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10/22/2014

 

While presidential elections have pundits testing the public’s interest in politics years in advance—relentlessly covering primaries, controversial sound-bites, and analyses on debates—the midterms don’t seem to gain much intrigue. But they should, as control of the Senate and House is at stake, affecting the trajectory of what remains of Obama’s term.

BloombergPolitics lists five reasons the election on November 4, 2014 should be of interest:

  1. It’s a matter of national security. Whether or not Obama will use force in Iraq and Syria against the Islamic State still needs to be addressed, and, more than a year after Edward Snowden’s disclosures, the issue of surveillance reform still remains politically divisive.

  2. Domestic policies are up for revision. Lawmakers from both parties could potentially modify the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank financial overhaul law, and key members of both parties have signaled they’re ready to deal with touchy issues, such as poverty and immigration. The debt ceiling will also come into play in the coming months.

  3. Obama’s place in history is not yet decided. With Obamacare, Dodd-Frank, and the stimulus package having shaped much of Obama’s legacy, his final two years will be largely defined by his continued use (or not) of executive actions. His veto-powers and his 300 judicial nominees could also leave a mark on his lame-duck years.

  4. The direction of the Republican Party could be established (somewhat). Should Republicans take control of the Senate, the leaders’ agenda could guide the remainder of Obama’s term, as well as the response of 2016 presidential candidates. Fellow Republicans have largely blamed Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid for his role in Congress’ gridlock, though he rarely loses control of his caucus. Meanwhile Minority Leader Mitch McConnell—the conservative ideologue—is fighting to keep his seat in Kentucky, possibly affecting the party’s future ambitions.

  5. November matters for 2016. Losing isn’t an option for many presidential hopefuls, and the policies they choose to pursue in either the House or Senate will influence the political discourse of the next presidential election. Candidates to keep an eye on: Rep. Paul Ryan, Sen. Marco Rubio, Sen. Rob Portman, Sen. Rand Paul, Sen. Ted Cruz, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Sen. Lindsey Graham, Rep. Peter King, and Sen. Joe Manchin.

This year, however, is expected to be rather predictable. Vox Editor-in-Chief and MSNBC contributor Ezra Klein explains the scenarios, donkey-kong style:

Image by Jeffrey Zeldman, licensed under Creative Commons



10/9/2014

U.S. capitol building 

In a way, ISIS is in Washington and every other American city thanks to the post-9/11 hysteria over the dangers of terrorism.

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch.

It happened so fast that, at first, I didn’t even take it in.

Two Saturdays ago, a friend and I were heading into the Phillips Museum in Washington, D.C., to catch a show of neo-Impressionist art when we ran into someone he knew, heading out. I was introduced and the usual chitchat ensued.  At some point, she asked me, “Do you live here?”

“No,” I replied, “I’m from New York.”

She smiled, responded that it, too, was a fine place to live, then hesitated just a beat before adding in a quiet, friendly voice: “Given ISIS, maybe neither city is such a great place to be right now.” Goodbyes were promptly said and we entered the museum.

All of this passed so quickly that I didn’t begin rolling her comment around in my head until we were looking at the sublime pointillist paintings of Georges Seurat and his associates. Only then did I think: ISIS, a danger in New York? ISIS, a danger in Washington? And I had the urge to bolt down the stairs, catch up to her, and say: whatever you do, don’t step off the curb. That’s where danger lies in American life. ISIS, not so much.

The Terrorists Have Our Number

I have no idea what provoked her comment. Maybe she was thinking about a story that had broken just two days earlier, topping the primetime TV news and hitting the front pages of newspapers. On a visit to the Big Apple, the new Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, claimed that his intelligence services had uncovered a plot by militants of the Islamic State (IS, aka ISIS or ISIL), the extremists of the new caliphate that had gobbled up part of his country, against the subway systems of Paris, New York, and possibly other U.S. cities.

I had watched Brian Williams report that story on NBC in the usual breathless fashion, along with denials from American intelligence that there was any evidence of such a plot. I had noted as well that police patrols on my hometown’s subways were nonetheless quickly reinforced, with extra contingents of bomb-sniffing dogs and surveillance teams. Within a day, the leading officials of my state, Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, were denying that they had any information on such a plot, but also taking very public rides on the city’s subways to “reassure” us all. The threat didn’t exist, but was also well in hand! I have to admit that, to me, it all seemed almost comic.

