Wednesday, December 30, 2009

2010... locked and loaded

"I know that history will be dominated by an improbable event, I just don't know what that event will be."
Nassim Nicholas Taleb - "The Black Swan"
David Seaton's News Links
I put the quote from Nissim Taleb above this post, because it is, with the oracular pronouncements of Donald Rumsfeld and Yogi Berra, the most intuitive and insightful summing up of the art of prediction that I have ever read.

Anyone who studies history or has lived a few decades, and still has all their marbles, will easily recall how few of the major events he or she has lived through were ever predicted.

Therefore, making predictions is a mugs game, however at year's end people who entertain others by commenting on the affairs of the world are expected to come up with a few predictions for the coming twelvemonth. To make specific predictions, then, would be foolish, but it might be interesting to look at situations that are pregnant with, well... situations.

Now, with the attempted Christmas bombing of Flight 253, Osama bin Laden is luring the USA into yet another quagmire, this time in Yemen. As Steve Clemons writes in The Washington Note:
Bin Laden, hiding somewhere in Pakistan, remains the single most significant sculptor of global affairs today, pushing the buttons of an American superpower as well as other regimes, so that they engage in emotional, knee jerk crusades that undermine what is left of a global equilibrium and the perception of American power.
It is bad enough that the USA, like some wonderful, Spanish fighting bull in a dream, will charge endlessly after every red cloth offered it until it collapses... the tactics being used to fight the terrorists (their doesn't seem to be any strategy) are extremely counterproductive.

I have placed a video mash-up of America's remote control air "war on terror" above this post, because I think the blowback from the use of these instruments will be devastating, even though they appear so efficient and at the same time so sparing of American lives. Never has the cultural gap between civilizations been wider than on the question of drone attacks with Predator missiles.

How so?

It has been amply noted and much criticized, that Islamic culture is overly masculine, with an archaic, some say medieval, sense of honor and virility. This form of warfare is a studied insult to that archaic masculinity.

The sort of nameless terror caused by a drone attack; coming as it does literally out of the blue, is the sort of thing that makes small children wet their beds; but the effect it may be causing on some hard men, and the Afghan Pashtun, Yemenite tribesmen or the Hausa of Nigeria are hard men indeed, could be radically different.

This "antiseptic" form of warfare, where one's comrades and kin; women, old folk and children are vaporized from a model airplane... flown by some overweight desk jockey several continents away... between sips of coffee, is so insulting to a traditional culture's sense of honor and masculinity, that it just might make a fellow want to up and fill his underpants with dynamite and  go off and do something rash.

This brings us to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the young Nigerian terrorist that attempted to blow up the Christmas flight to Detroit. This is a major and perverse twist that Al Qaeda is giving to America's paranoia industry.

For some thirty years Hollywood's favorite villains that weren't chillingly blond Nazis, have been those with Arab faces... to the point that an immigrant Syrian cleaning lady might draw extra attention at an American airport. A face like Umar Farouk's is never seen on a Hollywood villain, it wouldn't be politically correct.

Umar Farouk has a West-African face, one like you see a hundred times every day of your life, in any American city. If you are an American you may very well see something like it in the mirror when you shave.

This is not an exotic Arab or a Pakistani face. This is a face seen in America for some three hundred years, ever since colonial times: a face as American as chitlins and chicken fried steak. The only thing that might distinguish Umar Farouk's face from hundreds of thousands of Americans, is the prayer bruise on his forehead, a sign of piety that very devout Muslims often bear from hitting their forehead on the floor five times a day at prayer for many years... a bruise easily lost in the darkness of Umar Farouk's skin.

Umar Farouk's face is a portent, for America's Arab and Pakistani population is very small, but Americans of West-African descent make up a sizable proportion of the US population... the majority in Washington D.C., to name an extremely sensitive and significant American population center.

American police are known to practice racial-profiling and being stopped and questioned for no other reason than their color is what Barack Obama described as "every African-American man's nightmare". Well dressed black men are routinely stopped and questioned on suspicion of everything from dealing drugs to stealing hubcaps... now suspicion of being a  terrorist will be added to the list. You can imagine how all this is going to play out.

I believe that al Qaeda deliberately gave Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab a faulty detonator so that he could be captured in flagranti and his picture published in all American newspapers with the word, "terrorist" underneath it.

