I'm convinced that, barring an accident, the US is not going to war with North Korea.
The reason is simple: the US is not powerful enough to attack North Korea without the support of both South Korea and Japan. And because North Korea can cause mass civilian casualties in either, neither can accept the risk of war. When push comes to shove, they won't allow the US to use them as bases for a war of choice, just like Turkey and Saudi Arabia denied the US bases to attack Iraq in 2003.
The North Korea crisis is all about administration's desire to win a foreign policy “victory” ahead of the midterm elections. It doesn't even matter if the victory is “real”. This is foreign policy as reality tv: only the producers know the whole truth of where the plot is supposed to go. And while things can go weird, the stage management usually works out in the end.
The real target is Iran. It always has been. For the conservative movement, Iran has been national enemy number 1 since 1979. First, because it dared to humiliate the US by seizing the embassy in Tehran and holding the staff hostage, leading to a botched rescue attempt that reminded way too many people of the failures during the Vietnam War. Few commentators realize how deeply this episode challenges the self-narrative of American conservative elites. Second, Iran is one of the two countries (the other being Saudi Arabia, which remains a close ally) capable of challenging American access to the Persian Gulf, where the cheapest and highest quality oil in the world is harvested, and since the Carter Doctrine laid out in the 1970s America's foreign policy has been structured to prevent any major power (other than the US) from dominating the Middle East. Now that Iran has effective control over the government of Iraq (thanks to the US invasion), has sent soldiers to help rescue the Assad regime in Syria, is closely allied with Hezbollah in Lebanon, and is increasingly friendly to Putin's Russia, the administration's foreign policy hawks view great-power competition in the Middle East to be a priority concern.
If you look at the personnel changes in the administration over the past two years, one natural conclusion you might draw is that chaos rules. With respect to the actual functioning of the US government, this is probably true. The State Department is largely unstaffed, Pentagon and CIA types are setting foreign policy. Congress is mired in the games played by democratic and republican party elites, and the Courts are slowly being packed with conservative ideologues. But the American media is extrapolating too much from this apparent chaos, and presuming too much about how this apparent chaos will impact their electoral success in the future. The administration, in rhetoric and action, is entirely focused on maintaining power. By holding on to their Senate majority, and by making sure the electoral college goes for Trump again in 2020. It is perfectly happy with the media (which it denigrates as biased anyway) staying fixated on the insane Tweet of the day, and avoiding the necessary deeper public discussions about how to repair and reform the United States. It wants to stay in power, and we should all expect it to pull any trick it can to ensure that it does.
The simplest way is to launch a war. Step back from the filters the US media applies to create a sense of narrative (thus driving readership, and advertising revenues), and virtually every action of the administration is steadily pushing the United States in this direction. The hell of Trumpism is that it is actually rather weak, riding a nationalist/populist wave that won't last forever. Its seizure of the Republican party has generated a strategic commitment to a set of ideological positions that, as the Silent Generation dies and the Boomer Generation reaches terminal decline, will leave the Republicans without a meaningful constituency outside of Dixie and the Plains.
The Trumpists have been flying by the seat of their pants since day 1, and their current success is really a statement about the complete incompetence of the Democratic party's leadership (which is actually happy with Trumpism, thinking it will be easy to defeat in 2020. Deep down the democrats are the party of linear responses to non-linear threats, hence their lack of competence), and not a testament to their own capabilities with respect to political strategy and organization. They won in 2016 because they sold themselves well to just enough people in just the right states, while the Democrats refused to accept the tribal nature of politics or the poll numbers that should have told them their assumptions about voters in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania were incorrect. White Christians in these states accepted the Trumpist lie that immigrants, minorities, and trade were responsible for the terminal economic decline of the Rust Belt. The fact that census numbers show their numbers and political power declining permanently in coming years provided the necessary point of irritation that the Trumpists exploited to win the Electoral College.