In the meantime, the background noise of the last 13 years played on. Inside the American Terrordome, the chorus of hysteria-purveyors, Republican and Democrat alike, nattered on, as had been true for weeks, about the "direct," not to say apocalyptic, threat the Islamic State and its caliph posed to the American way of life. These included Senator Lindsey Graham (“This president needs to rise to the occasion before we all get killed here at home"); Majority Leader John Boehner, who insisted that we should consider putting American boots on Iraqi and perhaps even Syrian ground soon, since “they intend to kill us”; Senator Dianne Feinstein, who swore that “the threat ISIS poses cannot be overstated”; Senator Bill Nelson, who commented that “it ought to be pretty clear when they... say they’re going to fly the black flag of ISIS over the White House that ISIS is a clear and present danger.” And a chorus of officials, named and anonymous, warning that the terror danger to the country was “imminent,” while the usual set of pundits chirped away about the potential destruction of our way of life.

The media, of course, continued to report it all with a kind of eyeball-gluing glee.  The result by the time I met that woman: 71% of Americans believed ISIS had nothing short of sleeper cells in the U.S. (shades of “Homeland”!) and at least the same percentage, if not more (depending on which poll you read), were ready to back a full-scale bombing campaign, promptly launched by the Obama administration, against the group.

If, however, you took a step out of the overwrought American universe of terror threats for 30 seconds, it couldn’t have been clearer that everyone in the grim netherworld of the Middle East now seemed to have our number. The beheading videos of the Islamic State had clearly been meant to cause hysteria on the cheap in this country — and they worked. Those first two videos somehow committed us to a war now predicted to last for years, and a never-ending bombing campaign that we know perfectly well will establish the global credentials of the Islamic State and its mad caliph in jihadist circles. (In fact, the evidence is already in. From North Africa to Afghanistan to Pakistan, the group is suddenly a brand name, its black flag something to hoist, and its style of beheading something to be imitated.)

Now, the Shia opponent of those jihadists had taken the hint and, not surprisingly, the very same path. The Iraqi prime minister, whose intelligence services had only recently been blindsided when IS militants captured huge swaths of his country, claimed to have evidence that was guaranteed to set loose the professional terror-mongers and hysterics in this country and so, assumedly, increase much-needed support for his government.

Or perhaps that woman I met had instead been struck by the news, only days earlier, that in launching a bombing campaign against the militants of the Islamic state in Syria, the Obama administration had also hit another outfit. It was called — so we were told — the Khorasan Group and, unlike the IS, it had the United States of America, the “homeland,” right in its bombsites. As became clear after the initial wave of hysteria swiftly passed, no one in our world or theirs had previously heard of such a group, which may have been a set of individuals in a larger al-Qaeda-linked Syrian rebel outfit called the al-Nusra Front who had no such name for themselves.

Whatever the case, it seemed that the Obama administration and connected intelligence outfits had our number, too. Although Khorasan was reputedly plotting against airplanes, not subways, transportation systems were evidently our jugular when it came to such outfits. This group, we were told in leaks by unnamed American intelligence officials, was made up of a “cadre” or “collection” of hardened, “senior” al-Qaeda types from Afghanistan, who had settled in Syria not to overthrow Bashir al-Assad or create a caliphate, but to prepare the way for devastating attacks on the American “homeland” and possibly Western Europe as well. It was, as Director of National Intelligence James Clapper put it, “potentially yet another threat to the homeland,” and it was “imminent.” As U.S. Central Command insisted in announcing the bombing strikes against the group, it involved “imminent attack planning.” The Khorasan Group was, said Lieutenant General William Mayville, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “in the final stages of plans to execute major attacks against Western targets and potentially the U.S. homeland."

Had we not hit them hard, they would be — so American intelligence officials assured us — on the verge (or at least the verge of the verge) of developing bombs so advanced that, using toothpaste tubes, rigged electronic devices, or possibly clothes soaked in explosives, their agents would be able to pass through airport security undetected and knock plane after plane out of the sky. Civilization was in peril, which meant that blazing headlines about the plot and the group mixed with shots of actual bombs (ours) exploding in Syria, and a sense of crisis that was, as ever, taken up with gusto by the media.

