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The Waste Of Superpower
Terrell E. Arnold
At the end of the Cold War, for the second time in its history, the United States stood out as the tallest figure on the world landscape. Having led the world to victory in World War II, the US had set about creating a new global system that was largely attentive to shared needs and capacities, if not entirely altruistic in its intentions. But the Soviet Union emerged from that war with its own global ambitions. And for the next four and a half decades the United States stood as the principal bastion against Soviet expansion and possible domination of many emergent but weak states as well as the reemerging and increasingly strong states of Europe and Japan. That stance too was hardly altruistic, but the outcome was the collapse of the Berlin Wall and a sudden end to a potentially catastrophic bipolar nuclear standoff.
Many people saw the collapse of the Soviet Union as the opportunity for a fundamental change in the way the world conducts business and its nation states pursue their relationships. It actually was such an incredible opportunity, but a small number of people saw it as a potential catastrophe: The end of economies that had built their successes and continued to depend on war-related goods and services. Most prominent of those was the US economy. The leading question on many minds was: "How can we turn this situation into an enduring peace? But the leading question for parties in power in leading economies was: "How can we maintain the momentum of war materials dependent economic systems without any enemies?"
Contriving and reinforcing the contrivance of an "enemy" became the driving fantasy of power groups, most notably the neo-conservatives and their Zionist supporters in the United States. In the United States, news that fed the war-mongering appetites flourished in mainstream media. Those stories biased public opinion, essentially spreading fear, and in that media environment warlike budgets, procurement patterns and exercises seemed somehow normal. After all, the country had been in a potentially dangerous military standoff for two generations. Sudden changes in posture were not expected.
The US defense budget did decline in the years following collapse of the Berlin Wall to about 70% or so of the Cold War level. That reflected some gradual shifts of resources into social programs and public works. However, tweaked by, among other things, Bill Clinton's $124 billion increase in the defense budget as part of his effort to deflect Congressional criticism in the Lewinsky scandal, the budget was readied for growth to meet George W. Bush team expectations for the "New American Century". The ultimate excuse, of course, was 9-11 which provided the flakey rationale for the expensive and largely pointless War on Terrorism, the invasion of Afghanistan, and the invasion of Iraq.
The defense budget actually grew from a low of around $300 billion to more than $600 billion, but to keep those numbers from looking so bad, the Bush team conceived the notion of getting supplemental funding over and above the defense budget to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Congress has just gone through that drill again, reviewing a defense budget of $518 billion that (a) excluded a $70 billion request for only the next few months of war fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, (b) left out the $40 billion budget for Homeland Security, and (c) excluded the much needed $95 billion being sought for Veterans Affairs. That means the real "Defense" budget for 2009 is somewhere between $800 billion and $900 billion, especially if one includes legislative pork barreling. If this entire budget represented money that was already in the Treasury or foreseeable in tax revenues, the least one could say is it looks like a profligate use of resources for questionable purposes. However, much of the funding will have to be borrowed, at least half of it from foreign sources, with resultant large additions to the country's already $9 trillion national debt. That number already exceeds three quarters of the US gross domestic product for 2008, and the spread grows on.
Knowing that politically those good military spending times are unlikely to last, the Bush team and its military-industrial supporters continue to search for an enemy, and, with Israeli help, they either found or created one in the Caucasus.
Pursuing a policy that the Russians quite sensibly view as encirclement, the US joined with Israel to build up the military forces of the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, while directly intervening in electoral processes of both Georgia and Ukraine. Those interventions overlapped with a US-Polish agreement to position small US missile defense systems in Poland, along with supporting radar facilities in the Czech Republic, moves, Bush says, to protect Europe from Iran or other "rogue" states. However, so that Russia could not possibly misunderstand the goal of these enterprises, having brought Poland and the Czech Republic into NATO, the US proposed that Georgia and Ukraine be invited into the western military alliance that was long explicitly targeted on Russia. In truth, NATO has not found any other real role.
For all of that, the US seemed surprised by rapid and even brutal Russian reaction to Georgia's decision in early August to attempt forceful recovery of two breakaway territories, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Both broke away from Georgia in the early1990s and have said they do not want to be part of Georgia. Both are largely Russian or Russian speaking. Much played down in US media reporting, however, is that Georgian forces first attacked Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia and killed an estimated 2,000 Russians and South Ossetians before the Russians moved into Georgia.
Despite the sharp and indeed very effective Russian operation against US/Israeli equipped and trained forces, the US appears to have decided to gamble even more. While, one presumes coincidentally, a NATO exercise involving at least five vessels recently entered the Black Sea, the US is in the process of sending at least three naval and/or Coast Guard vessels into those waters, bringing the NATO total to eight. The number reportedly is seen by the Turkish government that enforces the Montreux Convention of 1936 on Black Sea maritime traffic as too much of a Western naval presence in the Black Sea. That Convention gave Turkey the right to determine what kinds of vessels, and how many passed through the Bosphorus, the Sea of Marmora and the Dardanelles in the Strait that divides Turkey between Europe and Asia. Reportedly Turkey already has refused two US vessels, even though they were hospital ships, because of their gross tonnage.
