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Archive for May, 2019

Great Powers, Endless Wars

“Great nations do not fight endless wars,” said Donald Trump in his State of the Union speech last February, but he was wrong. That’s exactly what they do. Great powers fight MORE wars than anybody else, even if, like the United States today, they have no hostile neighbours.

The original observations were made half a century ago by Quincy Wright, an American political scientist at the University of Chicago. During the entire history of ‘modern’ Europe from 1480 to 1940, he calculated, there have been about 2,600 important battles.

France, a leading military power for the whole period and the greatest power for most of it, participated in 47 percent of those battles – more than a thousand major battles. Russia, Britain and Germany (in the form of Prussia), which were all great European powers by 1700, fought in between 22 and 25 percent of them. And then the rate of participation falls off very steeply.

Spain was a great military power until the mid-1700s, but then dropped out of contention and can offer only a 12 percent attendance record for battles over the whole four-and-a-half centuries. The Netherlands and Sweden, which were great military powers only for brief periods, were present at only 8 and 4 percent of Europe’s battles respectively. Indeed, Sweden has not used its army in war for 190 years now.

By any other yardstick – the amount of time a given European country has spent at war, the number of wars it has taken part in, the proportion of its population that has been killed in wars – the result is the same.

There is a steep and consistent gradient of suffering, in which the most powerful nations fight most often and lose most heavily in lives and wealth. How can this be? Why doesn’t great power deter other countries from fighting you?

Well, it actually does, to some extent. However, great power also enables the country possessing it to acquire ‘interests’ everywhere, and tempts it to use its military power to protect or advance those interests. Only great powers fight ‘wars of choice’.

North Vietnam did not choose to fight the United States. Neither did Cuba, or Grenada, or Libya, or Panama, or Serbia, or Iraq. Nor, for that matter, did Canada (then British North America) in 1812, or Mexico in 1846, or Spain in 1898. Those were all ‘wars of choice’ for the United States, but not for the other side.

This is not to say that they were all wars of aggression. The first Gulf War was not, for example, nor was the Kosovo War. But they were all wars that the United States could have chosen NOT to fight without suffering grave harm to its own legitimate interests. It chose to fight them, often for relatively minor stakes, because it could.

The great-power mania infects everybody. Donald Trump, despite his well-founded conviction that America should bring its troops home from the Middle East, has now vetoed a bipartisan Congressional resolution that tried to force an end to American participation in the war in Yemen.

Never mind the lies that are told about the Houthi rebels who control most of Yemen being simply pawns of Iran, and about Iran being the reason the Middle East is so ‘unstable’.

Why would Trump, like several generations of American ‘statesmen’ before him, fall for the bizarre notion that deciding who rules in Lebanon or Egypt or Yemen is a ‘vital national interest’ of the United States?

The webs of spurious logic that support such nonsense are familiar. ‘Oil is our vital national interest, so Saudi Arabia is our indispensable ally.’ Why? Wouldn’t Arabia want to sell its oil to the US under any imaginable regime? And hasn’t fracking made the US virtually self-sufficient in oil anyway?

‘Since Saudi Arabia is our ally, we must support its war in Yemen, and support it against Iran too.’ Why? You managed to be closely allied with both Israel and Saudi Arabia back in the days when the Saudis still saw Israel as a mortal enemy. You don’t have to back either of them in everything they do.

‘Our credibility is at stake.’ This is the last-resort falsehood that can justify almost any otherwise indefensible military commitment. Don’t let them see you back down, no matter how stupid your position is. They won’t respect you if you bail out.

Or as Trump put it when he was still just a candidate for the Republican nomination: “Our military dominance must be unquestioned, and I mean unquestioned, by anybody and everybody.” Power purely for the sake of power. Any country that remains a great power for long enough eventually becomes insane.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 11. (“By…same”; and “Never…unstable”)

War in the Gulf?

