The Russian Denial Strategy In Ukraine (Or: The “If I Can’t Have It, No One Will” Of Geopolitics)

What do you when some bro is way bigger than you, stronger than you, has more friends than you, and wants to start telling you what to do?

You could fight, but you’d lose.  You could run, except you still have to go to school everyday and your mom and dad just won’t listen.

Or you could get smart and start finding ways to chip away at this bro’s power, waiting for the perfect day where he fucks up and  you’ve won over enough friends to win in a confrontation.  And when that day comes, you will make him pay.  Oh, will you make him pay.

But before you can slaver over revenge, you’ve got to keep yourself alive.  As you struggle to win the influence wars of the playground without provoking a fight you’re destined to be destroyed in, you come to realize it’s not so important to get every kid to switch sides.  Sometimes, it’s good enough to just keep someone on the sidelines.

And that is the foundation of a denial strategy.

“Denial” ain’t just a river

Ha ha!  A good joke!  But also an essential truth.  A denial strategy doesn’t hinge itself on believing dumb things, but is rather a hyper-realistic way to keep you and yours from being wiped off the map.  Russian defense strategy currently revolves around the idea of trying to deny power to the United States as much as possible.

Power is broken simply into five areas: land, population, resources, military, and economics.  In all five, Russia is outclassed by the United States.  Russia may have more land, and potentially more resources, but lacks the population or economic system to harness them to the same scale as the U.S. This in turn has led to a weaker conventional Russian military that knows it cannot win a regular, non-nuclear war with the United States.  In a total war scenario, where both sides drive straight for the throat (short of nuking each other), the U.S. would eventually win so long as outsiders didn’t interfere.

And what better way to deter a war than having weapons that could end humanity?

The first element of Russian strategy has relied on its nuclear arsenal.  If you can’t have the ball, pop it if anyone else tries to take it.  Great powers can no longer settle their differences on the battlefield as they did prior to 1945. (For most of us, that’s a really good thing).

But that’s not to say competition has died out entirely.  Both the U.S. and Russia are still playing for keeps, but must now avoid a misstep that leads to a nuclear war.  They’re both well-rehearsed in this; that we’re not even remotely worried about nukes these days is proof of how well they’ve managed.

We all more or less want to avoid this.

So with all-out nuclear war no longer worth writing songs about, how do states decide the top dog?

These days, it’s all about influence, alliances, trade, and supra-national organizations like the EU, NATO, and Putin’s Eurasian Union.  Only two states remain outside of the U.S.-led international system that are powerful enough to potentially provide an alternative: China and Russia.  Both have elites that seek as much independence for themselves as possible.  Both do not want to allow the U.S. to start calling key shots for them, as other, former great powers like Britain, France, and Germany now do.

But Russia is a different position than China.  China may well end up being an equal of the United States in the next century (if all goes well within their borders, which should not be taken for granted).  Russia is stagnant on its best days.  To preserve what remains of Russian power, Russian elites must find ways to bring in countries to their fold.  But they currently lack much that might attract countries to it; Russia’s Eurasian Union will be no EU, and certainly no NATO.

So if they can’t have it, Russia’s elites, and Putin especially, find it easier to simply deny the U.S. entire countries.

That eastward creep keeps old men up all night in the Kremlin.

Case in point: the little broken republic of Georgia

Georgia is a fine example of this strategy at work.  Georgia was a country that was rapidly rushing to embrace both NATO and the EU until the Russian invasion in 2008 stopped such progress.  In 2004, the Baltic republics, all three of which are on Russian borders, joined NATO, making them not only bases for American troops and missiles but also now invulnerable to attack. (Remember, with nukes, war between the U.S. and Russia is never an option).  Their example set both Ukraine and Georgia down the road to the same end.

Any nation part of NATO empowers America and weakens Russia. In the 1990s, Russia, intentionally or not, froze several conflicts throughout the former Soviet Union, and have kept them cold with the ability to use them at will.  In 2008, that’s pretty much what they did as they heated up South Ossetia, a breakaway region inside Georgia.  The Georgians responded badly and provoked a full-scale Russian invasion.

But to conquer a whole country has still been taboo since 1945.  Rather than outright conquest (and an expensive, politically painful, and diplomatically nightmarish occupation), Russia opted to merely deny Georgia to both NATO and the EU.  Joining either right now is out of the question with Russian troops still inside Georgia’s pre-2008 borders.  After all, if Georgia did join NATO, wouldn’t a Georgian government use that alliance as a way to get rid of those Russian troops?  And would Russia go quietly just because they were asked?

So if Russia can’t have a pro-Kremlin government in Ukraine, it’ll be content with a broken Ukraine denied to everyone

Russia is acting in a way now that indicates it will try to break Ukraine up as much as possible.  Absorbing the eastern territories makes less sense when looked at like this; much better to let them simmer and stir them up if the Americans get too close to Kiev.  Conquering Ukraine is super dangerous and leads to nuclear confrontation, plus an expensive and likely unsuccessful occupation.  Instead, if Russia can’t have the ball that is Ukraine, it will deflate it as much as possible so that no one else can play with it.

This path is much safer, more likely to succeed, and does the next best thing to getting a new pro-Russia party back in power in Ukraine.  It’s proof of Russia’s weakened hand; they can’t bribe their way to power in Ukraine as Putin does with much of the Russian population.  It’s usage in Georgia has paralyzed Tblisi and ensured no U.S. bases have popped up there.  If Putin plays Ukraine as well as he did Georgia, he may yet get away with it.

boko haram

How Can Boko Haram Sell Girls Into Slavery? The Answer, Dear Friends, Is All About State Power

Think back to your school days (or, if you’re still in school, think back to yesterday).  In every social organization with enough people, there must be at least one complete and utter dick.  He or she is the least pleasant person in the world to be around, amasses power through intimidation, violence, or manipulation, and is widely despised.  Thankfully, if you’re in school, you’re generally in a country with a strong enough police force that keeps their nasty habits in check.  This person can only do so much damage before they are jailed or killed.

But in some places, there are few cops.  Nigeria is one of them.

Nigeria’s a place too complicated for itself, and chaos has been its word of the day for over fifty years

Nobody has quite worked out why sub-Saharan Africa missed out on developing advanced civilizations along the same time as North Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, despite the fact that our species probably came from there.  There are guesses; for our purposes, what matters is not the how it happened but that it did.  Society prior to colonization in West Africa was based upon proto-kingdoms, clans, and tribes, with the environment conspiring against centralization.  The network of Nigeria’s rivers, its thick jungles, and its wide open northern frontiers that form part of what’s known as the Sahel made any would-be conquest extremely difficult.  Coalitions of tribes formed into kingdoms; these kingdoms were organized along natural geographical lines, using jungles, rivers, and deserts as borders.

When the British came, that was all swept aside.  With better organization, superior technology, and a willingness to lie like none other, Britain, one by one, conquered the kingdoms and lumped them into something they called “Nigeria.”  Nigeria was, for Britain, just a gigantic resource base to be exploited at will.  Britain applied its Indian model successfully for nearly 60 years in Nigeria – co-opting local elites into their colonial administration, giving political way when way had to be given, and eventually decolonizing in a hurry when it suited them.

Like India, the Nigerian colony was too diverse to become a nation-state peacefully.  The How-To of Decolonization took effect, and as soon as the British left as ringleaders, different ethnic groups started to compete violently for power.  With so many potential factions and a geography that gave minorities the ability to fight off a central government, Nigeria’s alternated between democracy, civil war, and military dictatorship since 1960 with varying degrees of killing.

Major ethnic groups combined with the direction of Boko Haram attacks. There’s no strategy here, just chaos.

Like all colonial hangovers, Nigeria’s still setting order to itself

Nigeria’s primary problem is its tribalism.  This tribalism corrupts democratic politics, encourages the military, the only reliably non-tribal force, to overthrow corrupt governments, and increases the likelihood of secession, sedition, and protest along ethnic lines.  Each time a government is overthrown or a protest turns violent, the civil society Nigeria needs to prosper as a democracy, as well as harness its vast oil reserves, gets set back a notch.  Quite frankly, Nigeria has too many people with too many identities to be governed easily.  The state-led process of building Nigerian nationalism is by its nature a slow one, but is harmed further during the bad times of civil war and violence.

Nigeria is without a doubt the most powerful state in West Africa and can field a military effective enough to hold the state together.  But while essential for holding the borders, the army can’t do much to change Nigerian culture out of its tribal mode and into a more national one.  Thus regions that would have split long ago are held in by an army that doesn’t want the humiliation of a shrunken state.

The army can keep neighbors from stealing territory and would-be warlords from making new countries, but it can’t be everywhere at once.  Thus while it can keep Nigeria’s borders intact, it can’t stop the bubbling cauldron of tribal-charged chaos from occasionally overflowing.

What in God’s name is going on with Boko Haram?

Boko Haram is a human phenomenon you understand quite well in your local terms.  They are your local hicks; your racists; your backwoods, sister-raping hill billies; they are the scum you try to avoid standing next to in line because they clearly did a lot of meth last night.  They are badly educated, either because they hated school or because their local town lacked a decent one, and they are universally men who think the world owes them something.  Boko Haram is a different cultural expression of the same kind of assholes you avoid at the bar and silently wish would get hit by a bus when they leave (and you do so silently because you know they’d like nothing more than a fight).

Unlike your local situation, however, there’s almost no one to keep Boko Haram in check.  Imagine those group of assholes deciding to smash up the bar.  You do what’s natural and call the cops.  In a well-ordered society, the cops show up, crack skulls, and restore order.  Now imagine how much damage they could do if no police ever arrived.  Imagine what that neighborhood would swiftly look like, and the horrors they’d inflict on others.

The guys you pray like mad don’t show up to your house party, because, once they do, you know you can’t ask them to leave.

Do yourself a favor and divorce Islam from Boko Haram’s actions

Islam is not the reason Boko Haram kidnapped those girls and is now threatening to sell them into slavery.  Boko Haram did that because they are the cocks that every society has; the difference is they live in a country that cannot always control them.  The fact that they claim they’re doing all this in the name of Islam is irrelevant; bad guys find excuses for their behavior, and those excuses are most commonly rooted in some kind of perversion of local culture.  Boko Haram is Nigeria’s equivalent of America’s KKK, with many of the same behaviors and psychological motivations.  The primary difference is that Boko Haram can get away with their crimes, while the KKK must restrain itself or face annihilation at the hands of a well-trained and efficient police force.

So how do you rid yourself of such nasty people?

The short answer is that the country must develop a civil society that puts the nation-state ahead of personal interests.  That’s incredibly hard to do and is a generational process.  Nigeria has a start on it with its armed forces and its growing middle class, but in a country of 168 million people, division is not only inevitable but expensive, slow, and dangerous to bridge.

For a country like Nigeria, destroying Boko Haram will not end the behaviors exhibited by it.  Some other ethnic group will do much the same so long as Nigeria lacks a modernized citizenry.  Rather, Nigeria’s most effective institution – its military – must end up managing terrorist psychopaths that will continue to have breathing space within the country’s borders.   Much as police try to manage murder rather than wholly prevent it, this is the best that Nigeria can do for now.

