Conn M. Hallinan – Informed Comment https://www.juancole.com Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Fri, 18 Sep 2020 04:03:25 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.9.15 The Pandemic and Oil https://www.juancole.com/2020/09/the-pandemic-and-oil.html https://www.juancole.com/2020/09/the-pandemic-and-oil.html#respond Thu, 17 Sep 2020 04:02:23 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=193206 Foreign Policy in Focus) – With oil prices down and wealthy countries bungling COVID-19, the pandemic has exposed the weaknesses that wealth papers over.

During the reign of the Emperor Justinian I (527-565 AD), a mysterious plague spread out of the Nile Valley to Constantinople and finished off the Roman Empire. Appearing first in China and North India, the “Black Death” (Yersinia pestis) radiated throughout the Mediterranean and into Northern Europe. It may well have killed close to half the world’s population, some 50 million people.

COVID-19 is not the Black Death, but its impact may be civilizational, weakening the mighty, raising up the modest, and rearranging axes of power across the globe.

The Middle East is a case in point. Since the end of World War II, the wealth of the Persian Gulf monarchies — Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Kuwait and Qatar — has overturned the traditional centers of power that dominated the region for millennia: Turkey, Egypt, and Persia. While those civilizations were built on agriculture, industry, and trade, the monarchs were fabulously wealthy simply because they sat on a sea of oil.

The monarchies — Saudi Arabia in particular — have used that wealth to overthrow governments, silence internal dissent, and sponsor a version of Islam that has spawned terrorists from the Caucasus to the Philippines.

And now they are in trouble.

The Saudi owned oil company, Aramco, just saw its quarterly earnings fall from $24.7 billion to $6.6 billion, a more than 73 percent drop from a year ago.

Not all the slump is due to the pandemic recession. Over the past eight years, Arab oil producers have seen their annual revenues decline from $1 trillion to $300 billion, reflecting a gradual shift away from hydrocarbons toward renewable energy. But COVID-19 has greatly accelerated that trend.

For countries like Saudi Arabia, this is an existential problem. The country has a growing population, much of it unemployed and young — some 70 percent of Saudis are under 30. So far, the royalty has kept a lid on things by handing out cash and make-work jobs, but the drop in revenues is making that more difficult. The kingdom —as well as the UAE — has hefty financial reserves, but that money will not last forever.

In the Saudi case, a series of economic and political blunders have worsened the crisis.

Riyadh is locked into an expensive military stalemate in Yemen, while also trying to diversify the country’s economy. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is pushing a $500 billion Red Sea mega project to build a new city, Neom, that will supposedly attract industry, technology, and investment.

However, the plan has drawn little outside money, because investors are spooked by the Crown Prince’s aggressive foreign policy and the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The Saudis are borrowing up to $12 billion just to pay Aramco dividends of $75 billion a year.

The oil crisis has spread to Middle Eastern countries that rely on the monarchs for investments, aid, and jobs for their young populations. Cairo sends some 2.5 million Egyptians to work in the Gulf states, and countries like Lebanon provide financial services and consumer goods.

Lebanon is now imploding, Egypt is piling up massive debts, and Iraq can’t pay its bills because oil is stuck at around $46 a barrel. Saudi Arabia needs a price of at least $95 a barrel to meet its budgetary needs — and to feed the appetites of its royals.

When the pandemic ends, oil prices will rise, but they are very unlikely to reach the levels they did in the early 2000s when they averaged $100 a barrel. Oil prices have been low ever since Saudi Arabia’s ill-conceived attempt to drive out smaller competitors and retake its former market share.

In 2014, Riyadh deliberately drove down the price of oil to hurt smaller competitors and throttle expensive arctic drilling projects. But when China’s economy slowed, demand for oil fell, and the price has never recovered.

Of the top 10 oil producers in the world, five are in the Middle East: Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, the UAE, and Kuwait. All of them are in dire straits, although in Iran’s case this is exacerbated by U.S. sanctions. With the exception of Iraq — where massive demonstrations have shaken the country’s leadership — most of those countries have been politically quiet. In the case of the monarchies, of course, it is hard to judge the level of dissatisfaction because they do not tolerate dissent.

But how long will the royals be able to keep the lid on?

“It is a transformation that has speeded up by the corona virus cataclysm,” says Middle East expert Patrick Cockburn, “and will radically change the politics of the Middle East.”

There is no region untouched by the current crisis. With the exception of the presidents of Brazil and the U.S., most world leaders have concluded that climate change is a reality and that hydrocarbons are the major culprit. Even when the pandemic eases, oil use will continue to decline.

The virus has exposed the fault lines among the mighty. The United States has the largest economy in the world and is the greatest military power on the globe, and yet it simply collapsed in the face of COVID-19. With 4 percent of the world’s population, the United States accounts for 22 percent of the pandemic’s fatalities.

And the U.S. is not alone. The United Kingdom has more than 40,000 dead, and its economy has plummeted 9 percent. In contrast, Bangladesh, the world’s most crowded country, with twice Great Britain’s population, has around 4,000 deaths and its economy has contracted by only 1.9 percent.

“COVID-19 has blown away the myth about ‘First’ and ‘Third’ world competence,” says Steven Friedman, director of the Center for the Study of Democracy in Johannesburg.

Turkey, Vietnam, Cuba, and Nigeria all have far better records fighting the virus than Great Britain and the European Union.

Partly this is because Europe’s population is older. While Europe’s average age is 43, Africa’s is 19. Younger people infected with coronavirus generally have better outcomes than older people, but age doesn’t fully explain the differences.

While Turkey developed sophisticated tracking methods to monitor measles, and Nigeria did the same for Ebola, the U.S. and United Kingdom were systematically starving or dismantling public health programs. Instead of stockpiling supplies to deal with a pandemic, Europe and the U.S. relied on countries like China to quickly supply things like personal protection equipment on an “as needed” basis, because it was cheaper than producing their own or paying for storage and maintenance.

But “need” doesn’t work during a worldwide pandemic. China had its own health crisis to deal with. The lag time between the appearance of the virus and obtaining the tools to fight it is directly responsible for the wave of deaths among medical workers and first responders.

And while the Chinese economy has rebounded — enough to tick the price of oil slightly upwards — the U.S., Great Britain, and the EU are mired in what promises to be a painful recession.

The neoliberal model of low taxes, privatization of public resources, and reliance on the free market has demonstrated its incompetence in the face of a natural disaster. The relationship between wealth and favorable outcomes only works when that wealth is invested in the many, not the few.

The Plague of Justinian destroyed the Roman Empire. The pandemic is not likely to do that to the United States. But it has exposed the fault lines and structural weaknesses that wealth papers over — until something like COVID-19 comes along to shake the glitter off the system.

Via Foreign Policy in Focus

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Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

Al Jazeera English: Is this the end of the Middle East’s oil rush? | Counting the Cost

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China and the United States: The 21st Century’s ‘Great Game’ https://www.juancole.com/2020/08/united-states-centurys.html Fri, 21 Aug 2020 04:01:08 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=192700 For China, the global war for influence is about trading partners. For the U.S., it could mean something more volatile.

