Hamad Karzai Apparently Wants To Get Shot In A Public Square

After thirteen long years, the Afghan War – or at least America’s part in it – seems to be coming to a close.  Whatever forces are left will not be in it to change Afghanistan from one of the world’s most undeveloped nations to a shining beacon of democracy and liberty.  It’s been a hard lesson for Americans, but they seem to have learned it.

But don’t take that to mean America has totally failed there.  Two roads are ahead, well traveled by other world conquerors, that let us know just what the odds are of Hamad Karzai getting strung up in Kabul and stabbed a few times.

Afghan geography makes it super hard to control the whole area 

Afghanistan is divided by high mountains, sweltering deserts, frigid wintry landscapes, and, worst of all, lack much in natural resources to make it appealing as a place to set up shop. (Only recently have massive mineral discoveries been found that could change that calculation).  It’s miserable to move from point A to point B in most parts of the country and this has created cultural, linguistic, and religious divisions.  And because there’s not much of value there, Afghanistan has historically been a part of some far-flung empire but never central to it, all of whom have left behind cultures, languages, or whatever else was the flavor of their day.

Afghanistan does ok when it’s left alone, but really churns up the region when upset

Afghanistan is that backwards, uncouth neighbor in your hometown that, if left alone, is mostly harmless.  Interactions with it, however, are neither pleasant nor productive.  Afghanistan is rarely the seat of imperial ambitions (and the one time it was, Kabul served as a staging post rather than as the center of power).

In the 18th century, the Durrani Empire came about as one Afghan warlord managed to overcome the rest of the region.  By that time, Iran and India had formed into their more or less modern borders and powers centered in Tehran and Delhi saw no purpose in attempting to annex or control Afghanistan.  Remember that governments make security decisions based on trade offs – is bombing or attacking this area going to get the locals there to shut the hell up?  The answer with Afghanistan was and is no.

Afghanistan keeps trying to pull itself out of tribalism, but keeps getting shoved back into it

Tribalism is awful.  I just don’t feel like I can say that enough.  But it does provide basic security in places where no other security exists.  From 1747 until 1979, Afghanistan was unified by central governments based out of Kabul.  “Unified” was still a loose term – a variety of tribes and regions did not listen to Kabul when they felt like it.  Over time, Afghan leaders, when left alone, marshaled enough resources to slowly but surely put together the basics of a kingdom.  It was during periods of foreign intervention when the fragile and difficult process of state building was disrupted, setting Afghanistan back to zero.

Much like creating a sandcastle on the beach, you don’t finish grand things when some asshole kids who are bigger than you come by and keep kicking down your work.  Afghanistan is not all that far off; its status as regional victim has kept its sand castles firmly at beginning stages.

Afghanistan was getting so, so close to a modern-nation state – until the Soviets came

Many colors, many problems.

From the 1880s until 1979, Afghanistan was a relatively peaceful, left-alone place, especially after the Anglo-Afghan War of 1919 ended with the British realizing it was better to say “Fuck that” to controlling it.  From 1919 until 1979, the Afghan kings built the great ring road – the first attempt in Afghan history to unify the country by motorway – and set up dams, power plants, modern schools and universities, and other stuff that made the king feel like he was a swell guy.  Because Afghanistan was and is so poor, such projects happened at a snail’s pace and mostly because the Cold War brought cash in from the U.S. or Soviets who were jockeying for influence.  Even then, however, Afghanistan was no Egypt, and certainly not a West Germany, and so the funds, while helpful, didn’t jump-start Afghanistan into the 20th century.

Then the Soviets did what they did best and decided to invade.  The geopolitical reasons were plenty – in 1979, the Soviet Union thought it was winning the Cold War and sought to press home the advantage in the Middle East, grabbing a country that directly threatened America’s ally in Pakistan and could put pressure on Iran, which, in 1979, seemed like it could be up for grabs after its own revolution.  Afghanistan could serve as a staging point for further influence in Pakistan and India.

Alas, it was a terrible idea.  Outside of Kabul and a couple of other urban centers, Afghan society was not ready for state atheism or Marx’s little red book.  The Soviets tried to shoot their way to peace, but without mass colonization by Soviet citizens, were doomed to defeat.  With its shattered geography, Afghan tribes could and did hide from superior Soviet arms while simply grinding the Red Army down.

From then on, modernization slipped into memory

Virtually all of Afghanistan’s development projects were either destroyed or came to a halt during this period.  When the Soviets left in 1989, they had shattered the fragile king’s peace and replaced it with the pre-Durrani empire state of affairs – a tribal mosaic of strict traditions and rules that weren’t going to go quietly into the night.  Their client-president was just a tribal warlord who was better armed than his rivals.  When the Soviet Union collapsed and he ran out of Scud missiles, it wasn’t long before he lost power and was murdered.

The Taliban were one of the many answers to the problem of Afghan disunity.  The Soviets had tried socialism and atheism in an attempt to rapidly wipe out tribal identities.  (“You’re all equally worthless, comrades, whether you speak Pushtu, Farsi, etc.”) The Taliban sought the same thing – a modern-nation state free of tribalism.  So they did something that made a whole lot more sense given Afghanistan’s identity – universal Sunni Islam. (“You’re all equally worthless, Brother Muslims, whether you speak Pushtu, Farsi, etc.”)

The Taliban did not seek a modern national economy or liberal society, but they did seek a modern nation-state that could run Afghanistan as they chose.  They nearly got there.  Their ideology worked in most places, and its harsh but relatively predictable justice system started to even out cultural identities by forcing people into what approached national uniforms.  (See: The How-To of Decolonization)

America’s invasion of 2001 made the same mistakes as the Soviets

Remember when Ellen made all those Taliban jokes?  Not only were Americans busy mocking the Taliban’s ideology, they believed that Afghan society was ripe for modernization, failing to understand that tribal mores don’t just go away.  Few tribes ever will themselves out of existence.  But the U.S. thought, with enough money and guns, they too could change Afghanistan into at least a tolerably decent place.

Failing full-on colonization, that was never going to happen.

Fuck you, World, but leave the money at reception.

Today the posturing for the post-American Afghanistan takes all kinds of seemingly dumb angles

Karzai has said again and again how much he doesn’t like what the U.S. and NATO do in his country – despite the fact that they’re paying him. A lot of this has to do with how Karzai as a leader thinks – less national and more tribal, more honor based and less justice based, more concerned with his own survival and less worried about the survival of his state, the antithesis of a modern leader.  Karzai got into his position because he was the least bad option among many bad options.  Afghanistan’s lethal brand of politics has long since weeded out any potential George Washingtons.