Over time, in twenty-five to fifty years, as Nigeria’s economy grows, wealth spreads outwards, and a middle class emerges to be the dominant force in the country, such groups will run out of oxygen.  The path to such growth is paved by good governance, democracy, and civil peace.  But that path is easily lost in the thicket of tribalism.  Nigeria has a long time to go before monsters like Boko Haram are boxed away in the realm of nightmares.  With some luck, good leaders, and help from the outside world, that day can come sooner rather than later.



Sectarianism Made Super (Or: How To Tell Your Shi’a From Your Sunni)

Comments sections of various websites are filled with people who have dim, insulting, or downright horrific views on Islam, largely because the religion itself is riven with just enough differences to make it super hard to generalize it.  But what’s going on with Sunnis and Shi’a and what in the hell is an Alawite?  Let’s make this Super.

Categorize religion correctly before you go any further

The word “religion” comes from the Latin “religio,” which is a later comer than the idea of gods, spirits, and other things we typically associate with religion.  Ancient peoples prior to Christianity did not give religion the same kind of utter reverence demanded from religion today.  Sure, cults were important, and people were plenty superstitious, but there’s a fine line between the old cults and what we would consider a religion.

Julius Caesar openly manipulated the Roman state cults to make himself more politically powerful. Alexander the Great made himself a god and apparently actually believed it.  History’s had its fair-share of meglomaniacs, so in and of itself leaders making themselves gods isn’t so shocking.  What is shocking, from a modern person’s perspective, is that they got away with it.  (“If Alexander wants to be a god, let him be a god,” said a Spartan Damis when Sparta debated that motion, a position that didn’t get him exiled, crucified, or murdered one bit).

That our ancient forebears gave little more than two shits about their gods is obvious from how often they changed it to suit their tastes and perspectives and how little that bothered the common man.  Religious wars were nonsense; racist wars, sure, absolutely, but to fight to convince other people your god was the only god?  Pure idiocy.

Even Judaism fell into this category.  There might be only one God, but he was for the Jewish tribe alone.  No need to fight any wars beyond pure survival there.

Drunk, naked baby. Ancient religions had fewer qualms with that kind of stuff.

Until Christianity came along, grabbed hold of the Roman Empire, and changed the rules

The Roman government despised Christianity for a while there, but not for particularly holy reasons.  Since the Roman emperor was a god on Earth, any religion claiming otherwise undermined state authority.  Had Christianity done what so many other cults did and make room for Caesar, they’d have been less often fed to the lions.

But Christianity introduced a new concept, one directly influenced by the Roman state itself – absolutism.  Caesar was a god on Earth who could do as he liked.  Christianity posited that there was an authority higher than that – God Himself who’d sent Jesus to redeem mankind.  No pagan religion had ever claimed to be a catch-all for the species.

Thus a new rule was born: God might be in Heaven, but He’s appointed a church to deal with things on Earth.  Everything that said church did was right; anything done to it was wrong.  Crystal clear morality for the common illiterate.

The Roman state struggled against Christianity for the longest time, but eventually realized that within the religion was a powerful tool for its survival.  If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em – and the Roman state under Constantine grabbed Christianity and turned it into just another arm of the government, complete with publicly paid priests and legally-sanctioned holy songs.

Nearby geopolitical rival Persia, hosting a different cult, the Zoroastrians, experienced a similar change of outlook.  States that could combine the holier-than-thou attitude of a single absolutist religion could wield incredible powers.  Everything one did for the government was not just good for the state but good for the soul.

Soldiers would fight harder, taxes would be paid more regularly, and fewer would think of killing the God-appointed leader, than ever before.   Damned skippy it was a fine idea, and Persia and Rome both rushed to grab control of their suddenly uber-important religions.  Key to that was ensuring that the state religion was the only one with any real power, with anyone breaking the party line being hunted down and wiped out in whatever methods were fashionable.

And Islam was not born in a vacuum

Do remember this is not a religious website, and so religions get treated as historical entities as opposed to The Truth.  From that perspective, Islam owes a lot to the codifying and standardizing practices of nearby Persia and Rome.  Early Muslim rulers, including Mohammed himself, borrowed an awful lot of practices from these two powers.  (A fantastic book on this process is In the Shadow of the Sword, which details what influences played into the formation of early Islam).

When Muslim armies swamped the decaying Roman and Persian empires, they wisely understood they were outnumbered by the locals, and the best way to ensure compliance was to simply be less horrible than the previous governments.  The practice of standardizing a religion might sound scientific, but in reality in means stabbing people, putting out their eyes, setting both books and heretics on fire, and other nasty things you’re tempted to do when you come across people who just can’t see why your God is an awesome God.  The early Muslims merely had to back off taxes and executions to make themselves far more palatable to their conquered peoples, who were allowed to keep their religions.

These early rules were set hard and fast and remain unchallenged to this day.  Christians and Jews are special peoples when it comes to Islamic law and are treated just the same as they were in the Golden Age of Islamic rule. (Zoroastrians, however, weren’t so well treated).

As the demographic balance switched from a Muslim minority to a majority, Muslim leaders began to adopt the aggressive religious standardizing practices of the dead Roman and Persian empires.  Since the early rules had been set saying to leave the Christians and Jews alone, the victims were either pagans left out of the Qu’ran, or anyone dumb enough to think religion likes innovation.

How you might convince someone to sing the right goddamn songs. Early Muslim rulers avoided this to keep from having their subjects overthrow them.

How do you get a Shi’a from a Sunni?  Well, it begins with a pointless argument amongst the elites

The barest bones tale of Islams two biggest sects, Shi’ism and Sunnism, boils down to an argument amongst early Muslim elites, the newly powerful leaders of the briefly united Muslim empire, over who should lead.  Sunnism was markedly more democratic than Shi’ism, favoring elites chosen because of their leadership qualities and expertise in the religion.  Shi’ism favored choosing someone from Mohammed’s family, as one did in those days when choosing new rulers.

In the Sunni case, elites argued they should continue to pass on power as they did under the tribes – from one strong, wise man to another.  In the Shi’a case, it was about passing on power like the Romans and Persians did, from father to son, in order to ensure everyone understood very clearly and early on how power was transferred and who was eligible.

You then had the first fitna, or time of conflict, where the two parties went their separate ways.  Over time, elites in both groups did what was natural and started competing viewpoints about the world.  Underpinning both was the assumption that they were absolutely, utterly right – a notion they’d inherited from the Romans and Persians.

And therein lies the kernal of religious conflict

Absolutism as once embodied by Caesar has been resurrected by various Islamist parties.  They would never admit it, but they owe a lot to the those empires their forebearers conquered.  Islamist parties of all stripes favor absolutism, believing they have the Truth, and seek to spread that Truth as much as possible.  In doing so, they’re behaving in the exact same fashion as the Eastern Romans and Persians did as they struggled against one another just on the eve of the coming of Islam.

Modern Middle Eastern sectarianism has its roots in the wars fought by the Ottoman Turks and Savafid Persians and how those two governments were able to rule their people

This is where the Geopolitics of Sectarianism kicks in and gets super-duper.  Both empires competed for supremacy in the Muslim world from around 1500 until about 1750, when the Ottomans and Persians became more threatened by other neighbors than by one another and the wars cooled down.

The Safavid dynasty had an advantage the Ottomans did not – they ruled over a natural nation-state, Persia, and so could exercise authority on a deeper level than the Ottomans as they did what all states of that time did: attempted to standardize religion as a tool to be used by the government.  Thus today’s Iran is overwhelmingly Shi’a, the chosen voice of the Safavids, as are territories closest to the former Safavid military frontiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Ottomans had a more complicated and delicate task.  Like the original Muslim conquerors, they couldn’t afford to antagonize too many minorities within their empire, and so embarked on measured tolerance in places that allowed sects to survive and thrive.  Thus the Ottomans sheltered the Druze, Shi’a, Sarmatians, Christians of various stripes, and others as they tried to slowly and carefully make Sunni Islam standard amongst their Turkish peoples.  Arabs and Europeans were more left alone for fear of revolt; hence why Ottoman Europe today is not Sunni the way Safavid Iran is Shi’a.

As a result, Turkish territories – like Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Iraq, and Lebanon – are far more diverse.  It’s not because the Turks were happy about that.  It’s because if the Turks pushed too hard, they suffered revolts.  From 1700 onwards, the Turks were increasingly unable to balance both the forces they’d conquered with the neighbors advancing on their borders.

The three great Muslim empires of the 18th century. Ottoman territories tended towards diversity or Sunnism while Persia went Shi’a.

So that’s how the where of the Shi’a/Sunni divide got started, but why then are they going at one another now?

Within modern Abrahamic religions, thanks to Persian and Roman influence, there exists a strand of absolutism that demands obedience and complete control.  This strand gets stronger or weaker depending on the strength of the local government.  When the government of an area can’t solve social, political, or economic problems using secular and scientific methods, people naturally turn to the one other thing claiming to have All The Answers.  This strengthens the absolutists, who use their power to try to grab as much power as they can while they can.

Most of the governments set up in the Middle East were, with few exceptions, incredibly weak when Europeans left.  Within them was the legacy of Ottoman rule; diverse communities with little to unite them except their supposed shared Arabness.  Ottoman rule did not attempt to unite these places into nations, but rather to divide them against one another by tolerating and encouraging differences.

Briefly, Arab nationalism sought to be the panacea to solve the region’s ills, but repeated defeats at the hands of Israel, the United States, and one another have buried that notion under heaps of bodies.  Already weak governments have wobbled more and more, and some, as we’ve seen, have finally fallen.

Iran’s been a special case; having never been formally colonized, it’s not suffered the same cultural hangover.  Nevertheless, it’s borrowed heavily from the imperial playbook of powers long gone.

While leaders have used the sectarian card to save themselves

As the Romans and Persians learned eons ago, a state with a single religion has higher morale, greater loyalty, and can be counted to do the horrible things necessary to save a leader in crisis.  Most modern Middle Eastern rulers know this and have acted accordingly.  Doubling-down on a sectarian identity is the difference between victory and defeat.  It’s also a clean litmus test of loyalty; what’s yer name there, boy?  Omar?  Sounds like a filthy Sunni ta me.  Betta change that ta Ali.

King Khalifa of Bahrain has made it clear he’s a Sunni and his enemies Shi’a; Assad is fighting a dirty war as a Shi’a Alawite, his enemies jihadi Sunnis.  Iraq’s ongoing election is sectarian fighting by other means; few secular, pan-Iraqi parties will emerge with much.  Iran’s meddling in Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria is strictly sectarian; they break the rule for Sunni Hamas in Gaza, but only because the only thing that can still sort of unite Shi’a and Sunni elites is attacking Israel.  Even that card has worn thin; Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are prepared to do a deal with an Israel that withdraws from the West Bank.

Damn fine map. As you can see, former Turkish territories enjoy more colors.