As Glenn Greenwald and Murtaza Hussain pointed out in a devastating report at the Intercept, the whole Khorasan story began to disassemble within a day or so of the initial announcement and the bombing strikes in Syria. It took next to no time at all for that “imminent threat” to morph into “aspirational” planning; for reporters to check with their Syrian sources and find that no one knew a thing about the so-called Khorasan Group; for the taking down of those airliners to gain an ever more distant (and possibly even fictional) look. As ever, however, pointing out the real dangers in our world was left largely to non-mainstream sources, while the threat to our way of life, to Washington and New York, lingered in the air.

Terror-Phobia and a Demobilized Citizenry

This sort of soundtrack has been the background noise in our lives for the last 13 years. And like familiar music (or Muzak), it evokes a response that’s almost beyond our control. The terror about terror, sometimes quite professionally managed (as in the case of the Khorasan Group), has flooded through our world year after year after year. ISIS is just a recent example of the way the interests of a group of extremists in making themselves larger than life and the interests of groups in this country in building up or maintaining their institutional power have meshed. Terror as the preeminent danger to our American world now courses through the societal bloodstream, helped along by regular infusions of fear from the usual panic-meisters.

On that set of emotions, an unparalleled global security state has been built (and funded), as well as a military that, in terms of its destructive power, leaves the rest of the world in the dust. In the process, and in the name of protecting Americans from the supposedly near-apocalyptic dangers posed by the original al-Qaeda and its various wannabe successors, a new version of America has come into being — one increasingly willing to bulldoze the most basic liberties, invested in the spread of blanket secrecy over government actions, committed to wholesale surveillance, and dedicated to a full-scale loss of privacy.

You can repeat until you're blue in the face that the dangers of scattered terror outfits are vanishingly small in the “homeland,” when compared to almost any other danger in American life. It won’t matter, not once the terror-mongers go to work. So, in a sense, that woman was right. For all intents and purposes, without ever leaving Iraq and Syria, ISIS is in Washington — and New York, and Topeka, and El Paso (or, as local fear-mongers in Texas suggest, ready to cross the Rio Grande at any moment), and Salt Lake City, and Sacramento. ISIS has, by now, wormed its way inside our heads. So perhaps she was right as well to suggest that Washington and New York (not to speak of wherever you happen to live) are not great places to be right now.

Let’s be honest. Post-9/11, when it comes to our own safety (and so where our tax dollars go), we’ve become as mad as loons. Worse yet, the panic, fear, and hysteria over the dangers of terrorism may be the only thing left that ties us as a citizenry to a world in which so many acts of a destructive nature are being carried out in our name.

The history of the demobilization of the American people as a true force in their own country’s actions abroad could be said to have begun in 1973, when a draft army was officially put into the history books. In the years before that, in Vietnam and at home, the evidence of how such an army could vote with its feet and through its activism had been too much for the top brass, and so the citizen army, that creation of the French Revolution, was ended with a stroke of the presidential pen. The next time around, the ranks were to be filled with “volunteers,” thanks in part to millions of dollars sunk into Mad Men-style advertising.

In the meantime, those in charge wanted to make sure that the citizenry was thoroughly demobilized and sent home. In the wake of 9/11, this desire was expressed particularly vividly when President George W. Bush urged Americans to show their patriotism (and restore the fortunes of the airlines) by visiting Disney World, vacationing, and going about their business, while his administration took care of al-Qaeda (and of course, invaded Afghanistan and Iraq).

In the ensuing years, propaganda for and an insistence that we “support,” “thank,” and adulate our “warriors” (in ways that would have been inconceivable with a citizen’s army) became the order of the day. At the same time, that force morphed into an ever more “professional,” “expeditionary” and “foreign” (as in Foreign Legion-style) outfit. When it came to the U.S. military, adulation was the only relationship that all but a tiny percentage of Americans were to be allowed.  For those in the ever-expanding U.S. military-industrial-homeland-security-intelligence-corporate complex, terror was the gift that just kept giving, the excuse for any institution-building action and career enhancement, no matter how it might contravene previous American traditions.

In this context, perhaps we should think of the puffing up of an ugly but limited reality into an all-encompassing, eternally “imminent” threat to our way of life as the final chapter in the demobilization of the American people. Terror-phobia, after all, leaves you feeling helpless and in need of protection. The only reasonable response to it is support for whatever actions your government takes to keep you "safe."