Given US/Israeli military ties to Georgia, Russia has reason not to trust US assertions that it is sending naval vessels into the Black Sea for purely humanitarian reasons. The US is being either foolish or deliberately offensive by doing so, since less provocative regional vessels could be employed to deliver aid. Meanwhile, the Russians have reacted with remarkable calmness to reports that the US now intends to establish a naval base in Georgia "to protect the oil pipeline" that runs through Georgia and Turkey to the Mediterranean.
While not overtly fussing much about such moves, the Russians are taking their own military countermeasures. Among other capabilities, they are said to have the missile cruiser Moskva moving about in Abkazian waters. This ship is one of the world's few, if not the only battle cruiser afloat. Its presence there is not likely to be coincidental, and if US/NATO vessels move in too close, an accident appears possible.
This oil pipe, the nearly 1,100 mile Baku - Tbilisi - Ceyhan pipeline (the BTC or Ceyhan Pipeline) that runs from the Caspian shore via Azerbaijan and Georgia to the Turkish Eastern Mediterranean port of Ceyhan, is actually the central issue. There are two other pipelines from the Caspian, one that runs through Azerbaijan and Georgia to the port of Supsa on the Black Sea, and one that runs from Baku through Azerbaijan and Russian territory to Russia's Black Sea port of Novorossiysk, as well as a rail tanker route. Oil from all these lines ends up in the Mediterranean and moves on by tanker.
Protecting this pipeline from damage or disruption in any of the three transit states is indeed a challenge. Azerbaijan and its immediate neighbor to the west, Armenia, have long standing differences over a disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh. Both claim it, while the people of Nagorno Karabakh want to be treated as an independent state. Armenia and Turkey have an almost century old dispute over Turkish abuse--the Armenians say genocide--of Armenian people in the early 20^th century. Turkey has its own trouble with Kurds in border regions along the pipeline. Any of these disputes could flare up and cut or disrupt the flow of oil. In August 2008 the line was disrupted by an explosion in Turkish/Kurdish territory as well as by Georgia's decision to take Ossetia and Russia's reaction to it.
All of those disputes are persistent, and none of them is amenable to US or Israeli intervention or resolution. However, the US/Israeli goal in this situation is not merely to protect the Georgia pipeline from enemy attack, but rather to assure that the intended oil flow actually does not get diverted across Russia or through Russian hands. The issue here is not whether but through whose hands oil flowing out of Central Asia enters world markets, and who shares in the profits. Israel has in mind the movement of oil out of the Caspian basin through either the Black Sea in tankers or the BTC pipeline to Ceyhan, via tanker to the Israeli oil port Ashkelon on the Mediterranean and via a 42 inch pipeline to Israel's oil port of Eilat on the Red Sea for shipment by tanker to Asian/Pacific markets. This is not really about oil, because the oil would enter world markets in any case. It is about the money to be made and by whom in the oil export and transit trade.
As an aside, such pipelines are enormously costly (this one cost $3.9 billion) and filling it the first time is a big deal. Once the flow started from Baku it took a roughly estimated 2.5 million barrels of oil to get the first barrel out at Ceyhan. At today's oil price, that amounts to $250 million just to fill the line. The first oil took roughly a year to transit the 1100 miles from Baku to Ceyhan, although the normal flow rate is projected at about 2 meters or 6.5 feet ( 2-3 barrels) per second.
Such budgets take a cooperative effort, and this one had involved in it almost everybody who is anybody in the international oil business, except the Russians. Everybody seems to know that the world oil business is a common interest of mankind. The expensive actual and potential tragedy is that key players choose to run the game competitively rather than cooperatively. That choice progressively is moving the United States, much of the West, Russia and China apart at a time when everybody's interests would be better served by serious cooperative deal making. This contentious separatism jibes nicely with each country's perceived economic need to keep its military machinery based economic activities operating at full steam.
But the real problem here is the US-led NATO effort to encircle Russia in moves evocative of the Cold War. On the whole Russia has been cool about the process, generally not taking provocative actions in response to progressive NATO moves toward its borders. Threats to Poland are in a different class, since they relate to direct Polish participation in what the Russians already read as a US/NATO military threat. Russia already has told Poland it is under the gun, and any enhancements to that US emplacement are likely to be viewed as more threatening and probably will provoke further Russian countermoves.
