasefire and are leaning on the Americans to follow suit. The issue is hardly resolved, but there seems to be general agreement that Assad will at least be part of a transition government. At this point, the Russians and Iranians are insisting on an election in which Assad would be a candidate because both are wary of anything that looks like “regime change.” The role Assad might play will be a sticking point, but probably not an insurmountable one.

 

Turkey and Saudi Arabia are adamant that Assad must go, but neither of them is in the driver’s seat these days. While NATO supported Turkey in the Russian plane incident, according to some of the Turkish press many of its leading officials consider Erdogan a loose cannon. And Saudi Arabia—whose economy has been hard hit by the worldwide fall in oil prices—is preoccupied by its Yemen war that is turning into a very expensive quagmire.

 

The second development is the Russian intervention, which appears to have changed things on the ground, at least in the north, where Assad’s forces were being hard pressed by the Conquest Army. New weapons and airpower have dented a rebel offensive and resulted in some gains in the government’s battle for Syria’s largest city, Aleppo.

 

Russian bombing also took a heavy toll on the Turkmen insurgents in the Bayirbucak region, the border area that Turkey has used to infiltrate arms, supplies and insurgents into Syria.

 

The appearance of the Russians essentially killed Turkey’s efforts to create a “no fly zone” on its border with Syria, a proposal that the U.S. has never been enthusiastic about. Washington’s major allies, the Kurds, are strongly opposed to a no fly zone because they see it as part of Ankara’s efforts to keep the Kurds from forming an autonomous region in Syria.

 

The Bayirbucak area and the city of Jarabulus are also the exit point for Turkey’s lucrative oil smuggling operation, apparently overseen by one of Erdogan’s son, Bilal. The Russians have embarrassed the Turks by publishing satellite photos showing miles of tanker trucks picking up oil from IS-controlled wells and shipping it through Turkey’s southern border with Syria.

 

“The oil controlled by the Islamic State militants enters Turkish territory on an industrial scale,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said Nov. 30. “We have every reason to believe that the decision to down our plane was guided by a desire to insure the security of this oil’s delivery routes to ports where they are shipped in tankers.”

 

Erdogan did not get quite the response he wanted from NATO following the shooting down of the SU-24. While the military alliance backed Turkey’s defense of its “sovereignty,” NATO then called for a peaceful resolution and de-escalation of the whole matter.

 

At a time when Europe needs a solution to the refugee crisis, and wants to focus its firepower on the organization the killed 130 people in Paris, NATO cannot be happy that the Turks are dragging them into a confrontation with the Russians, and making the whole situation a lot more dangerous than it was before the Nov. 24 incident.

 

The Russians have now deployed their more modern SU-34 bombers and armed them with air-to-air missiles. The bombers will now also be escorted by SU-35 fighters. The Russians have also fielded S-300 and S-400 anti-aircraft systems, the latter with a range of 250 miles. The Russians say they are not looking for trouble, but they are loaded for bear should it happen. Would a dustup between Turkish and Russians planes bring NATO—and four nuclear armed nations—into a confrontation? That possibility ought to keep people up at night.

 

Some time around the New Year, the countries involved in the Syrian civil war will come together in Geneva. A number of those will do their level best to derail the talks, but one hopes there are enough sane—and desperate—parties on hand to map out a political solution.

 

It won’t be easy, and who gets to sit at the table has yet to be decided. The Turks will object to the Kurds, the Russians, Iranians and Kurds will object to the Conquest Army, and the Saudis will object to Assad. In the end it could all come apart. It is not hard to torpedo a peace plan in the Middle East.

 

But if the problems are great, failure will be catastrophic, and that may be the glue that keeps the parties together long enough to hammer out a ceasefire, an arms embargo, a new constitution, and internationally supervised elections.

 

—30—

 

 

 

 

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Saudi Arabia: A Kingdom Stumbles

A Kingdom Stumbles: Saudi Arabia

Dispatches From The Edge

Oct. 31, 2015

 

For the past eight decades Saudi Arabia has been careful.

 

Using its vast oil wealth, it has quietly spread its ultra-conservative brand of Islam throughout the Muslim world, secretly undermined secular regimes in its region and prudently kept to the shadows, while others did the fighting and dying. It was Saudi money that fueled the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan, underwrote Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran, and bankrolled Islamic movements and terrorist groups from the Caucuses to Hindu Kush.

 

Today that circumspect diplomacy is in ruins, and the House of Saud looks more vulnerable than it has since the country was founded in 1926. Unraveling the reasons for the current train wreck is a study in how easily hubris, illusion, and old-fashioned ineptness can trump even bottomless wealth.