Donald Trump is well known for his desire to cut American military commitments overseas. Indeed, it is one of his most attractive characteristics. But his attention span is short, he plays a lot of golf, and he does not have the knack of choosing good advisers.

His main domestic advisers on the Middle East are Vice-President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and National Security Adviser John Bolton, all hawks on Iran. His closest allies in the region itself are Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, both of whom can wrap him around their little fingers. And they both want the United States to attack Iran for them.

Donald Trump doesn’t want a war with Iran. He has an extra-strength version of the usual Washington obsession with Iran, as irrational and ineradicable as the parallel obsession with Cuba – the United States will forgive and forget anything except humiliation – but he imagines Iran can be bullied and bluffed into submission. His ‘advisers’ are not that naive.

This is not to say that Pence, Pompeo or even Bolton prefers war to any other outcome of the current confrontation. They would rather see the sanctions they have imposed on Iran, which are strangling the economy and causing great hardship, lead to a popular uprising and regime change. Fat chance.

It’s the ever-popular moral mistake. WE would never yield to such blackmail, because our cause is just and our will is strong. THEY will crumble before the same threats because they are weak and they must secretly know they are in the wrong.

But if the Iranians perversely refuse to overthrow their government, then PP&B would accept war as the next-best outcome. Bolton might actually welcome it, and may already be involved in manipulating the intelligence to justify such a war in the same way he did in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. (He called a rather peculiar early-morning meeting at CIA headquarters last week.)

Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, some players in Iran now appear to be pushing back against the American pressure. They are probably hard-liners associated with the not-so-loyal opposition to President Hassan Rouhani’s ‘moderate’ government (moderate in the sense that he doesn’t want nukes and does want trade with the West), and they may just have given the American warhawks something to work with.

If push came to shove, Iran’s one available counter-weight to overwhelming US military strength would be to threaten the tanker traffic that carries 20 percent of the world’s crude oil and LNG out of the Gulf. The ‘choke point’ is the Strait of Hormuz, between Iran’s south coast and the United Arab Emirates, where the navigation channels narrow to three nautical miles wide in each direction.

On Sunday, there was a ‘sabotage attack’ on four merchant ships at anchor off the UAE port of Fujairah, just outside the Strait of Hormuz, where tankers often wait to be refuelled. Two at least were Saudi tankers.

Something holed all four ships at the waterline, and the instant suspicion was that some Iranian group is reminding everybody that Iran can close down the Strait if it is attacked. Or at least that it could do enough damage to drive insurance rates on cargoes transiting the Strait into the stratosphere.

But it might not be an Iranian group at all. It could be an American or Israeli or Saudi intelligence operation seeking to create a pretext for a US attack on Iran (like the ‘Gulf of Tonkin incident’ created a pretext for the US to start bombing North Vietnam in 1964). You have to keep an open mind on these things, unless you believe that intelligence agencies never lie.

At any rate, an actual war against Iran now seems much closer than it did last week. The long-planned transfer of another American aircraft carrier into the Gulf is now being re-framed as an emergency response to a new (but unspecified) Iranian threat. B-52 bombers that could easily reach Iran from their current bases are being ostentatiously flown into the Gulf. Mike Pompeo makes an unscheduled four-hour visit to Iraq.

If the United States does attack, nobody will help Iran, even though every other signatory to the no-nukes treaty that Trump trashed knows (and says) that Iran has complied with its terms. And the US would only bomb Iran, not invade it on the ground, so the only people who got hurt in the initial round would be Iranians.

But then it would spread: mines in the Strait of Hormuz, missile attacks on Israel by Hezbollah, maybe an uprising by the Shia minority in Saudi Arabia. Lots of death and destruction, and no possibility of a happy outcome.

I really don’t think this is what Donald Trump wants. Maybe somebody should tell him.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 11. (“It’s…wrong”; and “But…lie”)

Trade War and More

Donald Trump is playing hard-ball with China over trade, and the worry-warts are fretting that he’s going to start a real trade war by accident. The bigger threat, however, is that he will push first China, and then the whole world, into a deep recession.