The long story short (too late!): to stick around, elites will use all the cultural leverage they have left

Demands for democracy were inevitable once enough people were born in the Middle East.  Monarchies and dictatorships are too personality-focused to respond to the demands of tens of millions of people.  Old empires got away with their rule partially because of lower populations, which made problems easier to solve.  But a 90+ million state like Egypt needs power devolved in many places to run well.  Yet dictators, by their nature, don’t share.

And that goes for all elites, from tribal sheikhs to old clerics, whose roles are threatened by modernization and democracy.  To survive, they will throw every switch they have left.  Tribalism and its many sins accelerates the damage; sectarianism becomes another aspect of tribal elites jockeying for scraps as their country burns itself hollow.

Invariably, this energy will exhaust itself and the Middle East’s elites will have used up all the religious capital they have.  They will then be discarded and replaced by elites who can offer better futures.  But so long as they are around, they will play by old Constantinople’s rules, and the region will bleed accordingly.


The Geopolitics of the United Arab Emirates (Or, A Study In How Small Places Avoid Getting Wiped Out)

As my home for four years, I got to know the United Arab Emirates quite well.  It was a strange, fucked up place full of wonders that shouldn’t have been there, ranging from green parks next to sand dunes to Indian dancing girls hidden beneath swanky bars full of Emirati men leering un-Islamically while drinking Red Label whiskey.  Nothing quite seemed right, but nothing quite seemed impossible, either.

Needless to say, it didn’t have to be that way.

“Please don’t blow me up, please don’t blow me up, please don’t blow me up…”

Welcome to the UAE – a country that’s fallen ass-backwards into success

The United Arab Emirates is a collection of seven emirates under a federal system.  ‘Emirates’, in this case, are territorial units ruled by royal families headed up by emirs, or princes.  Functionally, they’re not much different than kings except loyalty is given to them through tribal allegiance as opposed to Divine Right.  They throw some of that in there too, for good measure, but in theory the emirs (who like to use the ‘sheikh’ title rather than the more formal ‘emir’) could be overthrown peacefully if a tribal gathering was called and elders voted something approaching a no-confidence measure in their ruler.

In reality, the sheikhs would butcher them.  But it’s a nice idea.

The UAE sits in one of the world’s most unattractive places.  It’s burning hot for large swathes of the year (fatally so for many infants), with desperately low rainfall, no forestry beyond tiny oases to construct ships, no iron, copper, or other metal, and wide open coasts with virtually no good natural harbors.  In the northern emirates, a handful of dusty mountains gather just enough rain to allow simple tribes to settle down and survive for most of the year, but overall, God must have hated this corner of Arabia, because there’s almost nothing to recommend it.

Alexander the Great’s fleet once passed by – and little more.  The Persians out of Iran considered the place worthless and exercised loose control, if they ever exercised any at all.  A small Christian monastery was founded in the 6th and 7th centuries, but ended up abandoned when either all the monks died out or they realized they didn’t have anyone around to convert to Christianity.  Beyond the handful of pearls scraped from the bottom of the Gulf, there wasn’t much of a way to make a living there.

That all changed at Delma Island in 1958.

“Okay, money, it come from sky.”

We used to joke about what Emirati economics classes were about.  The general assumption was that the teacher would walk into the classroom, sit down, raise his hands to the sky, and say, “Money, it come from here.”  That would then be the one and only lesson for the entire year.

It’s not all that far off from fact.  From 1958 onward, the UAE has been blessed with massive oil discoveries.  What was once a land God despised turned into a land God must have been only having a very long joke on, because the country’s epic cash reserves allow it to buy up land bigger than itself elsewhere.   The story’s been impressive, honestly.

The UAE is a case study in various geopolitical phenomena.  How do small, weak states avoid being swallowed up by big, strong ones?  How do new states build themselves into effective forces inside their territories?  On all accounts, the UAE’s been a wild success, managing to avoid invasion by both Saudi Arabia and Iran and having now propelled its tribal society into a 21st century of zero carbon cities, modern education systems, and cutting edge military forces.

Of course, that’s what the Emirati government will tell you.  What they won’t tell you is how fragile all of it truly is.

Visionary leaders go on t-shirts.

Welcome to the UAE! It could die tomorrow

When the UAE was formed in 1971, Abu Dhabi, largest by land and holding most of the oil reserves, was chosen as the capital and its emir, Sheikh Zayed al Nayhan, was chosen as president.  This acknowledged the overwhelming superiority that Abu Dhabi had over all six emirates, Dubai included, which had paltry oil reserves.  Since then, Abu Dhabi has controlled foreign affairs and, over time, managed to persuade, bribe, or cajole all six other emirates into giving up more and more autonomy.  The coup de grace was in 2009, when a broke Dubai and its ruling family had to beg for a bailout from Abu Dhabi in the wake of the financial crisis.  The tallest tower in the world was supposed to be the Burj Dubai, but is now the Burj Khalifa – as in, the sitting president of the UAE and Sheikh Zayed’s son.  Suck on that, Dubai.

But this all belies the very real problems simmering under the surface.  There’s pretty much zero risk of civil war or violent unrest in the UAE – the native population of Emiratis is swamped by expatriates (11% locals to 89% foreigners), and with just under one million Emiratis spread out over the seven emirates, it’d be really hard to organize a civil war.

Rather, the great dangers are those most traditional.

The greatest threats: death and taxes

As in, the death of the sitting president Sheikh Khalifa.  He’s not well; obviously, blatantly, not well, and his looming death opens up yet another round of uncomfortable discussions about who should lead.  The presidential system is based on the say-so of the seven ruling families.  Sheikh Zayed’s genial personality and diplomatic skills led him to leadership, and his son coasted on that legacy.  But rumor has it that Sheikh Mohammed Al Nayhan, Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces and Sheikh Khalifa’s younger brother, is not nearly as well liked.  It’s understandable, considering that the crackdown on Emirati Islamists has been mostly led by him.

Meanwhile, in Dubai, the ambitious and Westernized Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum (different than the supreme commander from Abu Dhabi, and happy enough to confuse people who can’t tell a Maktoum from a Nayhan), of a rival branch of the same tribe as the one that rules Abu Dhabi, sees a hyper-capitalist future for his emirate built on tourism, financial services, and real estate – a formula that has worked in several cities in the American West.  It is unlikely he’d challenge Sheikh Mohammed of Abu Dhabi for the throne, but an underlying tension remains between Abu Dhabi and Dubai, and when old Sheikh Khalifa passes on, the negotiations this time around will be high stakes indeed.

Much of Dubai’s attractiveness is built upon its lowered costs.  The UAE’s citizens and residents pay far lower than they should for water, electricity, and staple foods, thanks to Abu Dhabi’s generous subsidies.  Top that off with a tax free environment and you get some truly stupid behavior from people who suddenly feel rich.  But such a model is unsustainable.

Dubai is undergoing yet another real estate bubble – one which will inevitably crash again, though probably not as hard as 2009.  Since money flows freely, such bubbles are easier to come by – one good reason to start introducing new taxes and fees to ease up on the insanity and bring stability to Dubai’s economy.  Additionally, Dubai’s government is offering more and more services, including a police force that (shockingly for the region) more or less does its job.  Such things don’t come cheap, and Abu Dhabi has zero interest in paying for Dubai’s self-improvement schemes.

Not an uncommon sight.

Rich men can feel poor, too

Most people are unaware that the UAE’s books are not nearly as flush as its oil wealth implies.  With rail projects, spaceports, sovereign wealth funds, massive subsidies, and bail-outs aplenty, the UAE is rapidly hitting its cash wall.  It will remain rich; no doubt about that.  But cash on hand will soon run out because of everything the UAE is doing.  When that day comes, the menace of taxation will arise.  Already tourism and alcohol are taxed, and the model forward will be service taxes rather than income taxes.  Nevertheless, the crazy-go-spend days are coming to a close.  Responsible living will be the watch phrase of the 2020s.

And what about all these foreigners?

An 89-11 split just doesn’t work.  Already foreigners are in key positions throughout the Emirati government; Emiratis themselves have long treated government jobs as extended holidays.  Dubai has led the way in modernization, but no matter how much the Emirati community grows into a mature, modernized state, it simply lacks the numbers to run the country.  Foreigners are there to stay; so, what will be done about them?  Invariably, some expatriates must be naturalized – and not really some, but many, perhaps up to half.  When that day comes, Emiratis won’t be very happy, but will also have very little choice in the matter.

Meanwhile, the UAE must double-down on its alliances with the U.S. and the West

The truly scary thing on the horizon is the coming unrest in Saudi Arabia.  Thankfully, there aren’t any large Saudi cities near the UAE border, so revolution spilling over fences isn’t likely.  But if Saudi buckles and breaks, the UAE won’t be immune.  Then, the UAE will be dependent all the more on the West.  With its ample oil reserves and pliable foreign policy whose central pillar has been “Keep The West Happy” for nearly 40 years, the UAE will continue to enjoy this military protection so long as the West sees use for the Emiratis.

But if Iran is no longer a pariah state, the UAE will suddenly return to its role as a strategically useless position.  If anything, Western strategy will turn to Oman, with its potential to support domination of the Indian Ocean, and let the Emiratis twist in the wind.  Suddenly, then, the UAE will look far more vulnerable if Saudi zealots decide to teach the Emiratis a thing or two about their True Islam.  The West will send no troops to stop a bombing campaign; that’ll be an Emirati problem.  It’s not hard to imagine the Jumeriah Janes in Dubai airport, loot in tow, fleeing such a thing, and leaving Dubai’s glittering towers empty.

Dubai police chief Dhani Khalfan Tamim, famous for calling for Qatar’s annexation and more than happy to torture you as much as he fucking likes until you sign.

So stability must be kept at all costs

To keep foreigners coming to run the country, to keep foreign capital flowing in to die a horrible death in the roller coaster that is the Emirati economy, to keep Saudi out, the West in, and the Emirati dissident movement down, the Emirati government must appear stable.  They’ve recently smashed up a Muslim Brotherhood movement and have installed enough security cameras to ensure would-be terrorists are eyed every step they take.  Their security forces grow stronger and more powerful as Sheikh Mohammed of Abu Dhabi consolidates power, modernizes the army, and conscripts his people for the first time in their history.  The UAE can have no ambition beyond itself, but that is ambition enough.

Holding together the union, forestalling unrest, building a modern economy, and keeping the borders secure is no easy task.  The Emiratis make it look so; don’t let that fool you.  Many a misstep may happen between now and the end of the century, and the survival of the UAE is not guaranteed.

In the meantime, enjoy the brunches.


The How-To of Hegemony (Or: How To Rule The World And Get Away With It)

You had a bad day.  Plans fell through; a date went badly; something you really hoped would happen didn’t.  But it’s cool.  As the world’s hegemon, you know you’ll feel better once you’ve sent your drones against a beach full of screaming children.  Because you’re the world hegemon, and you can pretty much do whatever the hell you want.

But getting there ain’t precisely the smoothest of rides.  Smarter, tougher, and luckier people than you have all taken a stab and ended up shot in a bunker, probably poisoned, or dead before your mid-30s.

