Tuesday, April 10, 2018
The Importance of Looking Dangerous
Is the United States still the world’s greatest power, in control of the entire planet, or has that moment in history already come and gone? We are constantly hearing how the situation is becoming dire: relations between the US and NATO countries and Russia are going from bad to worse; there is a trade war going on with China; North Korea remains an intractable problem and an embarrassment. Many people maintain that we are very close to a world war. But does “very close” actually mean anything? It is quite possible to stand for hours with your toes hanging over the edge of a cliff and never jump. Suicide is a big decision: big even for a person, much bigger for a large country.
On March 1, 2018 president Putin unveiled Russia’s new weapons systems against which the United States is defenseless and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Previously, the plan was to surround Russia with military bases and missile batteries, then launch a preemptive first strike, destroying its ability to retaliate and forcing it to capitulate. This plan has now conclusively failed, and a US/NATO attack on Russia is once again assured to be an act of suicide. Worse than that, even limited military confrontations are now mostly unthinkable, because Russia can now inflict unacceptable damage on US/NATO forces from a safe distance and without putting any of its own assets at risk. If Russia won’t attack and the US/NATO can’t attack, then how likely is a war?
The new weapons systems have made it possible to start ignoring the US. It is still important to maintain a credible military posture, but politically the US is no longer in control, and neither are the global institutions on which it has relied. Instead, what we are seeing is the reemergence of nation states, and even of empires. The political future of Syria is being decided by Russia, Turkey and Iran, with no useful input from the United States at all. Significantly, whereas Russia and Iran are in categories of their own as far as the US is concerned, Turkey has been a US ally and the second-largest armed force in NATO. The fact that Turkey is no longer eager to please the Americans is quite telling.
Except during the strange and tumultuous twentieth century during which the US briefly flashed across the world stage, these three countries went by different names, which all ended in “empire”: the Russian Empire, the Ottoman Empire and the Persian Empire. Of these three, the Russian and the Ottoman empires were heirs to the Holy Roman Empire, whose eastern half, with its capital Constantinople, went on for centuries after Rome had turned into a depopulated ruin and a dark age had descended on Europe. After Constantinople fell to the Turks and Islam took over the region, the center of Orthodox Christianity migrated north to Moscow. Now add China, or the Chinese Empire if you like, which is now aligned with Russia, and complete the picture: all of the greatest and most ancient Eurasian empires have come back and are talking and cooperating, while the has-been upstart on the other side of the planet isn’t even invited.
Given this situation, what is the US to do? It has three choices. The first is to start a major war, thus committing national suicide (while taking other countries with it). It lacks the political will to make this decision, although it could blunder into a major war by accident. The second choice is to basically just fold: give up trying to project power around the world, retreat into its own borders and lick its wounds. It lacks the political will to do this as well; all that remains in the realm of possibility is to pretend that everything is still fine for as long as possible.
But how is it possible to pretend that everything is still fine even as everything is falling apart? The answer is to start faking it. If the US manages to convince enough people, at home and around the world, that it is still dangerous, then it will be able to hide its increasing enfeeblement for a while longer. It may no longer be capable of achieving any of its aims, but it is still very much capable of mass murder, as was recently demonstrated by the US “coalition” bombings of Mosul and Raqqa, which now lay in ruins. Similar wanton acts of mass murder have been committed by America’s Saudi-Arabian proxy in Yemen, and by their Ukrainian proxies in the Donbass.
But even the opportunities to commit mindless mass murder with impunity are now becoming fewer and farther between, forcing the US to resort to more boutique acts of violence. To justify these acts, the US (and much of Europe) curtains itself off from the rest of the world using an elaborately constructed wall of complete nonsense. A favorite trope has to do with dreamed-up chemical weapons as the main frightener. Take a look at the recent Israeli rocket attack on Syria. It was justified using obviously fake video footage produced by the White Helmets—a group known for staging fake terror events. At this point, they don’t even care how fake their product looks: this time around, they didn’t bother editing out the clapper (used to sync up video with sound). The setting was obviously a movie set, but production values were rather missing. Instead, we had actors, some wearing white helmets, but no protective gear whatsoever, dumping buckets of water over shivering children. How is that even supposed to make any sense?
And then note that the rockets (five of which got shot down by the Syrians, with only three making it through) came from Israel. Why Israel? Because the Russians had warned the US that they knew the fake chemical weapons provocation was being organized as a pretext to launch a rocket attack, and that they were going to shoot not just at the rockets but also at those who launch them. Therefore, Americans decided that it would be too risky to launch the attack from navy ships, and instead asked the Israelis to do the honor of lobbing a few missiles at a remote airbase in Syria, correctly thinking that the Russians wouldn’t immediately retaliate against Israel if no Russians would be hurt, and knowing that there would be no Russians at that airbase during their attack. This is, on the one hand, quite pathetic, but on the other it shows that the Americans are still capable of a modicum of rational thought.
This, then, is the strange period of history we are going through. The US is lying nonstop (since truth is not on its side) while pretending to still be dangerous by committing wanton acts of mass murder (small-scale ones, which it can be sure to carry out with impunity). Meanwhile, both national suicide (via large-scale war) and the decision to shut down the whole imperial project both remain politically impossible. How long this strange, unstable period of murderous nonsense can persist isn’t known—your guess is as good as mine—but it obviously can’t go on for ages. Give it a few years, or less.