Wordsworth sang* to Milton, “thou shouldst be living at this hour,” and the same goes for G. K. Chesterton, the connoisseur of paradox. Weighing nearly four-hundred pounds at the end, today he would float like a dirigible over modern foreign affairs; plucking choice paradoxes at every hand and drawing as many lessons from our globalised Divine Comedy. Like a Venetian masquerade before Lent, everyone comes in disguise so here is your programme, your carnet du bal.
Paradox 1: similarity inspires conflict. When Russia and China were both Communists they hated one another; now, as competitors, they cooperate. It is a hallmark of the marketplace, where mutual benefit trumps posturing commissars.
Brazilian super-journalist Pepe Escobar has reported, for years and still, how Russia and China criss-cross their Central Asian backyard with “Silk Road” treaties and, soon, pipelines and railways linking Europe with the Far East with Iranian oil-fields. Using China’s surplus industrial capacity it makes a free-trade zone of everything in between. The region will buy and sell in yuan or any chosen basket of banknotes, ending the US dollar’s hegemony as the world’s imposed currency and destroying America’s power to make her trading partners buy her unappetising debt.
That ends American empire. Merely suggesting a competing currency shortened the careers of Iraq’s Saddam (dead), Libya’s Qadaffi (dead) and Syria’s Assad (besieged but alive as we go to press). This time the American Empire can do nothing but make hollow threats at mighty China (which can crash the US economy by dumping its US debt), and irritate Russia on the fringes. Now the kids have dressed up and gone off to the prom—to which Dad is not even invited.
Paradox 2: hyperactivity causes paralysis. Doctors now warn against excessive physical exercise, and nothing stiffens like death. Now the American Empire tests that, in uncountable “foreign entanglements” against which George Washington cautioned.
The US was careful and practical in the clear-cut Kennan Era of Soviet containment. Despite heated rhetoric, US leaders had fought and won a world war and so their every move on the geopolitical chessboard was unemotional and calculated. Then a new generation took over, believed the ideological slogans of exceptionalism, and poured new riches into Vietnam and the Bay of Pigs as Eisenhower warned of the “military-industrial complex.” America’s long, self-imposed humiliation began.
Today Washington struggles hyperactively to preserve dying friendships and to paper-over obscure enmities (as in Clausewitz on today’s generals preparing for yesterday’s wars). Hamstrung by Establishment cliques of profiteering elites, and stuck in failed marriages with former allies, American politicians and diplomats merely go through the motions. Not that Washington has stopped thinking, but she has stopped thinking ahead, as she spends all of her cognition and energies to make this mortal enemy sit through an entire diplomatic lunch with that mortal enemy; to ensure that her own squabbling bureaucrats, greedy plutocrats and foreign im-potentates all get a snack, a trip to the restroom and board the school bus—at least today.
Paradox 3: what looks like lunacy often makes sense. Far from crazy, the Middle East’s most sensible team is ISIS, in a hostile takeover bid for Arabian oilfields sooner and all of Sunni Islam later. Their savagery offends the West intentionally—maybe they will invade and lose again, as America encouraged and then deserted anti-Saddam Iraqis in 1991, the counter-productive occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq and Libya that left Islamists stronger, inciting but then betraying Arab Spring uprisings, etc. While millions of even moderate Sunnis wish that their crooked kings and military dictators could be crucified and then beheaded.
America seems to support ISIS, or at least turn a blind eye while the radicals’ vulnerable, stolen-Humvee convoys cross hours of empty desert to reach Palmyra unimpeded; as her financial and military support to topple Syria’s President Assad strengthens ISIS and Al Qaeda. What gives?
America’s allied Sunni kingdoms, in Saudi and the Gulf, probably support ISIS while many of their rich subjects do for sure—extreme estimates put Saudi’s ISIS cheering squad at nearly half. But since fifteen per cent of Saudis are Shia Muslims, the minority being slaughtered by ISIS in Iraq and Syria, maybe more Saudi Sunnis than we imagine prefer ISIS to their own monarchs, who are as decadent as Ancient Roman elites. Even if many Saudi Sunnis are disgusted by their royals, and radicalised to borderline ISIS levels by Saudi Arabia’s official, aberrant, Wahabi version of Islam, they cannot all expect to survive ISIS rule in Saudi. Are turkeys voting for Thanksgiving? Could so many Romanoff retainers have longed for the Bolsheviks?
The explanation lies with the Turks who, if not directly arming ISIS, support it even on Turkish soil. A quarter of Turks are Shia, in a secular democracy protected by the army, despite the (electorally humiliated) leading party having flirted with a Sunni Islam mild by regional standards. Turkey, rich and growing fast, democratic and secular, should loathe ISIS. But behind the scenes it does not.
A Turkish official described, to an Anglo-Turkish friend of mine ten years ago, his talks with Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency. Mossad estimated that if the Turkish army invaded Syria, they would cross the entire country and reach the Israeli border in forty-eight hours—resistance would evaporate that fast. The answer gets clearer.