(Foreign Policy in Focus ) – From 1830 to 1895, the British and Russian empires schemed and plotted over control of Central and South Asia.

At the heart of the “Great Game” was the United Kingdom’s certainty that the Russians had designs on India. So wars were fought, borders drawn, and generations of young met death in desolate passes and lonely outposts.

In the end, it was all illusion.

Russia never planned to challenge British rule in India and the bloody wars settled nothing, although the arbitrary borders and ethnic tensions stoked by colonialism’s strategy of divide and conquer live on today. Thus China, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nepal battle over lines drawn long ago in London, while Beijing, Tokyo, and Seoul vie for tiny uninhabited islands, remnants of Imperial Japan.

That history is important to keep in mind when one begins to unpack the rationales behind the increasingly dangerous standoff between China and the United States in the South China Sea.

A New Cold War

To the Americans, China is a fast rising competitor that doesn’t play by the rules and threatens one of the most important trade routes on the globe in a region long dominated by Washington. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has essentially called for regime change.

According to Ryan Hass, former China director on the National Security Council, the Trump administration is trying to “reorient the U.S.-China relationship toward an all-encompassing systemic rivalry that cannot be reversed” by administrations that follow. In short, a cold war not unlike that between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

To the Chinese, the last 200 years — and China’s leaders do tend to think in centuries, not decades — has been an anomaly in their long history. Once the richest country on the globe who introduced the world to everything from silk to gunpowder, 19th century China became a dumping ground for British opium, incapable of even controlling its own coastlines.

China has never forgotten those years of humiliation or the damage colonialism helped inflict on its people. Those memories are an ingredient in the current crisis.

But China is not the only country with memories.

The U.S. has dominated the Pacific Ocean — sometimes called an “American lake” — since the end of World War II. Suddenly Americans have a competitor, although it is a rivalry that routinely gets overblown.

An example is conservative New York Times columnist Bret Stephens, who recently warned that China’s Navy has more ships than the U.S. Navy, ignoring the fact that most of China’s ships are small Coast Guard frigates and corvettes. China’s major strategic concern is the defense of its coasts, where several invasions landed in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The Chinese strategy is “area denial”: keeping American aircraft carriers at arm’s length. To this end, Beijing has illegally seized numerous small islands and reefs in the South China Sea to create a barrier to the U.S. Navy.

In the World Bank’s Wake

Shutterstock

But China’s major thrust is economic, through its massive Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), not military, and is currently targeting South Asia as an area for development.

South Asia is enormously complex, comprising Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Tibet, the Maldives, and Sri Lanka. Its 1.6 billion people constitute almost a quarter of the world’s population, but it only accounts for 2 percent of the global GDP and 1.3 percent of world trade.

Those figures translate into a poverty level of 44 percent, just 2 percent higher than the world’s most impoverished region, sub-Saharan Africa. Close to 85 percent of South Asia’s population makes less than $2 a day.

Much of this is a result of colonialism, which derailed local economies, suppressed manufacturing, and forced countries to adopt monocrop cultures focused on export. The globalization of capital in the 1980s accelerated the economic inequality that colonialism had bequeathed the region.

Development in South Asia has been beholden to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which require borrowers to open their markets to western capital and reduce debts through severe austerity measures, throttling everything from health care to transportation.

This economic strategy — sometimes called the “Washington Consensus” — generates “debt traps”: countries cut back on public spending, which depresses their economies and increases debt, which leads to yet more rounds of borrowing and austerity.

The World Bank and the IMF have been particularly stingy about lending for infrastructure development, an essential part of building a modern economy. It is “the inadequacy and rigidness of the various western monetary institutions that have driven South Asia into the arms of China,” says economist Anthony Howell in the South Asia Journal.

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) takes a different tack. Through a combination of infrastructure development, trade and financial aid, countries in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Europe are linked into what is essentially a new “Silk Road.” Some 138 countries have signed up.

Using a variety of institutions — the China Development Bank, the Silk Road Fund, the Export-Import Bank of China, and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank — Beijing has been building roads, rail systems, and ports throughout South Asia.

For decades, western lenders have either ignored South Asia — with the exception of India — or put so many restrictions on development funds that the region has stagnated economically. The Chinese Initiative has the potential to reverse this, alarming the West and India, the only nation in the region not to join the BRI.

The European Union has also been resistant to the Initiative, although Italy has signed on. A number of Middle East countries have also joined the BRI and the China-Arab Cooperation Forum. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt have signed on to China’s Digital Silk Road, a network of navigation satellites that compete with America’s GPS, Russia’s GLONASS, and European Union’s Galileo. China also recently signed a $400 billion, 25-year trade and military partnership with Iran.

Needless to say, Washington is hardly happy about China elbowing its way into a U.S.-dominated region that contains a significant portion of the world’s energy supplies. In a worldwide competition for markets and influence, China is demonstrating considerable strengths.

That, of course, creates friction.

The United States, and to a certain extent the EU, have launched a campaign to freeze China out of markets and restrict its access to advanced technology. The White House successfully lobbied Great Britain and Australia to bar the Chinese company Huawei from installing a 5G digital network, and is pressuring Israel and Brazil to do the same.

An October Surprise?

Not all of the current tensions are economic.

The Trump administration needs a diversion from its massive failure to control the pandemic, and the Republican Party has made China bashing a centerpiece of its election strategy. There is even the possibility that the White House might pull off an “October surprise” and initiate some kind of military clash with China.

It is unlikely that Trump wants a full-scale war, but an incident in the South China Sea might rally Americans behind the White House. The danger is real, especially since polls in China and the United States show there is growing hostility between both groups of people.

But the tensions go beyond President Trump’s desperate need to be re-elected. China is re-asserting itself as a regional power and a force to be reckoned with worldwide.

That the U.S. and its allies view that with enmity is hardly a surprise. Britain did its best to block the rise of Germany before World War I, and the U.S. did much the same with Japan in the lead up to the Pacific War.

Germany and Japan were great military powers with a willingness to use violence to get their way. China is not a great military power and is more interested in creating profits than empires. In any case, a war between nuclear-armed powers is almost unimaginable (which is not to say it can’t happen).

China recently softened its language toward the U.S., stressing peaceful co-existence. “We should not let nationalism and hotheadness somehow kidnap our foreign policy,” says Xu Quinduo of the state-run China Radio. “Tough rhetoric should not replace rational diplomacy.”

The new tone suggests that China has no enthusiasm for competing with the U.S. military, but would rather take the long view and let initiatives like the Belt and Road work for it. Unlike the Russians, the Chinese don’t want to see Trump re-elected and they clearly have decided not to give him any excuse to ratchet up the tensions as an election year ploy.

China’s recent clash with India, and its bullying of countries in the South China Sea, including Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Brunei, have isolated Beijing, and the Chinese leadership may be waking to the fact that they need allies, not adversaries.

And patience.

Via Foreign Policy in Focus

Featured Photo: Chengdu, China, starting point of the Road and Belt Initiative (Shutterstock).