Without U.S. forces in the country, it’s likely Afghanistan will go back to its post-1989 situation, with rival factions controlling rival bits of territories.  So long as the U.S. keeps arming the government in Kabul, it will be able to hold the line for some years, as demonstrated by the post-Soviet government that defeated rebel forces at the battle of Jalalabad in 1989.   But should Karzai upset enough key American leaders, he will fall victim to the cycle of violence that will ensue without an outsider proving balance to the country’s political situation.

It’s not a great idea, but he seems bent on it

His best case scenario might be fleeing the country.  But those left behind can’t be counted on forgiving him.

A Sum-Up Of Why China, Japan, And The U.S. Are All At One Another In The Pacific

The Pacific is a lot more interesting than it’s been in years, thanks to a great game of ship-building, missile-deploying, and defense-procuring all around the Pacific Rim.  More than Europe, the Pacific is in the middle of a geopolitical struggle for security, prosperity, and dominance between three traditional nation-states.  Everybody wants to be happy, but not everyone is so sure their neighbors want the same thing for them.

So let’s begin with why Japan and China are at one another

China and Japan are spitting and hissing at one another over a series of rocky, pointless islands that aren’t worth dying over in and of themselves.  They are, rather, symbols of the geopolitical struggle over the future of East Asia and the Pacific.

Three powers are capable of influencing the destinies of the myriad of countries in the region – Japan, China, and the United States.  All three vitally need to ensure that the Pacific stays open and free for trade (and most importantly, their trade; everyone else can go fuck themselves if it comes down to it).  Control of islets, as pointless as they might be as vacation destinations, give control of large swathes of the ocean and whatever riches lie underneath, as well as the ability to set up anti-ship missile batteries and blockade points if anyone needs to get to a-sinkin’ enemy merchant traffic.  In reality, merely holding these places creates what’s called “sea denial” and makes life more expensive for rivals.  You don’t have to blow up the cargo ship; just looking like you might blow it up is enough to make it waste fuel, time, and money going the long way around your little island.

Literally a Soviet hangover, this new carrier was refitted from a Russian design to give Chinese military planners the feeling that they were cool, too.

With the end of the World War II, the Pacific returned to its quiet namesake because the U.S. Navy dominated the waves.  Until the 1990s, no nation was really capable of keeping pace with an arms race with the U.S. anyway, so by default the Pacific went to the Americans.  Most of the biggest Pacific powers formally or informally joined an American-led Cold War alliance to keep Soviet influence in the Pacific to a minimum; this alliance was so successful that even now the U.S. is the #1 power on these high seas.

Meanwhile, China’s peaceful rise might not be a lie, but it’s not the whole truth, either

China insists again and again that its military build-up is defensive.  To ward off any American president who might build a reputation on bullying China (and that’s hardly impossible), China needs to be a serious threat to the American carrier fleets and bases of the Pacific.  But that’s not the whole story.  China is increasingly resource hungry; it must know it can get access to its trade routes at any time and that nobody can blockade or interfere with its vital links between the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia.  The best way to ensure this is to follow the Americans’ well-worn path – break up potential threats long before they become actual threats.

Thus, for China, putting Japan, Vietnam, South Korea, and the Philippines all on the defensive makes more sense

Each of these states could become part of a coalition that could interrupt or harass Chinese shipping, even temporarily, and make life for China harder.  So what’s quite sensible is to overawe them with superior military power and make any of their leaders think twice before slapping Chinese-flagged ships with a transit tax or a blockade.  China doesn’t need to rebuild Japan’s empire to be secure; it just needs to keep the waves open and the oil, lumber, and other resources it naturally lacks pouring in.

Heavily trafficked East Asia is pretty bright.

And Japan’s pretty much stuck in the same situation, albeit more drastic

If China is hungry for outside resources, Japan is starving.  Its island-nation doesn’t have much that can sustain a modern economy except some quite clever people and some excellent airports, roads, and trains.  Everything else has got to be imported.  So if China is the guy buying a handgun for fear he’ll be mugged on the way to work, Japan is the isolated mountain man who feels the need for an assault rifle and a bunker full of beans.  Japan’s paranoid inclinations have been assuaged by the Americans for the past 60 years, but the last time somebody threatened Japan’s ability to import what it needs, the results weren’t pretty.

Meanwhile, America’s having a global identity disorder as it tries to find the Newest and Best way to dominate the Earth

Remember that America does not want to slip from #1 – ever.  In the past 13 years, the U.S. has learned the hard way that staying numero uno has little to do with setting the Middle East right.  In fact, if anything, America has learned that so long as the Persian Gulf states remain stable, what happens elsewhere in the region is pretty much irrelevant to American plans.  And so America is trying to decide what’s the real geopolitical threat out there – and right now, the answer people keep half-giving is China.

“Half-giving” because China and America have a fucked up relationship based mostly on a mutual love of money.  With China owning so much U.S. debt, and Americans buying up so many poisonous or poorly-made Chinese products to save on the monthly grocery run, both sides need one another to deliver a standard of living their citizens expect and want.

But China is a big country with the potential power base to build quite the fleet.  Once upon a time, China was sending navies to Africa and the Indian Ocean, but because the emperors got bored the expeditions were given up.  China could become the leading power in East Asia again.  For China’s leaders, that’s the best possible outcome.  Being at the top is the safest place to be and ensures the Communist Party’s hacks get to die in their beds instead of in some post-regime show trial.

Such a situation hardly favors the U.S., of course

Because a China that dominates the Asian Rim then decides its rules. To weaken in the Pacific will affect American power everywhere, and so it can’t be allowed.  Thus the Pacific Pivot.

One way to keep China off balance and to save the U.S. some much-needed cash is to encourage the build-up of other national navies that alone can’t challenge the U.S. but combined can prevent China from feeling it can do whatever it wants.  Key to that is Japan, which could put together a deadly fleet that might be tough enough to pause Chinese ambitions.  But South Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam could each also play smaller roles and, best of all, balance one another, saving the U.S. the necessity of having to smack any of them down later on.

Welcome to the Asian arms race, kids!  Let’s hope none of them are ever used

Thus Japan is now moving to do just that.  Over the next decade or so, the Pacific nations will get better and bigger weapons in preparation for a war none of them really want to fight.  But because none of them can trust one another not to behave badly, they will continue the build-up until one side prevails.

It probably won’t involve gigantic samurai robots or killer trans-dimensional lizards.  But strange things do happen as nations evolve.

The Levantine Mess (Or, What It Looks Like From Jordan These Days)

I just got done with a week’s holiday in Jordan, the only country in the region not to have suffered catastrophic civil war, conquest, or some other kind of military disaster in recent years.  I saw a variety of Free Syrian Army coffee mugs (with little slogans etched into them with a nail, like “Damascus is the key to victory”), a few Jordanian army tanks, and a lovely series of quiet tourist traps that were both off season and suffering from the reputation blow the Arab Spring’s been for the region.