 

The Kingdom’s first stumble was a strategic decision last fall to undermine competitors by upping oil production and, thus, lowering the price. Their reasoning was that, if the price of a barrel of oil dropped from over $100 to around $80, it would strangle competition from more expensive sources and new technologies, including the U.S. fracking industry, the arctic, and emergent producers like Brazil. That, in turn, would allow Riyadh to reclaim its shrinking share of the energy market.

 

There was also the added benefit that lower oil prices would damage countries that the Saudis didn’t like: Russia, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Iran.

 

In one sense it worked. The American fracking industry is scaling back, the exploitation of Canada’s oil sands has slowed, and many arctic drillers closed up shop. And, indeed, countries like Venezuela, Ecuador, and Russia took a serious economic hit. But despite obvious signs, the Saudis failed to anticipate China’s economic slowdown and how that would dampen economic growth in the leading industrial nations. The price of oil went from $115 a barrel in June 2014 to $44 today. Because it is so pure, it costs less than $10 to produce a barrel of Saudi oil.

 

The Kingdom planned to use its almost $800 billion in financial reserves to ride out the drop in prices, but it figured that oil would not fall below $80 a barrel, and then only for a few months.

 

According to the Financial Times, in order to balance its budget, Saudi Arabia needs a price of between $95 and $105 a barrel. And while oil prices will likely rise over the next five years, projections are that price per barrel will only reach $65. Saudi debt is on schedule to rise from 6.7 percent of GDP this year to 17.3 percent next year, and its 2015 budget deficit is $130 billion.

 

Saudi Arabia is spending $10 billion a month in foreign exchange reserves to pay the bills and has been forced to borrow money on the international financial market. Two weeks ago the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) regional director, Masood Ahmed, warned Riyadh that the country would deplete its financial reserves in five years unless it drastically cut its budget.

 

But the Kingdom can’t do that.

 

When the Arab Spring broke out in 2011, the Saudi Arabia headed it off by pumping $130 billion into the economy, raising wages, improving services and providing jobs for its growing population. Saudi Arabia has one of the youngest populations in the Middle East, a lot of it unemployed and much of it poorly educated. Some 25 percent of the population lives in poverty. Money keeps the lid on, but for how long, even with the heavy-handed repression that characterizes Saudi political life?

 

In March, the Kingdom intervened in Yemen, launching an air war, a naval blockade, and partial ground campaign on the pretense that Iran was behind the civil war, a conclusion not even the Americans agree with.

 

Again, the Saudis miscalculated, even though one of its major allies, Pakistan, warned Riyadh that it was headed for trouble. In part, the Kingdom’s hubris was fed by the illusion that U.S. support would make it a short war—the Americans are arming the Saudis, supplying them with bombing targets, backing up the naval blockade, and refueling their warplanes in mid-air.

 

But six months down the line the conflict has turned into a stalemate. The war has killed 5,000 people, including 500 children, flattened cities, and alienated much of the local population. It has also generated a food and medical crisis, as well as creating opportunities for the IS and Al-Qaeda to seize territory in Southern Yemen. Efforts by the UN to investigate the possibility of war crimes were blocked by Saudi Arabia and the U.S.

 

As the Saudis are finding out, war is a very expensive business, a burden the Saudis could meet under normal circumstances, but not when the price the Kingdom’s only commodity, oil, is plummeting.

 

Nor is Yemen the only war that the Saudis are involved with. Riyadh, along with other Gulf monarchies, including Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, are underwriting many of the groups trying to overthrow Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. When anti-government demonstrations broke out in 2011, the Saudis—along with the Americans and the Turks—calculated that Assad could be toppled in a few months.

 

But that was magical thinking. As bad as Assad is, a lot of Syrians, particularly minorities like Shiites, Christians, and Druze, were far more afraid of the Islamists from al-Qaeda and the IS then they were of their own government. So the war has dragged on for four years and has now killed close to 250,000 people.

 

Once again, the Saudis miscalculated, though in this case they were hardly alone. The Syrian government turned out to be more resilient that it appeared. And Riyadh’s bottom line that Assad had to go just ended up bringing Iran and Russia into the picture, checkmating any direct intervention by the anti-Assad coalition. Any attempt to establish a no-fly zone will have to confront the Russian air force, not something that anyone other than U.S. presidential aspirants are eager to do.