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In the Midst of a Pandemic, Can we Afford to spend Trillions on War Industries? https://www.juancole.com/2020/05/pandemic-trillions-industries.html Sat, 16 May 2020 04:02:55 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=190916

“There have been as many plagues as wars in history, yet plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.”

— Albert Camus, “The Plague”

( Foreign Policy in Focus) – Camus’ novel of a lethal contagion in the North African city of Oran is filled with characters all too recognizable today: indifferent or incompetent officials, short sighted and selfish citizens, and lots of great courage. What not even Camus could imagine, however, is a society in the midst of a deadly epidemic pouring vast amounts of wealth into instruments of death.

Welcome to the world of the hypersonic weapons, devices that are not only superfluous, but which will almost certainly not work. They will, however, cost enormous amounts of money. At a time when countries across the globe are facing economic chaos, financial deficits, and unemployment at Great Depression levels, arms manufacturers are set to cash in big.

A Hypersonic Arms Race

Hypersonic weapons are missiles that go five times faster than sound — 3,800 mph — although some reportedly can reach speeds of Mach 20, 15,000 mph. They come in two basic varieties. One is powered by a high-speed scramjet. The other, launched from a plane or missile, glides to its target. The idea behind the weapons is that their speed and maneuverability will make them virtually invulnerable to anti-missile systems.

Currently there is a hypersonic arms race going on among China, Russia, and the U.S., and, according to the Pentagon, the Americans are desperately trying to catch up with its two adversaries.

Truth is the first casualty in an arms race.

In the 1950s, it was the “bomber gap” between the Americans and the Soviets. In the 1960s, it was the “missile gap” between the two powers. Neither gap existed, but vast amounts of national treasure were nonetheless poured into long-range aircraft and thousands of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). The enormous expenditures on those weapons, in turn, heightened tensions between the major powers and on at least three occasions came very close to touching off a nuclear war.

In the current hypersonic arms race, “hype” is the operational word. “The development of hypersonic weapons in the United States,” says physicist James Acton of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “has been largely motivated by technology, not by strategy. In other words, technologists have decided to try and develop hypersonic weapons because it seems like they should be useful for something, not because there is a clearly defined mission need for them to fulfill.”

They have certainly been “useful” to Lockheed Martin, the largest arms manufacturer in the world. The company has already received $3.5 billion to develop the Advanced Hypersonic Weapon (Arrow) glide missile, and the scramjet-driven Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle (Hacksaw) missile.

The Russians also have several hypersonic missiles, including the Avangard glide vehicle, a missile said to be capable of Mach 20. China is developing several hypersonic missiles, including the DF-ZF, supposedly capable of taking out aircraft carriers.

“No Advantage Whatsoever”

In theory hypersonic missiles are unstoppable. In real life, not so much.

The first problem is basic physics: speed in the atmosphere produces heat. High speed generates lots of it. ICBMs avoid this problem with a blunt nose cone that deflects the enormous heat of re-entering the atmosphere as the missile approaches its target. But it only has to endure heat for a short time because much of its flight is in frictionless low earth orbit.

Hypersonic missiles, however, stay in the atmosphere their entire flight. That is the whole idea. An ICBM follows a predictable ballistic curve, much like an inverted U and, in theory, can be intercepted. A missile traveling as fast as an ICBM but at low altitude, however, is much more difficult to spot or engage.

But that’s when physics shows up and does a Las Vegas: what happens on the drawing board stays on the drawing board.

Without a heat deflecting nose cone, high-speed missiles are built like big needles, since they need to decrease the area exposed to the atmosphere. Even so, they are going to run very hot. And if they try to maneuver, that heat will increase. Since they can’t carry a large payload, they will have to be very accurate — but as a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists points out, that is “problematic.”

According to the Union, an object traveling Mach 5 for a period of time “slowly tears itself apart during the flight.” The heat is so great it creates a “plasma” around the craft that makes it difficult “to reference GPS or receive outside course correction commands.”

If the target is moving, as with an aircraft carrier or a mobile missile, it will be almost impossible to alter the weapon’s flight path to intercept it. And any external radar array would never survive the heat or else be so small that it would have very limited range. In short, you can’t get from here to there.

Lockheed Martin says the tests are going just fine, but then Lockheed Martin is the company that builds the F-35, a fifth generation stealth fighter that simply doesn’t work. It does, however, cost $1.5 trillion, the most expensive weapons system in U.S. history. The company has apparently dropped the scramjet engine because it tears itself apart, hardly a surprise.

The Russians and Chinese claim success with their hypersonic weapons and have even begun deploying them. But Pierre Sprey, a Pentagon designer associated with the two very successful aircraft — the F-16 and the A-10 — told defense analyst Andrew Cockburn that he is suspicious of the tests.

“I very much doubt those test birds would have reached the advertised range had they maneuvered unpredictably,” he told Cockburn. “More likely they were forced to fly a straight, predictable path. In which case hypersonics offer no advantage whatsoever over traditional ballistic missiles.”

Guns or Vaccines

While Russia, China, and the U.S. lead the field in the development of hypersonics, Britain, France, India, and Japan have joined the race too.

Why is everyone building them?

At least the Russians and the Chinese have a rationale. The Russians fear the U.S. anti-missile system might cancel out their ICBMs, so they want a missile that can maneuver. The Chinese would like to keep U.S. aircraft carriers away from their shores.

But anti-missile systems can be easily fooled by the use of cheap decoys, and the carriers are vulnerable to much more cost effective conventional weapons. In any case hypersonic missiles can’t do what they are advertised to do.

For the Americans, hypersonics are little more than a very expensive subsidy for the arms corporations. Making and deploying weapons that don’t work is nothing new. The F-35 is a case in point, but nevertheless, there have been many systems produced over the years that were deeply flawed.

The U.S. has spent over $200 billion on anti-missile systems, and once they come off the drawing boards, none of them work very well, if at all.

Probably the one that takes the prize is the Mark-28 tactical nuke, nicknamed the “Davy Crockett,” and its M-388 warhead. Because the M-388 was too delicate to be used in conventional artillery, it was fired from a recoil-less rife with a range of 2.5 miles. Problem: if the wind was blowing in the wrong direction, the Crockett cooked its three-man crew. It was only tested once and found to be “totally inaccurate.”

So, end of story? Not exactly. A total of 2,100 were produced and deployed, mostly in Europe.

While the official military budget is $738 billion, if one pulls all U.S. defense related spending together, the actual cost for taxpayers is $1.25 trillion a year, according to William Hartung of the Center for International Policy. Half that amount would go a long way toward providing not only adequate medical support during the Covid-19 crisis — it would also pay jobless Americans a salary.

Given that there are more than 31 million Americans now unemployed and the possibility that numerous small businesses — restaurants in particular — will never reopen, building and deploying a new generation of weapons is a luxury the U.S. and other countries cannot afford.

In the very near future, countries are going to have to choose whether they make guns or vaccines.

Via Foreign Policy in Focus

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Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

Al Jazeera English: “Why is worldwide military spending going up? | Inside Story”

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Italy Coronavirus Deaths Pass 10,000: How Austerity and Anti-Immigrant Politics Created Europe’s Worst Crisis https://www.juancole.com/2020/03/coronavirus-austerity-immigrant.html Sun, 29 Mar 2020 04:02:30 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=189964

Austerity and an anti-immigrant blockade left Italy with an older population and underfunded health care. Could the same happen here?

