It's said that if history doesn't repeat itself, it often rhymes. A decade of multiple-theater war has helped our nation grow somewhat numb to the complexities of international relations currently threatening to explode into World War III. We'd do best to examine a confluence of seemingly unrelated incidents and factors which all seem to point toward eventual combat operations in the Middle East, while thinking critically about the domestic consequences of such an event.
In a week that even those in the news industry found dizzying in terms of keeping information straight, tensions ramped up in the most volatile region of the world, while other events were set into motion which are certain to make conflict more likely. Let's take a look at several things worth keeping an eye on.
Protests in North Africa and the Middle East
There was tremendous confusion over events in Egypt, Libya and Yemen last week, as protests and attacks broke out on September 11, supposedly in response to anger over an online video that purported to promote an upcoming spoof movie ridiculing Islam. It was initially reported that the attack in Benghazi, which killed four Americans including Ambassador Chris Stevens, was the result of protests over The Innocence of Muslims gone awry. However, it later became clear that this account was incorrect, and that the events were part of a planned attack unrelated to protests elsewhere.
Investigation into the so-called movie that had everyone up in arms began to turn up red flags. The 15-minute promo film, if you could call it that, seemed to be some sort of flimsily-assembled hoax. The person who had originally been reported as having produced it, Sam Bacile, appears to be a fake identity and it's since been reported that the creator has been identified as Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, a Coptic Christian immigrant from Egypt living in California. Coptic Christians and Muslims have tense relations in Egypt, but many skeptics think that the film might be a smokescreen to ratchet up tensions in the region for other purposes. Let's get back to that.
Syria and Iran:
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Meet the Press Sunday that he has no interest in impacting the upcoming United States Presidential election, but his sharp comments alleging potentially dangerous inaction by the U.S. in terms of checking Iran's perceived nuclear ambitions have certainly been leveraged on the campaign trail. Keep in mind that stability in Syria (or a lack thereof) is a major factor, as Iran and Syria are political and military allies with defense pacts in place. Interestingly, former Mossad Chief Meir Dagan was on 60 Minutes later Sunday evening, arguing against Netanyahu's hawkish stance and even saying that the idea of attacking Iran was the "stupidest idea I've ever heard."
When Republicans failed to support the “Grand Bargain” forged by the president and House Speaker John Boehner, as well as the ensuing Cut, Cap and Balance Act and finally the McConnell-Reid plan, a last-hour deal including automatic, across-the-board cuts was struck that resulted in the Budget Control Act, providing for a series of mandatory cuts across the board. Because of the way the government spends money, this is a much more complicated provision than it sounds. Nonetheless, it became clear that the largest portion of the budget – the military – would be hardest hit, estimated at half a trillion in cuts to the Pentagon portion alone – there is a lot of other “defense” spending hidden elsewhere in the budget, which would also take a hit. There is a catch, however. “Defense” spending cuts would be exempt if we … you guessed it, went to war.
To understand what's happening in the Middle East, you have to think beyond “Arab Spring.” The Western World (the United States and its allies) have long favored a strategy of cultivating and maintaining tremendous influence in North Africa and the Middle East through a combination of money and military persuasion. Our ability to close the gold window – ending convertibility of the dollar to gold – yet remain the world's reserve currency, was chiefly supported by the fact that oil was bought and sold on the world market in dollars – which was in turn supported by our relationship with the Saudi royal family. In essence, we'll protect your oil fields, and you accept only dollars for your oil, which you reinvest in American debt and securities.
It cannot be overstated how important this is to American interests. In fact, I would argue that it is the most important thing you have to understand about our actions in the region, regardless of the fact that you may have never heard it mentioned. The fact that oil is bought and sold in dollars is the lifeblood of the modern American economy and the primary reason that we have been able to survive decades of trade imbalances, deficit spending and expansion of our money supply without facing the harsh economic consequences that any other nation in the world would have. It guarantees our position as the world's reserve currency, allowing us the exclusive privilege of satisfying our debts by simply printing more money, backed by nothing but our "full faith and credit."
Our close relationship with Saudi Arabia, who emerged as the major influence of OPEC nations, has always been key. It should therefore be no surprise that we attacked Afghanistan after September 11, despite the fact that 19 of the 21 hijackers were Saudi, or that prominent Saudis, including bin Laden family members, were whisked away to safety in the days following the attacks. It should also be easy to understand why the most frightening thing Saddam Hussein ever did to the United States was to start making noise about doing private deals with China and Russia to sell oil in Euros, attacking the U.S. currency, while creating the possibility that other nations in the region would follow suit. Saudi Arabia's status in the region has slipped in recent years and they've also cozied up to China, who has almost no oil of their own yet will inevitably surpass the U.S. as world's largest consumer.