 

The war has also generated a flood of refugees, deeply alarming the European Union, which finally seems to be listening to Moscow’s point about the consequences of overthrowing governments without a plan as to who takes over. There is nothing like millions of refugees headed in your direction to cause some serious re-thinking of strategic goals.

 

The Saudis goal of isolating Iran is rapidly collapsing. The P5+1—The U.S., China, Russia, Great Britain, France, and Germany—successfully completed a nuclear agreement with Teheran, despite every effort by the Saudis and Israel to torpedo it. And at Moscow’s insistence, Washington has reversed its opposition to Iran being included in peace talks around Syria.

 

Stymied in Syria, mired down in Yemen, its finances increasingly fragile, the Kingdom also faces internal unrest from its long marginalized Shiia minority in the country’s east and south. To top it off, the IS has called for the “liberation” of Mecca from the House of Saud and launched a bombing campaign aimed at the Kingdom’s Shiites.

 

Last month’s Hajj disaster that killed more than 2100 pilgrims—and anger at the Saudi authorities foot dragging on investigating the tragedy—have added to the royal family’s woes. The Saudi’s claim 769 people were killed, a figure that no other country in the world accepts. And there are persistent rumors that the deadly stampede was caused when police blocked off an area in order to allow high-ranking Saudis special access to the holy sites.

 

Some of these missteps can be laid at the feet of the new king, Salman bin Abud-Aziz Al Saud, and of a younger generation of aggressive Saudis he has appointed to key positions. But Saudi Arabia’s troubles are also a reflection of a Middle East in transition. Exactly where that it is headed is by no means clear, but change is in the wind.

 

Iran is breaking out of its isolation and, with its large, well-educated population, strong industrial base, and plentiful energy resources, is poised to play a major regional, if not international, role. Turkey is in the midst of a political upheaval, and there is growing opposition among Turks to Ankara’s meddling in the Syrian civil war

 

Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, is impaled on its own policies, both foreign and domestic. “The expensive social contract between the Royal family and Saudi citizens will get more difficult, and eventually impossible to sustain if oil prices don’t recover,” Meghan L. O’Sullivan, director of the Geopolitics of Energy project at Harvard told the New York Times.

 

However, the House of Saud has little choice but to keep pumping oil to pay for its wars and keep the internal peace. But more production drives down prices even further, and, once the sanctions come off of Iran, the oil glut will become worse.

 

While it is still immensely wealthy, there are lots of bills coming due. It is not clear the Kingdom has the capital or the ability to meet them.

 

—30—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Toward A New Foreign Policy

Dispatches From The Edge

 

‘The American Century’ Has Plunged the World Into Crisis. What Happens Now?

U.S. foreign policy is dangerous, undemocratic, and deeply out of sync with real global challenges. Is continuous war inevitable, or can we change course?

 

By Conn Hallinan and Leon Wofsy, June 22, 2015.

 

 

There’s something fundamentally wrong with U.S. foreign policy.

Despite glimmers of hope — a tentative nuclear agreement with Iran, for one, and a long-overdue thaw with Cuba — we’re locked into seemingly irresolvable conflicts in most regions of the world. They range from tensions with nuclear-armed powers like Russia and China to actual combat operations in the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa.

 

Why? Has a state of perpetual warfare and conflict become inescapable? Or are we in a self-replicating cycle that reflects an inability — or unwillingness — to see the world as it actually is?

The United States is undergoing a historic transition in our relationship to the rest of the world, but this is neither acknowledged nor reflected in U.S. foreign policy. We still act as if our enormous military power, imperial alliances, and self-perceived moral superiority empower us to set the terms of “world order.”

 

While this illusion goes back to the end of World War II, it was the end of the Cold War and collapse of the Soviet Union that signaled the beginning of a self-proclaimed “American Century.” The idea that the United States had “won” the Cold War and now — as the world’s lone superpower — had the right or responsibility to order the world’s affairs led to a series of military adventures. It started with President Bill Clinton’s intervention in the Yugoslav civil war, continued on with George W. Bush’s disastrous invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and can still be seen in the Obama administration’s own misadventures in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, and beyond.

 

In each case, Washington chose war as the answer to enormously complex issues, ignoring the profound consequences for both foreign and domestic policy. Yet the world is very different from the assumptions that drive this impulsive interventionism.

It’s this disconnect that defines the current crisis.

 

Acknowledging New Realities

 

So what is it about the world that requires a change in our outlook? A few observations come to mind.