( Foreign Policy in Focus) As the viral blitzkrieg rolls across one European border after another, it seems to have a particular enmity for Italy. The country’s death toll has passed China’s, and scenes from its hospitals look like something out of Dante’s imagination.

Why?

Italy has the fourth largest economy in the European Union, and in terms of health care, it is certainly in a better place than the United States. Per capita, Italy has more hospital beds — so-called “surge capacity” — and more doctors and more ventilators. Italians have a longer life expectancy than Americans, not to mention British, French, Germans, Swedes, and Finns. The virus has had an especially fatal impact on northern Italy, the country’s richest region.

There are a number of reasons why Italy has been so hard-hit, but a major one can be placed at the feet of former Interior Minister Matteo Salvini of the xenophobic, right-wing League Party and his allies on the Italian right, including former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Aging Out

Italy has the oldest population in Europe, and one of the oldest in the world. It did not get that way by accident.

Right-wing parties have long targeted immigrants, even though Italy’s immigrant population — a little over 600,000 — is not large by international standards. Calling immigrants a “threat to European values” has been the rallying cry for the right in France, Germany, Hungry, Poland, Greece, Spain, the Netherlands, and Britain as well.

In the last Italian election, the League and its then ally, the Five Star Movement, built their campaigns around resisting immigration. Anti-immigrant parties also did well in Spain, and certainly played a major role in pulling the United Kingdom out of the EU.

Resistance to immigration plays a major role in “graying” the population. Italy has one of the lowest birthrates in the world, surpassing only Japan. The demographic effects of this are “an apocalypse,” according to former Italian Health Minister Beatrice Lorenzin. “In five years,” she continued, “we have lost more than 66,000 births” per year — more than the population of the city of Siena. “If we link this to this increasingly old and chronically ill people, we have a picture of a moribund country.”

According to the World Health Organization, the ideal birth-death replacement ratio in advanced countries is 2.1. Italy’s is 1.32., which means not only an older population, but also fewer working age people to pay the taxes that fund the social infrastructure, including health care.

As long as there is no major health crisis, countries muddle though. But when something like the coronavirus arrives, it exposes the underlying weaknesses of the system.

Some 60 percent of Italians are over 40, and 23 percent are over 65. It is demographics like these that make Covid-19 so lethal.

From age 10 to 39, the virus has a death rate of 0.2 percent, more deadly than influenza, but not overly so. But starting at age 40, the death rate starts to rise, reaching 8 percent for adults aged 70 to 79, and then jumping to 14.8 percent over 80. The average age of coronavirus deaths in Italy is 81.

Austerity

In addition to its graying population, today Italy is being haunted by the years of austerity that followed the global recession a decade ago.

When the economic meltdown hit Europe in 2008, the European Union responded by instituting painful austerity measures that targeted things like health care. Over the past 10 years, Italy has cut some 37 billion euros from its health system. The infrastructure that could have dealt with a health crisis like Covid-19 was hollowed out, so that when the disease hit, there simply weren’t enough resources to resist it.

Add to that the age of Italians, and the outcome was almost foreordained.

The issues in Italy’s 2018 election were pretty straightforward: slow growth, high youth unemployment, a starving education system, and a deteriorating infrastructure — Rome was almost literally drowning in garbage. But instead of the failed austerity strategy of the EU, the main election theme became immigration, a subject that had nothing to do with Italy’s economic crisis, troubled banking sector, or burdensome national debt.

Berlusconi, leader of the right-wing Forza Italia Party, said “All these immigrants live off of trickery and crime.” Forza made common cause with the fascist Brothers of Italy, whose leader, Giorgia Meloni, called for halting immigrants with a “naval blockade.”

The main voice of the xenophobic campaign, however, was Salvini and the League. Immigrants, he said, bring “chaos, anger, drug dealing, thefts, rape, and violence,” and pose a threat to the “white race.”

Five Star Movement leader Luigi Di Mario joined the immigrant bashing, if not with quite the vitriol of Berlusconi, Salvini, and Meloni. The center-left Democratic Party ducked the issue, leaving the field to the right.

The outcome was predictable: the Democratic Party was routed and the Five Star Movement and League swept into power. Salvini took the post of Interior Minister and actually instituted a naval blockade, a violation of international law and the 1982 Law of the Sea.

Eventually the League and Five Star had a falling out, and Salvini was ousted from his post, but the damage was done. The desperately needed repairs to infrastructure and investments in health care were shelved. When Covid-19 stuck, Italy was unprepared.

Italy’s Not Alone

Much the same can be said for the rest of Europe, where more than a decade of austerity policies have weakened health care systems all over the continent.

Nor is Italy facing a demographic catastrophe alone. The EU-wide replacement ratio is a tepid 1.58, with only France and Ireland approaching — but not reaching — 2.1.

If Germany does not increase the number of migrants it takes, the population will decline from 81 million to 67 million by 2060, reducing the workforce to 54 percent of the population — not enough to keep up with current levels of social spending. The Berlin Institute for Population and Development estimates that Germany will need 500,000 immigrants a year for the next 35 years to keep pensions and social services at current levels.

Spain — which saw the right-wing anti-immigration party do well in the last election — is bleeding population, particularly in small towns, some 1,500 of which have been abandoned. Spain has weathered a decade and a half of austerity, which damaged the country’s health care infrastructure. After Italy, Spain is the European country hardest hit by Covid-19.

As populations age, immigrants become a necessity. Not only is new blood needed to fill in the work needs of economies, broadening the tax base that pays for infrastructure, but, old people also need caretaking, as the Japanese have found out. After centuries of xenophobic policies that made immigration to Japan almost impossible, the Japanese have been forced to accept large numbers of migrants to staff senior facilities.

The United States will face a similar crisis if the Trump administration is successful in choking off immigration. While the U.S. replacement ratio is higher than the EU’s, it still falls under 2.1, and that will have serious demographic consequences in the long run.

It may be that a for-profit health system like the U.S. model simply can’t cope with a pandemic because it finds maintaining adequate surge capacity in hospital beds, ventilators, and staff reduces stockholders’ dividends. And public health care systems in Europe — which have better outcomes than the American system’s — only work if they are well funded.

To the biblical four horsemen — war, famine, wild beasts, and plague — we can add two more: profits and austerity.

Conn Hallinan can be read at www.dispatchesfromtheedgeblog.worpress.com and www.middleempireseries.wordpress.com.

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Bonus video added by Informed Comment:

Italy’s Coronavirus Death Toll Surpasses 10,000 | MSNBC

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The New Middle East That’s Coming: End of American Empire? https://www.juancole.com/2019/11/middle-coming-american.html Sun, 10 Nov 2019 05:02:51 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=187296 (Foreign Policy in Focus) – As Saudi Arabia slowly backpedals, we could see an end to the Yemen war, an easing of Iran’s isolation, and a reduced role for the U.S.