It is precisely because of this coming demographic cliff that the Republicans have sold out to the Trumpists, and it is the sense of impending doom that ultimately drives Trumpism onward. White America has an expiration date dancing before their eyes, and it seems fair to say that in their view, an America that isn't white isn't America at all. This is a very old story. One would think, knowing all we do about how a very similar set of dynamics played out in Europe in the 1930s, our society would be able to generate an effective counter-response. But there too, economic uncertainty is being pirated by racist opportunists who want to pretend that it is brown people, and not their own political and economic elites, that are the cause of the problem.
So the Trumpists remain in the driver's seat, creating chaos and uncertainty and seeking any effective means of retaining power in the face of the challenges ahead. The logic of their struggle for power, bound to America's peculiar sense of being special, will drive pressure for a major international conflict before the next election. Prediction of the details is always fraught, but here's the nutshell timeline I think is basically correct:
2018: Democrats narrowly take back the House of Representatives in the Mid-term elections, but fail to win a majority in the Senate. The Mueller investigation alleges improper ties between the Trump campaign in 2016 and Russian agents, and recommends charges to Congress.
Early 2019: Seeing no chance of winning a successful impeachment conviction due to continued Republican control over the Senate, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi takes impeachment off the agenda, and focuses the party on the 2020 elections.
Late 2019: With both the US and Iran withdrawing from negotiations over Iran's alleged nuclear program in late 2018, a steady drumbeat of media reports that Iran is bolstering its arsenal of ballistic missiles and re-starting development of nuclear weapons re-invigorates the simmering crisis.
Winter 2020: During the State of the Union, the administration states that all options will be pursued to rein in Iran's weapons programs, and announces the deployment of major military assets to the Middle East in preparation for combat operations.
Spring 2020: Amidst aggressive rhetoric on both sides and a dramatic US military buildup, the largest anti-war protests since 2003 are held across the world. The US Administration vows not to be swayed by the actions of “peace-mongers and illegals”.
Late Spring 2020: Several incidents between US Navy vessels in the Strait of Hormuz and boats operated by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps result in a series of punitive American strikes on IRGC targets. The IRGC responds by firing several ballistic missiles at US forces in Kuwait.
Spring-Summer 2020: Tit-for-tat strikes escalate into a massive American air campaign against Iran, targeting government and military assets. Russia, concerned that a major ally is being targeted for regime change, deploys anti-aircraft missiles and several squadrons of fighter aircraft to bases in Northern Iran...
Like incompetent governments often do, the US will underestimate both Iran's ability to resist and the speed at which a conflict can escalate. International relations are rapidly sliding towards something very nasty. Without international efforts to reduce tensions, the world of 2020 may well stumble into a new round of violent conflict, much as it did in 1914 and the late 1930s. But this isn't on the radar: blinded by their 'America is the best!' rhetoric, bound to an ideology that sees white christian America as favored by God, the Trumpists simply aren't able to realize that their actions, their assumptions of the international community being driven solely by competition, can in fact make it so.
Eventually, they will decide that they have to “win” the 2020 election, whatever the cost. And history shows that Americans will support the administration in charge if there's a war on. Combine the two, and you have a recipe for a pretty miserable 2020.
And what happens after? Anyone's guess. Global tensions are primed to snap, with unpredictable consequences. Unless Americans can collectively get their act together and start forcing reforms on the federal government in D.C., things 'gonna get interesting here, real soon.
Will we live out the nightmare that Muslim Americans (And probably DACA beneficiaries, who the Democrats this year totally betrayed) fear is coming? Or does the Trumpist infection burn itself out by provoking a nuclear exchange with Russia? Sometime in 2020, as the Presidential campaign kicks into high gear, will foolish actions lead to the US and Russia blowing up one another's ICBM silos?
Guess we'll find out. I'm definitely starting to think that the Universe has a wicked sense of humor, though. Of all the possible ways humanity could have evolved, who'd have thought that one day our entire civilization would be at the mercy of a reality tv star with probable mental illness who literally has the ability to launch thousands of nuclear weapons whenever he chooses?
Oh wait, science fiction writers have seen this coming for decades. We were warned. There really isn't any excuse. So now, we all get to find out exactly how special America really is.