It’s been ten years since the last recession (2008-09), and that one was a doozy. Recessions tend to come around once a decade, so one is due about now anyway – and the Chinese economy is so shaky that almost any serious shock could topple it into the pit. The rest of the world would follow.

A week ago, according to both sides, the US-China trade deal was almost done, but then (according to Washington) China started to “renege” on parts of the deal they had earlier agreed to. Washington is probably telling the truth about that: it’s practically standard in the closing stages of any negotiation with the Chinese government.

So Trump responded by imposing heavy new tariffs on Chinese exports, to come into effect in less than a week’s time unless they back off. On Friday, according to his twitter-storm last Sunday, the existing tariff of 10 percent on $200 billion of Chinese exports to the United States will more than double to 25 percent. Another $325 billion of currently untaxed Chinese exports to the US will face 25% customs duties “shortly”.

Decades of experience in the Manhattan real estate market have taught Donald Trump to recognise the smell of fear, and he is right: the Chinese are terrified. But he knows nothing about trade or the Chinese economy, so he doesn’t understand the implications of that. (This is a guy who boasts that the Chinese are having to pay these new tariffs. It is, of course, the American importers who pay.)

The Chinese leaders are terrified because their economy is already trembling on the brink of a major recession. They dodged the last one in 2008 by flooding the economy with cheap credit and setting off an investment boom that kept employment high, especially in construction. But that trick only works once.

All four corners of almost every major intersection in the hundred biggest Chinese cities is now occupied by ‘dark towers’: 40- or 50-storey apartment buildings with few or no occupants. It would take an estimated four years with no new construction whatever to sell off the currently unsold housing stock.

And the building is still going on, albeit at a somewhat slower pace. The vaunted 6% annual growth in the Chinese economy is just creative accounting. At least half of that is actually spending on white elephant projects like the dark towers that create employment, but will never produce an adequate return on investment.

Meanwhile the real Chinese economy (annual growth rate between 2% and 3%) is slowing to a near-stall. Last year, for the first time in a quarter-century, new car sales in China actually fell, by almost 6 percent. A big hit to its exports to the US, its biggest single customer, could tip it over the edge.

China is now such a big player that the rest of the world economy would probably follow it into a recession – and it would be much worse than the usual couple of years of slow or no growth, because none of major players has really recovered from the last recession yet.

The main way governments fight recessions is by cutting the interest rate, but that is still near zero in most big economies from the drastic cuts in interest last time round. Moreover, government debt is much higher than it was a decade ago, and there would be no public support for bailing out the banks with taxpayers’ money again.

“We’re in much worse shape to deal with whatever shocks come along than we were ten years ago,” said Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman in a recent Bloomberg interview. China is in particularly bad shape. Its total debt, even according to the untrustworthy official figures, is nearing three times its GDP, which is when the alarm bells usually start ringing.

So what happens if Trump’s huge tariff hikes do not force an immediate Chinese surrender on whatever issues remain in contention in the trade talks? What if Xi Jinping and his people decide to tough it out rather than lose a lot of face?

What is quite likely to happen is that China slides into a huge recession, dragging the rest of the world behind it. Maybe not as bad as 2008, but very bad, and probably very long.

And something else might happen too. The Chinese version of the ‘social contract’ is that the power and privileges of the post-Communist autocracy that runs the country will be tolerated as long as people’s living standards rise rapidly. But they are already stagnating. How would the Chinese public react if living standards actually begin to fall?

Really badly, in all likelihood. We live in interesting times.

To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12. (“The main…ringing”)

South African Election

All the major contenders in Wednesday’s elections in South Africa held their closing rallies last weekend, and some striking things were said. As usual, Julius ‘Juju’ Malema, the leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters party (EFF), won the prize for the most inflammatory statement.