By , .

The fallout from the September attack on Saudi Arabia’s Aramco oil facilities is continuing to reverberate throughout the Middle East, sidelining old enmities — sometimes for new ones — and re-drawing traditional alliances. While Turkey’s recent invasion of northern Syria is grabbing the headlines, the bigger story may be that major regional players are contemplating some historic re-alignments.

After years of bitter rivalry, the Saudis and the Iranians are considering how they can dial down their mutual animosity. The formerly powerful Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) of Persian Gulf monarchs is atomizing because Saudi Arabia is losing its grip. And Washington’s former domination of the region appears to be in decline.

Some of these developments are long-standing, pre-dating the cruise missile and drone assault that knocked out 50 percent of Saudi Arabia’s oil production. But the double shock — Turkey’s lunge into Syria and the September missile attack — is accelerating these changes.

Saudi Arabia’s Slow Backpedal

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan recently flew to Iran and then on to Saudi Arabia to lobby for détente between Teheran and Riyadh and to head off any possibility of hostilities between the two countries. “What should never happen is a war,” Khan said, “because this will not just affect the whole region… this will cause poverty in the world. Oil prices will go up.”

According to Khan, both sides have agreed to talk, although the Yemen war is a stumbling block. But there are straws in the wind on that front, too. A partial ceasefire seems to be holding, and there are back channel talks going on between the Houthis and the Saudis.

The Saudi intervention in Yemen’s civil war was supposed to last three months, but it has dragged on for over four years. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) was to supply the ground troops and the Saudis the airpower. But the Saudi-UAE alliance has made little progress against the battle-hardened Houthis, who have been strengthened by defections from the regular Yemeni army.

Air wars without supporting ground troops are almost always a failure, and they are very expensive. The drain on the Saudi treasury is significant, and the country’s wealth is not bottomless.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is trying to shift the Saudi economy from its overreliance on petroleum, but he needs outside money to do that and he is not getting it. The Yemen war — which, according to the United Nations is the worst humanitarian disaster on the planet — and the prince’s involvement with the murder and dismemberment of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, has spooked many investors.

Without outside investment, the Saudis have to use their oil revenues, but the price per barrel is below what the kingdom needs to fulfill its budget goals, and world demand is falling off. The Chinese economy is slowing — the trade war with the U.S. has had an impact — and European growth is sluggish. There is a whiff of recession in the air, and that’s bad news for oil producers.

Riyadh is also losing allies. The UAE is negotiating with the Houthis and withdrawing their troops, in part because Abu Dhabi has different goals in Yemen than Saudi Arabia, and because in any dustup with Iran, the UAE would be ground zero. U.S. generals are fond of calling the UAE “little Sparta” because of its well trained army, but the operational word for Abu Dhabi is “little”: the emirate’s army can muster 20,000 troops. Iran can field more than 800,000.

Saudi Arabia’s goals in Yemen are to support the government-in-exile of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi control its southern border and challenge Iran’s support of the Houthis. The UAE, on the other hand, is less concerned with the Houthis but quite focused on backing the anti-Hadi Southern Transitional Council, which is trying to re-create South Yemen as a separate country. North and South Yemen were merged in 1990, largely as a result of Saudi pressure, and it has never been a comfortable marriage.

Turkey’s Checked Ambitions in Syria

Riyadh has also lost its grip on the Gulf Cooperation Council. Oman, Kuwait, and Qatar continue to trade with Iran in spite of efforts by the Saudis to isolate Teheran,

The UAE and Saudi Arabia recently hosted Russian President Vladimir Putin, who pressed for the 22-member Arab League to re-admit Syria. GCC member Bahrain has already re-established diplomatic relations with Damascus. Putin is pushing for a multilateral security umbrella for the Middle East, which includes China.

“While Russia is a reliable ally, the U.S. is not,” Middle East scholar Mark Katz told the South Asia Journal. And while many in the region have no love for Syria’s Assad, “they respect Vladimir Putin for sticking by Russia’s ally.”

The Arab League — with the exception of Qatar — denounced the Turkish invasion and called for a withdrawal of Ankara’s troops. Qatar is currently being blockaded by Saudi Arabia and the UAE for pursuing an independent foreign policy and backing a different horse in the Libyan civil war. Turkey is Qatar’s main ally.

Russia’s 10-point agreement with Turkey on Syria has generally gone down well with Arab League members, largely because the Turks agreed to respect Damascus’s sovereignty and eventually withdraw all troops. Of course, “eventually” is a shifty word, especially because Turkey’s goals are hardly clear.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants to drive the Syrian Kurds away from the Turkish border and move millions of Syrian refugees into a strip of land some 19 miles deep and 275 miles wide. The Kurds may move out, but the Russian and Syrian military — filling in the vacuum left by President Trump’s withdrawal of American forces — have blocked the Turks from holding more than the border and one deep enclave, certainly not one big enough to house millions of refugees.

Erdogan’s invasion is popular at home — nationalism plays well with the Turkish population and most Turks are unhappy with the Syrian refugees — but for how long? The Turkish economy is in trouble and invasions cost a lot of money. Ankara is using proxies for much of the fighting, but without lots of Turkish support those proxies are no match for the Kurds — let alone the Syrian and Russian military.

That would mainly mean airpower, and Turkish airpower is restrained by the threat of Syrian anti-aircraft and Russian fighters, not to mention the fact that the Americans still control the airspace. The Russians have deployed their latest fifth-generation stealth fighter, the SU-57, and a number of MiG-29s and SU-27s, not planes the Turks would wish to tangle with. The Russians also have their new mobile S-400 anti-aircraft system, and the Syrians have the older, but still effective, S-300s.

In short, things could get really messy if Turkey decided to push their proxies or their army into areas occupied by Russian or Syrian troops. There are reports of clashes in Syria’s northeast and casualties among the Kurds and Syrian Army, but a serious attempt to push the Russians and the Syrians out seems dubious.

The goal of relocating refugees from Turkey to Syria is unlikely to go anywhere. It will cost some $53 billion to build an infrastructure and move 2 million refugees into Syria, money that Turkey doesn’t have. The European Union has made it clear it won’t offer a nickel, and the UN can’t step in because the invasion is a violation of international law.

When those facts sink in, Erdogan might find that Turkish nationalism will not be enough to support his Syrian adventure if it turns into an occupation.

The Middle East That’s Coming

The Middle East that is emerging from the current crisis may be very different than the one that existed before those cruise missiles and drones tipped over the chessboard.

The Yemen war might finally end. Iran may, at least partly, break out of the political and economic blockade that Saudi Arabia, the U.S., and Israel has imposed on it. Syria’s civil war will recede.

And the Americans, who have dominated the Middle East since 1945, will become simply one of several international players in the region, along with China, Russia, India, and the European Union.

Via Foreign Policy in Focus

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Bonus video added by Informed Comment:

New China TV: “Chinese oil giant finishes refinery project in Kuwait”

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How the Saudi Oil Field Attack Overturned America’s Apple Cart https://www.juancole.com/2019/10/attack-overturned-americas.html Mon, 07 Oct 2019 04:03:35 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=186733 (Foreign Policy in Focus) – For all their overwhelming firepower, the U.S. and its allies can cause a lot of misery in the Middle East, but still can’t govern the course of events.