But as the old Slipknot lyric goes: America – what if God doesn't care?
NOTE: I wrote this before Matt Taibbi published his latest in Rolling Stone, and am pleasantly surprised at the parallels between our arguments. Not that many people are likely to ever read mine, so I appreciate that someone with a helluva bigger audience is making similar points.
But I'll go a step further than is probably *allowed* in the media these days: By the mid 21st Century, Americans will be looked at by most of the world in the same way Germans were viewed in much of the 20th. 8 or 9 billion people living in 2050 will wonder how Americans could not know, how they could let the bloodletting go on and on without realizing that what goes around, comes around. At a certain point, inability to do anything about the problem renders us all complicit in our leaders' crimes.
How Osama Bin Laden Defeated America
Today marks 15 years since the USA launched its attack on Iraq. Most commentators around the world seem to have come to a general conclusion about the whole thing:
No point in mincing words. The US invasion of Iraq directly killed tens of thousands of civilians, indirectly led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians, and provided a training ground for the butchers of ISIS. The damage has steadily spread beyond Iraq, triggering a Sunni-Shiite sectarian war in the region that has inexorably pulled Saudi Arabia and Iran into conflict. As their proxy conflicts have escalated, other countries have gotten drawn into the fighting. Turkey is attacking the Kurds, Russia has intervened to prop up their major ally in the region, Syria. Yemen has been annihilated by civil conflict and a US-backed aerial assault by Saudi Arabia and its allies.
The Middle East today is a breeding ground for war. And more war is coming: a key lesson of history is that when a resource-rich region is destabilized to the degree the Middle East is today, the conflicts escalate until someone figures out how to negotiate a stable peace. Or the combatants wipe one another out, as the Allies and Germans did on the Western Front 1914-1918, or the Soviets and Germans did on the Eastern Front 1941-1945. But that threat isn't even on our national radar, though it should be. Look at the escalating military budgets of the combatant powers, listen to the rhetoric of the leadership. The powers-that-be see war coming, and worse, they all seem to think they can win it.
I don't think there's point in mincing words: the Middle East is spinning towards terminal disaster, and the next major unilateral American military action in the area, probably an attack on Iran, is in the making. The US is dramatically increasing the Army and Air Force budget, and the Trump administration is packed full of characters who see Iran as enemy #1 in the region. Sooner or later, the Trumpists will trigger a war, believing that Obama's re-election was secured by the operation that killed Osama Bin Laden and that Trump's re-election will be secured by a successful strike on Iran.
Speaking of old Osama – he won, you know.
Sure, sure, he's dead. And by American cultural definitions, if you die, you lose. Bin Laden himself would probably agree on some level. After all, despite his claim of seeking martyrdom, you never saw Bin Laden set off a suicide vest or crash an airliner into a building. Somewhere deep down the man probably saw himself as leading the renewed and united Islamic Caliphate from Mecca. I guess that's a plus side of having faith.
But beyond his personal ambitions, Bin Laden built Al Qaeda by promising something to his followers. And what he offered was Holy War, in which the faithful could sacrifice themselves and gain admission to eternal paradise in the next life. Of course, that only works if you have an enemy you feel is big enough, pervasive enough, mean enough to justify carrying on Holy War against it. Fortunately for Al Qaeda, generations of American political leaders have built exactly the sort of enemy a group like Al Qaeda needs to thrive.
By and large, Americans dislike studying history. In large part because in school we're fed a steady diet of history-as-names-and-dates, which turns most people off to history. But history is, if nothing else, a database full of bad ideas. Stuff humans, usually those in power, try over and over again. And we Americans, we have no idea how many bad ideas our leaders come up with and try to put into practice. Then, when they're desperately trying to explain why it all went wrong, our collective ignorance of the past gives them a perfect opportunity to sell us a pack of myths. That everything would have gone right if only the right people had been in charge. That other forces interfered with our noble aims, and that next time we'll do it better.
