Sunday, January 23, 2011

Tunisia, the Middle East and Democracy. Can the genie be set free?

  The outbreak of 'democracy' in Tunisia last week was pretty interesting.

  Interesting because civil unrest is rare in Arab countries due to the risk of getting gunned down by cops/soldiers with AKs. Civil unrest leading to the ouster of a dictator is pretty much unheard of. There are all kinds of sleazy dictators in the Arab world who like to rake in cash while strangling human rights and civil liberties. The West is pretty cool with this so long as it doesn't interfere with business. Let's face it, it's cheaper to buy off an Arab dictator these days than deal with a bunch of pesky democratically elected officials who might actually press for a fair deal for the wider population. Shit like that might cost a fortune.

  Egyptian dictator Mubarak harvests a billion a year from the US on the idea that he can keep a lid on that subversive notion known as 'democracy'. Because if democracy were to break out in Egypt right now you'd end up with some batshit insane elected majority running shit and maybe doubling fees to float a container ship through Suez. Democracy is risky business in your vassal states. Just look what happened the last time there was a popular outbreak of majority opinion in the Middle East. That was in 1979 when the Iranians booted out the Shah and his US backers, replacing him with a top down theocracy of right wing crazy religious nuts who think stoning to death is a fitting punishment for married women who fuck the pizza delivery guy.


   A nice idea, makes the masses feel all warm and fuzzy, but never something you want to toy with.

   That's why this type of popular revolt and outbreak of "democracy" in Tunisia has been met with a kind of tepid approval in the West. The US invaded Iraq and air dropped a few hundred billion dollars in the desert to bring "democracy" to Saddam's huddled masses. You'd think the US would be all over events in Tunisia like flies on shit right? Truth is, the sleazy powers that be in the US and Europe are a little wary about the whole thing. It's akin to that classic scene in Fantasia where Mickey Mouse brings a broom to life to do the chore of filling a well with water. The broom overdoes its job and causes a flood. When Mickey chops the broom into pieces, each splinter becomes a new broom that floods the room even more. These democracy protests in the Middle East are a little like that for Western interests. Shit like this can get out of control fast, spawning whole new governments we might not be able to buy off. Hell, some guy just torched himself in Saudi Arabia yesterday. If those Wahhabi House of Saud loons who run shit over there by way of US petro dollars ever get overthrown, world oil supply could end up in the hands of a whole new bunch of people who could cause all kinds of trouble by interrupting the flow of spice by not doing what they're told.

Sadly, some things have always been worth burning to death for.

   Democracy can be a little risky like that.

   It can lead to all kinds of problems for the corporate oligarchy in the US and Europe. For instance, when Israel pulled out of Gaza in 2006, the Palestinians exercised their democracy and duly elected Hamas and not the secular Fatah like they were supposed to. That resulted in the withdrawal of financial support from the US and EU and a blockade by Israel, basically saying, democracy is wonderful except when you get the process 'wrong' and elect the guys we don't like. 

   Democracy is always liable to end up with unpredictable results.

   When you give the average fucktard on the street a say in how countries get run, bad shit happens for rich people. That's pretty much why there are no real democracies left on the planet anymore. The last time true democracy showed up it was in Athens in 461 BC and good old Pericles was initiating a golden age. US style democracy is all about providing the plebs with the illusion that their vote matters whilst the corporate oligarchy feeds them the information on who to vote for whilst also controlling the candidate list. Pretty fucking genius really. When it costs a billion dollars to run for President, those supplying that billion own that President's ass. He's their man bought and paid for. Poor old Pericles today wouldn't stand a chance.

   Still, shit might be about to get interesting in the Middle East.

   History says there's always the unexpected in war and human affairs. Once an idea takes hold and becomes viral it's hard to suppress. That's why you've got protests going on right now in many Arab countries where protests are 'illegal'. You've gotta love the idea that protesting is illegal. It's like saying the storming of the Bastille in 1789 was illegal. Of course it was. When you're at the top of the food chain everything is illegal for those lower down on the pyramid when they start rocking the boat. I wonder if Louis XVI tried to funnel the French revolution into designated 'free speech zones' a few miles from the epicenter of the Estates-General.