 

First, our preoccupation with conflicts in the Middle East — and to a significant extent, our tensions with Russia in Eastern Europe and with China in East Asia — distract us from the most compelling crises that threaten the future of humanity. Climate change and environmental perils have to be dealt with now and demand an unprecedented level of international collective action.

That also holds for the resurgent danger of nuclear war.

 

Second, superpower military interventionism and far-flung acts of war have only intensified conflict, terror, and human suffering. There’s no short-term solution — especially by force — to the deep-seated problems that cause chaos, violence, and misery through much of the world.

 

Third, while any hope of curbing violence and mitigating the most urgent problems depends on international cooperation, old and disastrous intrigues over spheres of influence dominate the behavior of the major powers. Our own relentless pursuit of military advantage on every continent, including through alliances and proxies like NATO, divides the world into “friend” and “foe” according to our perceived interests. That inevitably inflames aggressive imperial rivalries and overrides common interests in the 21st century.

 

Fourth, while the United States remains a great economic power, economic and political influence is shifting and giving rise to national and regional centers no longer controlled by U.S.-dominated global financial structures. Away from Washington, London, and Berlin, alternative centers of economic power are taking hold in Beijing, New Delhi, Cape Town, and Brasilia. Independent formations and alliances are springing up: organizations like the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa); the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (representing 2.8 billion people); the Union of South American Nations; the Latin American trade bloc, Mercosur; and others.

 

Beyond the problems our delusions of grandeur have caused in the wider world, there are enormous domestic consequences of prolonged war and interventionism. We shell out over $1 trillion a year in military-related expenses even as our social safety net frays and our infrastructure crumbles. Democracy itself has become virtually dysfunctional.

 

Short Memories and Persistent Delusions

 

But instead of letting these changing circumstances and our repeated military failures give us pause, our government continues to act as if the United States has the power to dominate and dictate to the rest of the world.

 

The responsibility of those who set us on this course fades into background. Indeed, in light of the ongoing meltdown in the Middle East, leading presidential candidates are tapping neoconservatives like John Bolton and Paul Wolfowitz — who still think the answer to any foreign policy quandary is military power — for advice. Our leaders seem to forget that following this lot’s advice was exactly what caused the meltdown in the first place. War still excites them, risks and consequences be damned.

 

While the Obama administration has sought, with limited success, to end the major wars it inherited, our government makes wide use of killer drones in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, and has put troops back into Iraq to confront the religious fanaticism and brutality of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) — itself a direct consequence of the last U.S. invasion of Iraq. Reluctant to find common ground in the fight against ISIS with designated “foes” like Iran and Syria, Washington clings to allies like Saudi Arabia, whose leaders are fueling the crisis of religious fanaticism and internecine barbarity. Elsewhere, the U.S. also continues to give massive support to the Israeli government, despite its expanding occupation of the West Bank and its horrific recurring assaults on Gaza.

 

A “war first” policy in places like Iran and Syria is being strongly pushed by neoconservatives like former Vice President Dick Cheney and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain. Though it’s attempted to distance itself from the neocons, the Obama administration adds to tensions with planned military realignments like the “Asia pivot” aimed at building up U.S. military forces in Asia to confront China. It’s also taken a more aggressive position than even other NATO partners in fostering a new cold war with Russia.

 

We seem to have missed the point: There is no such thing as an “American Century.” International order cannot be enforced by a superpower alone. But never mind centuries — if we don’t learn to take our common interests more seriously than those that divide nations and breed the chronic danger of war, there may well be no tomorrows.

 

Unexceptionalism

 

There’s a powerful ideological delusion that any movement seeking to change U.S. foreign policy must confront: that U.S. culture is superior to anything else on the planet. Generally going by the name of “American exceptionalism,” it’s the deeply held belief that American politics (and medicine, technology, education, and so on) are better than those in other countries. Implicit in the belief is an evangelical urge to impose American ways of doing things on the rest of the world.

 

Americans, for instance, believe they have the best education system in the world, when in fact they’ve dropped from 1st place to 14th place in the number of college graduates. We’ve made students of higher education the most indebted section of our population, while falling to 17th place in international education ratings. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation, the average American pays more than twice as much for his or her education than those in the rest of the world.

 

Health care is an equally compelling example. In the World Health Organization’s ranking of health care systems in 2000, the United States was ranked 37th. In a more recent Institute of Medicine report in 2013, the U.S. was ranked the lowest among 17 developed nations studied.