As I drove from Wadi Rum in the south to Jerash in the north, I saw signs that pointed me to the al-Qaeda-held towns in Iraq and the burning ruins of Syria and realized they were just a few hours drive away.  Imagine you’re in, say, New York, and Boston is a no-go zone, or you’re in London and it’s no longer safe to visit Wales.  The distances were tiny; it was weird to think about this oasis of security in a region not known for that.

So how did Jordan get so lucky?  A few lucky (and clever) kings helped, but demography and geography helped shaped their choices.

The Levant was doomed prior to World War I to being a borderland or a minor region in greater empires, with all the cultural and demographic hangups that entailed

Perched on the edge of desert and sea on the way to greater glory.

Borderlands are regions where trade, culture, religion, and politics mix people up into a big ol’ bag of humanity and pour them out in quite the mess.  They are places where the stability of a capital city, with its relatively stifling conformity, breaks down, and where people can break cultural, social, or even official rules and get away with it, because power is concentrated elsewhere or too busy attempting to simply do the basic task of holding the frontier to notice.

In the Levant, despite being part of truly awesome powers like Rome, the early Caliphs, and the Ottoman Turks, the role of being a borderland created a myriad of cultures that split into subcultures while allowing other identities that were wiped out elsewhere to thrive.  It’s no accident that the Levant holds secretive sects like the Alawites and Druze, both of whom are not to be found elsewhere in the Middle East.

Borderlands, by their nature, have to be controlled by someone willing to crack skulls and build schools with the cash and troops to keep on doing that routinely

The U.S.-Mexico borderlands are currently controlled by two strong, centralized powers with capable militaries and functioning local governments.  They won’t be slipping into chaos anytime soon.  But if central power on either side were to weaken and state institutions were no longer able to perform, you’d get just that.  The cartel violence that plagues the area is symptomatic of a weaker-than-it-should-be Mexican state.

The Levant was given independence just after World War II as colonial systems worldwide decayed.  Last to be colonized, they were among the first to be dumped onto the world stage by French and British governments eager to rid themselves of their trouble.  With so many cultures, tribes, and religions in play as a legacy of their status as a borderland, nobody was really ready for independence.

Lebanon didn’t even get to the 1960s before America was called in to settle scores and stabilize the government.  As for Syria, coup after coup resulted in a marriage and then a divorce with Egypt, followed by some nasty defeats from Israel.  Israel, incidentally, has a higher degree of stability in its pre-1967 borders because it has a largely homogeneous society free of any borderland hangover.

And little Jordan was, early on, no exception

Jordan was a British reward to the Hashemite family for a job well done in World War I.  Thanks to its dry climate, Amman and its environs, the heart of the Jordanian state today, were always part of some territory connected to Jerusalem or Damascus, since the former was closer to the sea and the latter was a better situated regional power center.  Most people were Bedouin or simple farmers and the population was low.  Jordan was protected by British power from French encroachment from Syria or Saudi invasions from the south until just after World War II, when Britain withdrew from Palestine rather suddenly and the state of Israel was born.

Hoping to buy security with more territory and people, Abdullah I grabbed what’s now known as the West Bank in all that chaos.  For it, somebody shot him.  His successors were left to tangle with the problem of an Arab Palestinian population that outnumbered the original inhabitants of Jordan.  It all came to a head in 1970 with Black September, when the Jordanian army smashed up Palestinian political opposition once and for all, expelling Yasser Arafat and the PLO to Lebanon, which a few years later sank into chaos.

That brings us to about today

How has Jordan escaped the crazy that surrounds it?  Much of that has to do with its relatively unattractive landscape.  The vast majority of Jordan is desert and the Jordan River itself is shrinking.  With water at a premium, the country has a hard time developing into a more advanced economy.  No leader of Jordan has ever been deluded into thinking they have a potential great power under their feet, unlike Iraq’s Saddam or Egypt’s Abdel Nasser.  This has made Jordanian leaders more risk adverse and less likely to accidentally take on challenges they end up losing catastrophically.  To really nail that fact in, Jordan’s kings have lost two wars (’48 and ’67) against Israel.

Black September started off with a bang as Palestinian guerrillas blew up empty airliners in front of TV crews.

Moreover, in a perverted sort of way, Israel has served to absorb the expansionist tendencies of other nearby states, accidentally shielding Jordan from threats from Syria or Egypt, traditionally places where powers could and have expanded into what is now Jordan.  Neither Damascus nor Cairo, both stronger power centers, have been able to turn their attention away from balancing themselves against the Israeli threat.

During Black September, Syria sent forces to Jordan to support the PLO, but was hamstrung by its defeat just a year prior at Israel’s hands, as well as by the necessity of holding the line in the Golan Heights.   Syria couldn’t afford to throw too many tanks or troops into a fight it was not certain of winning, lest it open itself up to another defeat by Israel.  So Jordan was given a freer hand to crush the Palestinian challenge to the throne and prevent Syria from gaining the kind of influence it enjoyed in Lebanon prior to 2005’s withdrawal.

So far, the King Abdullah II has managed to stave off the Arab Spring

This is a lot of credit to his astute political leadership, giving way when necessary and cracking a few heads when called for.  Jordanians are well aware of the costs of instability.  Permanent Palestinian refugee camps within the kingdom remind the people of the costs of defeat, while the flood of Syrian and Iraqi refugees is an object lesson in what happens when a society stops getting along.  There’s no a huge movement for revolution these days because revolution has so rarely worked out in the Arab world.

As I learned when two Bedouin had a go at me in Wadi Rum over Obama’s inaction in Syria, Jordanians are more interested in what’s happening next door rather than what’s happening inside their borders.  If Iraq and Syria could provide solid examples of functioning democracy, Jordanians themselves might be more willing to try it.  But Jordan is too well acquainted with what happens when one gambles with a country’s future.

Iran’s Coming In From the Cold (And won’t be as scary as many think)

The United Nations this weekend asked Iran to have a seat.  Holy suicide bombing scrotums!  This cannot be allowed!  The usual suspects raised a protest.

The times they are a-changin’

From 1945-79, Iran was the linchpin of America’s Anti-Soviet strategy.  The Iranian Revolution was a disaster from America’s standpoint (and also the standpoint of anyone in Iran who gave two shits about political freedom), but at least they didn’t go Red and threaten the whole Middle East.  Still, they were assholes.

Vintage goodies, but less relevant than ever.

Many neo-cons would have loved a dose of regime change, but the swamps that Iraq and Afghanistan became prevented such a thing.  After Baghdad fell in 2003 and the insurgency took hold, few wanted a third war in the Middle East.  So the strategy changed.

For a long time, America wanted some kind of counter-revolution.  2009 was almost that, but the Iranians have been revolution-proofing their state for a long time and managed to head the damned thing off.  With a counter-revolution out, there was only one option – find a way to accept Iran.  The Islamists were going nowhere anytime soon and there was nothing America could or would do about it.