Amid the waves of fear and continual headlines about terror plots, we, the people, have now largely been relegated to the role of so many frightened spectators when it comes to our government and its actions. Welcome to the Terrordome.


Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. His new book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World (Haymarket Books), has just been published.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook and Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Rebecca Solnit's Men Explain Things to Me.

Copyright 2014 Tom Engelhardt

Photo by Fotolia/ETIEN



10/8/2014

Last night “The Daily Show” senior correspondent Samantha Bee reported on the number of civilians shot by police each year … only to find that the numbers don’t exist.

While records are kept tracking the number of bullets police discharge and how many are specifically shot at civilians, the data ends when it’s a matter tallying of how many civilians are killed.

Former New York City Police Commissioner Bernie Kerik said he was confident the statistics existed somewhere, as police departments are asked to report this to the Department of Justice. But Bee quickly learned that no authority technically required police agencies to turn in this information.

“You know no mom wants to think that their child will grow up to become just another statistic,” Bee said. “Thankfully, given the current state of our laws, there’s no chance of that ever happening.”

Watch the video below, courtesy of Comedy Central:



9/2/2014

UN

A report looks at 323 movements to see which were most successful.

Assessing the effectiveness of civil resistance is a complex undertaking. The causes of change are often linked to a number of factors, and many what-if scenarios can be conjured up to imagine alternate endings; how adequate would nonviolent or violent resistance have been during WWII is a common hypothetical. But a new report that analyzed 323 campaigns which unfolded between 1900 and 2006 attempts to sort the ins and outs of success and failure in countries where people were striving for self-determination, unseating a leader, or driving out a military occupation. Tactics for the groups studied included anything from sit-ins to noncooperation to armed rebellion, and the results are telling:

  • Nonviolent movements were found to attract more people and be more powerful than violent ones—11 times bigger and twice as effective against authoritarian rulers. Co-author Erica Chenoweth remarks, "People power is really the main story here."
  • Including people from different backgrounds (gender, socio-economic, and religious) also led to a higher likelihood of accomplishing an end goal.
  • Utilizing a diversity of nonviolent tactics was found to be more compelling because it stretched thin the resources for quelling a movement. Scholar Gene Sharp cataloged 198 tactics which have since been added to with tools such as social media.
  • It was also helpful for those involved to have a longer outlook; the average length of time the movements lasted was almost three years.
  • In cases where the campaign fails, the study found that nonviolent movements were still more likely (four times as compared to violent campaigns) to eventually democratize, which was attributed to experiences in mobilization and coalition building.

The developments from the Arab Spring (which are still being felt) can be held up for comparison. Tunisia encompassed many of the successful indicators, such as a diverse group of people who used different tactics, and the road to democracy there looks plausible. While both Egypt (nonviolent) and Libya (violent) succeeded in ousting their leaders, their futures are less secure. These examples illustrate the fact that implementing change, even after the fall of reviled regimes, is no easy task. But chances are, had Egypt turned violent, its road would be even more precarious and vice versa with Libya. And although such hypotheticals are impossible to verify, the study’s conclusions point in such directions. As for Syria, which attempted nonviolence but gave way to armed groups, the future does not look bright. Turning to violence pushed many people away and rebel forces began to rely on outside forces for aid and arms which is risky (support is "usually conditional and fickle.")

In terms of external involvement, the report calls on outside governments to support nonviolent resistance early on in order to prevent escalation of violence (from within or from forces such as NATO strikes). Had the nonviolent groups in Syria been given support from the onset, who knows what may or may not have transpired. Assisting independent media outlets, monitoring the criminal justice system, and pressuring leaders not to react with violence are also advantageous actions.

Photo by sari dennise, licensed under Creative Commons.



8/14/2014

Cat in a Gun Shop

File this under Funniest Zines Ever: “How to Talk to Your Cat About Evolution.” A whip-smart take-down of creationism, the writing is angry, alright, but its rage is mitigated by frequent mentions—and photos—of cute, fluffy cats.

The zine was written by Zachary of Slaton, Texas, who publishes it under the cheeky pseudonym the American Association of Patriots (and who wishes to keep his last name private). As the AAP, Zachary uses the question-and-answer format of “histrionic religious pamphlets”—it’s kind of “Jack Chick meets Alex Jones” in its approach, he suggests, only with a few cat puns thrown in.