 

The old anti-war slogan, “It will be a good day when schools get all the money they need and the Navy has to hold a bake sale to buy an aircraft carrier” is as appropriate today as it was in the 1960s. We prioritize corporate subsidies, tax cuts for the wealthy, and massive military budgets over education. The result is that Americans are no longer among the most educated in the world.

But challenging the “exceptionalism” myth courts the danger of being labeled “unpatriotic” and “un-American,” two powerful ideological sanctions that can effectively silence critical or questioning voices.

 

The fact that Americans consider their culture or ideology “superior” is hardly unique. But no other country in the world has the same level of economic and military power to enforce its worldview on others.

 

The United States did not simply support Kosovo’s independence, for example. It bombed Serbia into de facto acceptance. When the U.S. decided to remove the Taliban, Saddam Hussein, and Muammar Gaddafi from power, it just did so. No other country is capable of projecting that kind of force in regions thousands of miles from its borders.

 

The U.S. currently accounts for anywhere from 45 to 50 percent of the world’s military spending. It has hundreds of overseas bases, ranging from huge sprawling affairs like Camp Bond Steel in Kosovo and unsinkable aircraft carriers around the islands of Okinawa, Wake, Diego Garcia, and Guam to tiny bases called “lily pads” of pre-positioned military supplies. The late political scientist Chalmers Johnson estimated that the U.S. has some 800 bases worldwide, about the same as the British Empire had at its height in 1895.

 

The United States has long relied on a military arrow in its diplomatic quiver, and Americans have been at war almost continuously since the end of World War II. Some of these wars were major undertakings: Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Kuwait, Afghanistan, Iraq (twice), Libya. Some were quick “smash and grabs” like Panama and Grenada. Others are “shadow wars” waged by Special Forces, armed drones, and local proxies. If one defines the term “war” as the application of organized violence, the U.S. has engaged in close to 80 wars since 1945.

 

The Home Front

 

The coin of empire comes dear, as the old expression goes.

According Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, the final butcher bill for the Afghanistan and Iraq wars — including the long-term health problems of veterans — will cost U.S. taxpayers around $6 trillion. One can add to that the over $1 trillion the U.S. spends each year on defense-related items. The “official” defense budget of some half a trillion dollars doesn’t include such items as nuclear weapons, veterans’ benefits or retirement, the CIA and Homeland Security, nor the billions a year in interest we’ll be paying on the debt from the Afghan-Iraq wars. By 2013 the U.S. had already paid out $316 billion in interest.

The domestic collateral damage from that set of priorities is numbing.

 

We spend more on our “official” military budget than we do on Medicare, Medicaid, Health and Human Services, Education, and Housing and Urban Development combined. Since 9/11, we’ve spent $70 million an hour on “security” compared to $62 million an hour on all domestic programs.

 

As military expenditures dwarf funding for deteriorating social programs, they drive economic inequality. The poor and working millions are left further and further behind. Meanwhile the chronic problems highlighted at Ferguson, and reflected nationwide, are a horrific reminder of how deeply racism — the unequal economic and social divide and systemic abuse of black and Latino youth — continues to plague our homeland.

 

The state of ceaseless war has deeply damaged our democracy, bringing our surveillance and security state to levels that many dictators would envy. The Senate torture report, most of it still classified, shatters the trust we are asked to place in the secret, unaccountable apparatus that runs the most extensive Big Brother spy system ever devised.

 

Bombs and Business

 

President Calvin Coolidge was said to have remarked that “the business of America is business.” Unsurprisingly, U.S. corporate interests play a major role in American foreign policy.

Out of the top 10 international arms producers, eight are American. The arms industry spends millions lobbying Congress and state legislatures, and it defends its turf with an efficiency and vigor that its products don’t always emulate on the battlefield. The F-35 fighter-bomber, for example — the most expensive weapons system in U.S. history — will cost $1.5 trillion and doesn’t work. It’s over budget, dangerous to fly, and riddled with defects. And yet few lawmakers dare challenge the powerful corporations who have shoved this lemon down our throats.

 

Corporate interests are woven into the fabric of long-term U.S. strategic interests and goals. Both combine to try to control energy supplies, command strategic choke points through which oil and gas supplies transit, and ensure access to markets.

 

Many of these goals can be achieved with standard diplomacy or economic pressure, but the U.S. always reserves the right to use military force. The 1979 “Carter Doctrine” — a document that mirrors the 1823 Monroe Doctrine about American interests in Latin America — put that strategy in blunt terms vis-à-vis the Middle East: “An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”

 

It’s no less true in East Asia. The U.S. will certainly engage in peaceful economic competition with China. But if push comes to shove, the Third, Fifth, and Seventh fleets will back up the interests of Washington and its allies — Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, and Australia.