And thus the ingredients for a grand bargain were born

The crippling sanctions weren’t designed for regime change, really.  They were designed to bring the Iranians to the table and get them to talk on some limited terms.  That seems to have worked.  With the Islamic Republic reeling, the ayotollahs had little choice but to come to terms.  For the first time in their history, their oil jugular was being strangled – and they could only hold on for so long.

Thus they allowed Hassan Rouhani take power last June.  That was a clear signal that it was time to change the way things were done.

There’s room for one more, though it won’t fit comfortably

Saudi Arabia despises all of this because they’re about to lose Most Favored Nation status in the region.  During the Cold War, the U.S. held the Middle Eastern line with Israel, Iran, and Turkey – Saudi Arabia was too far back to be of much importance against the Soviet threat.  After 1979, the line shifted southwards to the Persian Gulf, making Saudi Arabia suddenly valuable in a way it hadn’t been before.  When the Soviets vanished, because Iran was a new, third-tier threat rather than a communist one, that line stayed stable.

But now they’re talking about erasing that line entirely.  Except the world’s not so clean as capitalist vs. communist anymore.

Sunni vs. Shi’a is the new power game

Saudi Arabia’s government sees itself as the protector of the true version of Islam.  So does Iran’s.  America could give a fuck about that; it just wants everyone to shut up and deliver the oil.  Alas, like two squabbling children trying to grab the same car seat, this relatively pointless argument is very much America’s problem.

Hence the fit over the invitation 

Saudi Arabia wants to see Iran excluded until it buckles and breaks and opens the doors for its Islamic scholars to flood the country and convert the people.  That’s the ideal scenario from Riyadh’s point of view.  But America, a secular nation-state, doesn’t see things the same way.  Alas for Saudi Arabia, they won’t be listened to – though they’ll certainly complain.

Best case scenario – the end of sectarianism in the Middle East

Though that’s unlikely.  Both sides have double downed on their religious identity like never before.  If America wants stability, the next great diplomatic struggle will be figuring out how to get these two to sit down and shut up and learn to tolerate one another.  That should keep them occupied until the 2050s.


Iraq Slides Back to Its Natural State

Disclaimer:  Iraq’s natural state is not a violent, psychopathic Madmax-esque land of broken dreams and slaughtered sects.

It’s natural state is actually a divided one.

First, let’s take a run-down of Iraqi history and geography to understand how it got to where it is today.

Ancient Iraq was not called Iraq; also, it was independent only as long as it was the most advanced state in the region

You can debate why Mesopotamia ended up with civilization before everyone else ’till the cows come home (or the al-Qaeda militiamen come to seize your cows), but the fact is, the only time in human history that a state based out of Iraq was safe was when there pretty much was no other state nearby.  As soon as nearby groups coalesced into governments and armies, the riverlands were easy targets – and targets they became.  The last native dynasty of Iraq were the Babylonians back in a time when the Romans were still raping Sabines.

Iraq’s more natural place in the world.

Iraq’s open to attack from just about every direction, making native rule impossible until the modern age

Like Syria next door, Iraq’s easy to attack and hard to defend, but unlike Syria, it’s also wedged between two regions that have historically given rise to rather powerful empires – Turkey and Iran.  It’s no accident that Iraq was a football between the Romans out of Syria and Turkey and the Parthians out of Iran.  While the Muslim conquests temporarily unified the region and turned Iraq into a center of government, the early Shi’a/Sunni wars took place in Iraq precisely because it is a natural frontier region.

Like many states, it was brought into being as a result of Europeans playing with the map

After the region fell to the Allies in World War I, Britain and France drew up the modern Middle East to serve their own interests.  Britain created Iraq and gave it to a loyal tribe, who theoretically would remember that Britain had been so generous.  To remind the Iraqis of how generous they’d been, Britain invaded during World War II.

After World War II, borders worldwide were frozen by superpower rivalry.  Iraq was a football again, but this time between the Soviets and Americans, who jockeyed for influence.  Meanwhile, Iraqis themselves, after having violently murdered the monarch and his whole family just to really drive the point home, proved unable to govern their own country well for most of the 60s, as various Arab parties overthrew one another.  This wasn’t all that off from what was happening in neighboring Syria, which also lacked the trained elites necessary to create a nation-state.  And just like Syria, stability was bought only by giving power to a totalitarian regime.

Saddam: The man of many bad plans

Saddam Hussein and the Ba’athists brought political stability but at great cost.  Iraq as a state was a weakened thing, riven with differences caused by its role as a borderland.  Few Iraqis could agree on what being an Iraqi meant – with Sunni Kurds in the north not wanting to be Arabs, Sunni Arabs in the west not wanting to be Shi’a, and Shi’a Arabs in the south not wanting to be Sunni, it was hard for any state to do much besides just keep a lid on tension.  Saddam had an opportunity in the 1970s to build up education and briefly made Iraq a decent place to live.

But Saddam himself was an unstable leader with delusions of grandeur.  Seeing an opportunity in the chaos of Iran’s revolution, and realizing that such a revolution could easily spread to his Shi’a regions, Saddam invaded Iran and got stuck in a long, hard war.  He would have lost had the Iranians not alienated both the Soviets and Americans, who generously provided Saddam with kit to keep his army together.

Plus, he invaded Kuwait, challenged the most powerful nation on Earth, and lost predictably.  Later, he got strung up by his enemies.

That brings us to today

One of the Americans’ greatest problems was keeping the Iraqi state together.  Al-Qaeda, whose mad goals involve making everyone as crazy as them through generous helpings of murder, saw a weak point in the state and targeted Shi’a mosques and communities, helping to spark the civil war of 2006-07.  America’s surge managed to turn the boil down to a simmer, but the tensions remained, and grudges were held.

Iraqis are doomed to this pattern of violence for the near future

The three communities – Kurdish, Sunni, and Shi’a – are both tribal and religiously based.  Few pan-Iraqi parties exist, and so power becomes a zero-sum game.  The Kurds have been left largely alone because they are the third force that could tip the balance between Sunni and Shi’a down south.  Meanwhile, the Shi’a, increasingly under Iranian influence, are making a play for permanent dominance of the state, fearing a return to Sunni domination should they weaken their resolve.

It’s a recipe for further killing.  The Iraqi state has not recovered from the 2003 invasion and the Iraqi military is still a shell of its 1980s self.  Large chunks of territory can and will fall away when certain groups realize they can operate on their own without retaliation.

Syria next door is hardly helping

Not particularly interested in good governance.

It once was radicals went through Syria to fight the Americans in Iraq.  For a while, it was the other way around.  Now, al-Qaeda and those like it are hoping to grab the desert regions of western Iraq and eastern Syria to turn them into bases for further expansion.  These are, not coincidentally, the least valuable regions of both countries, and have therefore been less contested than the oil fields or river valleys.  Both the Syrians and Iraqis are stuck with al-Qaeda for a long time now.  Even if Iraq pushes al-Qaeda back out of Fallujah, they will not succeed in eradicating them from the region, as they’ll just slip into the chaos in Syria, regroup, and try again.