We rarely do. The history of the United States since 1945 is stained with blood. A huge chunk of the world doesn't see the Stars and Stripes as standing for freedom or democracy, they see them as standing for misery and death. The growing nationalist taboo about questioning our nation's violent history of foreign interventions, that curious silent treatment you get when you list off America's many crimes to someone in a position of authority – these represent fundamental weaknesses in the American myth. A recognition that the self-serving tales we tell about our intentions and actions aren't the whole truth.
This blood-stained history is what makes people join organizations like Al Qaeda. The idea that Arabs, Muslims, or anyone else is driven by some vague, inherited cultural hatred of America has been widely disproven by two decades of scientific research. Very few people hate America. A great many people hate America's policies. Especially those that bring bombs, ships, and troops to their doorstep.
Osama Bin Laden knew this. And so he organized a bold and successful strike on America, that would induce us to send even more bombs, ships, and troops to the Middle East. Because every time we do, every time our leaders give our soldiers orders to shoot at something or someone, innocent civilians get caught in the middle. And when innocent people die, everyone they ever knew and loved get angry. It's the most basic of Human emotions, to get angry when someone close to you is harmed by injustice. And from the perspective of a victim, it doesn't matter if your actions were noble or just or necessary. It doesn't matter if your country is the best, if your cause is pure. They only know that you hurt their loved one. And when normal channels for pursuing justice seem to fail, all that is left for those who have been harmed is that most ancient of counters to bad behavior: the promise of exacting vengeance.
When September 11, 2001 happened, the voices of people who understood this dynamic, knew that America had played a negative role in the Middle East for more than 20 years, were completely suppressed by a wave of nationalism. Forget that the governments we are supposed to be able to make accountable through our democratic system have abused our trust and harmed innocents in pursuit of their aggressive foreign policy. Ignore that experts in terrorism and insurgency warned that groups like Al Qaeda launch these types of mass-casualty, high-symbolism attacks specifically to provoke a disproportionate response. Just plop an American flag sticker on your car, pay your taxes, and keep shopping.
And so, Bin Laden won. The United States wandered into Afghanistan, failed to get him in Tora Bora, then Rumsfeld, Cheney, Wolfowitz, and the rest of the Bush-era neoconservative set pretend that Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden were buddies, and off to Iraq we go. There to sacrifice 4500 American soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians pursuing “regime change”. And to so badly destabilize the region that Iraq and Syria both disintegrated into sectarian civil war – and led to the rise of ISIS. And a new round of destruction.
The dark irony of it all is that, despite the deaths and destruction, Americans seem to have learned nothing from the past fifteen years. Half of our federal income taxes get funneled to the Pentagon, and it obliges our support by conducting combat operations in at least half a dozen countries, with special forces teams deployed to more. Thousands of American soldiers still sit all over the Middle East, doing whatever our fearless leaders in D.C. think they should, regardless of the long-term consequences to America itself. Our drones buzz over Yemen and Somalia, unleashing death whenever some analyst sitting at a desk in Florida decides a group of potential targets are acting in a “signature” fashion, implying they may be “bad guys”. And with no on-the-ground after action assessments possible, more civilians die by our hands, and we don't even admit it.
Osama Bin Laden won by provoking the United States of America into a Forever War in the Middle East, which looks to people living there like another iteration of European imperialism and colonialism. Another distant power intervening in their lives – and what's worse, proclaiming that it is doing so in the name of “peace” and “defense”. Resistance under these circumstances is not only to be expected, it is in fact morally justified. It is worth setting aside the nationalist lens foisted on us by the national media, whether FOX or CNN or MSNBC, and asking ourselves a simple question: if a foreign power were doing to Americans what we do every day to people around the world, wouldn't we resist?
But there, see, is another of our society's deep taboos. We are taught to believe that we're different, that American means something inherently different than Russian, German, Iranian or Indian. And this poisonous conceit gives our political leaders the opening they need to sell us on the necessity of Forever War, on the mistaken belief that they are all that stands between us and the bad people.