So how do you avoid their fates?  Mostly, luck and patience.  Oh, and using the How-To Guide of Hegemony.

First, hegemony defined

“Hegemony” comes from the Greek “hegemon,” which means “ruler” or “leader”, and which is very different than an empire, kingdom, or nation-state.  The United States isn’t really an empire because it doesn’t control large swathes of foreign territory directly (Puerto Rico and other territories blur that line a bit, but those territories are more or less free to join the U.S. or quit it as they like, undermining the imperial categorization).

The U.S. does run a big and effective hegemony.  It’s got various alliance systems all over the world that overlap with one another. None of them could function without the U.S.  All of them follow America’s general lead.  This is your ideal world: a place where you call the big shots and let the little guys deal with the details.

Rule #1 – You’ll need some large, productive land, with great access to the sea

The “geo” in “geopolitics” is all about geography.  Geography dictates what futures are possible.  Alexander the Great could have never built an empire from Athens – Athens was too small to support the army he needed.  Conversely, democracy couldn’t have been invented in Macedonia – Macedonia had too many military frontiers to let such a fickle system of government survive for long.  In both cases, geography made certain choices possible and others impossible.

Thus you need a big country with loads of resources within its borders.  The more isolated, the better, and preferably isolated by sea.  There is such a thing as “too big” – Russia’s long frontiers are not ideal, and Canada’s frozen tundra, while both isolated and massive, isn’t really superb for superpower building.

You’ll need natural and widespread rivers that can transport resources from one place to another.  Think of these as free superhighways.  And they should stay ice-free for as much of the year as possible.  In general, you want a country that is neither too hot nor too cold with long, stable growing seasons.

Most of all, you should have enough strategic resources like oil, timber, metals, and foodstuffs to survive a blockade and still fight a war.  No nation is an island; trade matters, but your army should be able to fight well even under the worst possible circumstances.

Pretty ideal set-up: a big, predictable river that goes to the sea. Talk about savings!

Rule #2 – Know who you are

Your national identity is super important for cohesion.  You can’t have an army made up of different languages; that’ll play hell with command and control, but invariably some dick will say something like, “Wait, why are we fighting for those creeps who don’t speak our language?”  It’ll spiral downhill and you’ll either have to shoot that guy or watch him grab a piece of your country and make it his own.

What kind of national culture is pretty irrelevant to success so long it doesn’t crowd out reason and science.  If your culture is dominated by people who don’t believe the world is round, you’ll have a hell of a time convincing them to send a naval expedition to bomb somewhere in Africa.  Barring that, you can adopt any language, religion, and national traits you like so long as you have the geography to produce a well-populated, well-fed, and resource-secure state.  Go ahead and worship the Moon Reptiles!  Just make sure your culture can understand why it may be advantageous to establish missile bases on the moon one day.

To establish this secure identity, you can use either force or persuasion.  Force means either shooting, expelling, or exterminating those who don’t share your national identity and, while this can create a Here Today, Gone Tomorrow situation with some ethnic rebels giving you trouble, it can also waste military resources on campaigns better not fought and create excuses for other foreign powers to meddle in your country.  Oh, if only Serbia hadn’t tried to ethnically cleanse Kosovo in 1999!

Persuasion is slower, but safer.  Control of national media helps, but mostly this is about education.  Your enemies won’t invade your country if you try to abolish local languages in schools and the workplace, but these tactics don’t always work.  Japan tried to bring its language to Korea during its long period of colonization.  Korea has neither forgiven nor forgotten that.

In all likelihood, you’ll have to do a mixture of both – burn out a few villages, deport an ethnic region or two, but always avoid appearing to be too much like Hitler.  If you’re lucky, you’ll take power in a country that’s already done this deep in the past.  American presidents, after all, don’t have to take responsibility for the crimes of the U.S. cavalry in the 19th century, and British monarchs don’t feel bad about their ancestors wiping out the Catholics in the 16th century.

Rule #3 – Don’t let other powers form coalitions against you

Nobody likes a winner who is too blatant about winning.  If you’ve ever played a game of Risk, you’ll know that everyone gangs up on someone who gets too powerful, too early.  There’s a point in the game where you can suddenly surge forward and win by appearing to be #2 or #3, but being an obvious #1 too early is often fatal.

So while you’ll have to be aggressive there and again, you can’t be too aggressive, and certainly not too successful.  Losing a war isn’t the end of the world, in this view, because it can reinforce an nonthreatening view of you.  The last thing you want is a coalition against you that checks your rise.

Oh, stupid Mr. Hitler ignored this to his peril.  What if he’d stopped in 1938 with Austria and died in his bed in the 1960s or 70s?  Germany certainly could have avoided nearly five decades of division.

Britain and the U.S., conversely, both did bang-up jobs of avoiding being too strong until it was too late for their enemies to stop them.  It wasn’t until the defeat of Napoleon that Britain secured its prominent position in Europe, but even then it had the good sense to balance European powers off one another to create the illusion that a coalition of powers on the continent could check its ambitions.  Its leaders skillfully played Europe against itself while building the world’s largest empire.

The U.S., meanwhile, kept from using its full power until the day came when it was forced to.  The U.S. could have taken a stab at world domination as early as 1900, but had it done so, would have forced Europe to unite.  Rather, it waited until Europe went mad in World War II and then jumped on the opportunity.  Which leads us to Rule #4.

If they all train their guns on you, you’ve fucked up.

Rule #4 – Exploit chaos when you can get something out of it

You’re busy trying not to alarm anyone by being too successful, but you realize that your power stock isn’t going anywhere fast unless you take down the other great states in the world.  This is easier than it looks; great powers compete with one another over time, and eventually they stumble into wars.  Your best bet is to stay out of their conflcits as much as possible.  Rather, you should aim to be the decisive force for any one side.  You get to pick the winners; then, you get to sit at the table and split the spoils.

Don’t pick friends; pick allies you can drop when you need to.  Let others make mistakes, fight bad wars, grow weaker, and bide your time until a critical moment comes when your influence can be most felt.  You’ll have to do this more than once and it could take decades.  But if you do it right, you’ll end up being the most powerful nation in the world by virtue of letting others exhaust themselves for dominance.

Rule $5 – Enforce your hegemony selectively

Now that you’ve slipped past the other great powers and become a superpower, you must keep the peace.  You’ll need to have strong rules on what wars are worth fighting and which ones aren’t.  You can’t make the world a utopia, and if you try, you’ll be creating the chaos you were just told to avoid.  Instead, you have to fight selectively and purposefully.  All wars should underpin your domination of each region and should do one of two things: divide regions further or replace regional military forces with your own.

You can, on occasion, be a good guy, but only if it’s on the cheap and it can be successful.  Remember that your enemies still wait in the wings and will take advantage of a slip-up by you to expand their own power and influence, so don’t fight wars you can’t lose.  Think of everything in terms of percentages – what’s the percentage of GDP you’ll siphon by invading this country or that, what’s the percentage of casualties your population will put up with, etc.  Absolute numbers don’t matter; a big country like yours can lose 10,000 men in a single battle if that battle is worth fighting.

All other powers must be corralled and watched.  Any attempt by them to grow should be painful, slow, and dangerous.  As much incentive as possible must exist to prevent them from matching you.  All-out war isn’t preferable; remember, you can’t afford such things with your forces spread worldwide.  Instead, you use your many tools to check would-be competitors, using regional forces to support you, and hopping from one foot to the other as crisis requires.

If at all possible,  make people accept and even need your hegemony.  When people complain about you too much, simply step back from a crisis you can afford to let simmer.  When everyone realizes nobody but you can solve it, your popularity will suddenly rebound.  And make sure nobody but you can be that fixer-upper!  Should another state slide into that role, you’re in trouble.

Fight small wars you can afford to lose and avoid big wars you can’t predict.

Keep the peace until one day you can do away with nation-states entirely

A truly successful hegemon should be the last one.  Rather than replaying history by falling and being replaced, your ultimate goal should be a slow, steady process of standardization and unification that takes place so slowly that nobody’s the wiser when they wake up one day and there aren’t countries anymore.  That’ll take at least a hundred years, if not more, because you’ll have to wait for entire generations to naturally die off and be replaced by more globalized youth.  But as an immortal, you’ve got the time.

From securing your geography, you then secure your identity to something that works.  Once united, you can prevent others from uniting against you; being selectively passive generally works.  In the meantime, you exploit others mistakes until the world recognizes you as the only power capable of keeping the peace.  Then you keep that peace for as long as necessary, ending the nation-state system and replacing it with something better.

Or you succumb to the cycle of history, lose everything, and get shot in a bunker.  Either way, you’ve had a great time.  Be patient; be balanced; if you’re lucky enough to have a good starting point, the odds favor you.  And have fun!  It might take a century or two, but if played right, you get to be the guy (or gal) whose name is synonymous with Pax Yourcountryana.


Attention Americans! Yes, you should know where Ukraine is (and that’s just the beginning of where you should be informing your opinion)

Here now is a classic moment of why I started this website.  Americans, apparently, have stereotypically fuzzy knowledge of where Ukraine is.  If they can’t even figure out where the fuck the place is, how can they decide if it’s worth starting World War III over?  (Interestingly, the more ignorant, the more likely to support war.  Go figure).

So here we go.  A simple guide to all the Americans out there that may lack some of the most basic info on Ukraine.

It’s in Europe.

Specifically, Eastern Europe.  It was once part of the Soviet Union, which you may or may not be old enough to remember.  On the most basic of levels, the fact that it’s close to Russia makes it important to Russia.  Just as Canada is important to the U.S., Russia cares about who is in charge of Ukraine.  That’s common sense; you want to know thy neighbor.

It’s a medium-sized but poor country.  It’s corrupt, and its politicians have a nasty record of stealing taxes.  That’s made the people of Ukraine understandably pissed at government.  Some of them blame Russia for this corruption; others blame people within Ukraine.

Hi there! I’m the Red One!

So if it’s in Europe and its close to Russia, why then should you care?  You don’t give a shit about a weekend in Kiev.

Fair enough.  Ukraine is far away from your country and you most likely won’t have much interaction with products from there, people from there, or even pornography from there.  Why should you bother getting your head filled up with facts about such a place?

The most basic reason: no other country on Earth should be more powerful than yours.  We’ll get to why later.  But power is pretty easy to understand: it’s measured in land, population, size and equipment of militaries, and wealth.  But you can’t be the richest country on Earth and be the most powerful.  Just ask Qatar.  Nor can you have the biggest military and think you can do whatever you want.  You have to have all four in place to be considered Top Dawg.

By grabbing little Crimea, Russia has increased its land, population, and wealth.  By itself, that doesn’t matter.  Crimea is tiny.  So again, why care?

Because nobody knows if Russia is done.  Russia under Vladamir Putin wants to bring Russia closer to its old Soviet status of #2 most powerful country in the world.  To do that, he must increase all four measurements.  And he’s just bumped the rankings up a little.

Yeah, and?  Why should you bother being afraid of the Russians?