How to Talk to Your Cat About Gun Safety” was the AAP’s first publication in 2013. Carried mainly by independent bookstores and comic book shops, it sold 9,000 copies in just under a year—a remarkable sales record for a zine. “It made the front page of Reddit at one point,” Zachary said. “Some guy wrote an electronica song about it. Apparently, people on the internet love things about cats. Who knew!”

We spoke briefly with the AAP, who offered a few tough lessons to Utne readers (and their cats):

Which is the greater threat to cats in America today, evolution or gun control legislation?

A foolish question, but no more than we would expect from your publication of weak-kneed liberalism. To ask which is the greater threat is like asking which of an octopus’s arms are a greater threat. Both are merely limbs of a greater beast, which has but one thought in its black heart: a yearning desire to overthrow America and turn our cats against us.

We thought only human citizens could be true patriots. How do cats fit in?

The idea that cats cannot be patriots is a lie, propagated by our enemies, who seek to divide the forces of freedom and deprive us of our greatest military asset. There are almost 100 million cats living in American households, and untold millions more loosely organized into feral militias. Do you not think that the enemies of America quake in fear at the thought of an extra 100 million soldiers defending our country, soldiers who are possessing of superhuman reflexes, balance, and the ability to see in the dark? The importance of cats to American sovereignty is something that, as vigilant citizens, we must never furget.

What about dogs? Are they safe from the liberal propaganda machine?

The American Association of Patriots recommends that every member of your household be armed and trained in the safe handling of that weapon. Unfortunately, following a class action lawsuit in 1996 we are now legally required to state that firearms are not suitable for dogs, and we were forced to discontinue our line of “How to Talk to Your Dog…” educational brochures.

What would you say to those who would try to keep this vital information out of our cats' paws?

Your days are numbered! Soon the true patriots of America will rise up, cats at our side, and cast off the imperialist yoke imposed on us by the puppet Obama and his masters: the effete, atheist, socialist oligarchs of Europe who wish to rob America of its manhood, its cats, and its God.  

Photo by Fotolia/andrewgenn




7/24/2014

An Apocalyptic View of America

Requiem for the American Century: Turning 70, paragraph by paragraph 

First paragraphs on turning 70 in the American Century that was:

- Seventy-three years ago, on February 17, 1941, as a second devastating global war approached, Henry Luce, the publisher of Time and Life magazines, called on his countrymen to “create the first great American Century.” Luce died in 1967 at age 69.  Life, the pictorial magazine no home would have been without in my 1950s childhood, ceased to exist as a weekly in 1972 and as a monthly in 2000; Time, which launched his career as a media mogul, is still wobbling on, a shadow of its former self.  No one today could claim that this is Time’s century, or the American Century, or perhaps anyone else’s. Even the greatest empires now seem to have shortened lifespans.  The Soviet Century, after all, barely lasted seven decades. Of course, only the rarest among us live to be 100, which means that at 70, like Time, I’m undoubtedly beginning to wobble, too.

- The other day I sat down with an old friend, a law professor who started telling me about his students. What he said aged me instantly. They’re so young, he pointed out, that their parents didn’t even come of age during the Vietnam War. For them, he added, that war is what World War I was to us. He might as well have mentioned the Mongol conquests or the War of the Roses. We’re talking about the white-haired guys riding in the open cars in Veteran’s Day parades when I was a boy. And now, it seems, I’m them.

- In March 1976, accompanied by two friends, my wife and I got married at City Hall in San Francisco, and then adjourned to a Chinese restaurant for a dim sum lunch. If, while I was settling our bill of perhaps $30, you had told me that, almost half a century in the future, marriage would be an annual $40 billion dollar business, that official couplings would be preceded by elaborate bachelor and bachelorette parties, and that there would be such a thing as destination weddings, I would have assumed you were clueless about the future. On that score at least, the nature of the world to come was self-evident and elaborate weddings of any sort weren’t going to be part of it.

- From the time I was 20 until I was 65, I was always 40 years old. Now, I feel my age.  Still, my life at 70 is a luxury. Across the planet, from Afghanistan to Central America, and in the poverty zones of this country, young people regularly stare death in the face at an age when, so many decades ago, I was wondering whether my life would ever begin.  That’s a crime against humanity. So consider me lucky (and privileged) to be seven decades in and only now thinking about my death.