In the Korean War, the tough Turks won victories that the other NATO forces could not. Their Ottoman Empire spread in less than a century from Morocco to the Persian border and from the Sudan to the gates of Vienna. Unlike any Middle Eastern Arab nation, Turkey is unified when need be, a sound strategist, administrator and fighter; and has been so for more than five hundred years. Indeed no Arabs resisted Turkey’s spreading empire; because they were as divided internally, useless at fighting and administration—and just plain tired—as they are now. So, from Turkey’s perspective, ISIS can sweep away the terrorist Kurds in northern Syria and destroy the vexing Assad’s Shia regime, while Turks can swat the ISIS fly whenever they wish, if America does not march in and do it first. If Turkey is wrong it is a mistake for the history books; akin to the German army goose-stepping around the Maginot Line, and barbarians galloping past China’s Great Wall.
The armoury of the rich Arab im-potentates, meanwhile, has only a check-book; against their resentful minorities neglected and mistreated on one hand, and fellow Sunni elites whom they have spent forty years radicalising until some knock down Manhattan skyscrapers. Like the nitwit at the races who bets on every horse, the sheiks keep writing checks for ISIS and also for its opponents, while hoping to keep their Sunni adversaries busy weakening Iran’s ally Syria—a foolish strategy administered by, well, by prize fools playing for time and with nowhere else to turn.
Then what explains America? What justifies her support for Saudi Arabia; a backwater where women are banned from driving, where mild religious critics get a thousand lashes, where many actually want ISIS beheadings and crucifixions on their neighbourhood streets? Why not sit this one out, while downtown in the Arab ghetto the rioters shoot and burn for little clear reason; none in America’s lasting interest? Is it only for energy produced and sold almost everywhere, even as fracking makes the US self-sufficient? Possibilities compound, like the unwed mother who cannot recall who the father was.
It is partly a tired, overstretched, geriatric empire wedded to the status quo—too much was “invested” in these Sunni Arab scoundrels since the 1930s, so ward off change at all costs; even reversing American-funded, regional hopes for a democratic Arab Spring. Like a doddering old relative who tries to cook for himself and starts fires in the kitchen, US government gets easily confused. It trumpeted democracy until Hamas, um, got elected. In Afghanistan the US paid for all sides—its own and Afghan government troops, Pakistan backing the Taliban, tribal warlords changing sides weekly, and the Taliban through massive bribes as fuel and frozen pizzas were trucked to American forts. Now, should America fight ISIS, or fight Assad who is fighting ISIS, or support the double-dealing sheiks backing ISIS on the side? Why not do all three! There are too many competing bureaucracies, allies and agendas to juggle; Alzheimer America cannot think coherently. “Sorry, was that the gas-jet? I thought it was the micro-wave…”
It is also America’s indigenous war-profiteers; fully-entrenched elites who, instead of offering “bang for the buck,” earn bucks from each bang. It is partly Israel, which may benefit from any civil war among the region’s Sunnis, and until one team wins, encourage attacks on Iran or her Shia allies. But there is something else; and it may to explain why clumsy President Obama helps Sunni slaughter Shia in Yemen while talking peace to Shia Iran.
The odious Sunni im-potentates can be relied upon to protect the dollar across their vast (but shrinking) share of the world’s energy sector; even while greenback authority erodes in myriad trades for Iranian oil and Russian gas, with India and China, Brazil and even Turkey. America is a rich buggy-whip manufacturer in the Age of Henry Ford. Maybe people will come to their senses, Washington tells herself, and abandon these new-fangled horseless carriages.
Meanwhile nothing makes sense for America—neither current alliances, nor policies, nor squandering fortunes needed at home—apart from preserving a yesterday that has already ceased to exist. But Folly is a reason, often a popular one.
Paradox Four (Masty’s Law of Expectations): the bigger the issue, the wider the gap between expertise and results. First, within democracies, public expectations keep expanding unrealistically. Second and primarily, ever more experts import their own agendas, squabble for supremacy and make a solution ever less likely. Ten scientists, working on a non-renewable contract, are more likely to evaluate global warming than millions of them eyeing lifetimes of research grants. No place has ever paid for more dubious think-tanks and toadying experts than Washington, which Mr Escobar calls “The Empire of Chaos.”
As their empire collapsed a century ago, just as Constantinople’s two Christian Empires died before, no doubt some Ottoman officials postured and bloviated, insisting that five hundred years of unsurpassed power would last forever. Others developed ulcers preparing presentations for the sultan, advocating this or that remedy. But some must have shrugged and strolled down to the café beside the sunlit Sea of Marmara, for a strong, sweet coffee and a relaxing water-pipe. No prizes for guessing who saw the clearest.
So don your costumes and masks for the ball is already well underway; but neither forget that such lavish affairs are held every year, nor that Lent begins tomorrow.
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