You shouldn’t be afraid.  There’s a big difference between FREAKING OUT OH MY GOD LET’S GET THAT SHELTER GOING AND MAYBE I’LL FINALLY ASK THAT HOT GIRL DOWN THE STREET OUT SINCE WE’RE ALL ABOUT TO DIE and “Oh, hey, that’s not good.  Perhaps we should send some F-22s to a Baltic republic?”

Russia should be slowed or even stopped from increasing its power as much as possible short of going to war.  Sometimes, that means acting like your country will go to war.  That sounds dumb because it is, and it’s a result of people in general being dumb by having created nation-states to begin with. Like much in life, however, the alternative to our bad system is worse.  I dare you to think it’s a good idea to bring our previous system of kings and emperors.

There’s a lot of reasons for nation-states being dumb, but the general rule is this: as soon you organize people in groups, they compete with one another.  Eventually, on a long enough timeline, they’ll fight each other, especially when they think they can get away with it.

No matter how hard we try, we won’t be doing this.

But what’s so bad about letting Russia have a go as superpower?  Isn’t America a horrible place full of fat people?

It’s a fun stereotype, but a world under Russian domination would be considerably worse than the current one under America’s.  Life is not about perfect places doing perfect things; it’s about flawed places doing as little harm as possible.

A world under Russia would be poorer, more corrupt, more violent, and generally rougher than the current one under U.S. domination.  (For a general take, see A World Without America.)  This really has nothing to do with culture or morality, the two things we focus on most when we try to slag off a country.  Rather, it has everything to do with ability.

Because it’s #1 in the four pillars of power, America can maintain an expensive military system that has helped prevent World War III or a return to imperialism.  I think we can agree those things were bad.  Remove America from the system, and the likelihood of one or the other happening  goes up.  This is the natural result of people being organized into nation-states.  Nation-states compete; sometimes, they compete violently.  And every there and again, a nation-state comes along that thinks it can end this competition for all time by having a massive throw down of violence in a world-shattering war.

What peace does America keep?

People slag off the U.S. as the “world’s policeman” quite often.  But just as saying “Fuck da police” doesn’t mean your neighborhood would be safer sans Da Police, neither too does saying “Death to America” mean that America has served no useful role in the world.  Thanks to American military might, both Germany and Japan have exited the world stage as dangerous powers.  That’s a huge deal; typically in human history, states dealt with threats by killing as many people as possible.  America may have dropped the bomb on Japan – twice – but then had the sense to rebuild it once the war was over.  That’s leaps and bounds ahead of what other hegemons have done.  Again - not exactly ideal to nuke people to make them into your allies.  But preferential over what the Romans did to the Gauls, the British (and later Americans) to the Native Americans, or the Russians to the Germans of Prussia.  When your options for permanent peace are limited nuclear war or outright genocide, you choose limited nuclear war.  It’s fucked up, but it has worked.

Okay, so just let Russia (and maybe China) run the show while those dogs in Washington whimper on home

This comes back to ability.  If America voluntarily gave up and withdrew worldwide, neither China nor Russia within the next decade could fill the gap.  China lacks military power; Russia lacks the right sized population and economy.  (China’s huge population is if anything a drain on its military spending, since more and more resources need to go towards modernizing its 1.1 billion+ people).  Neither could effectively lead a peacekeeping mission in Africa, or set up Palestinian-Israeli peace talks, or prevent Iran and Saudi Arabia from divying up the Persian Gulf states, simply because they don’t have the power to do so.  (China may someday, but that has yet to be seen).

If they could do this, they would be.  The fact that they’re not trying to do much more than complain about the U.S. is proof in the pudding that they aren’t up to the job of keeping the nastiest, most horrible wars under wraps.

This would also translate to trade.  Prices for just about everything would go up if America decided to stop interfering with planet Earth.  America’s navy keeps trade lanes open, ensures vital resources are as freely traded as possible, and organizes relief efforts for disaster-struck regions.  When the 2004 Asian tsunami hit, it was American warships that were a big part of the relief effort.  Take those ships away and more people would have died that year.  The irony of a ship built to kill saving lives shouldn’t be lost on you; but the world is not black nor white.

People who are trained to kill people using machines designed to kill people instead helping people. The world is weird, but beautiful.

But it just doesn’t feel right

Much of that is the natural result of people wishing they had complete control over their lives.  We all wish that.  But it’s not the case.  I challenge you to find one thing in the room you’re sitting in that you had complete control over as it was produced and sold.  You make compromises all the time; you trade off on price vs. quality with nearly every decision you make.

The U.S. is the best deal right now.  That doesn’t make it moral.  It doesn’t mean it’s infallible.  But like a third generation smart phone you buy second hand, sometimes it’s acceptable to have something that does the job.

Which brings us back to caring about Ukraine

In and of itself, if Russia swallows the whole of Ukraine back into its borders, the system won’t change much because there’s not enough land, people, and resources to change the balance.  Russia would still need to rebuild all the borders of the Soviet Union to get itself competitive.  But Ukraine is a massive first step because of all the ex-Soviet republics, it’s the biggest and most complicated.  From Ukraine, Putin could siphon up Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Armenia comparatively easily.  By the end of the decade, a much larger and more assertive Russia would be busy causing trouble in many more places.

The best way to ensure peace is to nip what can be nipped now.  Nobody should be calling for war; Russia has nukes and that will kill us all.  But everything short of that needs to be used to make Russia’s conquest as painful as possible.  If Russians can get the sense to throw Putin out in the next election, all the better.  But to sit back and not care at all is not a responsible thing to do.

As the citizens, soldiers, and voters of the only nation on Earth that can be responsible for a problem like Ukraine, it falls to Americans specifically to be best informed – and not to do something dumb, like ride an atomic bomb into a Russian airbase.  Use the Internet; listen to some of the media and ask questions.  Find those answers on your own, and write to your leaders to support actions that keep Russia from further growth.

Someday, as cultures grow and generations mature, we can have a brotherly discussion with a new Russian government about what we can cooperate on.  But such a government is not in power in Moscow today.  Letting it get away with things will only make our world more dangerous.


Somalia, Al Shabaab, and How Geography Screwed A Country

The odds are good you’ve seen Black Hawk Down, where the story of the disaster that was the battle of Mogadishu is told rather well.  With such a baseline of knowledge, you’re aware that, at some point in the recent past, Somalia was a mess.  Things haven’t changed much.

Somalia is the king of Failed States – a title that involves having no real government, warlords, pirates, drugs, and pretty much every war crime, human rights violation, and general barbarism that you can imagine.  It’s The Road but not as cold and with less necessity for cannibalism.

Then there’s Al Shabaab – Arabic for “young men,” who, while made up mostly of young men, are also consummate assholes. Throw in Captain Phillips, the Kenya Westgate Mall butchery, and the occasional piracy stories that pop in the news and Somalia’s well-deserved reputation as World’s Worst Country is fully established.

But Somalia was not always such a basket case.

Somalia’s been geographically screwed since the Ice Age

Somalia is not all that far off from what Arabia would been if oil was never discovered.  With little water, low rainfall, open plains that allow invaders to come and go as they please, and no forests, jungles, or canyons to hide in, Somalia was a strategic liability for the only pre-modern indigenous state in the region, the empire of Ethiopia, who, with their highlands and better rainfall, set up a powerful state that tussled with Somalia nomads over the Ogaden desert.

That was more or less Somalia’s history up until the coming of the Italians.  Being unable to feed itself, Somalia never advanced beyond tribalism, with warlords fighting over the same turf forever.  Arabic and Islam made their way to the country by way of trade and pious missionaries, but Somalia, being Somalia, quickly morphed both into local forms, since without a central government no single version could be imposed.  (Somali Arabic is foreign enough that, here in Qatar, the pirates of Captain Phillips still required Arabic subtitles).

Dry and generally unpleasant.

Until the day the Italians got interested, but only because there wasn’t much left on the plate

In the Scramble for Africa, Italy got a late start.  Italian nationalists sought great power status, which included colonies, but the best parts of Africa were already grabbed by the French, British, and Belgians.  So Italy took what it could get, included the arid coastline of Somalia, where they slowly set up a colonial state by playing local warlords off one another.  (The other choice piece of real estate Italy grabbed was Libya, where no oil had yet been found and which was a liability even in Roman times).

Somalia was held as a matter of national pride and never paid for itself, but came in handy as a base for the 1936 invasion of far more valuable Ethiopia.  During World War II, the Allies ran a sideshow campaign to liberate Ethiopia and conquer Somalia from the Italians.  After the war, it was held as a UN trust under Italian administration until independence in 1960.

These experiences pretty much set the stage for the collapse that happened in 1991

Italy put a lot of effort turning this otherwise unremarkable piece of real estate into a productive colony.  Because of the harshness of the environment, productivity could only be maintained so long as an outside power was willing to dump money into the country to bribe clans, set up companies and businesses that stood a snowball’s chance in Hell of becoming competitive in the short term, and keep a government running.  Italy was willing to do this up until World War II because Somalia served as a beacon for nationalist pride in addition to being a base to strike at rivals throughout Africa, the Middle East, and the Indian Ocean.

After the war, the UN kept the money flowing as part of its decolonization scheme to bring freedom too early to Africa.  The tribes were happy and the peace was kept.

Up north, in British Somaliland, the situation wasn’t much different, with the British even less interested in running a productive colony.  Somaliland, for Britain, was a base to keep the Suez Canal open between Britain and India.  With Aden in Yemen to the north, it ensured no power could easily blockade the Red Sea and prevent British trade.  Of course, once India gained independence, British interest in both colonies rapidly waned.

When the “Winds of change” rolled through Africa in late 1950s and early 60s, Somalia was one of the least prepared countries for it

Much of Somalia’s peace was due to outsiders running the show, bribing locals, and keeping them busy with various development projects.  Little was invested in a Somali civic society, and, like many African colonies, the early years of the country followed the How-To Guide to Colonization.  Democracy was promptly set up and promptly became a mess.  Clans jostled for power while elites in Mogadishu talked highly of all kinds of things that were irrelevant to a country that couldn’t figure out what to do with its nomads.

Unlike Saudi Arabia, who by 1960 was rolling in oil money, Somalia didn’t have the money to bribe people into compliance.  Democracy died in the 1969 coup, which established a military dictatorship that put many of the country’s demons into a Somali Pandora’s box.  Through brute force and hefty doses of nationalism, Siad Barre ruled the country with as iron of a fist as he could afford.

So he went trolling for someone, anyone, to help him keep that fist up to date

Like many post-colonial societies, Barre saw socialism and communism as the answer to the tribal nightmares that plagued his country.  So he promptly joined the Reds and went to work using their ideology to end tribal identity.  As part of the Cold War, the Soviets and Chinese saw Somalia as a nice little piece their networks of African clients, with Ethiopia being the prize of East Africa.  Like the Italians, it was a lovely place to pressure enemies all around the rim of East Africa.