- Recently, I had the urge to tell my son something about my mother, who died before he was born. From my closet, I retrieved an attaché case of my father’s in which I keep various family mementos. Rummaging around in one of its pockets, I stumbled upon two letters my mother wrote him while he was at war. (We’re talking about World War II, that ancient conflict of the history books.) Almost four decades after her death, all I had to do was see my mother’s handwriting on the envelope—“Major C. L. Engelhardt, 1st Air Commando Force, A.P.O. 433, Postmaster, New York 17, N.Y.” —to experience such an upwelling of emotion I could barely contain my tears. So many years later, her handwriting and my father’s remain etched into my consciousness. I don’t doubt I could recognize them amid any other set of scribblings on Earth. What fingerprints were to law enforcement then, handwriting was to family memories. And that started me wondering: years from now, in an electronic world in which no one is likely to think about picking up a pen to write anyone else, what will those “fingerprints” be?

- There are so many futures and so few of them happen. On the night of October 22, 1962, a college freshman, I listened to John F. Kennedy address the American people and tell us that the Russians were building “a series of offensive missile sites” on the island of Cuba and that “the purposes of these bases can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere.” In other words, the president of the United States was telling us that we might be at the edge of the sort of world-ending, monster-mutating nuclear war that, from Godzilla to Them, had run riot in the popular culture (and the nightmares) of my childhood.  At that moment, I looked directly into the future—and there was none. We were, I believed, toast. My family, my friends, all of us, from Hudson Bay, Canada, to Lima, Peru, as the president put it. Yet here I am 52 years later. As with so many futures we imagine, somehow it didn’t happen and so many years after I’m still wondering when I’ll be toast.

- If, on that same night, you had returned from the future to tell me (or other Americans) that, nearly half a century hence, the Soviet Union would barely be a memory, that there would be no other great power challenging the United States for supremacy, and that its only serious enemies would be scattered bands of Islamic extremists, largely in countries no American of that era had even heard of, my sense of wonder would have been indescribable. And I don’t doubt that the godlier among us would have fallen to their knees and given thanks for our deliverance. It would have gone without saying that, in such a future, the U.S. stood triumphant, the American Century guaranteed to stretch into endless centuries to come.

- If, on September 10, 2001, I had peered into the future (as I undoubtedly did not), whatever world I might have imagined would surely not have included: the 9/11 attacks; or those towers collapsing apocalyptically; or that “generational” struggle launched almost instantly by the Bush administration that some neocons wanted to call "World War IV" (the Cold War being World War III), aka the Global War on Terror; or a “kill list” and drone assassination campaign run proudly out of the White House that would kill thousands in the tribal backlands of the planet; or the pouring of funds into the national security state at levels that would put the Cold War to shame; or the promotion of torture as a necessary part of the American way of life; or the creation of an offshore prison system where anything went; or the launching of a global kidnapping campaign; or our second Afghan War, this time lasting at least 13 years; or a full-scale invasion, garrisoning, and occupation of Iraq lasting eight years; or the utterly improbable possibility that, from all of this, Washington would win nothing whatsoever. Nor, on that September day, still an editor in book publishing, barely online, and reading almost everything on the page, could I have imagined that, at age 70, I would be running a website called TomDispatch, 24/7, driven by the terrible news that would, before that day, have amazed me.

- Once upon a time, if you saw someone talking to himself or herself while walking down the street, you knew you were in the presence of mental illness. Now, you know that you're catching a snippet of a mobile or smartphone conversation by someone connected eternally to everyone he or she knows and everything happening online every minute of the day. Not so long ago, this was material for some far-fetched sci-fi novel, not for life.

- If, on September 10, 2001, you had told me that the very way we are connected to each other electronically would encourage the evolution of an American surveillance state of breathtaking proportions and a corporate surveillance sphere of similar proportions, that both would have dreams of collecting, storing, and using the electronic communications of everybody on the planet, and that, in such a brief space of time, both would come remarkably close to succeeding, I wouldn’t have believed you. Nor would I have been able to absorb the fact that, in doing so, the U.S. national security state would outpace the “bad guys” of the totalitarian regimes of the previous century in the ambitiousness of its surveillance dreams. I would have thought such a development conceptually inconceivable for this country. And in that, touchingly, I would still be reflecting something of the America I grew up believing in.