   It's a funny idea. But a little too risky to be really put into practice. To quote E.B. White, "Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half of the time." But the truth is, half of the people are below average IQ just by taking the test. That means that if you are in any way intelligent you are in an automatic minority. It's too risky to give everyone a voice. Much easier to run interference and tell them what to think. All you need is to own the means by which people get their information, TV, radio, newspapers. That's pretty easy these days. Flood the airwaves with bullshit and you've bread and circused the mob into groupthink.

   Still, I love the idea that shit could go wrong for the powers that be.

   This whole idea of setting yourself on fire in a public place is an idea whose time seems to have come in the Arab world. You know shit is bad when you want to rage against the machine in such a way that you put your life on the table. What greater statement can you make?

    Right now, the rest of the Arab world is watching events in Tunisia closely to see what they do with their new found freedom. Tunisia is the home of the ancient city of Carthage. That's some hardcore military history right there. The Punic Wars take us back to a time in human history when wiping out the enemy, killing all their men and selling all the women and children into slavery before destroying Carthage stone by stone was a certain kind of justice.

   But that's war. Sadly, the only motive force in human history.

   If they can get their shit together, the Tunisians could make a wider point that could reverberate across the Arab world. It'd be a cool underdog story that Hollywood could make into a movie in a few years starring Brad Pitt as the guy who torched himself when they took his fruit stand away. But then again, I'm pretty fucking cynical when it comes to desert civilizations. I'm one of those contrarians who prefers Smith's Ozymandias to Shelleys.

 In Egypt's sandy silence, all alone,
Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws
The only shadow that the Desert knows:
"I am great OZYMANDIAS," saith the stone,
"The King of Kings; this mighty City shows
"The wonders of my hand." The City's gone,
Nought but the Leg remaining to disclose
The site of this forgotten Babylon.
We wonder, and some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro' the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,
He meets some fragments huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Are conventional armed forces obsolete?

   I found myself waxing philosophical this week about the future of war.

   I floated an idea at a party the other night that there was no longer a need for conventional armed forces, heavy armor, mechanized infantry, amphibious landing craft, you know, all the cool stuff that makes war so much 'fun'. Sure, alcohol was involved. But it was an interesting idea to float. Do nuclear armed nations need conventional forces when going to war against other nuclear armed nations? Is fancy new military hardware like stealth fighters and stealth ships a total waste of money when the other side can just bust out a nuke if things start getting sketchy? I think I upset some people by floating this idea but that party sucked anyway.  

    I'm sober now and I still say I'm not wrong.

   When you've got nukes, why do you need to spend money on stealth bombers and other expensive hardware?

   Cut me some slack here. I'm still having fun with this idea. Soldiers, tanks, and stealth fighters do have many uses. But mostly only when going up against a non nuke nation with some resources you'd like to acquire. In such cases you can attack with impunity, overcome their primitive defenses using your advanced air force, take out their AA radar, bomb heavily and follow up with a tank rush. Soon you find yourself the proud owner of some fancy new real estate that's sitting on top of some proven reserves. This is where conventional forces come in handy.

   But what if you are the US or China or the seven other nations currently with the big red button of win? China just test flew a shitty imitation stealth fighter last week and the US currently deploys 187 F-22 raptors at a cost of $361 million each. The US navy has eleven active carriers. The most recent, the daddy Bush, cost $6.2 billion to build with running costs of a hundred million per year. The US naval college recently admitted that these boats are 'vulnerable' when you introduce the new Chinese DF-21D anti ship ballistic missile into the mix. That hypersonic, satellite aimed fucker with a 2000 mile range will pick off a carrier group from space long before those carriers get their aircraft within strike range of Beijing or Ningbo. The Russians have a similar type missile. Hell, even the Iranians have a bunch of Silkworms which I'm not convinced the USN can defend itself against.

