Tag Archives: war

Qatar

One thing my limited experience living abroad taught me is humility about my ability to interpret geopolitical events. The facts themselves are not always accessible through media reports, and even if the facts are clear there are points of view to take into account. I have read media accounts of events I personally experienced, like elections and demonstrations, in both the foreign media and the U.S. media, and often felt that they were not an accurate depiction of what I saw with my own eyes. So taking all that into account, I am somewhat agnostic when trying to interpret events in countries I have never set foot in, where local media is tightly controlled, and where U.S. media and government probably have limited access to accurate local information. All that said, I am interested and trying to make sense of the events surrounding Qatar and Saudi Arabia. For one thing, I have a ticket on Qatar Airways later in the year so it does affect me personally. And for another, any risk of war and especially nuclear war in the Middle East affects everyone on Earth personally. So here goes:

I have always assumed that Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, Bahrain, Oman and Qatar represented a monolithic geopolitical force. And I generally thought the United States, Egypt, Jordan, and Turkey were part of this block for most purposes most of the time. Clearly I was wrong about that. Saudi Arabia’s alliances are contradictory. For one thing, they are publicly an enemy of Israel. But they and Israel have a common ally in the United States and a common enemy in Iran, the Syrian government, elements in Iraq, Hezbollah, and to some extent Russia. Saudi Arabia is closely allied with Pakistan’s military and according to many independent media accounts has bankrolled Pakistan’s nuclear program. During the Cold War the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan worked together to fund and equip the Afghan resistance, elements of which later mutated into the Taliban, Al Qaeda and ISIS, and became public enemy #1 for the United States. Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the rest of the Arab world seem to have a complex relationship with these groups, where governments see them as a threat but portions of the population support them. Then you have the complex relationships between the United States and various groups in Iraq and Syria, wars that seemingly have three or more sides. Then of course there is the complicated Israel-Palestine situation, which fuels a lot of anger in populations throughout the region, and which governments talk a lot about but seem to take very little action.

So the Middle East is a mess and very hard for those of us outside the region to interpret. And none of what I just said comes close to explaining the situation in Qatar. Those of us outside the region should all have a certain humility in understanding that there is a lot we don’t understand. My two cents is that the United States should err on the side of not interfering militarily but also work very hard through the UN to work on arms reductions and especially prevent nuclear proliferation.

The Allure of Battle

This is a new book arguing that winning battles is not enough to win a war. From Amazon:

History has tended to measure war’s winners and losers in terms of its major engagements, battles in which the result was so clear-cut that they could be considered “decisive.” Cannae, Konigsberg, Austerlitz, Midway, Agincourt-all resonate in the literature of war and in our imaginations as tide-turning. But these legendary battles may or may not have determined the final outcome of the wars in which they were fought. Nor has the “genius” of the so-called Great Captains – from Alexander the Great to Frederick the Great and Napoleon – play a major role. Wars are decided in other ways.

Cathal J. Nolan’s The Allure of Battle systematically and engrossingly examines the great battles, tracing what he calls “short-war thinking,” the hope that victory might be swift and wars brief. As he proves persuasively, however, such has almost never been the case. Even the major engagements have mainly contributed to victory or defeat by accelerating the erosion of the other side’s defences. Massive conflicts, the so-called “people’s wars,” beginning with Napoleon and continuing until 1945, have consisted of and been determined by prolonged stalemate and attrition, industrial wars in which the determining factor has been not military but matériel.

Nolan’s masterful book places battles squarely and mercilessly within the context of the wider conflict in which they took place. In the process it help corrects a distorted view of battle’s role in war, replacing popular images of the “battles of annihilation” with somber appreciation of the commitments and human sacrifices made throughout centuries of war particularly among the Great Powers. Accessible, provocative, exhaustive, and illuminating, The Allure of Battle will spark fresh debate about the history and conduct of warfare.

Counter-espionage in China

China killed or imprisoned 18-20 U.S. spies between 2010-2012, according to the New York Times.

The Chinese government systematically dismantled C.I.A. spying operations in the country starting in 2010, killing or imprisoning more than a dozen sources over two years and crippling intelligence gathering there for years afterward…

Still others were put in jail. All told, the Chinese killed or imprisoned 18 to 20 of the C.I.A.’s sources in China, according to two former senior American officials, effectively unraveling a network that had taken years to build.

Assessing the fallout from an exposed spy operation can be difficult, but the episode was considered particularly damaging. The number of American assets lost in China, officials said, rivaled those lost in the Soviet Union and Russia during the betrayals of both Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen, formerly of the C.I.A. and the F.B.I., who divulged intelligence operations to Moscow for years.

The loss of life is sad of course. Beyond that, this reminds me of the book Legacy of Ashes, in which Tim Weiner builds a convincing case that the CIA has never been any good at spying. This sort of thing happened all through the Korean War, Vietnam War, and Cold War. The U.S. just never had much of an idea what its enemies were doing. Sometimes that actually worked to the enemy’s detriment when the U.S. assumed their capabilities and intentions were far worse than they actually were.