- In my youth, I lived in the future. Riveted by the space operas of Isaac Asimov, among others, I grew up as a space nerd, dreaming of American glory and the colonization of distant planetary systems. At the same time, without any sense of contradiction, I inhabited future American worlds of wholesale destruction dotted with survivalist colonies in post-apocalyptic landscapes littered with mutants of every sort.

- I‘m no neuroscientist, but I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that we, as a species, are hardwired for prediction.  Preparing eternally for whatever danger might be just around the corner seems like such a useful trait, the sort of thing that keeps a species on its toes (once it has them). As far as I can tell, the brain just can’t help itself. The only problem is that we’re terrible at it. The famed fog of war is nothing compared to the fog of the future or, as I’ve often said, I’d be regularly riding my jetpack in traffic through the spired city of New York, as I was promised in my childhood. Our urge to predict the future is unsurpassed. Our ability to see it as it will be: next to nil.

Middle paragraphs for a missing American Century:

- It’s been almost 13 years since the 9/11 attacks and there’s still no learning curve in Washington. Just about every step of the way in Afghanistan and Iraq, it’s only gotten worse. Yet from that history, from repeated military interventions, surges, and Hail Marys in each of those countries, Washington has learned ...?  Yep, you guessed it: that, in a crisis, it’s up to us to plunge in again, as in Iraq today where the Obama administration is sending back troopsdrones, and helicopters, plotting to support certain government figures, deep-six others, and somehow fragment various Sunni insurgent and extremist groups. And don’t forget the endless advice administration officials have on offer, the bureaucratic assessments of the situation they continue to generate, and the weaponry they are eager to dispatch to a thoroughly destabilized land—even as they rush to “broker” a destabilizing Afghan election, a situation in which the long-term results once again aren’t likely to be positive for Washington. Consider this curious conundrum: the future is largely a mystery, except when it comes to Washington’s actions and their predictably dismal outcomes.

- Doesn’t it amaze you how little Washington gets it? Fierce as the internal disagreements in that capital city may be, seldom has a ruling group collectively been quite so incapable of putting itself in the shoes of anyone else or so tone deaf when it comes to the effects of its own acts. Take Germany where, starting with Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations, the public response to reports of massive American surveillance of the communications of ordinary Germans and their leaders wasn’t exactly greeted with enthusiasm. Now it turns out that the NSA wasn’t the only U.S. “intelligence” agency at work in that country. The CIA and possibly other agencies were recruiting spies inside German intelligence and its defense ministry. Polls show that public opinion there has been turning against the U.S. in striking ways, but Washington just can’t take it in. A little noted truth of this level of spying and surveillance is: it’s addictive. Washington can’t imagine not doing it, no matter the damage. If you keep an eye on this situation, you’ll see how the U.S. national security system has become a self-inflicted-wound machine.

- Here’s a question for our American moment: Why, in its foreign policy, can’t the Obama administration get a break? You’d think that, just by pure, dumb luck, there would be a few small victories somewhere for the greatest power on the planet, but no such thing. So for the post-American Century news jockeys among you, here’s a tip: to follow the waning fortunes of that century in real time, just keep an eye on Secretary of State John Kerry’s endless travels. He’s the Jonah of the Obama administration.  Wherever he goes, disaster, large or small, trails behind him, even when, as in Afghanistan recently, his intervention is initially billed as some sort of modest triumph.  Consider him the waning American Century personified.

- Think of the drone as a barometer of the American Century in decline. It’s the latest “perfect weapon” to arrive on the global scene with five-star reviews and promises of victory. Like the A-bomb before it, by the time its claims proved false advertising, it was already lodged deeply in our world and replicating. The drone is the John Kerry of advanced weaponry. Everywhere it goes, it brings a kind of robotic precision to killing, the problem being that its distant human trigger fingers rely on the usual improbable information about what’s actually on the ground to be killed. This means that the innocent are dying along with all those proclaimed “militants,” “high-value targets,” and al-Qaeda(-ish) leaders and “lieutenants.” Wherever the drone goes, it has been the equivalent of a recruiting poster for Islamic militants and terror groups. It brings instability and disaster in its wake. It constantly kills bad guys—and constantly creates more of them. And even as the negative reports about it come in, an addicted Washington can’t stop using it.