In many ways it doesn’t really matter who — Houthis in Yemen? Iranians? Shiites in Iraq? — launched those missiles and drones at Saudi Arabia. Whoever did it changed the rules of the game, and not just in the Middle East. “It’s a moment when offense laps defense, when the strong have reason to fear the weak,” observes military historian Jack Radey.

In spite of a $68 billion a year defense budget — the third highest spending of any country in the world — with a world-class air force and supposed state-of-the-art anti-aircraft system, a handful of bargain basement drones and cruise missiles slipped through the Saudi radar and devastated Riyadh’s oil economy. All those $18 million fighter planes and $3 million a pop Patriot anti-aircraft missiles suddenly look pretty irrelevant.

This is hardly an historical first. British dragoons at Concord were better trained and armed than a bunch of Massachusetts farmers, but the former were 5,000 miles from home and there were lots more of the latter, and so the English got whipped. The French army in Vietnam was far superior in firepower than the Viet Minh, but that didn’t count for much in the jungles of Southeast Asia. And the U.S. was vastly more powerful than the insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq, but we still lost both wars.

The September 14 attack on Saudi Arabia’s Aramco refineries at Abqaiq and Khurais did more than knock out 50 percent of Saudi Arabia’s oil production — it shook the pillars of Washington’s foreign policy in the region and demonstrated the fragility of the world’s energy supply.

The End of the Carter Doctrine?

Since 1945, Washington’s policy in the Middle East has been to control the world’s major energy supplies by politically and militarily dominating the Persian Gulf, which represents about 15 percent of the globe’s resources. The 1979 Carter Doctrine explicitly stated that the U.S. reserved the right to use military force in the case of any threat to the region’s oil and gas.

To that end, Washington has spread a network of bases throughout the area and keeps one of its major naval fleets, the Fifth, headquartered in the Gulf. It has armed its allies and fought several wars to ensure its primacy in the region.

And all that just got knocked into a cocked hat.

Washington blames Iran, but the evidence for that is dodgy. The Americans have yet to produce a radar map showing where the missiles originated, and even the Trump administration and the Saudis have scaled back blaming Tehran directly, instead saying the Iranians “sponsored” the attack.

Part of that is plain old-fashioned colonial thought patterns: the “primitive” Houthis couldn’t pull this off. In fact, the Houthis have been improving their drone and missile targeting for several years and have demonstrated considerable skill with the emerging technology.

The U.S. — and, for that matter, the Saudis — have enormous firepower, but the possible consequences of such a response are simply too costly. If 18 drones and seven cruise missiles did this much damage, how much could hundreds do? World oil prices have already jumped 20 percent. How high would they go if there were more successful attacks?

The only way to take out all the missiles and drones would be a ground attack and occupation. And who is going to do that?

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has already begun withdrawing its troops from Yemen and has been holding talks with the Houthis since July (which is likely why UAE oil facilities were not attacked this time around). The Saudi army is designed for keeping internal order, especially among Shiites in its Eastern provinces and Bahrain. The princes in Riyadh are far too paranoid about the possibility of a coup to build a regular army.

Would the U.S.? Going into an election with prices already rising at the pump? The U.S. military wants nothing to do with another war in the Middle East, not, mind you, because they have suddenly become sensible, but as Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chair of the Joints Chiefs of Staff put it, it drains resources from confronting China.

Starting with the administration of George W. Bush, and accelerated during the Obama presidency’s “Asia Pivot,” the U.S. military has been preparing for a confrontation with China in the South and/or East China Sea. The Pentagon also has plans to face off Russia in the Baltic.

One suspects that the generals made it clear that, while they can blow up a lot of Iranians, a shooting war would not be cost free. U.S. Patriot missiles can’t defend our allies’ oil fields (or American bases in the region), and while the anti-missile capabilities on some U.S. naval ships are pretty good, not on all of them are armed with effective systems like the Sea Sparrow. Americans would be coming home in boxes just as the fall election campaign kicked into high gear.

Whether the military got that message through to the Oval Office is not clear, but Trump’s dialing down of his rhetoric over Iran suggests it may have.

Making Good on a Stalemate

What happens now? The White House has clearly ruled out a military response in the short run.

Trump’s speech at the UN focused on attacking globalism and international cooperation, not Iran. But the standoff is likely to continue unless the Americans are willing to relax some of their “maximum pressure” sanctions as a prelude to a diplomatic solution.

The U.S. is certainly not withdrawing from the Middle East. In spite of the fact that shale oil has turned the United States into the world’s largest oil producer, we still import around one million barrels per day from Saudi Arabia. Europe is much more dependent on Gulf oil, as are the Chinese and Indians. The U.S. is not about to walk away from its 70 plus year grip on the region.

But the chessboard is not the same as it was six months ago. The Americans may have overwhelming military force in the Middle East, but using it might tank world oil prices and send the West — as well as India and China — into a major recession.

Israel is still the dominant local power, but if it picks a fight with Iran or Hezbollah, those drones and cruises will be headed its way. Israel relies on its “Iron Dome” anti-missile system, but while Iron Dome may do a pretty good job against the primitive missiles used by Hamas, mobile cruises and drones are another matter. While Israel could inflict enormous damage on any of its foes, the price tag could be considerably higher than in the past.

Stalemates can be dangerous because there is an incentive to try and break them by introducing some game changing weapon system. But stalemates also create the possibility for diplomatic solutions. That is certainly the case now.

If a more centrist government emerges from this last round of Israeli elections, Israel may step back from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s relentless campaign against Teheran. And Trump likes “deals,” even though he is not very good at them.

“This is the new strategic balance,” says Newclick Editor-In-Chief Prabir Purkayastha in the Asia Times, “and the sooner the U.S. and its NATO partners accept it, the quicker we will look for peace in the region.”

Foreign Policy in Focus

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Bonus video added by Informed Comment:

TRT World: “Pentagon announces troop deployment to Saudi Arabia”

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Rivers of Dust: The Future of Water and the Middle East https://www.juancole.com/2019/08/rivers-future-middle.html Fri, 16 Aug 2019 04:05:55 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=185828 Without international diplomacy, the Middle East is going to run out of water — and it won’t be alone.]]> ( Foreign Policy in Focus ) – It is written that “Enannatum, ruler of Lagash,” slew “60 soldiers” from Umma. The battle between the two ancient city states took place 4,500 years ago near where the great Tigris and Euphrates rivers come together in what is today Iraq.

The matter in dispute? Water.

More than four millennia have passed since the two armies clashed over one city state’s attempt to steal water from another. But while the instruments of war have changed, the issue is much the same: whoever controls the rivers controls the land.

And those rivers are drying up, partly because of overuse and wastage, and partly because climate change has pounded the region with punishing multi-year droughts.

Syria and Iraq are at odds with Turkey over the Tigris-Euphrates. Egypt’s relations with Sudan and Ethiopia over the Nile are tense. Jordan and the Palestinians accuse Israel of plundering river water to irrigate the Negev Desert and hogging most of the three aquifers that underlie the occupied West Bank.