His picture, right out of a  high school year book, linking an arch-typical West-African face with the word "terrorist"  ultimately could do more damage to American society than if the plane had actually crashed. An attack on a "soft target", like a crowded shopping mall, by someone looking like Umar Farouk Abdulmutalla wearing an exploding vest, might raise all of America's ancestral ghosts from their graves.

Conclusion: if we had only half the knowledge of Al Qaeda's weak points as they do of ours, we might at least fight this war to a draw.

Moving on to other situations pregnant with situations.

As grave and debilitating as it is, finally the war on terror is merely a running sore. There are other areas where an unexpected blow might have more immediate and traumatic consequences:

We have been living through the worst economic crisis since the 1930s, some think there is "light at the end of the tunnel" and some don't. Wall Street is in the first group and most everybody else is in the second.

There has been much talk about the need for deep reforms to avoid a crisis like this reoccurring. Somehow all this talk has come to naught. It seems that Wall Street has been able to neutralize any meaningful reform. Names like Rubin, Summers and Geithner are given to explain this lack of White House enthusiasm. Be that as it may, it stands to reason that if certain policies and systems caused a disaster and those systems and policies are not changed and reformed then the disaster could be repeated. So, if suddenly some sovereign default that dwarfs Lehman Brothers occurs, something that brings everything crashing down around our ears... again, we shouldn't be amazed or even startled... just stuffed, as the British would put it.

Next China:

China is where everybody in the know appears to have placed all  their hopes. America is China-dependent. Now China is almost as opaque a place as its bitch Tibet (formerly Shangri-la). All the most important decisions there are taken within innermost circles the Chinese Communist Party, which has got to be the world's tightest clique.

It might be feared, since they have come to capitalism from Marxist-Leninism, that the Communist Party of China is using capitalism as a tool to empower China without actually believing it to be the "end of history". Who knows? But it all comes down to that... the whole financial system now belongs to a group of people, who direct an organization created by Mao Tse Tung.

Now two alternatives strike me: (1.) the CPC doesn't really understand the workings of capitalism nearly as well as they seem to think they do, or, (2.) That looking at it so coldly they understand the workings of capitalism much better than we do. Either alternative could produce a disaster so sudden and so devastating that we would have to invent the candle-powered Internet in order to continue this conversation.

I haven't talked about a war with Iran, because as terrible, cruel and disastrous as that would be, it wouldn't be much of a surprise. Finally I imagine that, like seemingly happens with most everything else, "George W. Bush" will be cunningly repackaged and sold under the brand "Obama". I don't know if this constitutes change, but I know I believe in it.

When a dark horse becomes a black swan:

Everybody seems to have forgotten Korea, but a war on the Korean peninsula could bring globalization crashing down in a matter of days. The US armed forces are stretched to a point in Afghanistan and Iraq that to fight a war in Korea would probably require using atomic weapon  in the first few days just to keep the American soldiers there from taking unacceptable casualties. What would China do if atomic weapons were used on the North Koreans? Who knows? Maybe sell a lot of dollars?

Impossible? Check these facts from the Center for Defense Information:
More than 11,000 DPRK artillery weapons are pointed at over 10 million citizens in Seoul. North Korea’s 1.2 million-man Army is the world’s fourth largest fighting force. Two-thirds of those soldiers are stationed within 60 miles of the De-Militarized Zone (DMZ), along with thousands of tanks and armored personnel carriers.(...) war on the Korean Peninsula would likely mean hundreds of thousands killed and enormous damage. It must be avoided if at all possible. A negotiated solution should be sought, and be pressed upon the North’s government by all the means available.
A bitch of a war, if it ever got started, and an attack on Iran might be too much for North Korea's paranoid leadership. Not very likely, but it would dwarf anything except a major movement of the San Andreas fault.

Well, as I began this piece, none of these are really predictions, but simply pointing out what I have called "situations pregnant with situation".

So enough of this New Years cheer. Let us close today's chat with the advice of this traditional American folksong:
Jay Gould's daughter said before she died
Papa, fix the blinds so the bums can't ride.
If ride they must, they got to ride the rod.
Let 'em put their trust in the hands of God.
I'll close by saying that, despite all its perils, may 2010 be a beautiful and fulfilling year for all my readers. DS

1 comment:

oldfatherwilliam said...

"C'est la vie, say the old folks, it goes to show you never can tell".

Chuck Berry, American philosopher