It also makes me think of the recent story about Trump giving away top secret information provided by Israeli spies, and possibly putting those spies’ lives at risk, although we will never know. If the U.S. isn’t any good at spying, all it can do is build relationships and make cash payments to countries that are. Israel may be one of our only reliable sources of intelligence in the Middle East, which sheds a little more light on why the U.S. values the relationship so highly.

Hiroshima

Should the U.S. apologize for dropping the bomb on Hiroshima? Certainly the Japanese government of the time committed horrible atrocities, but I still think dropping the bomb was a mistake, and not coming to terms with what we did leads to a callous attitude toward the dangers of our (much larger, much more powerful, in many more hands) nuclear weapons almost 70 years later.

Even if you have never been to the place, you know the place. The mountains that form the background in all the old photos are still backstopping the city. A lot of newer, tall buildings now, but the Ota River delta, where thousands drowned trying to cool their bodies and extinguish their burning flesh, is right there. You’ve seen the pictures. Most of the bridges and streets were rebuild [sic] right where they’d been before the Bomb. Same for most public buildings. You could see where you were in 2017 and where you would have been in 1945 because they are the same place…

Outside of Japan, most people feel the Japanese government has yet to fully acknowledge its aggressiveness in plunging East Asia into war. Indeed, the museum inside the Peace Park has been chastised as focusing almost exclusively on a single day, out of a war that began over a decade earlier and claimed millions of innocent lives before the bomb fell on August 6, 1945. The criticism is particularly sharp, given the rise in militarism occurring under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Now, as in decades past, China watches to see what Japan will do with its armed forces…

There are others with things to atone for, and much to reconcile. The U.S. remains unrepentant. It was only on the 60th anniversary of the bomb that the first American ambassador came to Hiroshima on an August 6th morning to pay respects. There has never been an apology for the first use of a nuclear weapon, and against a civilian target at that. Ask most Americans about the bombing, and it would be surprising not to hear the phrase “they deserved it.” A few elderly survivors with disfiguring burns still suffer today. Yet there is not enough vengeance for some, even seven decades later.

– See more at: http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/165741#sthash.Ii0iS7fh.dpuf

NATO expansion as a failure of empathy

This article in History News Network explains why allowing NATO to expand too much too fast after the fall of the Soviet Union may have been a crucial mistake.

By 2017 much of the former communist-ruled area of Europe—including Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, and Albania—had joined the alliance, as had three former republics of the USSR itself (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania). In 2008 NATO’s Bucharest Declaration indicated that two more former Soviet republics could at some point in the future join the organization whose original purpose was to protect its members against Soviet threats. (“NATO welcomes Ukraine’s and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO.  We agreed today that these countries will become members of NATO.”)

To realize how colossally we have failed to empathize with Russian concerns about such expansion, we should imagine how we would feel if Canada and Mexico and say some states that successfully seceded (imagine Texas, Minnesota, and North Dakota) joined a Russian alliance system. Our empathy deficit has been recognized by many leading political thinkers, including some conservative statesmen.

In her The Limits of Partnership: U.S.-Russian Relations in the Twenty-first Century, Georgetown’s Angela Stent approvingly quotes a German official, who accused the United States of “an empathy deficit disorder” toward Russia. In addition, Henry Kissinger (former secretary of state), Jack Matlock (Reagan appointed ambassador to Russia), and Robert Gates (secretary of defense under both George W. Bush and Obama) all have criticized a lack of U. S. empathy toward Russian concerns about NATO expansion. Typical is Gates’s comment: “Moving so quickly after the collapse of the Soviet Union to incorporate so many of its formerly subjugated states into NATO was a mistake. . . . Trying to bring Georgia and Ukraine into NATO was truly overreaching.” (See here for sources of quotes.)

I think there are some important claims here as we see echos of the same lack of empathy in U.S. statements and positions toward China. We can try to understand their motives, interests, and understanding of their role in the history of the region as we engage with them. This doesn’t mean being weak, it means being smart and strategic and giving peace a chance.

 

sovereignty

Here is a long, long post from Lawfare covering three books about the state of national sovereignty.

In these polarized times, it came as a surprise to me that the authors of three of the most interesting books on international relations of the past year agree on at least one thing. Each argues that the global order is entering a crisis that calls into question the concept of state sovereignty, a foundational principle of the international system as it has existed for nearly four centuries. In the past half-century—as globalization has interwoven the international community more densely and closely than ever, multilateral institutions have proliferated, new doctrines on human rights and counterterrorism have gained credence, and transnational threats have emerged—the definition of sovereignty has come unmoored from its traditions. These diverse authors agree that this will have consequential effects on the world, but diverge over how we reached this point and what should happen next.

The books—Rosa Brooks’ How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything, Richard Haass’ A World in Disarray, and David Kennedy’s A World of Struggle—could be shelved in the subgenre of international relations literature dedicated to predictions of imminent crisis.

Like I said, it’s long and it covers each of the three books. I’m going to skip to a paragraph on climate change at the end.