But in his war on the clans, Siad Barre relied on a newly-minted Somali nationalism that sought to bring all Somalis under a single flag.  When he actually tried to do that in the Ogaden War, the Soviets and Cubans rode to Ethiopia’s rescue and wiped out Somalia’s army.  Siad Barre retreated, tail between his legs, to the lower rungs of power, and shortly thereafter switched sides to the Americans, who were happy to bribe him on the cheap as they sought to turn Somalia into a base to take down Red Ethiopia.

Greater Somalia. Hard to take, harder to hold, for anyone trying to build an empire from dry Somalia.

Such was the glue that held Somalia together

Nobody should have been under the illusion that Somalia had changed.  Nomadism was still popular and the only thing that kept society from returning to its roots was the army, bought and paid for by the United States.  That lasted until the end of the Cold War, when the aid promptly stopped.

It was impressive how fast Somalia fell apart.  Unable to bribe, with nationalism discredited by the failure of Ogaden War, Siad Barre had no leg to stand on.  Being a dictator without an army is a bad place to be; when the time came to start the shooting, he had nobody but his clan on his side.  Ironically, Barre had spent much of his life trying to undo the one thing that ended up saving his life.  Meanwhile, Somalia as a state collapsed and people returned to their pre-modern ways.

The UN mission of 1991-95 never had good odds since few were interested in fixing this raggedy edge of humanity

With no strategic resources and no great power competition jostling for control of the Suez, Somalia had dropped back to its place as worthless.  The UN got involved in the mistaken belief that, with the Cold War over, it was now the time to sort the rest of the world’s problems.  But the UN humanitarian mission that crescendoed in Black Hawk Down died as soon as outside powers realized building a state in Somalia would be hard, long, and very unlikely to pay them back.  The international community abandoned Somalia to its fate by 1995 and the warlords, once kept in check through bribery and outsider-supported institutions, returned.

Every movement since then has attempted to build a state out of the maelstrom

The Al Shabaab movement came out of what was called the Islamic Courts Union, a pan-Islamic movement that tried, much like Siad Barre, to use a foreign ideology to erase tribalism in the country and get the state moving again.  Unlike Barre, the ICU used local religion.  Like the Taliban in Afghanistan, they were harsh but predictable in their meting out of justice, and they gained support often because they stopped the shooting.  2006 was the height of their power; that was the year they held Mogadishu.

Alas, they came of age during a War on Terror, and their overtly Islamic overtones could not be tolerated by either the U.S. or nearby Ethiopia, who also worried about Islamic extremism.  In 2006, the Ethiopians invaded.  Somalia’s geography betrayed it yet again; the invasion was swift and resulted in an Ethiopian occupation of key regions.  Meanwhile, African states, led by rising African power Uganda, decided on another international mission to attempt to set up a government in the shattered country.  Without the West’s cash, they could move only slowly, but because of that slow movement have been more successful in putting pieces of the state back together.

Now, Al Shabaab have split from the ICU and gone insane.  Openly affiliated with al-Qaeda, they seek to bring about the same world destruction that they think will bring about a world caliphate – dominated by them, of course.  As state power slowly expands into their territory, they grow more desperate and radical.  They are outgunned, but remain capable of striking targets that one wouldn’t normally think of as a military target – think a shopping mall or some dudes cheering for their favorite football team.

Note the growing blue. Good on the AU.

So the pattern continues

The central government of Somalia is once more propped up by outsiders, but weaker and poorer outsiders than ever before.  Somalia itself doesn’t have the natural resources necessary to build a state and both the West and its many enemies see no advantage in dumping funds into this particular desert.  Somalia has become an African problem and has tested the African Union to its limits.  So far, they have held firm.

Such poor places need long spaces of peace to turn themselves into something useful.  Somalia has not yet had that.  If the AU can hold the line, in another decade or two, the situation will calm and the hard work of building an economy and effective government can begin.  But history has shown outsiders lose interest in Somalia easily.  Poor people don’t hold much attention for long.

Saudi Arabia Clamps Down on Little Qatar (Or, How Not To Waste Billions Trying To Be Something You’re Not)

What’s a Qatar, and why should you care?  First off, it’s pronounced “Qatr,” with no “-ar” sound, even though that’s how it’s written in English.  If you insist on saying “Qat-AR,” do it in your backwoods.

Anyway, with Qatar having the third largest proven natural gas reserves in the world, this is one tiny country you Need To Know About.  Natural gas is a globally traded commodity and no matter how ignorant you want to be, what happens to Qatar (remember, it’s “Qatr”), matters.  Everybody ’round the world is using natural gas to replace oil, as it burns cleaner and gives more energy for less cost.  If you didn’t know you cared, you do now.

So what’s with all this Saudi Arabian-Qatar shouting and crying in the media lately?  Just a few weeks ago, the Saudi-led bloc made up the UAE, Bahrain, and Saudi itself withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar, cutting diplomatic relations temporarily with the emirate.  Rumors of embargoes and sieges abound. Why?

Fun fact: if the world’s ice caps do melt, Qatar will cease to exist and this whole article will be moot.

The long story short – Qatar’s gotten too big for its britches

The essential geopolitical tale here is that Qatar has, since 1995, been trying to nudge its way to a higher tier within the power structure of the Middle East, thinking that money could somehow buy their way up to a more secure position.  As they did, they were following this key geopolitical rule: all states seek to near #1 as much as possible because that’s where a state is safest.

With that said, all #1 states seek to be #1 for as long as possible because slipping from said position is dangerous and painful.  As Qatar sought to move up, Saudi Arabia has long sought to keep it down.  That should be an easy task.  Saudi Arabia has a native population of 21 million people; Qatar has just about 300,000.  One need only look at GlobalFirepower’s nation comparison to realize Qatar is outgunned and totally screwed if push ever came to shove.

But the long story long is that of the former Emir, Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani

For purposes of simplicity, we’ll call him what he’s officially still called in Qatar – Papa Emir.

Qatar is, in many ways, a dream state to run.  Its small, native population is beyond rich.  With virtually no society prior to the modern era, any leader who does as much as put up a street sign is considered a wild success.  It’s no wonder that Hamad’s father, Khalifa, who ran the country from 1972 until 1995, had plenty of time to blow money in the French Riveria rather than run the government.  Unlike the more complicated story of the nearby United Arab Emirates, Khalifa had no other royal families to balance and so much cash that he delegated much of the state’s governance to his son, Hamad.

Hamad, better educated and worldly, was perhaps not the best choice to leave the keys to the kingdom, because, in 1995, he kicked dad out of power (read that link for the hilarious story of the terribly organized counter-coup) while he was in Switzerland.  Having run the country in his father’s stead for sometime, Hamad simply changed job titles and began his aggressive campaign of turning Qatar into a latter-day Republic of Venice – tiny but influential, small in land but big in stature.

“Gaza welcomes you, Qatari Emir.” Papa Emir visits the Gaza Strip and accomplishes a lot of photographing.

So Papa Emir started to ignore how weak Qatar really was and put himself in the middle of just about everything

Qatar is one of those places that would stop existing in a world without America.  Sandwiched between much bigger Iran and Saudi Arabia, the only reason neither has invaded is because of British protection up until 1971 and American protection from then onward.  The U.S. likes having a divided up Gulf; it can play these powers off against one another and set up bases in one place when one another kicks it out.  Moreover, prior to what just happened in Crimea, supporting these states was part of the larger U.S. principle that Thou Shalt Not Take Over Countries. (And whether that’s still true is a discussion worth having after the dust has settled in Ukraine).

With a large U.S. airbase in Qatar, Papa Emir felt he could take big risks in foreign affairs.  He started by helping propel Al Jazeera to the forefront of Arab media, a rare voice of dissent in a region full of grey, stony-faced state media that kept on reporting “Everything Is Fine” and “Today the Leader Killed Some Bad Guys With His Bare Hands.”  As Crown Prince before his coup, he helped send Qatari forces to fight Iraq in 1991 – resulting in the only Arab-on-Arab battle for that war.

Papa Emir had limited choices for foreign policy.  He could not alienate the Americans, because if they withdrew, life would get very difficult as the Saudis brought their superior power to bear.  But toeing the U.S.-Saudi line was what his father had done; too ambitious for that, Papa Emir decided to be as radical as his situation allowed and started to support the opposition movements growing throughout the region.

This meant the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and anyone else who disliked the status quo but wasn’t al-Qaeda

Papa Emir was in a delicate situation.  He wanted to make his own mark on things, but could not go too far as to upset the Americans, who were key to him staying in power.  In the 2000s, the Muslim Brotherhood was still relatively unknown outside the Arab world and, while not ideal to support, also not a redline that would trigger a U.S. response.

He also sought to turn Doha into a Middle Eastern Geneva, hosting talk after talk and making the rounds as a diplomat trying to sow peace everywhere he went.  Knowing his state could never militarily achieve much, Papa Emir went for headline grabbing diplomatic overtures.  Each success fueled the allure of a nation on the rise and a leader with vision.  It must have felt good.

The Arab Spring became Qatar’s moment in the sun

When the Arab Spring started, Al Jazeera had some of the best reporting on it.  Unlike the rest of the Gulf media outlets, who were all getting orders to Shut The Hell Up, Al Jazeera’s ballsy reporters braved the bullets of Bahrain and the camels of Tahrir as government after government wobbled or fell.  Qatar was there throwing cash and guns at Libya and Syria’s rebels and putting special forces on the ground against Ghaddafi.

2011 was a banner year for Qatar; it looked, briefly, as if Papa Emir’s dreams were coming true and he’d put the country on the right side of history.  When the Brotherhood won Egypt’s presidency, Qatar was there to applaud.

No regrets friendship. Hamad al Thani and Muslim Brotherhood Egyptian President Mohammed Moris back when they both had jobs.

Then the Spring turned to Winter

For Saudi Arabia, all this was worrying.  Riyadh had never been pleased a neighboring, fellow Wahhabist state hadn’t been following its lead, but was downright pissed that Qatar had the gumption to try to undermine its wisdom by supporting groups Saudi had long decided were dangerous.  Saudi Arabia organized a counter-revolution everywhere it suited their interests.  Key to the soul of the Spring was Egypt.

So Papa Emir threw billions at the Muslim Brotherhood’s government in Egypt as the West and the IMF stood by. In 2011, Saudi Arabia staunched the revolutionary bleeding in Oman, Bahrain, and Jordan by doling out cash and sending in troops.  By 2013, they were prepared to play hardball for Egypt.

As Mohammed Morsi proved to be a terrible democrat and his Muslim Brotherhood pissed off both the youth movement that had toppled Hosni Mubarak and the army that had let them get away with it, it was only a matter of time before Riyadh’s point of view prevailed.  No amount of money in the world could have saved Morsi from the counter-coup.  And, not long after, Saudi Arabia and its close Gulf allies were there to pick up the Egyptian army’s bills.

It all went downhill from there

Because of the opaque nature of palace politics in Doha, nobody really knows the full story when the popular and supposedly successful Papa Emir stepped down in June 2013.  He had plenty of incentive to do so; none of his grand foreign policy forays had worked out, and the loss of Egypt to a Saudi-aligned regime was really the death knell of Hamad’s plans for foreign policy.