Like Iraq, Iran has long been considered a loose cannon in our OPEC relationship, as has Lybia and Venezuela. Historically, the United States foreign policy has been to aid destabilization in such countries and then help to facilitate regime change to a ruling faction that will protect and promote our corporate and monetary interests in exchange for military aid and a perpetual flow of petrodollars. In Iraq, we had planned for this to be the Iraqi National Congress and Ahmed Chalabi, which we'd set into motion after Gulf War I, hoping to build a plug-and-play puppet government that would be warm to the idea of more than a dozen permanent U.S. Armed Forces bases on Iraqi soil. That didn't work out. In the 2005 elections, Chalabi and his INC failed to win a single seat in the newly formed parliament, much to the chagrin of the State Department.
To think that we are not actively trying to influence other events throughout the region – or have not had an active role in urging, aiding or otherwise facilitating the unrest that has rippled through it beginning with protests in Tunisia in December 2010 – would seem naive. The late Chalmers Johnson, a noted scholar of hegemony and imperialism, has studiously detailed our long history of such machinations in his acclaimed trilogy of books Blowback, The Sorrows of Empire and Nemesis. Despite once being a CIA consultant and self-avowed cold warrior, Johnson came to believe American imperialism was expanding beyond its capacity, saying in one of his final interviews before he passed in 2010, “A nation can be one or the other, a democracy or an imperialist, but it can’t be both. If it sticks to imperialism, it will, like the old Roman Republic on which so much of our system was modeled ... lose its democracy to a domestic dictatorship.”
What does it all mean?
There are clearly competing schools of thought on how America should proceed in such uncertain times. The world economic system continues to teeter on the brink and most experts agree that one major ripple through the system could cause a global financial collapse. Considering that the global derivative market has grown to nearly $700 trillion (with a t), that wouldn't take much. Worldwide, there is simply too much debt attached to too few assets that can never appreciate enough to deleverage world markets to a sustainable level. Worse yet, all of the things that have caused our current crisis look to remain in place.
Oil supplies continue to be tight, while rampant speculation compounds rising prices, further challenging economic recovery everywhere. Some oil producing nations, like Venezuela, take the position that oil production should be tamed to keep prices high, especially considering that oil is a limited, finite resource and most of them have not diversified their economy in any sort of way that would allow them to survive financially without perpetual revenues. Others, like Saudi Arabia, have taken the position that stable supplies facilitate global growth that drives demand, while diminishing incentives to develop energy alternatives. In the words of former Saudi Oil Minister Sheikh Yamani, "The stone age didn't end because we ran out of stones." In fact, Saudi Arabia announced this week that they'd up production through the rest of the year.
Countries like the United States, China and a growing number of developing countries suddenly competing for a limited energy supply have to have a plan to ensure that supply meets demand. In the United States, one school of thought is to invest heavily in developing alternatives, as well as in new, cleaner technologies that can help ramp up the production and efficiency of fossil fuels as we transition toward energy independence. Another is to continue our efforts to exercise militarily-based influence over the world's foremost oil producing region (more than 70 percent of proven reserves are in OPEC nations), while putting environmental concerns on hold in order to exploit as much of our domestic supply as possible to buffer against the threat of global supply being interrupted by conflict.
Understand this, there is nothing more threatening to our beleaguered world economy than an oil crisis. War with Iran would undoubtedly send the price of crude through the roof, which could very easily be the catalyst for that global financial crisis we talked about. Our recent history of failure when it comes to investing in military operations aimed at controlling oil supplies in Iraq and natural gas from Afghanistan are not very encouraging either. Yet there are still many people in the upper rings of American political influence who continue to hail that neocon philosophy.
In the ramp up to war in Iraq, there were many signs that all was not as it appeared. We now know (as many warned then) that the American people were knowingly given false information on numerous occasions in order to drum up support for deposing that dangerous dictator who was suddenly busy amassing an enormous battery of deadly nuclear and biological weapons that he could use to attack the U.S., despite the fact that our Secretary of State had testified only months earlier that economic sanctions had worked so well that he was unlikely able to wage even conventional war (troops, tanks and missiles) against neighboring countries.
From the sinking of the RMS Lusitansia to the faked Gulf of Tonkin attack, there are a litany of examples where the most powerful forces within the United States government have deliberately altered perception in order to cull American support for going to war, when the more direct reasons might not be so easily accepted. There are a greater number of examples where more subtle means of propaganda have been used to create an environment more conducive to combat. Like Chalmers Johnson warned, empires that have to pretend to be democracies can get complicated. Nonetheless, Americans would be well-served to pay close attention, while exercising a high degree of skepticism when it comes to calls for aggressive foreign policy, because what happens next is likely to define the global playing field for a very long time to come.
Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here to visit his column archive. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook. Sign up for a free email subscription and get The Bradenton Times' Thursday Weekly Recap and Sunday Edition delivered to your email box each week at no cost.