Even with stable but rights-abusing regimes in power, undergoverned spaces are likely to grow. This will be exacerbated by increased competition for scarce resources as climate change and demographic shifts strain water and food sources; there is a compelling argument that this already contributed to the conditions for the outbreak of the Syrian civil war. Even where conflict does not occur, people will be displaced by climate change. Rising sea levels are already creating “climate refugees” emigrating from the Marshall Islands. Indeed, the flows of refugees and migrants pushed out of their homes by climate change and conflict could pose as great a challenge to sovereignty as Responsibility to Protect and U.S. counterterrorism policy. For all its merits, saving sovereignty as it has been classically understood will not turn back the clock on the diffusion of power that has weakened central governments over the past half-century, it will not end the civil wars that have expanded political vacuums, and it will not halt the creeping effects of climate change.

I probably have a somewhat naive and simplistic view of the world, but a worled baded on simple and easy-to-understand principles might be a more stable world than the one we find ourselves in now. Between the fall of the Berlin wall (1989) and at least the U.S./NATO attack on Yugoslavia (1999), it seemed like we had an international consensus that borders were going to be important and enforced by the international community, led by the UN security council. US- but not UN-led wars in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Libya, and the various drone strikes around the world seem to have seriously eroded that. Now Russia has crossed the borders of Georgia and Ukraine, and China is challenging Japan and other Asian nations in ares they have clearly claimed for awhile. The U.S. can act outraged but it is kind of hard to take the moral high ground.

So in my simple world, the UN Security Council would be reformed so that it represents a true consensus among the great powers, and military action violating borders would be undertaken only to punish an aggressor who has already violated a border, and only when all the great powers (minus any that is the aggressor in question). In my simplistic world, this solves the problem of balance of power because there are no alliances between great powers, only an alliance of all the great powers against whatever one has chosen to be out of line. And even the U.S. with our current economic and military might (which could arguably be at a peak or even on the wane) should think twice before standing up to the entire rest of the world.

Yes, this does leave the question of how to deal with severe human rights violations within borders. I don’t claim to have all the answers on that, but I just think it has been far too easy for great powers to claim they are attacking their neighbors for so-called “humanitarian” reasons. I would question whether military violence has ever caused less human suffering than it avoided. Certainly not in the short term.

nuclear complacency

This article on History News Network asks why there is so little public outcry over nuclear weapons today compared to the 1980s, when the risk is arguably higher and leaders are arguably more reckless. It gives five possible reasons:

One factor is certainly the public’s preoccupation with other important issues, among them climate change, immigration, terrorism, criminal justice, civil liberties, and economic inequality.

Another appears to be a sense of fatalism. Many people believe that Kim and Trump are too irrational to respond to reason and too autocratic to give way to public pressure.

Yet another factor is the belief of Americans and Europeans that their countries are safe from a North Korean attack. Yes, many people will die in a new Korean War, especially one fought with nuclear weapons, but they will be “only” Koreans.

In addition, many people credit the absence of nuclear war since 1945 to nuclear deterrence. Thus, they assume that nuclear-armed nations will not fight a nuclear war among themselves.

Finally―and perhaps most significantly―people are reluctant to think about nuclear war. After all, it means death and destruction at an unbearable level of horror. Therefore, it’s much easier to simply forget about it.

We shouldn’t be so complacent of course. A brief study of military leaders’ willingness to use nuclear weapons in Korea, Cuba, and Vietnam is enough to dispel the idea that mutually assured destruction is enough to keep us safe. We just happened to have strong civilian leaders who stood up to the military in each case, and there is no guarantee we will have that in the future. It is simply a risk we can’t take. As proliferation continues to get worse, the chances of some kind of nuclear detonation at some point get higher and higher. And finally, I feel like I am hearing more lately about tactical nuclear weapons being back on the table as a serious consideration. (No, that thing the U.S. dropped on Afghanistan recently was actually not the “mother of all bombs”.

I suspect the idea that people are distracted by other things and just not thinking enough about nuclear weapons to be worried, is closest to the mark. I don’t find in comforting at all.

February 2016 in Review

3 most frightening stories

3 most hopeful stories

3 most interesting stories

  • The idea of growing human organs inside a pig, or even a viable human-pig hybrid, is getting very closeTiny brains can also be grown on a microchip. Bringing back extinct animals is also getting very close.
  • Russian hackers are cheating slot machines by figuring out the pattern on pseudo-random numbers they generate.
  • From a new book called Homo Deus: “For the first time ever, more people die from eating too much than from eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists and criminals put together. The average American is a thousand times more likely to die from binging at McDonalds than from being blown up by Al Qaeda.”

January 2017 in Review

I just realized I forgot to do a month in review post in January. Well, I had a lot going on in my personal life in January, most notably the arrival of a tiny new human being. Blog posts are not the only thing I forgot – I forgot to pay some important bills and to do some important paperwork at my job too.

3 most frightening stories

  • Cheetahs are in serious trouble.
  • The U.S. government may be “planning to roll back or dilute many of the provisions of Dodd-Frank, particularly those that protect consumers from toxic financial products and those that impose restrictions on banks”.
  • “Between 1946 and 2000, the US and the Soviet Union/Russia have intervened in about one of every nine competitive national-level executive elections.” The “Great Game” is back in Afghanistan.

3 most hopeful stories

3 most interesting stories