 

Trying to change the course of American foreign policy is not only essential for reducing international tensions. It’s critically important to shift the enormous wealth we expend in war and weapons toward alleviating growing inequality and social crises at home.

 

As long as competition for markets and accumulation of capital characterize modern society, nations will vie for spheres of influence, and antagonistic interests will be a fundamental feature of international relations. Chauvinist reaction to incursions real or imagined — and the impulse to respond by military means — is characteristic to some degree of every significant nation-state. Yet the more that some governments, including our own, become subordinate to oligarchic control, the greater is the peril.

 

Finding the Common Interest

 

These, however, are not the only factors that will shape the future.

There is nothing inevitable that rules out a significant change of direction, even if the demise or transformation of a capitalistic system of greed and exploitation is not at hand. The potential for change, especially in U.S. foreign policy, resides in how social movements here and abroad respond to the undeniable reality of: 1) the chronic failure, massive costs, and danger inherent in “American Century” exceptionalism; and 2) the urgency of international efforts to respond to climate change.

 

There is, as well, the necessity to respond to health and natural disasters aggravated by poverty, to rising messianic violence, and above all, to prevent a descent into war. This includes not only the danger of a clash between the major nuclear powers, but between regional powers. A nuclear exchange between Pakistan and India, for example, would affect the whole world.

 

Without underestimating the self-interest of forces that thrive on gambling with the future of humanity, historic experience and current reality elevate a powerful common interest in peace and survival. The need to change course is not something that can be recognized on only one side of an ideological divide. Nor does that recognition depend on national, ethnic, or religious identity. Rather, it demands acknowledging the enormous cost of plunging ahead as everything falls apart around us.

 

After the latest U.S. midterm elections, the political outlook is certainly bleak. But experience shows that elections, important as they are, are not necessarily indicators of when and how significant change can come about in matters of policy. On issues of civil rights and social equality, advances have occurred because a dedicated and persistent minority movement helped change public opinion in a way the political establishment could not defy.

 

The Vietnam War, for example, came to an end, despite the stubbornness of Democratic and Republican administrations, when a stalemate on the battlefield and growing international and domestic opposition could no longer be denied. Significant changes can come about even as the basic character of society is retained. Massive resistance and rejection of colonialism caused the British Empire and other colonial powers to adjust to a new reality after World War II. McCarthyism was eventually defeated in the United States. President Nixon was forced to resign. The use of landmines and cluster bombs has been greatly restricted because of the opposition of a small band of activists whose initial efforts were labeled “quixotic.”

 

There are diverse and growing political currents in our country that see the folly and danger of the course we’re on. Many Republicans, Democrats, independents, and libertarians — and much of the public — are beginning to say “enough” to war and military intervention all over the globe, and the folly of basing foreign policy on dividing countries into “friend or foe.”

 

This is not to be Pollyannaish about anti-war sentiment, or how quickly people can be stampeded into supporting the use of force. In early 2014, some 57 percent of Americans agreed that “over-reliance on military force creates more hatred leading to increased terrorism.” Only 37 percent believed military force was the way to go. But once the hysteria around the Islamic State began, those numbers shifted to pretty much an even split: 47 percent supported the use of military force, 46 percent opposed it.

 

It will always be necessary in each new crisis to counter those who mislead and browbeat the public into acceptance of another military intervention. But in spite of the current hysterics about ISIS, disillusionment in war as an answer is probably greater now among Americans and worldwide than it has ever been. That sentiment may prove strong enough to produce a shift away from perpetual war, a shift toward some modesty and common-sense realism in U.S. foreign policy.

 

Making Space for the Unexpected

 

Given that there is a need for a new approach, how can American foreign policy be changed?

 

Foremost, there is the need for a real debate on the thrust of a U.S. foreign policy that chooses negotiation, diplomacy, and international cooperation over the use of force.

 

However, as we approach another presidential election, there is as yet no strong voice among the candidates to challenge U.S. foreign policy. Fear and questionable political calculation keep even most progressive politicians from daring to dissent as the crisis of foreign policy lurches further into perpetual militarism and war.

 

That silence of political acquiescence has to be broken.

Nor is it a matter of concern only on the left. There are many Americans — right, left, or neither — who sense the futility of the course we’re on. These voices have to be represented or the election process will be even more of a sham than we’ve recently experienced.