Putting the blame on Putin, a recent report of the American Institute for Economic Research says that, under him, Russia is back into its old habit of displaying "a centralized and authoritarian government, a regulated and manipulated economy, and suspicion and hostility toward the West." This statement could be made about the United States, if one changes the word "regulated" to "rigged". But all governments advance by processes driven by some combination of expectations and ambitions. Alter either one and courses change. Russian behavior starkly mirror images what it sees happening in the United States. The question for serious analysts of this situation is who is holding the mirror.
An awkward example of such mirror imaging is in process today in Washington. Reportedly the Defense Department has sent Congress notification of intent to sell Israel 1,000 (this is not a typo) bunker buster bombs, all smart toys supplied by Boeing. Except in its paranoid imaginings, Israel has no enemy against whom such weapons are required, but they obviously are meant to threaten Iran. It is also obviously a proxy US threat that can be matched by Russian support for Iran. Not satisfied with its own arms race, the US actively promotes a Middle Eastern one.
The sad part of this is that the US is consciously in the process of giving substance to a plausible enemy, one whose responses to repetitively threatening US moves are likely to grow. Americans have to understand that the US gambits in Poland and the Czech Republic, plus the whole show in Georgia can cause Russia to defend itself in familiar ways, e.g., positioning missile forces in visibly counterpoint locations and overall enhancing its perimeter defenses. If the US, with or without active NATO country involvement, continues on this path, the culprit will be the United States.
Hidden in this situation is a fundamental truth of American political life that the American public must take on board. Our political leadership is deathly afraid to let go of the military/industrial industries and services because they know the process could cause an economic slowdown that can be politically fatal to the party in power. That result would redistribute power and influence, at home and abroad, in ways the power elites know they would not like. It is hard not to be cynical about this prospect, but the energies of it are incandescent.
Over time, updating and modernizing our economic infrastructure while making our system more equitable to all its members will take a good deal more than the present annual defense budget. Over time, we can liberate ourselves from virtually sole reliance on military power to define our foreign relations. Over time, we can extricate ourselves from dependence on lucrative exports of military hardware to people who do not need it, and indeed should not have it. Over time we can make the transition from jobs in military industries and services to jobs in infrastructure system development and support services. Over time, we can reduce the military competition, the arms race that runs in both multinational self-protective markets as well as in weapons export markets. But all of that takes orders of cooperation and trust that presently do not exist. We can, over time, achieve all of that, but it will never happen if we don't start.
As Bill Clinton was starting to show (before he got into the Lewinsky troubles that made him open to blackmail by promoters of an America armed to the teeth) the slow transition from tank builders to bridge builders is actually possible. However, the Project for a New American Century crowd in Washington think tanks was already plotting a rapid switchback in the US economy. The most wasteful products of that Bush team enterprise are (a) the deepening and hardening of US dependence on military/industrial output for sustaining the level of US economic activity and growth, (b) the worldwide enhancement of a military basing and operating system that is designed to use that output while sustaining demand for it, (c) the display of those capabilities as an intimidation and control machinery to keep other countries in line with US ambitions; (d) the hooking together, in American minds, of that global military presence and US access to-read preemption of- an excessive share of global energy resources, and (e) the resultant expansion and reinforcement of America's role as the world's leading debtor country.
In our lifetimes none of us could have seen ourselves in a situation where we are actually being impoverished by the trappings of our superior military power. In perverse terms, our greatest apparent strength has become our greatest real weakness. Moreover, we are seen as both misdirected and overbearing by virtually all other societies, even many who nominally do our bidding while wondering if we have not actually lost our minds. The decline and disappearance of several ancient powers notwithstanding, perhaps in all of history no earlier superpower has actually foundered on its appetites for military expansion. We, however, are close, and the truth is that any of several lesser powers could render us extinct with nuclear weapons. Instead of pushing this failing system forward, we should be backing away from the abyss.
We must fault our politicians not because they are fearful of taking on this task, but because (a) they automatically assume that we Americans are not up to the potential hardships of the transition, and (b) they will not risk the jobs we gave them to undertake the task. Barack Obama and John McCain are both talking about change in our future, but neither one is talking or, it appears, even thinking about the most fundamental change that is required to assure America's future: The creation of an American lifestyle and operating system that is both satisfactory to us and compatible with the interests and needs of the rest of the planet.
We are only 4.5% of the people who will be affected by this achievement, but our influence on the rest of humanity will be much greater if we show the rest of the world that is what we are trying to do. Meanwhile, we would be much safer if we stopped mindlessly supporting Israel's ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people, abandoned the narrow-minded ideological assault on Islam, and if we stopped provoking, thereby manipulating Russia, the most nuclear-armed power on our planet. In all cases, we are frittering away our superpower and endangering its future.
The writer is the author of the recently published work, A World Less Safe, now available on Amazon, and he is a regular columnist on rense.com. He is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer of the US Department of State whose immediate pre-retirement positions were as Chairman of the Department of International Studies of the National War College and as Deputy Director of the State Office of Counter Terrorism and Emergency Planning. He will welcome comment at
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