According to satellites that monitor climate, the Tigris-Euphrates basin, embracing Turkey, Syria, Iraq and western Iran, is losing water faster than any other area in the world, with the exception of Northern India.

Dammed Up Tensions

The Middle East’s water problems are hardly unique. South Asia — in particular the Indian sub-continent — is also water stressed, and Australia and much of Southern Africa are experiencing severe droughts. Even Europe is struggling with some rivers dropping so low as to hinder shipping.

But the Middle East has been particularly hard hit. According to the Water Stress Index, out of 37 countries in the world facing “extremely high” water distress, 15 are in the Middle East, with Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia heading the list.

For Syria and Iraq, the problem is Turkey and Ankara’s mania for dam building. Since 1975, Turkish dams have reduced the flow of water to Syria by 40 percent — and to Iraq by 80 percent. According to the Iraqi Union of Farming Associations, up to 50 percent of the country’s agricultural land could be deprived of water, removing 124 million acres from production.

Iran and Syria have also built dams that reduce the flow of rivers that feed the Tigris and Euphrates, allowing salt water from the Persian Gulf to infiltrate the Shatt al-Arab waterway where the twin rivers converge. The salt has destroyed rich agricultural land in the south and wiped out much of the huge date farms for which Iraq was famous.

Half a century ago, Israel built the National Water Carrier canal diverting water from the Sea of Galilee, which is fed by the Jordan River. That turned the Jordan downstream of the Galilee into a muddy stream, which Israel prevents the Palestinians from using.

Jordanian and Syrian dams on the river’s tributaries have added to the problem, reducing the flow of the Jordan by 90 percent.

And according to the World Bank, Israel also takes 87 percent of the West Bank aquifers, leaving the Palestinians only 13 percent. The result is that Israeli settlers on the West Bank get access to 300 liters of water a day, leaving the Palestinians only 75 liters a day. The World Health Organization’s standard is 100 liters a day for each individual.

Other conflicts loom in the Nile basin. At 4,184 miles in length, the Nile River is the world’s longest, traversing 10 African countries. It is Egypt’s lifeblood, providing both water and rich soil for the country’s agriculture. But a combination of drought and dams has reduced its flow over the past several decades.

Ethiopia is currently building an enormous dam for power and irrigation on the Blue Nile. The source of the Blue Nile is Lake Tana in the Ethiopian highlands. The Egyptian Nile is formed where the Blue Nile and the White Nile — sourced from Lake Victoria in Uganda — converge in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum. Relations between Egypt and Ethiopia were initially tense over water, but have eased somewhat with the two sides agreeing to talk about how to share it.

But with climate change accelerating, the issue of water — or the lack thereof — is going to get worse, not better, and resolving the problems will take more than bilateral treaties about sharing. And there is hardly any agreement about how to proceed.

Privatization and Its Discontents

One strategy has been privatization.

Through its International Finance Corporation, the World Bank has been pushing privatizing, arguing that private capital will upgrade systems and guarantee delivery. In practice, however, privatization has generally resulted in poorer quality water at higher prices. Huge transnational companies like SUEZ and Veolia have snapped up resources in the Middle East and global south.

Increasingly, water has become a commodity, either by control of natural sources and distribution, or by cornering the market on bottled water.

Lebanon is a case in point. Historically the country has had sufficient water resources, but it’s been added to the list of 33 countries that will face severe water shortages by 2040.

Part of the current crisis is homegrown. Some 60,000 illegal wells siphon off water from the aquifer that underlies the country, and dams have not solved the problem of chronic water shortages, particularly for the 1.6 million people living in the greater Beirut area. Increasingly people have turned to private water sources, especially bottled water.

Multinational corporations, like Nestle, drain water from California and Michigan and sell it in Lebanon. Nestle, though its ownership of Shoat, controls 35 percent of Lebanon’s bottled water. Not only is bottled water expensive, and often inferior in quality to local water sources, the plastic it necessitates adds to a growing pollution problem.

There are solutions out there, but they require a level of cooperation and investment that very few countries currently practice. Many countries simply don’t have the funds to fix or upgrade their water infrastructure. Pipes lose enormous amounts through leakage, and dams reduce river flow, creating salt pollution problems downstream in places like Iraq and Egypt. In any event, dams eventually silt in.

Wells — legal and illegal — are rapidly draining aquifers, forcing farmers and cities to dig deeper and deeper each year. And, many times, those deep wells draw in pollution from the water table that makes the water impossible to drink or use on crops.

Again, there are solutions. California has made headway refilling the vast aquifer that underlies its rich Central Valley by establishing ponds and recharge basins during the rainy season, and letting water percolate back into the ground. Drip agriculture is also an effective way to reduce water usage, but it requires investment beyond the capacity of many countries, let alone small farmers.

Desalinization is also a strategy, but an expensive one that requires burning hydrocarbons, thus pumping more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and accelerating climate change.

We Need a Treaty

As the Middle East grows dryer and populations in the region continue to increase, the situation will get considerably worse in the coming decades.

The Middle East may be drying up, but so is California, much of the American Southwest, southern Africa, parts of Latin America, and virtually all of southern Europe. Since the crisis is global, “beggar thy neighbor” strategies will eventually impoverish all of humanity. The solution lies with the only international organization on the planet, the United Nations.

In 1997, the UN adopted a Convention on International Watercourses that spells out procedures for sharing water and resolving disputes. However, several big countries like China and Turkey opposed it, and several others, like India and Pakistan, have abstained. The convention is also entirely voluntary, with no enforcement mechanisms like binding arbitration.

It is, however, a start. Whether nations will come together to confront the planet wide crisis is an open question. Otherwise, the Middle East will run out of water — and it will hardly be alone. By 2030, according to the UN, four out of 10 people will not have access to water

There is precedent for a solution, one that is at least 4,500 years old. A cuneiform tablet in the Louvre chronicles a water treaty that ended the war between Umma and Lagash. If our distant ancestors could figure it out, it stands to reason we can.

Foreign Policy In Focus columnist Conn Hallinan can be read at dispatchesfromtheedgeblog.wordpress.com and middleempireseries.wordpress.com.

via Foreign Policy in Focus

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Bonus video added by Informed Comment:

PBS NewsHour: “Arid Middle East faces political battles over water shortfalls”

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Could Trump Really Launch a War With Iran? https://www.juancole.com/2019/02/could-really-launch.html Sat, 02 Feb 2019 07:04:11 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=181974 (Foreign Policy in Focus) – It’s unpopular at home and abroad, and regional politics don’t favor it. But we should take neocons like Bolton at their word.

Keeping track of the Trump administration’s foreign policy is like trying to track a cat on a hot tin roof: We’re pulling out of Syria (not right away). We’re leaving Afghanistan (sometime in the future). Mexico is going to pay for a wall (no, it isn’t). Saudi Arabia, Russia, the European Union, China, Turkey, North Korea — one day friends, another day foes.

Even with a scorecard, it’s hard to tell who’s on first.