 

One can’t predict just what initiatives may take hold, but the recent U.S.-China climate agreement suggests that necessity can override significant obstacles. That accord is an important step forward, although a limited bilateral pact cannot substitute for an essential international climate treaty. There is a glimmer of hope also in the U.S.-Russian joint action that removed chemical weapons from Syria, and in negotiations with Iran, which continue despite fierce opposition from U.S. hawks and the Israeli government. More recently, there is Obama’s bold move — long overdue — to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba. Despite shifts in political fortunes, the unexpected can happen if there is a need and strong enough pressure to create an opportunity.

 

We do not claim to have ready-made solutions to the worsening crisis in international relations. We are certain that there is much we’ve missed or underestimated. But if readers agree that U.S. foreign policy has a national and global impact, and that it is not carried out in the interests of the majority of the world’s people, including our own, then we ask you to join this conversation.

 

If we are to expand the ability of the people to influence foreign policy, we need to defend democracy, and encourage dissent and alternative ideas. The threats to the world and to ourselves are so great that finding common ground trumps any particular interest. We also know that we won’t all agree with each other, and we believe that is as it should be. There are multiple paths to the future. No coalition around changing foreign policy will be successful if it tells people to conform to any one pattern of political action.

 

So how does the call for changing course translate to something politically viable, and how do we consider the problem of power?

 

The power to make significant changes in policy ranges from the persistence of peace activists to the potential influence of the general public. In some circumstances, it becomes possible — as well as necessary — to make significant changes in the power structure itself.

 

Greece comes to mind. Greek left organizations came together to form Syriza, the political party that was successfully elected to power on a platform of ending austerity. Spain’s anti-austerity Podemos Party — now the number-two party in the country — came out of massive demonstrations in 2011 and was organized from the grassroots up. We do not argue one approach over the over, but the experiences in both countries demonstrate that there are multiple paths to generating change.

 

Certainly progressives and leftists grapple with the problems of power. But progress on issues, particularly in matters like war and peace and climate change, shouldn’t be conceived of as dependent on first achieving general solutions to the problems of society, however desirable.

 

Some Proposals

 

We also feel it is essential to focus on a few key questions lest we become “The United Front Against Bad Things.” There are lots of bad things, but some are worse than others. Thrashing those out, of course, is part of the process of engaging in politics.

 

We know this will not be easy. Yet we are convinced that unless we take up this task, the world will continue to careen toward major disaster. Can we find common programmatic initiatives on which to unite?

 

Some worthwhile approaches are presented in A Foreign Policy for All, published after a discussion and workshop that took place in Massachusetts in November 2014. We think everyone should take the time to study that document. We want to offer a few ideas of our own.

 

1) We must stop the flood of corporate money into the electoral process, as well as the systematic disenfranchisement of voters through the manipulation of voting laws.

 

It may seem odd that we begin with a domestic issue, but we cannot begin to change anything about American foreign policy without confronting political institutions that are increasingly in the thrall of wealthy donors. Growing oligarchic control and economic inequality is not just an American problem, but also a worldwide one. According to Oxfam, by 2016 the world’s richest 1 percent will control over 50 percent of the globe’s total wealth. Poll after poll shows this growing economic disparity does not sit well with people.

 

2) It’s essential to begin reining in the vast military-industrial-intelligence complex that burns up more than a trillion dollars a year and whose interests are served by heightened international tension and war.

 

3) President Barack Obama came into office pledging to abolish nuclear weapons. He should.

 

Instead, the White House has authorized spending $352 billion to modernize our nuclear arsenal, a bill that might eventually go as high as $1 trillion when the cost of the supporting infrastructure is figured in. The possibility of nuclear war is not an abstraction. In Europe, a nuclear-armed NATO has locked horns with a nuclear-armed Russia. Tensions between China and the United States, coupled with current U.S. military strategy in the region — the so-called “AirSea Battle” plan — could touch off a nuclear exchange.

 

Leaders in Pakistan and India are troublingly casual about the possibility of a nuclear war between the two South Asian countries. And one can never discount the possibility of an Israeli nuclear attack on Iran. In short, nuclear war is a serious possibility in today’s world.

 

One idea is the campaign for nuclear-free zones, which there are scores of — ranging from initiatives written by individual cities to the Treaty of Tlatelolco covering Latin America, the Treaty of Raratonga for the South Pacific, and the Pelindaba Treaty for Africa. Imagine how a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East would change the politics of the region.