When Papa Emir had seized power in 1995, the Americans had done nothing for two reasons: one was that nothing, for the U.S., changed, and two was that the coup was bloodless and therefore out of the headlines.  If it could happen to dad, it could happen to Hamad as well.  Whatever the reason, it’s likely Hamad did not intend to step down as early as he did, and it’s safe to assume Saudi Arabia had a role in the transition.

Now the jaws are closing on Qatar and political life has gotten tough

Never mind the nightmare traffic jams, exploding restaurants and petrol stations, rampant boredom, or other complaints that result from a country growing too much, too soon.  Having put Qatar on the world stage, Papa Emir has watched in retirement as neighboring powers, foreign media, and international sports organizations all grow increasingly influential in how the state runs its affairs.

When the political atomic bomb that was the Guardian’s expose of World Cup preparations’ working conditions was published last fall, the focus for the new emir, Hamad’s son Tamim, shifted to trying to save what’s left of Qatar’s reputation overseas and fending off challenges from Saudi Arabia.  But when even FIFA, the World Cup organizer, is suddenly getting a seat at powerful tables normally reserved for royals, you know the game has changed and Qatar is, day by day, less and less a master of its own destiny.

That’s pretty natural, of course, and if Papa Emir had known his geopolitics he’d probably have played the game differently

By supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and anti-royalist movements in general, Hamad put Qatar in the crosshairs of Saudi Arabia.  For Saudi, all they had to do was wait for something to go wrong in Qatar’s plans, and they could then mobilize their formidable resources to really drive in the hurt.  Qatar’s plans could only work if everything, 100% of the time, went their way; Saudi Arabia, bigger and with more resources, could afford to take losses Qatar couldn’t.

Saudi Arabia is in no great position itself, and if it is to survive, the royals believe, it must grow ever more ruthless with its enemies.  The Muslim Brotherhood as a force in the Persian Gulf is nearly broken, but its final redoubt in Doha must be undone to finish the threat once and for all.  This should eliminate the challenge posed by the holier-than-thou Sunni Islamists who Saudi Arabia has come to see as their most dangerous enemies.

With the U.S. and Iran perhaps approaching a modern detente, Saudi Arabia must buy as much security as possible while it still has the power to do so.  Corralling Qatar into its camp removes a thorn that could go septic.  For Saudi Arabia, it’s one of the few things still in their power to do.

Invasion may not be an option, but Saudi Arabia’s army can still seal the borders pretty quick.

But they’ve got limited ways to do it

Saudi Arabia cannot invade Qatar so long as the U.S. base remains, and the U.S. will have incentive to stick around until Iran is no longer seen as a threat to the region’s oil supplies.  That’s years, if not decades, off, even if this nuclear deal goes through.

But Saudi Arabia can manipulate, bribe, and threaten the fractious al-Thanis, some of whom perhaps might harbor the ambition to become emir.  Failing that, it can close the borders; an extreme move, but one that would put Doha’s people on notice that its government is not running the show responsibly.  With so many construction materials needed in the World Cup boom, a blockade could be disastrous both to Hamad’s legacy and to Qatar’s dream of rivaling Dubai for glitz and tourism.

Little countries should know their place

So goes the state media of the United Arab Emirates.  But it’s not wrong; Qatar overplayed its hand when it thought money could buy success.  As the Gulf state with the smallest native population, its natural place, despite its cash reserves, is as the bottom of the Persian Gulf pecking order.  If Emir Tamim can remember that, he might just be able to have a good laugh as Saudi Arabia’s many problems multiply over the next decade.  Little Qatar might still end up being a winner, but only if it plays by the rules.

The Advantages and Limits of Seeing Putin As Hitler

If you’ve done your job right as a world leader, someone has, at one point, compared you to Hitler.  The comparison is super lazy; mostly, opposition groups mean to slander somebody by saying they are the Most Evil Ever, and since nearly all of us agree Hitler was bad throwing his moustache on a photo is a pretty effective way to do it.  Few leaders ever actually behave like Hitler, and to make the Hitler slur even harder to stick, no leader has ever been caught dead with that moustache since the war.  (Well, except this guy).

But every once in a while, the comparison gets more traction because a leader is acting the dick on the world stage and ends up making us think of the last time someone went land grabbing.  With Russia now in de facto control of Crimea, and with Ukraine pulling out, calling Putin a 21st century Hitler feels closer to the mark than just a few years ago.  But first, some basics.

There’s got to be a whole industry of people who make these kind of signs.

History does not repeat itself, except when it does

Okay, okay.  That does sound all zen and shit, but it makes perfect sense.

2014 will not be 1938 because, well, it’s 2014.  That means next year Putin will not follow Hitler’s timeline, find his Poland, and start World War III.  Moreover, it also means that Crimea isn’t even Putin’s Sudentanland.  You’ve got to draw a line between comparisons and understand that standing in a different time and a different place does mean your analogy that Putin = Hitler is nonsense.  Nobody but Hitler is Hitler and drawing a funny picture of a modern day leader with a swatstika on his arm just isn’t accurate.

But you can use history to understand human behavior and establish certain principles.  If the environment makes a man hungry, he will seek to eat.  This is true today, was true in 1938, and will be true in 2114.  But a man in 1938 may have chosen to eat his whole family; that doesn’t mean in 2014 the same circumstances will push a similar man to make the same choice.  Rather, the hungry man of 2014 will, if anything, look at the cannibal of 1938 and use those past decisions to inform his own.  Later on, the hungry man of 2114 will look back at 2014 and see if he too can make a better call.  It doesn’t change the underlying rule that a hungry man will seek to eat.

From history we can pull some simple lessons from the idiosyncratic decisions made in the past to apply to what’s happening today.  From Hitler’s story, we got these:

  1. Humiliated countries will seek to be less humiliated in whatever ways they can
  2. Bad economies make people more willing to take big, dumb risks, including starting wars or giving power to crazy leaders, if they think it’ll improve their situation
  3. Both conditions lead to more aggressive leaders, who will be more likely to gamble and take high-risk decisions
  4. Failure of other powers that are equal or greater in stature to counter those high-risk decisions encourage these aggressive asses to keep on being aggressive
  5. Eventually, their aggression crosses some international red line and an alliance must either destroy them or put them into a more manageable geopolitical position

These are the conditions we must be looking at when we start to say, “Putin is Hitler!”  And this is where history is useful.

Condition #1 is satisfied

Russia in the 1990s was prostrate and in tears over the loss of the Soviet Union.  It stumbled through a badly-led war in Chechnya and lost control of the republic for a few years.  Its economy crumbled and its enemies grew stronger as NATO pushed eastward.  One of its few European allies, Serbia, begged for help against NATO back then but got all of dick from a Russia that could not afford to support it.  That was a low point.

It was made worse during Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003.  Once upon a time Saddam looked to Russia for protection.  In 2003, he got all the support Russia could muster – a UN veto.  The United States ignored it and invaded anyway.  Saddam ended up being dragged from a hole, put on trial, and executed.  To what remained of Russia’s allies, Russian protection was not terribly reassuring.

Reflected in all of this was a collapse in Russian society.  Crime shot up, birth rates dropped like a rock, and people died left and right from alcoholism, violence, and other dumb causes.

Condition #2 too is complete

Russia’s economy was in the shitter in the 1990s.  Boris Yelstein drank his way through government while the ruble crumbled.  As NATO grew in stature, Russian standards of living dropped while a handful of ex-communists got rich as fuck.  It was inevitable that Russians would elect someone who promised to reverse the country’s fortunes.  That man was Vladimir Putin.

“I feel pretty fucking cool. Do you guys feel cool, too? Let’s get our wives pregnant and reverse Russia’s demographic decline.”

And thus you got condition #3

One of Putin’s first acts was to invade Chechnya and put it back in its place.  The war was fought badly and ruthlessly, but the end result was the Russian tricolor back in Grozny and a whole lot of dead civilians.  Russian military pride was salved.  As for ordinary Russians, they could at least take solace knowing the terrorists who in the early 2000s were bombing Moscow with horrific regularity were either on the run or dead.  Putin became the aggressive leader willing to tie his reputation to military success.  This all culminated in 2008 when Georgia attacked the breakaway region of Ossetia.  What should have been a civil war almost immediately turned into an international one as Putin threw down the gauntlet and invaded Georgia.  His army won and the West did nothing.

Which leads us now to condition #4

Putin got away with his assault on Georgia and thus knew that he could avoid direct confrontation with Western powers under certain circumstances.  When he ordered forces into Crimea last month, no doubt the lessons of Georgia were all part of the discussion.  “We did it once; we can do it again,” must have been the consensus.  This time around, however, he’s taking a further step to test the limits of Western patience by actually taking over territory.

And which points us towards condition #5

In the 1930s, Europe was prepared to live with an enlarged Germany.  The red line was the conquest of Poland, which would have put Germany into an unassailable geopolitical position as the most powerful nation in Europe.  What, now, is NATO and America’s red line?  That’s up for debate.  Perhaps the alliance itself doesn’t know.

But the game is quite different from 1938 because, well, the world has nukes

In 1938, a conventional war was a disaster but not necessarily annihilation.  Today, war between NATO and Russia is just that.  Nobody has forgotten Mutually Assured Destruction.  Instead of World War III, the doomsday scenario is Cold War II.

Putin doesn’t want such a thing.  Russia has too many investments and economic stakes in Europe to get cut off in another long fight.  A second Cold War would close its access to just about every market it needs for its energy exports and leave it with only Belarus and Central Asia.  If Cold War I couldn’t have been won by a much stronger, larger, and economically competitive Soviet Union, then the reduced, energy-export-reliant Russian Federation has no chance in fuck of winning Cold War II.  If I can read Forbes, so can Putin.

Moreover, Putin has an authoritarian democracy, but a democracy nonetheless. He’s not Der Fuerher with absolute power; witness Pussy Riot and the anti-war protests last week.   Putin’s United Russia can still technically lose elections, and thus he can’t march Russia into stupid oblivion unchallenged as Hitler once did.

For Putin, disaster is condition #5 coming to fruition.  He’s read his history, too, and so he must find ways to divide both the EU and NATO against itself.  Invading and conquering all of Ukraine will cause his enemies to immediately close ranks, strengthen NATO, and start Cold War II that he’ll eventually lose.  So he’ll stop short of that.  The fact that the Crimean conquest has been bloodless helps here.  Having new killing fields in Europe once more increases the likelihood that an anti-Putin alliance forms and defeats him.

And I’m spent. If Russia tries to match America’s defense bucks, it will lose.

What’s next?  Well, more of condition #4 until condition #5 comes along

Russia has won Crimea and everyone suddenly loves Putin again.  Break this down into your local situation – if you have a friend who wants your candy bar and then throws a fit to get it, your response is key.  If you give them the bar, you encourage them to throw a fit again later on.  Putin’s been rewarded by the one thing that, for him, matters – the Russian public.  What the rest of the world does is irrelevant so long as it doesn’t start Cold War II.  You can bet that Putin will find another crisis in the next few years to exploit or, failing that, he’ll create one.  Meanwhile, he will continue to stand up for Assad to show off how strong he is and push for Russia to remain key in both North Korea and Iran’s nuclear talks.  All of this is about prestige building and will continue until he finally finds the still-unknown red line for NATO.