Except for Iran, where a policy of studied hostility has been consistent from the beginning.

Late last year, National Security Advisor John Bolton pressed the Pentagon to produce options for attacking Iran, and he’s long advocated for military strikes and regime change in Tehran. And now, because of a recent internal policy review on the effect of U.S. sanctions, Washington may be is drifting closer to war.

Sanctions as Pretext

According to “On Thin Ice,” a report by the International Crisis Group (ICG), the Trump administration has concluded that its “maximum pressure” campaign of sanctions has largely failed to meet any of the White House’s “goals” of forcing Iran to re-negotiate the 2015 nuclear agreement or alter its policies in the Middle East.

While the sanctions have damaged Iran’s economy, the Iranians have proved to be far more nimble in dodging them than Washington allowed for. And because the sanctions were unilaterally imposed, there are countries willing to look for ways to avoid them.

“If you look at the range of ultimate objectives” of the administration, from encouraging “protests that pose an existential threat to the system, to change of behavior, to coming back to the negotiating table, none of that is happening,” Ali Vaez of the ICG’s Iran Project told Laura Rozen of Al-Monitor.

That should hardly come as a shock. Sanctions rarely achieve their goals and virtually never do when they’re imposed by one country, even one as powerful as the United States. More than 50 years of sanctions aimed at Cuba failed to bring about regime change, and those currently aimed at Russia have had little effect beyond increasing tensions in Europe.

This time around, the U.S. is pretty much alone. While the Trump administration is preparing to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear agreement — the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — the European Union (EU) is lobbying Iran to stay in the pact. Russia, China, Turkey and India have also made it clear that they will not abide by the U.S. trade sanctions, and the EU is setting up a plan to avoid using dollars.

Embed from Getty Images
French President Emmanuel Macron (L) meets with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (R) on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly at the UN headquarters on September 25, 2018, in New York. (Photo by ludovic MARIN / AFP) (Photo credit should read LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP/Getty Images).

But the failure of the White House’s sanctions creates its own dangers because this is not an American administration that easily accepts defeat. On top of that, there is a window of opportunity for striking Iran that will close in a year, making an attack more complicated.

The nuclear agreement imposed an arms embargo on Iran, but if Tehran stays in the agreement, that embargo will lift in 2020, allowing the Iranians to buy weapons on the international market. Beefing up Iran’s arms arsenal wouldn’t do much to dissuade the United States, but it might give pause to Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates (UAE), two of Tehran’s most implacable regional enemies.

It’s not clear who would be part of a coalition attack on Iran. Saudi Arabia and the UAE would almost certainly be involved, but that pair hardly has the Iranians quaking in their boots. The rag-tag Houthi army has fought the two Gulf monarchies to a standstill in Yemen, in spite of not having any anti-aircraft to challenge the Saudi air war.

Iran is a different matter. Its Russian-built S-300 anti-aircraft system might not discomfort the United States and the Israelis, but Saudi and UAE pilots could be at serious risk. Once the embargo is lifted, Iran could augment its S-300 with planes and other anti-aircraft systems that might make an air war like the one the Gulf monarchs are waging in Yemen very expensive.

Would the U.S. or Israel Actually Attack?

Of course, if the United States and/or Israel join in, Iran will be hard pressed. But as belligerent as Bolton and the Israeli government are toward Iran, would they initiate or join a war?

Such a war would be unpopular in the United States. Some 63 percent of Americans oppose withdrawing from the nuclear agreement and, by a margin of more than 2 to 1, oppose a war with Iran. While 53 percent oppose such a war — 37 percent strongly so — only 23 percent would support a war with Iran. And, of those, only 9 percent strongly support such a war.

The year 2020 is also the next round of U.S. elections, where control of the Senate and the White House will be in play. While wars tend to rally people to the flag, the polls suggest a war with Iran is not likely to do that. The U.S. would be virtually alone internationally, and Saudi Arabia is hardly on the list of most Americans’ favorite allies.

And it’s not even certain that Israel would join in, although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calls Iran an “existential threat.” Polls show that the Israeli public is hardly enthusiastic about a war with Iran, particularly if the U.S. isn’t involved.

The Israeli military is more than willing to take on Iranian forces in Syria, but a long-distance air war would get complicated. Iraq and Lebanon would try to block Israel from using their airspace to attack Iran, as would Turkey. The first two countries might not be able to do much to stop the Israelis, but flying over a hostile country is always tricky, particularly if you have to do it for an extended period of time. And anyone who thinks the Iranians are going to toss in the towel is delusional.

Of course Israel has other ways to strike Iran, including cruise missiles deployed on submarines and surface craft. But you can’t win a war with cruise missiles; you just blow a lot of things up.

Fissures in the Gulf

There are deep fissures among the Gulf monarchs. Qatar has already said that it will have nothing to do with an attack on Iran, and Oman is neutral. Kuwait has signed a military cooperation agreement with Turkey because the former is more worried about Saudi Arabia than about Iran, and with good reason.

A meeting last September of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Emir Sabah Al-Sabah of Kuwait to discuss problems between the two countries apparently went badly. The two countries are in a dispute over who should exploit their common oil fields at Khafji and Wafra, and the Saudis unilaterally stopped production. The Kuwaitis say they lost $18 billion revenues and want compensation.

The bad blood between the two countries goes back to the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, when Saudi Arabia refused to accept the borders that the British drew for Kuwait and instead declared war. In 1922 the border was re-drawn with two-thirds of Kuwait’s territory going to Saudi Arabia.

Lebanese legal scholar Ali Mourad told Al-Monitor that Kuwait has tightened its ties to Turkey because “they are truly afraid of a Saudi invasion,” especially given “the blank check Trump has issued” to Prince Salman.

Whether Kuwait’s embrace of Turkey will serve as a check on the Saudis is uncertain. Prince Salman has made several ill-considered moves in the region, from trying to overthrow the government of Lebanon, blockading Qatar, to starting a war with Yemen. Turkey and Saudi Arabia are currently at odds over the latter’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, probably the only thing that the Saudi princes hate more than Iran.

Would — or could — Ankara really defend Kuwait from a Saudi attack? Turkey is currently bogged down in Northern Syria, at war with its own Kurdish population, and facing what looks like a punishing recession. Its army is the second largest in NATO, and generally well-armed, but it has been partly hollowed out by purges following the 2015 coup attempt.

Taking the Neocons at Their Word

So is U.S. National Security Advisor Bolton just blowing smoke when he talks about regime change in Iran?

Possibly, but it’s a good idea to take the neo-conservatives at their word.

The U.S. will try to get Iran to withdraw from the nuclear pact by aggressively tightening the sanctions. If Tehran takes the bait, Washington will claim the legal right to attack Iran.

Bolton and the people around him engineered the catastrophes in Afghanistan and Iraq (the Obama administration gets the blame for Libya and Yemen), and knocking out Iran has been their longtime goal. If they pull it off, the U.S. will ignite yet another forever war.

Via Foreign Policy in Focus

Featured Photo: “Former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton speaking at the 2018 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. 22 February 2018, by Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America. Creative Commons License.

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