 

We should also support the Marshall Islands in its campaign demanding the implementation of Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty eliminating nuclear weapons and moving toward general disarmament. If the great powers took serious steps toward full nuclear disarmament, it would make it difficult for nuclear-armed non-treaty members that have nuclear weapons — North Korea, Israel, Pakistan, and India — not to follow suit. The key to this, however, is “general disarmament” and a pledge to remove war as an instrument of foreign policy.

 

4) Any effort to change foreign policy must eventually confront the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which in the words of former U.S. Central Command leader James Mattis, is a “preeminent flame that keeps the pot boiling in the Middle East.” While the U.S. and its NATO allies are quick to apply sanctions on Russia for its annexation of the Crimea, they have done virtually nothing about the continued Israeli occupation and annexation of Palestinian lands.

 

5) Ending and renouncing military blockades that starve populations as an instrument of foreign policy — Cuba, Gaza, and Iran come to mind — would surely change the international political climate for the better.

 

6) Let’s dispense our predilection for “humanitarian intervention,” which is too often an excuse for the great powers to overthrow governments with which they disagree.

 

As Walden Bello, former Philippine Congressman for the Citizens’ Action Party and author of Dilemmas of Domination: The Unmasking of the American Empire, writes: “Humanitarian intervention sets a very dangerous precedent that is used to justify future violation of the principle of national sovereignty. One cannot but conclude from the historical record that NATO’s intervention in the Kosovo conflict helped provide the justification for the invasion of Afghanistan, and the justifications for both interventions in turn were employed to legitimize the invasion of Iraq and the NATO war in Libya.”

 

7) Climate change is an existential issue, and as much a foreign policy question as war and peace. It can no longer be neglected.

Thus far, the U.S. has taken only baby steps toward controlling greenhouse gas emissions, but polls overwhelmingly show that the majority of Americans want action on this front. It’s also an issue that reveals the predatory nature of corporate capitalism and its supporters in the halls of Congress. As we have noted, control of energy supplies and guaranteeing the profits of oil and gas conglomerates is a centerpiece of American foreign policy.

 

As Naomi Klein notes in This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, the climate movement must “articulate not just an alternative set of policy proposals, but an alternative worldview to rival the one at the heart of the ecological crisis. A worldview embedded in interdependence rather than hyper-individualism, reciprocity rather than dominance, and cooperation rather than hierarchy.”

 

International and Regional Organizations

 

Finally, international and regional organizations must be strengthened. For years, mainstream media propaganda has bemoaned the ineffectiveness of the United Nations, while Washington — especially Congress — has systematically weakened the organization and tried to consign it to irrelevance in the public’s estimation.

 

The current structure of the United Nations is undemocratic. The five “big powers” that emerged from World War II — the United States, Britain, France, China, and Russia — dominate the Security Council with their use of the veto. Two of the earth’s continents, Africa and Latin America, have no permanent members on the Council.

 

A truly democratic organization would use the General Assembly as the decision-making body, with adjustments for size and population. Important decisions, like the use of force, could require a super majority.

 

At the same time, regional organizations like the African Union, the Union of South American Nations, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Arab League, and others, have to be strengthened as well. Had the UN Security Council listened to the African Union, which was prepared to start negotiations with the Gaddafi regime, the current Libyan debacle might have been avoided. In turn that might have prevented the spread of war to central Africa and the countries of Mali and Niger.

 

Working for a dramatic shift in U.S. policy, away from the hubris of “American exceptionalism,” is not to downgrade the enormous importance of the United States. Alongside and in contradiction to the tragic consequences of our misuse of military power, the contributions of the American people to the world are vast and many-faceted. None of the great challenges of our time can be met successfully without America acting in collaboration with the majority of the world’s governments and people.

 

There certainly are common interests that join people of all nations regardless of differences in government, politics, culture, and beliefs. Will those interests become strong enough to override the systemic pressures that fuel greed, conflict, war, and ultimate catastrophe? There is a lot of history, and no dearth of dogma, that would seem to sustain a negative answer. But dire necessity and changing reality may produce more positive outcomes in a better, if far from perfect, world.

 

It is time for change, time for the very best efforts of all who nurture hopes for a saner world.

 

Conn Hallinan is a journalist and a columnist for Foreign Policy In Focus. His writings appear online at Dispatches From the Edge. Leon Wofsy is a retired biology professor and long-time political activist. His comments on current affairs appear online at Leon’s OpEd.

The authors would like to thank colleagues at Foreign Policy In Focus and numerous others who exchanged views with us and made valuable suggestions. We also appreciate Susan Watrous’ very helpful editorial assistance.

 

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