The obvious solution is to break up both states

Some policy makers used to favor breaking Iraq into three states to just wash their hands of the whole affair.  That’s still not a bad idea.  Iraq and Syria are both informally balkanizing, and will continue to do so over time as their differences become more and more violently irreconcilable.

Iraq’s split is relatively clean, with a Sunni west, a Kurdish north, and a Shi’a south, with Baghdad probably going to the Shi’a.  Syria, on the other hand, is messier, but basically an Alawite state would take up the coast and some of the hinterland while the Kurds grab up their Kurdish villages.  Sunnis would govern the rest, including Damascus, with Christians possibly fleeing to join the Alawites.

But the international community doesn’t want that

The Americans won’t want to see a broken Iraq – they fear that the Shi’a state would become a far-too-effective puppet of Iran.  The Russians don’t want to see a broken Syria, having doubled down on their support for what’s left of the Syrian state.  With those key players holding the reins, de facto partition becomes impossible.  Events on the ground may move past them, but history shows that such things take a long, bloody time.

Woe to Iraq.  Its best days are behind it.

What the hell happened in South Sudan? (You can blame tribalism)

Off I go on holiday and suddenly there’s a civil war in South Sudan.  What, exactly, went down?  Well, there are specifics – and they are better detailed elsewhere – and there are the generalities, which carry the grand geopolitical sweep of things.  Like many of Africa’s conflicts, South Sudan suffers the effects of rapid and incomplete decolonization (the effects of which are spoken of here), and, like many of Africa’s conflicts, this civil war is just another tribal war gone national.

South Sudan wasn’t well-prepared for governing itself, though it wanted to believe it was

Sudan’s rump state to the north is already horribly run, governed by varying degrees of nationalist, Islamist, and genocidal regimes since Britain cut it loose in 1956.  The problem for Khartoum was a country split between too many culture groups.  Along the Nile River, Sudan’s long been tied up with Egypt – and when Egypt went Arab, so too did much of Sudan.

With South Sudan all kinds of crazy colors, what did anyone expect would happen?

This part of Sudan was comparatively easy to run – at least the locals agreed they were Arabs and Muslims, and wanted to stay that way. Alas, the southern reaches were not Arabized, not Muslim, and not happy to be ruled by either. Thus began a series of civil wars.  Worse than that, the southern portions have never been part of a centralized state before, and therefore haven’t undergone that process of cultural standardization and myth building that underpins modern nations.  It’s pretty much every tribe for itself.

Here’s another great indictment of tribalism as a form of organizing society

Tribalism is fantastic under very specific circumstances.  Otherwise, it’s garbage.  Why then does it survive to this day?  Human beings naturally tribalize – we do this to a harmless extent at work, at school, and in wider society.  We link ourselves to people of similar social outlook, interest, or, sometimes but increasingly rarely in modern states, to kinship.  We do this as a survival method, but in a functioning state, we don’t take it much further having a few beers with the bros.

That’s because in a modern state, if we bros decide to tear up the bar and take it over, invariably the police will arrive and put us all in prison.  If we resist, they will beat us and, if we fight hard enough, kill us.  Moreover, while we may be greatly heroic and kill many of them, they will be replaceable cogs in a system capable of calling in more and more powerful reinforcements.  This is why, in Grand Theft Auto, you can never take over the entire city through mass violence even with the cheat codes on.

But in a state that’s lacking a police force with enough recruits, or an army with reliable commanders, such things break down.  What happened in South Sudan only happened because people on both sides realized they could fight and beat state institutions.

Not that anyone  has an interest in chaos

Few powers, even Sudan to the north, want to see South Sudan fail.  Uganda has gone so far as to send troops alongside UN ones to prop up the central government.  With nearby Central African Republic also going to pieces, the feeling is that there’s a corridor of insanity running from South Sudan to the Democratic Republic of the Congo down south.  Along that axis lies a potential threat of instability.  From Ethiopia to Kenya to the United Nations and China, most would prefer to see South Sudan put itself back together and get on with the necessary business of supplying oil.

But this is proof positive of how little power outsiders have in Africa

Since the end of decolonization, the only thing that outsiders have done well is prop up badly run governments and ensure that borders stay the same.  Other than that, from development aid to intervening in civil wars, outsiders have been unable to shape the continent’s destiny.  African states still have to face down the ugliness within their tribal societies, something that starts with simple things, like reliable roads, electricity, and water supplies, and ends with really complicated things, like modern education systems, corruption-proof governing systems, and peaceful transfers of power.  South Sudan hasn’t yet sorted that first set; there’s the simple problem of logistically building such systems after nearly sixty years of on and off civil war.

Unlikely to be the last round of this, alas

Until South Sudan breaks tribalism, it will suffer the corroding effects of it.  Sooner or later some other scumbag will take a stab at the presidency through violence, knowing his tribe will back him.  It doesn’t have to be that way, of course.  South Sudan might establish an uneasy peace and gradually wear away at the tribal blocs, turning them into a single community.  But that day’s a long way off.

2013 in Review (Or, A Cliche but Highly Traditional Way to Ring in A New Year)

I’ll be off on holiday for the next few weeks, so there’ll be no updates until January 6, 2014.  So why not end this year with a review of that which happened, that which didn’t happen, and that which might come next, in a final geopolitical round-up of the year.

It was shit to be Egyptian

Egypt was all kinds of messed up at the start and remains all kinds of messed up at the end.  Overthrown president Mohammed Morsi managed to piss off just about everyone but his Muslim Brotherhood, who, by spring, organized into the Tamarod movement, led at first by the same liberal youth as before but quickly growing to encompass just about everyone but the MB.  The military hears their cries as they storm the streets in June and surrounds the presidential palace, arresting the president and starting a rather horrible purge.

The pendulum didn’t 100% swing back to pre-revolutionary days, but it sure felt like it at times.  Egypt will have another rough one in 2014.  Its economic crisis is easing as the military restores stability.  But the fact that the military still feels the need to have a referendum on its new constitution is proof enough that some bits of the original Arab Spring live of.

It felt a bit better to be Iranian

Meanwhile, Iran has a presidential election, of sorts, and decided it was time to buckle down and negotiate.  With sanctions hammering the regime and rumors of war starting to look less and less like rumors, the Iranians finally came to the negotiating table and surprised just about everyone with a deal in November.  While this story is not over, the long term implications are clear – Iran might just have a future in the Pax Americana after all.