   But let's suppose for a minute this weren't already true. Let's suppose, in some hypothetical future resource war versus China,  a few USN carrier groups get close enough to the Chinese mainland to launch an amphibious landing at the beaches east of Fuzhou against the 3.5 million strong PLA. For lulz, let's imagine a beach head is established. The Chinese lose a few square miles of sovereign territory. US marines are pouring ashore. Lav-25s are fanning out into the surrounding countryside to probe the enemy defenses. For more hypothetical fun, let's pretend that a good chunk of the People's Liberation Army are on a 'training exercise' on the Outer Mongolian border and can't offer up much resistance. The natural option for China is to break out the nukes. This will always become the 'natural option' when any nuclear power starts losing any conventional war. The playbook here demands two single megaton low altitude airbursts over the beach head that minimize fallout and turn all those fancy mechanized brigades to molten metal and fry everyone inside now that the losing side has decided to break out Oppenheimer's death; the destroyer of worlds.

   That pretty much reduces years of sleazy military-industrial-complex design contracts to nothing in a single launch. All those billions funnelled into the 'defense' industry (more like offense industry, amirite?) are wasted. The billions of dollars spent in the production of all those high tech vehicles end up being rendered useless by a relatively cheap thermonuclear blast.

   Soldiers are good for occupying captured territory. But in a war between nuclear armed powers, what former owner of the territory captured will ever sign an armistice to halt the war and accept the new boundaries before nukes get launched? Would the US, after a successful Chinese amphibious landing, give up Washington State and Oregon to the Chinese for the sake of peace? Not likely. All wars today between nuclear armed countries must escalate to full nuclear winter by default once one side starts losing. The red button of win must be pressed because it is there. We're living in a temporary stasis on the nuclear clock, it's still two minutes to midnight, just like it was in the 80s but current geopolitics have put that reality on the back burner while everyone gobbles up the last planetary resources. The grand wars for the scraps will come later.

   Interestingly, with the way global nuke proliferation is panning out, a nuclear war today doesn't have to lead to an automatic earth wide Mad Max post apocalyptic zombie wasteland. There is a new and recent  alternative. The possibility of a 'regional nuclear war'. Grab the popcorn right? We're talking India versus Pakistan here. Both sides have enough megatons to glass each other's major cities. Both sides believe Kashmir belongs to them. Both sides hate each other's guts. Extremists in both countries believe a war could sort this shit out. And yet both sides still invest in conventional militaries as if a war between them  is somehow winnable WWII desert North Africa style. India conducted a military exercise entitled 'Brazen Chariot' in 2008 where they wargamed some hypothetical desert armor clash with Pakistan and won. Unfortunately, they left out the fateful third act in that battle where the victorious Indian tank divisions steamrolled over the vanquished Pakistani forces only to get vaporized by a well aimed tactical nuke.

   Take that ghost of Heinz Guderian!

   Truth is, there is no such future conflict between nuclear armed sides where one side begins losing the conventional war and hemorrhaging territory or resources that doesn't force the generals to reach for the launch codes.

   So the point here is, why bother with the conventional forces at all?

   The current rulers of the world are still stuck in an outmoded paradigm.

   The British are broke yet have commissioned two new aircraft carriers. The Queen Elizabeth carrier is about to come online at a cost of 4 billion. It's supposed to field a squadron of F-35 stealth fighters. Those fighters are already cost over run programs from the US running into the billions. Western countries are going bankrupt while still trying to maintain the illusion of the sun never setting on their historic empires. It's hard to watch the slow and inexorable transfer of primacy to Asia. Perhaps there's a certain justice in that considering how we fucked them over in previous centuries.

  War is starting to favor defenders these days. Following that old Clauswitz paradigm, an attacking force needs a 3:1 numerical advantage to overcome entrenched defenders. Today's weapon technology seems to support that. In fact, today's technology magnifies that. Build a six billion dollar aircraft carrier? I can  wreck that with a one million dollar missile. Build a twenty million dollar tank? I can waste that shit with a cheap ass RPG-29. Build an up armored Humvee? I can waste it with ten bags of fertilizer buried under a manhole.

   War is getting cheaper these days if you are the defending force.

   Life itself is getting cheaper these days if you are willing to press the big red button of win.

   The 21st century has the potential to be the most interesting century in human history. All of us alive today get to watch shit go down. All of us alive today get to realize that the human race is fucked.