But the truth is, the only bad people are the cynical politicians themselves. Trump, Pelosi, Ryan, Schumer, McConnell – stop wearing the blue and red tinted glasses, and you can see them for what they are: America's true enemies. The real bad people – not because they are inherently evil, but because they have chosen to be part of a political machine that, above all else, is concerned about concentrating power in the hands of an elite few. Whether neoliberal or neoconservative, that's their ultimate objective. Power.
Americans are today as fundamentally ruled without meaningful representation as they were in 1776. Our 200-year old political institutions are fully gamed-out by political elites. They cry “One America!” in order to prevent us all from realizing that there isn't One America at all. America always was, and remains, an idea. The dream that we can collectively develop a set of political institutions capable of letting us all pursue life, liberty, and happiness. That who you are, what you look like, is irrelevant to actually being American.
The dream is almost dead, now. People want to blame social media, or Russia, or populism. But the reality is that our political institutions have been entirely captured by elites. Our media serves its own interests by pushing us into the feedback loop of social media, where we can be safely clustered into groups defined by what advertisements we are shown. It is worth noting the response by major media companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter to their networks being infiltrated by white supremacist groups has been to aggressively tamp down on any speech deemed too political. Progressive websites dependent on Google to drive traffic to them have noticed that the crackdown on fascist and Nazi speech is actually hitting them worst of all. Around the web, sites are trying to undermine and even ban ad-blocking software that for some of us is our only refuge to the deluge of clickbait advertising swamping the net.
Great changes are afoot around the world. And not all bad – in fact, most of the world is getting markedly better. Economic development is pulling millions of people out of poverty. Global organizations are learning how to better provide humanitarian aid and relief without undermining local social structures. And online, new societies are being born despite the censorship pressures emanating from global governments.
But America is in the middle of a deep crisis. Our two major political parties are collapsing, one captured by neoconservative extremists and the other colonized by neoliberal idealists. America requires renewal and reform if it is to survive the next couple decades. But too many special interests intersect in D.C., and it is becoming apparent that Americans themselves don't agree on the most basic norms of political behavior anymore. All they can agree on is “there is no alternative.”
History shows that there's always an alternative. Usually a set of alternatives. And it also shows countries that do not reform when the time comes, fail and fall.
America's elites have let Osama Bin Laden win. In fact, Obama's raid on that compound in Pakistan where Bin Laden was hiding gave him his final victory. Americans were almost universal in their outpouring of joy over his killing. And few people deserved to take a couple rounds fired from a Seal's rifle straight to the face like Osama Bin Laden did.
But in launching that raid, by showing the world stage-managed scenes of Obama, Clinton, and the rest of their administration sitting in the White House, supposedly watching a live feed streamed from a Seal's helmet camera, America's leaders proved for all the world to see that we don't feel ourselves bound by any hard rules. That we talk a big line about justice and rule of law when it suits our interests, and then ignore them when it doesn't. We proved Bin Laden's point for him. And we continue to do it.
To defeat Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda, those Navy Seals needed to take him alive, and deliver him to the International Court at the Hague, there to be forced to defend his actions and ideology before an impartial hearing. And then to be locked in a cage for the rest of his life. That is how you beat someone who uses ideology and a narrative of your nation's aggressive nature to gain recruits and justify Holy War. Not by proving everything they allege about you. That's taking the “high road”. That's proving that America is different, even when it has been harmed.
But that isn't what happened. America executed Bin Laden, America fires Hellfire missiles from drones that every so often kills a bunch of innocent civilians. America invades Iraq, botches the occupation, and unleashes another form of Hellfire across the Middle East.
And now, unable to understand the crisis we've created, the blowback is coming home to consume our own society. Bin Laden goaded us into destroying the basis for our own power. The Global War on Terror, or whatever we're calling it this year, has convinced billions of people around the world that America is an evil empire. The Trumpist retreat from the international institutions that have been the foundation of America's power and prosperity will only make matters worse. And when their rhetoric and diplomatic incompetence draws America into another war of choice in the Middle East, the consequences will be grave.
And then, Bin Laden's victory will be complete.