Maybe he was more emotional than usual because his grandmother passed away last week, but at a huge rally in the Orlando stadium in Soweto on Sunday he actually urged the police to start killing politicians.

“Go and shoot the real criminals,” Malema said, talking about the South African Police (SAP). “If you want to shoot, go to Luthuli House and shoot Ace Magashule. If you want to shoot, go to Parliament and shoot the house which is full of criminals. Police officers, it is like you do not know where the thugs are. Come to me. I have a list.”

Ace Magashule, who has run the province called the Free State for a long time and is now also Secretary-General of the ruling African National Congress party (ANC), is indeed a thug. He is inexplicably wealthy, his critics in the Free State often have sudden and life-changing (or even life-ending) problems, and he probably does deserve to be shot by somebody. But preferably not by a member of the SAP.

As for shooting up parliament, this is a serious breach of political etiquette in most democratic countries. But the EFF crowd loved it, and Malema gets a free ride from the media and the police when he says this sort of thing. Everybody assumes that it’s just the way he talks. And the EFF will at least double its vote in this election – though that would still leave it with only a 14 or 15 percent share of the vote.

The bigger opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, still struggles to shed its old image as the party for well-meaning middle-class white people. The current leader, Mmusi Maimane, concentrated his fire on the ANC, which has been in power since the end of apartheid a quarter-century ago.

“They were once our liberators but today we need to be liberated from them,” Maimane told the crowd. It’s a pretty widespread sentiment, because not nearly enough has changed for the better for black South Africans in the past 25 years.

Like Malema, Maimane’s main target was the corruption that ran wild under the ANC’s last leader (and president of the country for nine years), Jacob Zuma. But the party is not radical enough to attract many people who are looking for major change, and its vote will probably fall (to only 21 percent, according to the last opinion poll) in Wednesday’s election.

Which means that the ANC may be able to win just enough votes (49.5 percent in the last poll) to cling to power with a narrow majority. But it may also have to form a coalition for the first time, probably with one or more of the smaller parties (although Malema has said that the EFF is also willing to join a coalition). And maybe things will really change, and maybe they won’t.

President Cyril Ramaphosa is not corrupt – he doesn’t need to be, since he is already a billionaire – and he does get some credit with the public for finally ousting the execrable Zuma. But he still faces huge resistance to root-and-branch reform within the ANC, many of whose senior members are not ready to walk away from the trough yet.

His own dedication to reform is also in doubt. He promised to make campaign donations to political parties completely transparent, for example, and the law was actually passed – but he delayed signing it long enough to benefit from the famously opaque old rules one last time in this election.

This is billed as a ‘pivotal’ election when South Africa finally turns a corner of some sort, but there is no good reason to believe it. South African economic growth is arthritic, running at below 2 percent while other African countries like Kenya and Ethiopia rack up 6-8 percent annual growth.

True, South Africa is still a much richer country, but it doesn’t feel rich to the working poor and the 27 percent who are unemployed. That’s higher than it was in the last years of the apartheid era, and higher than it was even ten years ago, so it’s little wonder that many people feel something akin to despair.

More kids are in school now, but the quality of public education has fallen even further, and it was never high. Millions of (very modest) new houses have been built, but the housing shortage is just as bad as ever. Public health services are in disrepair, there are frequent power cuts, and even the climate seems to have turned against South Africa (although the water crisis in Cape Town is in remission)
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Given all this, and the widespread perception that corruption is rotting the country, it is remarkable that South Africans still have faith that their votes can change things. But they do: in no national election since Nelson Mandela became president in 1994 has the turnout fallen below 73 percent.

As long as it stays up there, you can’t really say that the situation is hopeless. But sooner or later, optimism has to be rewarded with results.

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2, 7, 11, and 13. (“Maybe…politicians”; “They…years”; “His own…election”; and “true…despair”)