Syria somehow got even worse

Syria continued its bloodbath, highlighted by Hezbollah’s successful May incursion that turned the tide and bolstered Assad’s fledgling armed forces.  But it was Assad’s ghastly chemical attack in August that brought the conflict to the international stage, and where the geopolitics really kicked in.  Putin rushed the rescue; Syria will soon have no more chemical arms.  But the war will grind on until the sides can agree on a future.  That may come this year; the bloodshed is reaching a threshold where society might just finally force their warriors to put aside their weapons.

The Gulf Arabs quaked and worried

In the Persian Gulf, Saudi Arabia felt ever so betrayed by America’s changing priorities – and, worse, America entered the game as an oil giant in the summer.  How long ’till people stop caring about Saudi Arabia?  Perhaps not as long as once originally thought.

Meanwhile, in the background, al-Qaeda lurked ineffectively.

Ukraine got back to the headlines

Ukraine was a big one this year, much to everyone’s surprise.  The soft power of the European Union looks like it’ll win out, despite Russia’s desperate attempts to the contrary.  People power still counts, and will count more and more in the future.  Russia as a traditional nation-state will become less effective, despite Putin’s little wins in Syria and elsewhere.  The fundamentals just are against it.

North Korea was not to be forgotten

With more missile tests, threats, and general insanity, North Korea ended the year with a very public purge, making everyone really worry about what’s going on inside the Hermit Kingdom.  Jokes aside, North Korea’s fucking dangerous if its leader is actually crazy.  Nobody will likely know the full story until they’re picking up regime secrets from the ruins of their bunkers.

China got rather uppity

With its new Air Defense Zone, China clearly was hoping to up its power and to push American influence a bit back after Obama’s Asian Pivot was announced.  But that didn’t quite work out.  This was the year people started to notice the dragon was looking rather tired.  Sure, they stage managed a leadership transition pretty well, but their economy is slowing bit by bit, and how long can it be until a crisis erupts?

America stayed so #1 that it hardly noticed the outside world

Completely obsessed with internal politics, America and Americans hardly bothered with much internationally this year, except continuing to grind on in Afghanistan and blow up terrorists in random places.  It was Edward Snowden who made Americans look at a map this year, as he jumped from China to Russia and spilled the beans on the NSA’s secret surveillance.  Syria briefly made Americans wake up to the fact that Middle East is still a really fucked up place at times, but the government shutdown followed by the Obamacare website scandal really made domestics far more important than international stuff.  Obama, in a groping kind of way, seemed to realize China could not be allowed to get away with its power plays, but likely his term will end focused inside the country rather than outside it.

Pretty nasty year, overall

With the first usage of chemical weapons since 1988, Iran’s nuclear deal notwithstanding, this year was a mixed bag at best.  But for Egyptians pining for democracy, Americans pining for stability, or Syrians pining for a world minus a psychopathic government, it wasn’t a great 2013.

What next?  God knows

Anybody who pretends to know the future is a fool.  But you can guess away!

Happy 2014 everyone!  We should be able to avoid nuclear war this holiday season again.


Saudi Arabia’s Power Play (Or, the Childishness of Kings)

I’ve let my contempt for Saudi Arabia’s current governing system be known – several times.  This is because it’s a personality-centric system driven by personalities that most of you wouldn’t want to invite to dinner.  In such systems, psychology matters when understanding certain events.  Let’s take a walk through, shall we, and understand Saudi state psychology.

Mixing politics and religion is never a good idea

The primary role of religion is to answer the unanswerable; the primary role of political leadership is to organize societies into groups that can both fend off other organized societies and concurrently enrich a certain elite.  That second part there is important – political systems tilt towards earthly rewards for those at the top.  Heavy is the head that wears the crown, may as well have some virgins thrown in to alleviate, you know?  So goes the thinking.

Glaring for a reason.

Politics inherently perverts religion because the goals are entirely different.  One cannot strive for all the answers to the universe on the same day as one plots against a neighbor.  Those are very different conversations.  Because politics focuses on the earthly and immediate, any system that mixes the two pollutes religion with politics, rather than the other way around.  If a system becomes too religious, in invariably collapses because it takes the eye off the main balls – defending society from other societies and enriching the top elites.

Of course, Saudi Arabia has mixed the two to pure madness

And has created a powerful state psychology hinged on the belief that any culture or religion outside its own is hellfire waiting to happen.  Saudi security forces most likely believe all the tripe they’ve been fed and see anyone but themselves as infidels and impure.  This makes pretty much everyone on Earth the enemy.  Only Saudi royals rise above the fray and embrace infidels to save their kingdom.  Several of them – Prince Bandar especially – are quite aware the existence of the kingdom is contingent on outside support.

This creates a mentality of zero-sum thinking

Saudi state psychology is grappling rather frantically to find footing in the wake of the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal.  No, that deal’s not finished, and much may fuck up before the day is out, but the precedent – that the two supposedly intractable foes can agree on principles – is a massive threat to Saudi Arabia.  Anything that strengthens a heretical power – Shi’a Iran – concurrently weakens Saudi Arabia.  For those who believe the world should be more like them, there’s no reason for co-existence except when absolutely necessary.

Saudi Arabia would like to see the end of Shi’a Islam – not forcefully necessarily, but through mass conversions as millions wake up and realize Saudi Arabia and not Iran has always had the true version of Islam.  The Iranian state is in the way of that; it stands to reason that its collapse, reduction or weakening would benefit Saudi Arabia’s religious designs.

Classy ads from classy people.

Conversely, Saudi Arabia sees Iran engaged in the same game – one for the souls of all Muslims.  There can’t be a formal peace that says, you’re good, I’m good, we all good.  Even if war is eradicated, the struggle for the soul of Islam will carry on through debate, schooling, and religious foundations.  Whoever has the most money will stand a good chance of carrying the day.

And so Saudi Arabia seeks to shore up its power base by encouraging its neighbors to stop existing

In 2011, I asked my Emirati students if they liked King Abullah’s idea of a unified Gulf Co-Operation Council, which would in essence just be a “Greater Saudi Arabia.”  Some of them said they were cool with it, since they were all good Muslims and what could go wrong?  Others wanted to keep their country.  Regardless, the proposal was met with tepid, “Oh, you,” responses from most Gulf capitals, rather than outright “no.”

Now the idea has come up again.  Saudi Arabia has greater incentive than ever to absorb the Gulf states, which would, at a stroke, give it about 2/3rds of the world’s oil reserves.  Even with America coming back into the game as an oil producer, such control would force the world to make sure Saudi Arabia stays stable and protected.  Virtually any incentive to see the royals go would evaporate.  It’s a helluva insurance policy.

As if anyone wants to go quietly into the night

Oman responded with a polite, but firm, fuck off.  The Sultan probably knows his branch of Islam, Ibadism, would get short shrift in this new mega-state.  With a state history much longer than Riyadh’s, Omanis also have a sense of self that wouldn’t be so easily swallowed.

The minority vote.

