Tag Archives: Trump

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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Trump and the Big, Bad Bugs

Trump & The Big Bad Bugs

Dispatches From The Edge

July 12, 2018

 

 

When people contemplate potential disasters ignited by the Trump administration’s foreign policy, places like the South China Sea, Central Asia, or the Korean Peninsula come first to mind. Certainly a dustup with Beijing, Teheran or Pyongyang is a scary thing to contemplate. But the thing that should also keep people up at night is Washington’s approach to international health organizations and the President’s stubborn refusal to address climate change.

 

Bad bugs are coming, and they are stronger and nastier than they have ever been. A few—like malaria and yellow fever—are ancient nemeses, but they’re increasingly immune to standard drugs and widening their reach behind a warming climate. Others—like Ebola, SARS, MERS and Zika—are new, exotic and fearsome. And antibiotic resistant bacteria threaten to turn the clock back to pre-penicillin days, when a cut could be a death sentence.

 

Trump’s disdain for international agencies and treaties, plus cuts in public health programs, and a relaxation of regulations on the use of antibiotics in animal husbandry could create a worldwide medical catastrophe.

 

The President recently asked Congress to cut over $15 billion from health care, especially in the area of overseas response. On the very day that the World Health Organization (WHO) declared an emergency over the latest Ebola outbreak, National Security Advisor John Bolton eliminated the National Security Agency’s program for epidemic prevention.

 

As Laurie Garrett—winner of the Pulitzer Prize for her writings on health care—notes, Bolton’s move “leaves the United States with no clear line of authority for responding to any outbreak of disease, whether naturally arising or as an act of bioterrorism,” adding “the U.S. government is increasingly withdrawing from global health efforts.”

 

The cost of that retreat may be dear.

 

The 2014-16 Ebola epidemic killed 11,300 people in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, and infected health workers brought it back to Europe and the U.S.. While the disease was eventually corralled, it continues to flare up.

 

WHO found that the key to stopping Ebola’s spread is an immediate response that combines vaccination with isolation and hospitalization, a strategy that stopped a 2018 outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in its tracks. But the Trump budget cuts all Ebola spending and reduces emergency funds for the State Department. A post-epidemic analysis found that an extra 300 hospital beds would have stopped the disease’s spread in 2014.

 

Diseases like Ebola get media attention, in part because Ebola kills more than 80 percent of its victims in a particularly grotesque manner: death by massive hemorrhaging.

 

But the more familiar diseases like malaria do the most damage. The malaria plasmodium infects 216 million people a year and kills 450,000, many of them children. And after decades of retreat, the disease is roaring back with varieties that are increasingly hard to treat. One by one, the barriers that once kept the disease at bay have fallen. Having overcome chloroquine, and then fansidar, now malaria has begun to breach the latest cure, artenisinin.

 

Public health experts predict that if the drug-resistant malaria strain ever reaches Africa, its impact will be catastrophic.

 

Yellow fever, once a major killer but largely tamed by mosquito control and vaccinations, is also making a comeback. Dengue, or “break-bone fever, which infects 400 million worldwide and kills over 25,000 people a year, has spread from nine countries in 1970 to over 100 today.

 

The fact that diseases overcome defenses is nothing new. Natural selection will generally find a way to outflank whatever chemicals humans come up with to defend themselves. Penicillin was discovered in 1939, and by 1941 doctor discovered Staphylococcus bacteria that were immune to the drug.

 

But bad policies and bad pathogens go hand in hand. The Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords will certainly accelerate climate change in a way that encourages the spread of disease. Earlier Springs and later Falls mean longer life spans for disease vectors like ticks and mosquitoes, which translates into greater infection rates. Researchers in Scandinavia and Massachusetts suspect that an increase in Lyme’s disease is due to climate change, and malaria is moving up the Andes as the higher altitudes warm.

 

Other diseases, like chagis—which kills 50,000 people a year—is already moving north as its vector, the assassin bug, migrates out of its base in Latin America. Diseases like West Nile is now part of the standard disease loads of Europe and the U.S.

 

Again, pathogen mobility is hardly new. Malaria, yellow fever, measles and small pox were all introduced to the New World by travelers, conquerors and African slaves. But disease is even less a local phenomenon today than it was in the 15th century. As Dr. Don Francis, who played a key role in identifying the HIV virus and was on the first medical team to confront Ebola, points out how disease spreads: “Just sit in an airport and watch all the costumes walk by.”

 

Trump is famously resistant to science. He doesn’t yet have a White House science advisor and is relying, instead, on Michael Kratsios, a 31-year old political science major who studied Hellenic Greece. Kratsios was the former chief of staff of California billionaire Peter Thiel, founder of PayPal, who advocates rolling back Food and Drug Administration regulations.

 

Those regulations cover the use of antibiotics in animal husbandry. Chickens, cattle and pigs account for 70 percent of the antibiotics used in the U.S. The animals are not ill, just packed into pens and cages that would sicken them if they were not juiced with Bambermycin, Salinomycin or Bacitracin. Antibiotics also increase the animals’ weight.

 

But animals jammed into rarely cleaned cages and pens are the perfect Petri dish for generating drug resistant germs. According to the Environmental Working Group, nearly 80 percent of U.S. supermarket meat is infected with antibiotic resistant germs. Studies of meats in the U.S. show that up to 70 percent are laced with germs immune to antibiotics.

When the European Union banned non-therapeutic antibiotics on animals, drug resistant germ levels declined dramatically.

 

Eventually those pathogens move from animal pens to hospitals and gyms and airports. What you do in an Iowa pig farm does not stay in Iowa.

 

The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that 23,000 Americans die each year from drug resistant germs, and a British study predicted that, unless something is done about the crisis, antibiotic resistant bacteria could kill 10 million people a year by 2050. The WHO says “superbugs” pose one of the most serous threats that humanity faces, and the medical magazine Lancet called drug resistant pathogens “The biggest global health threat in the 21st Century.”.

 

The White House’s hostility to the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act could also have major consequences, not only for Americans, but the world. In 1918, a mild Spanish flu mutated—probably in Kansas—into a fearsome virus that killed between 50 and 100 million people worldwide.

 

The 1918-19 pandemic almost certainly started in the digestive tracts of Chinese pigs, then passed to birds, and from birds to people. Those Chinese pigs are still out there, and lethal varieties of bird flu are currently circulating in China and Southeast Asia. So far, most can only be passed by direct contact with infected animals, but sooner or later there will be a mutation that will make a virus far more communicable. A deadly worldwide pandemic is a “when,” not an “if.”

 

And when that pandemic hits, Americans will find that there are not enough hospital beds—so-called “surge capacity” is non-existent—or robust public health programs to cope with it. China has also cut back on public health care programs and, as a result, was initially unable to deal with the 2003 SARS crisis that sickened 8,000 people and killed 800.

 

Europeans, with their national health services, are better prepared, but even their public health systems have been hollowed out by years of austerity-driven economic policies. But there is a worldwide shortage of medical workers, particularly nurses.

 

In his “Second Coming,” the Irish writer William Butler Yeats seems to have foreseen the future: “Some rough beast, its time come round at last, Slouches toward Bethlehem, waiting to be born.”

 

The beasts are out there, and they will be born. The Trump administration’s denial of climate change, hostility to international institutions, and laissez faire approach to governance at home will make those beasts far more dangerous than they have to be.

 

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Filed under Africa, Asia, China, Europe, Latin America, Medical Features