It is entirely possible that Putin retires from politics an old man and that he never does reach condition #5.  Truly successful leaders have done that time and time again.  Putin doesn’t have to be an idiot, but powerful forces within Russia are propelling him to be so.  George Friedman of Startfor believes that Russia won’t be able to help itself in starting a second Cold War that it eventually loses.

Geopolitics is not destiny, but it points in certain directions.  Gird yourself, kids – the 2010s just fell victim to that old Chinese curse.

Little Bahrain and Its Very Big Problems

Sex! Drugs! ATM bombs!  A long-running violent uprising against the government!  What’s not to love?

When I first visited Bahrain in February 2011, just a few weeks before the mass uprising that would happen later that month, immigration stamped my passport with a big, “BUSINESS FRIENDLY BAHRAIN” before waving me through the mostly empty airport.

When I returned two years later in February 2013, there was no mention or either business or friendliness as they scanned my passport for evidence I might have been a human rights worker or a journalist come to document the government’s thuggery.

While before 2011, Bahrain was known for its liberal mores and as a decaying 80s party spot (or, if from outside the region, not known at all), it’s now synonymous with sectarianism, fighting, Molotov cocktails, and weekends protests.  Bahrain might be a tiny place, but its problems are far bigger than its geography implies.

Welcome to Bahrain: the party island where the party might actually kill you

Think “Persian Gulf” and you think austere Saudi beards or out-of-control, ultra modern Dubai music videos.  Bahrain is somewhere in between and has the distinction of being one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in the Gulf.  As such, it’s got less of the cultural immaturity of other new  Gulf states still finding their footing in the modern age and more of the hang-ups of a country that’s been around to have serious internal grudges.  Underneath Bahrain’s land are two resources that guaranteed it a place at the heart of the Gulf: an oasis and easy-to-grab oil.

Until the 1930s, the Bahraini oasis and its relative isolation from attack made it one of the biggest ports in the region.  One group, the Qarmatians, in their brief but awesome run as rulers of the island, set up a republic, sacked Mecca, and stole Islam’s Black Stone from the Kaaba before they ran out of energy and fell apart.  After that spate of piracy, Bahrain spent most of its history under domination from imperial powers, ranging from Iran to Portugal to finally Britain in the 19th century who were keen to ensure that no Persian Gulf Tortuga established itself there.

All by its lonesome.

To get an idea of how key Bahrain was in the pre-oil era (and to understand just how unimportant the Gulf in general was before oil), it was the residence of Britain’s colonial Political Agent, who, as a sort of latter day Roman proconsul, managed the Gulf on Britain’s behalf.  In other words, while Bahrain was the most important place for the empire in the Gulf, it was so unimportant in the grand scheme of things that Britain assigned just one dude and a small staff to it.

It was under Britain that oil was first found in the 1930s, sparking the oil rush in the Persian Gulf in general.  That oil rush, along with its long history as a settled place, helped Bahrain develop culturally into the closest the Persian Gulf has to a modern nation-state.  Trade unions set up; political parties were established; the British worried about communists taking over the government.  By the time the British withdrew in 1971, Bahrain’s power struggles were already in play.  To ensure things remained complicated, as the British left, the Americans sailed in.

Throw in some sectarianism and you get the drift

As a tiny place, Bahrain’s struggles were always local.  In the 1970s, Bahrain’s central government struggled to tame the many forces that sought different visions for the country.  In the beginning, while the Shi’a/Sunni divide existed as a result of Bahrain being a borderland between Shi’a Iran and Sunni Arabia, it was further subdivided between those who sought a republic, a communist utopia, a democracy, a traditional sheikhdom, and all kinds of other political models.  While in the 1970s the wider Gulf wasn’t much worried about politics as they started to build their societies, in Bahrain power was in flux.

Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution threw another wildcard into the mix, introducing Shi’a political Islam as yet another future for Bahrain.  In 1981, some Shi’a attempted a coup to seize the country.  From then onwards, the leftists, Arab nationalists, republicans and democrats started to choose sides between the two sects.  The USSR’s death in 1991 pretty much ended the Bahrani communist party (along with every other minor communist party worldwide) and the left merged to become part of proto-modernist secular movement seeking some kind of democracy.  With Shi’a political parties pushing for one set of things, modernists and secularists pushing for another, and Sunni traditionalists propping up the government, the result was a series of ploys, plots, riots, and lies as each side jostled for the best power position.

The 1980s weren’t all bad, though.  Lebanon’s civil war sent many banks scurrying to Manama to set up shop as Beirut cannibalized itself.  Much of the capital was built during this time (and shows today) and the country set itself up as a party spot for bored businessmen stuck in Saudi Arabia or other dire Gulf states.  Before Dubai took the model and went nuts, it was Bahrain that you wanted to party in.

But for all the fun of the 1980s, the 1990s were a decade of stagnation, occasional bombings, and intifada.  Opposition groups rightly pointed out that loyalists were getting the plum pickings of oil revenues and jobs and formed a coalition of Islamists, secularists, and democrats who sought to turn Bahrain into a more accountable constitutional monarchy.  The government decided that was a terrible idea and cracked down.  From 1994-2001, Bahrain wobbled.  Hardly anyone outside the region noticed as the roar of the stock market and the killing fields of Bosnia crowded out what news came from Manama.

To put an end to the uprising, the Emir, Hamad al Khalifa, offered a series of compromises that changed the country from an emirate ruled by an emir to a kingdom run by a himself.  This was accompanied by a few concessions that gave power to a handful of opposition figures.  It was bullshit and everyone knew it, but exhausted after seven years of protesting and willing, in typical Gulf style, to give anything a go once, the switch bought several years of relative quiet.  Until Mubarak fled in 2011 and the Bahraini opposition thought to have another run at revolution.

Crowded, hot, and angry.

Being caught between Saudi Arabia’s paranoia, Iran’s ambitions, and a part of the world that’s having trouble growing up is not a nice place to be

For Saudi Arabia, Bahrain is a bell weather for its own Eastern Province where quite a few Shi’a live – and where quite a few Shi’a are not happy with King Abdullah.  Once upon a time Bahrain served as a base that marauded Arabia.  That might have been a thousand years ago, but Bahrain’s geographical location could let it do so yet again if it were to fall out of Saudi Arabia’s orbit.

Meanwhile, Iran officially would love everyone to embrace its Islamic Revolution.  A natural expansion point is Bahrain with its Shi’a majority.  Iran has said again and again that it’s not involved in the simmering rising.  But it’s reasonable to assume, like much governments say, that’s a lie. Iran has every incentive in the world to destabilize Bahrain.

Meanwhile, other Gulf states like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates feel deeply insecure in a region where they historically have been dominated by either powers based out of western Arabia, Iraq or Iran.  With vast natural resource reserves, these states have double downed on alliances with the United States in hopes that that will provide border security while ruthlessly crushing internal dissent.  No one state may wobble; they are all built on the same foundations of sand.

Saudi Arabia brings the fun. The Saudi-Bahrain bridge takes about twenty or so minutes to cross.

And the Bahraini opposition has hardly given up

Bahrain is the only place in the region where the Arab Spring is alive and fighting.  As a small country with a relatively low population, it teeters on a knife’s edge, and only outside support has kept the current king in power.  Demographics matter and not in regards to the majority/minority game.  In a small country with a small population, the actions of a few hardcore activists carry more weight than in bigger places.  When a few hundred protesters seal off a neighborhood in Bahrain, that’s 10% of the country.  When a few thousand decide armed struggle is the way forward, that’s a country-wide civil war.

With Saudi forces in place and UAE police back-up, Bahrain’s outnumbered government can hold the line.  Bahrain is more or less occupied by these forces and the United States naval base.  While U.S. soldiers have nothing to do with the Shi’a uprising, they do force Iran to keep its support to a level that the king and his allies can handle.  The last thing Iran needs is to provoke the U.S. in the delicate on-going nuclear negotiations.

Bahrain’s rebellion smolders.  I was there two weeks back; I saw a neighborhood sealed off by police and army units while an attack helicopter circled, proof enough that things have not gone as quiet as the world media’s silence implies.

But a splintered opposition makes it all the harder to achieve real change

Bahrain, like all the Gulf states, went immediately for the sectarian card as soon as the Arab Spring began.  Any opposition to Gulf regimes was a Shi’a/Iranian plot to destroy Islam and the country.  This wedge has worked for now.  Sunni secularists don’t protest with Shi’a Islamists like they once did.  Fear and hatred has grown between the communities, stoked by a relentless state media that has witch-hunted protesters on Facebook.   Shi’a, meanwhile, have split between the old guard that favors a constitutional monarchy and radical, younger groups that want full democracy, Shi’a theocracy, or something in between.  For the young Shi’a now having grown up with street battles and burning tires, the al Khalifa royal family has no future in their country.  “Death to Hamad” is their battle cry.

Alas, Bahrain will not likely decide what happens to it

Left alone, on a long enough timeline, the al Khalifa family would eventually be pushed into the sea.  But they have big friends.  Powerful geopolitical interests of much bigger states wish to see the status quo continue.

To lose Bahrain could provoke a full-fledged rebellion in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province and threaten world oil markets.  No Gulf state or Western power wants that.  To that end, Saudi Arabia’s military provides the edge needed to keep the demographic destiny of Bahrain from taking place.  The West will look aside; saving Bahrain’s opposition from the king’s guns is not worth the trade off of potential chaos in what would certainly be a flawed democracy.

Iran, meanwhile, can use Bahrain as a pressure point but not as a potential conquest.  Such a thing would be a red line guaranteed to trigger a U.S. counterattack that would destroy the Islamic Republic.  So Iran may support its choice opposition a bit, but not so much they throw the balance off and create uncontrollable chaos.

The king could reform the government and mollify the opposition as he once did.  But alas he does not control his own fate and is a fine demonstration of when leaders don’t really matter. To go too far will upset key allies in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, both of whom hate and fear democracy.  With royal factions in Manama who feel the same way, if King Hamad tries to go all enlightened on everyone’s ass, these anti-democrats will have Saudi military support in any coup they launch.  No matter what kind of man he is, King Hamad will not be allowed to be the first Gulf ruler to introduce democracy.

With underground democrats multiplying and organizing, the absolutists in the region’s royal courts must hold the line firmer than ever before.  Once upon a time, a ruler might have been asked why there was no democracy in his country and reply, “Islam,” and be convincing.  But no more.  The  carrots of heaven and free stuff have worn thin; now they must try the stick of the secret police prisons.

If state power weakens in Saudi Arabia, as it likely will if oil prices continue to flatten, Bahrain is the first raggedy edge that would unravel the entire political fabric of the Persian Gulf.  When that fire is lit, it will burn brightly.  There are better ways than this; nobody seems much interested in them.