As for the other states, all of them fledgling in identity (save Bahrain), the idea most likely chills their leaders to the bone.  To say no is dangerous; Saudi Arabia will only see that as a threat.  But to say yes is more so; it means the end of their indigenous development programmes, some of which are decidedly un-Islamic.  The careful nation-building that’s been under construction for over 40 years will come crashing down; moreover, if Saudi Arabia does spiral into chaos, it means these states will be sucked down into it.

It speaks volumes about Saudi Arabia’s state psychology

The rather remarkable arrogance of the move is classic Saudi royal family.  “We’re big, we’re rich, and nobody should threaten that,” is the thinking.  Co-existence with Iran is quite possible if Saudi Arabia adopts an identity based on plurality and tolerance.  But there’s approximately zero signs of that happening right now.  If anything, they’re battening down the hatches and getting even more intolerant, seeing everything as a conspiracy to undo their shaky power.

It’s also self-defeating 

Even if Saudi Arabia gets away with this power grab, it will only be a success if the United States allows it.  The U.S. could easily neuter it in its early stages just by expressing disapproval.

But say Saudi Arabia manages despite that. All they’ve acquired is a set of states with low populations and high expectations and economies based on massive capital inflows.  They don’t gain strategic depth – Iran could invade the Eastern Province just as easily as Dubai.  If anything, it means expensive semi-occupations, where Saudi Arabia has to keep on bribing their new subjects at levels even greater than their former leaders to ensure their loyalty.  And if one of them decides to quit this federation, how long ’til a contagion of revolution, secession, and state disintegration takes root?

So why bother?

Because Saudi Arabian state psychology won’t allow its leaders to sit still while Iran’s suddenly brought in from the cold.  Any idea must be entertained, even if it’s a bad one.  Alas, it’s the equivalent of a hungry kid grabbing up all the treats and gobbling them down early to prevent anyone else from eating them.  Hardly an ideal scenario for running a state in the 21st century.

5 Leaders Who Really Mattered

Human systems often are too large, and too complicated, for single leaders to have undue influence.  We often like to think that human history would have changed had we added a good leader here or shot up a bad leader there.  But killing Hitler would not have changed the security challenge faced by a rising Germany.  It certainly would not have solved Europe’s deep-seated anti-Semitism, nor stopped the Soviets from wanting to take Eastern Europe.  Europe’s political and social systems were used by him, but few of the things he attempted – unification of Europe under a single continental power, racial purity through violence, military terrorism as the means – were novel, and would have probably been tried by someone else.

But while leaders rarely create trajectories, they can nudge them.  Leaders often have hinge decisions in their hands – the choice whether the inevitable change they face will be violent or peaceful, fast or slow, efficient or inefficient.  They cannot stop the choice from coming; geopolitics ensures that human systems evolve towards certain outcomes based on geography, demography, and culture.  But they can shape how that choice is made.

For our purposes, I’ve chosen leaders who made logical geopolitical choices – who went with the flow instead of trying to change the river.  Hitler and Stalin won’t make it, as a result, because both tried, through terror and sheer will, to overcome the geopolitical shortcomings of their states.  At the end, neither of them succeeded (though Stalin got to die thinking he did).

Here are five leaders who truly mattered.

Deng Xiopang

Deng inherited Mao’s massive nightmare of a totalitarianism.  Totalitarian systems are expensive, unwieldy, and, despite their outward appearance, unstable.  One crack in the fear wall can cause the whole thing to come crashing down.  Deng understood this well enough and knew that Chinese communism would not survive long if they didn’t shore up the system to be more in line with human nature.  His capitalist reforms acknowledged a geopolitical reality – communism could not deliver the economic growth needed to sustain such a large and populated nation-state.

Time Magazine is right every once in a while.

But it was in 1989, at Tienanmen, that Deng was given a choice that was truly a hinge one.  Instead of negotiating or allowing the protests to spread, he ordered his tanks to crush the student protests and thereby reinforce the fear that’s held together Chinese systems since ancient days.  In 1989, remember, the Soviets were failing to make use of their own military forces to shoot their way to stability, and by the end of the year had lost Eastern Europe.  Deng played the old emperor’s card – he made his subjects bow at the end of a bayonet and thereby delayed the inherent instability that comes with a nation-state as large and diverse as China.

It’s likely he just bought time; China tends to go through phases of madness.  But imagine the world today if Chinese communism had gone under just like the Soviet version.

Richard Nixon

Wait, what the fuck?  Yes, even crooks can make a difference.  Nixon’s got two crowning achievements for making this list – ending the nonsensical Vietnam War and using China against the USSR.

The Vietnam War was unwinnable minus outright colonization and population replacement.  Lyndon Johnson thought, like Hitler and Stalin before him, that he could just bomb his way to victory by killing enough of the enemy.  But short of following the Roman tactic of creating wildernesses and calling them peace, this strategy was never going to work.  Moreover, an empty Vietnam would have just ended up being swallowed up by China, and nobody was about to suggest Americans move to Vietnam to replace the slaughtered Vietnamese.

Nixon understood this; North Vietnam could not be broken traditionally, thanks to lavish support from China and the Soviets.  He also understood Vietnam didn’t have the power to spread communism much beyond Indo-China – and hence rendered the Domino Theory moot.  In fact, after the war, Vietnam got stuck in its own Vietnam by invading Cambodia, fighting a ten year war against fellow Marxist guerrillas (and never quite succeeding).  So he ended the war; Vietnam and Laos went red, but the Cold War was won anyway because Southeast Asia was never to be decisive.

So there’s a Nixon Goes to China musical.

Nixon also knew that geopolitics trumps ideology.  The Chinese and Soviets were supposed to be communist bedfellows, but were actually nation-states built on the ruins of imperial systems.  Mao and Stalin got along well enough, but once Stalin exited stage left, Mao grew increasingly worried that Moscow wanted him under its domination, as well.  Rivalry was inevitable when both believed they were destined to rule Asia.  Nixon exploited this to the hilt and forced the Soviets to suddenly worry about their eastern flank.  Not bad for a man who had to resign the presidency.

Harold Macmillan

Following Anthony Eden’s disastrous Suez adventure, Britain’s Conservative Party understood that a natural limit had been reached on imperial power.  Under Prime Minister Macmillan, who spoke of “the winds of change” sweeping through Africa, Britain rapidly – and sometimes irresponsibly –  decolonized virtually all of its African empire.  Africa had been a boon to industrializing Britain, providing cheap natural resources at a time the country really needed them.

Understood it was better to stay home.

But by the 1950s and 60s, Britain no longer needed monopolies on these resources like before.  It’s economy was quite different and the world was coming under American economic domination that valued open borders and freer trade.  Holding onto African possessions was largely a matter of protecting its colonial communities and prestige rather than providing easy growth back home.  In fact, continued occupation was increasingly becoming a drag on growth and the treasury.

Macmillan’s government chose to go with the flow rather than fight the inevitable.  Britain might have held onto certain colonies much longer that it did, but saved British lives and cash by pulling out in the early 60s instead of fighting colonial wars like Portugal and France.

Sheikh Zayed Al Nahyan

Who in the hell was this?  Certainly he was smarter than the average tribal despot.  The ruler of Abu Dhabi from the 1960s until his death in 2004, this Persian Gulf sheikh understood early on how weak his position was and acted accordingly.  First, he used his oil cash to bribe the six other ruling families of Trucial States to join a federation that he called the United Arab Emirates.  Rather than attempting conquest like his Omani and Saudi neighbors, he co-opted local elites through bribery and incentives that led to a peaceful union (the only successful Arab federation in history).

Sheikh Zayed spent a lot of his life being pleased with himself.

But that was hardly enough to secure his position.  His borders were drawn up to please his bigger and more violent Saudi neighbors, cutting off direct access to Qatar, while he himself stayed close to the British government.  Moreover, he used his oil wealth to purchase influence and weapons from the UK and United States, inviting both to set up military bases in his country that ensured that neither Saudi nor Iran would attempt land grabs.  He then spread his oil revenues all over the place, building farms and cities from sandy deserts, costs and environment be damned.

The result was a cult of genuine personality where people were not terrorized into worshiping him.  After all, who doesn’t love a dude who throws money out of Landcruisers while driving through the desert?

Nelson Mandela

Pretty sweet moves there, bro.

Pretty sweet moves there, bro.

Oh, sure.  Had to throw that in there, huh?  But Mandela deserves massive credit for not going down the road of revenge so many other African leaders danced down. To be fair, Mandela had to learn the hard way that violence was no way to preserve South Africa’s stability and state power.  But once he did, he understood that cooperation based on nationality rather than race or language was the surest way to ensure South Africa’s position as the most powerful state in Africa.

It was a legacy of apartheid that the best trained segments of South African society were still behind their gated white communities.  But rather than go all Mugabe on their asses, Mandela kept them running the essential parts of the state and economy and avoided the civil wars, economic collapses, and massive inflation of his neighbors.  That was a choice that saved South Africa from decades of misery and perhaps even disintegration.  Not bad for a man who spent a good chunk of his life in prison.

Any others? Who do you think made the right choices geopolitically?  Who saw the reality and went with it rather than absurdly scream, “Iraq will be a democracy” over and over again?  Let me know in the comments!

China’s New Air Defense Zone (And How It All Fits Into a Pattern)

To sum up the events of the past few days: China declared an air defense zone that overlaps Japan’s as well as South Korea’s.  The United States flew a B-52 through it, just to show that it could.  The Chinese were muted in response, but analysts all over are worried about escalation.  Someone dumb could shoot down someone else and perhaps cause something bigger.

We should be worried, but not too worried.  The Senaku Islands (or Diaoyo to the Chinese) are not worth fighting a big war with multiple powers.  But they can be used by insecure leaders to try to shore up their shrinking power bases.  Unfortunately, China’s leaders are looking down that barrel right now.

China is in more trouble than it looks.  It’s economic miracle is coming to a close, and China is not a middle-class country yet that can absorb the social shock of dashed dreams.  This is a recipe for disaster.

Not everything is rosy for Chinese security

During the Cold War, China was the weaker younger brother of the Soviet Union.  No more.  Russia is now sliding into oblivion while China has gone from strength to strength.  Chinese leaders feel they now have the power to challenge the United States’ on issues of vital interest.  Unfortunately, the security problems of the Far East haven’t been sorted the way most of Europe’s have.  China’s maritime borders aren’t completely decided yet.  China’s still got several real grievances with Japan following World War II (the Japanese really haven’t helped themselves much here).

Not all one big happy family.

With China’s rising military might, it can now afford to challenge other powers in the region to alter conditions more favorable to it.  China is a modern nation-state with one major flaw – it’s borders are based upon an imperial state.  There are a variety of nations within it that, in one form or another, agitate for self-determination.  China now has more power than ever before and can afford to quell these nationalist revolts.  But they must also ensure outsiders don’t interfere.  Keeping foreigners’ eyes on relatively useless things – like the new defense zone – means they can continue to colonize their rebellious provinces with nary a peep.

Insecure autocracies are fucking scary

If prediction turns to fact and China’s economic miracle does end, everyone should be worried.  Chinese leaders won’t be able to control the economy like they used to, but their citizens – including their base – will not be forgiving.  Having lost that power, Chinese leaders will be tempted to do what all weakened governments do – distract.  Most governments do this by picking fights abroad and looking tough.  Unfortunately, all of China’s neighbors are rightly worried about Chinese ambitions, and many of them are U.S. allies under its nuclear umbrella.  So China’s options are limited unless their leadership starts to lose control to unrest.  The more unrest within China, the greater the potential China does choose a war as a way to save the regime.

But thankfully history is on our side

The only time nuclear powers ever directly fought one another was in 1969 on the Soviet-Chinese border.  But both sides refused to escalate – one, because the territory was relatively worthless and two, because they understood a nuclear exchange was out of the question.  Only a rogue general could think that attacking neighbors with nuclear weapons was a good idea, and such circumstances could only occur in a full-blown anarchic civil war, which isn’t in the cards right now.  So China won’t go to war to defend this air defense zone and certainly will avoid losing a naval war against the United States.

A new balance of power is emerging

Not worth dying over. (Source: CNN)

The U.S. sees China as a rising threat that must be contained until it can be co-opted.  Key to this strategy are the militaries of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan.  All are advanced economies; one of them was once a formidable adversary.  In the next decade, they will shoulder a greater and greater burden against China, with the U.S. in support mode.  The U.S. will need to continue to thumb its nose at Chinese pretensions from time to time, understanding that such moves won’t lead to an open war, if it wants to preserve its power in the Pacific.  Its allies, after all, will need reassurance regularly that the U.S. will stick around for any fight.

Not a new Cold War, but certainly a challenge

China may slowly reform into a democratic regime (though signs of that are nearly impossible to see), and if it did, the U.S. would no longer see it as a threat to its interests.  (Democratic governments, after all, have all the incentive in the world to avoid going to war against other democracies).  But that can’t be counted on and can’t be planned for.  Instead, the U.S. will have to maintain its naval superiority against China and boost the regional navies of its allies.  It will mean the end of the post-war balance that’s kept mighty Japan on the defensive.

When great states challenge the top dog…

…things get messy and the potential for violence is high.  Nuclear weapons should keep the U.S. and China from ever fighting one another over something this simple.  But history shows that great powers that seek dominance don’t always understand the consequences of their actions.  Let’s hope that China’s learned the lesson of history.

  • China Sends Jets Into Air Defense Zone After Flights by Japan, S. Korea (
  • China dials back warning on its new air-defense zone (