Last paragraphs on turning 70 (a requiem for the American Century):

- The true legacy of the foreshortened American Century, those years when Washington as top dog actually organized much of the world, may prove apocalyptic. Nuclear weapons ushered that century in with the news that humanity could now annihilate itself.  Global warming is ushering it out with the news that nature may instead be the weapon of choice. In 1990, when the Soviet system collapsed and disappeared, along with its sclerotic state-run economy, capitalism and liberal democracy were hailed in a triumphalist fashion and the moment proclaimed “the end of history.” In the 1990s, that seemed like a flattering description.  Now, with 1% electionsan unmitigated drive for profits amid growing inequality, and constant global temperature records, the end of history might turn out to have a grimmer meaning.

- Global warming (like nuclear war and nuclear winter) is history’s deal-breaker.  Otherwise, the worst humanity can do, it’s done in some fashion before. Empires rise and fall. They always have. People are desperately oppressed. It’s an old story. Humans bravely protest the conditions of their lives. Rebellions and revolutions follow and the unexpected or disappointing is often the result. You know the tale. Hope and despair, the worst and the best—it’s us. But global warming, the potential destruction of the habitat that’s made everything possible for us, that’s something new under the sun. Yes, it’s happened before, thanks to natural causes ranging from vast volcanic eruptions to plummeting asteroids, but there’s something unique about us torpedoing our own environment. This, above all, looks to be the event the American Century has overseen and that the drive for fossil-fuel profits has made a reality. Don’t fool yourself, though; we’re not destroying the planet. Give it 10 million years and it’ll regenerate just fine. But us? Honestly, who knows what we can pull out of a hat on this score.

- Let me put my cards on the table. I’m the guy who started two of his book titles with the phrases “the end of” and “the last days of,” so think of me as apocalyptic by nature. I don’t believe in God or gods, or for that matter an afterlife. In all these years, I’ve never discovered a spiritual bone in my body. Still, I do care in some way that I can't begin to understand what happens to us after I’m dead, what in particular happens to my children and my grandson, and his children and theirs, too. Go figure.

- My father’s closest friend, the last person of his generation who knew him intimately, died recently at 99. To my regret, I was no longer in touch. It nonetheless felt like an archive closing. The fog of the past now envelops much of his life. There is nobody left to tell me what I don’t know about all those years before my birth. Not a soul. And yet I can at least recognize some of the people in his old photos and tell stories about them.  My mother’s childhood album is another matter. Her brother aside, there’s no one I recognize, not a single soul, or a single story I can tell. It’s all fog. We don’t like to think of ourselves that way; we don’t like to imagine that we, in the present, will disappear into that fog with all our stories, all our experiences, all our memories.

- Here’s a question that, in a globally warming world, comes to mind: Are we a failed experiment? I know I’m not the first to ask, and to answer I’d have to be capable of peering into a future that I can’t see. So all I can say on turning 70 is: Who wouldn’t want to stick around and find out?

- Here’s the upbeat takeaway from this requiem for a foreshortened American Century: history is undoubtedly filled with seers, Cassandras, and gurus of every sort exactly because the future is such a mystery to us. Mystery, however, means surprise, which is an eternal part of every tomorrow. And surprise means, even under the worst conditions, a kind of hope. Who knows just what July 20, 2015, or 2025, or 2035 will usher on stage?  And who knows when I won’t be there to find out. Not I.

- By the way, I have the urge to offer you five predictions about the world of 2050, but what’s the point? I’d just have to advise you to ignore them all.

Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. His latest book, to be published in September, is Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single Superpower World(Haymarket Books).

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook and Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Rebecca Solnit's Men Explain Things to Me.

Copyright 2014 Tom Engelhardt   

Photo by Fotolia/isoga



7/15/2014

natural gas fields

Global conflicts are increasingly fueled by the desire for oil and natural gas—and the funds they generate. 

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch.

Iraq, Syria, Nigeria, South Sudan, Ukraine, the East and South China Seas: wherever you look, the world is aflame with new or intensifying conflicts. At first glance, these upheavals appear to be independent events, driven by their own unique and idiosyncratic circumstances. But look more closely and they share several key characteristicsnotably, a witch’s brew of ethnic, religious, and national antagonisms that have been stirred to the boiling point by a fixation on energy.

In each of these conflicts, the fighting is driven in large part by the eruption of long-standing historic antagonisms among neighboring (often intermingled) tribes, sects, and peoples. In Iraq and Syria, it is a clash among Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, Turkmen, and others; in Nigeria, among Muslims, Christians, and assorted tribal groupings; in South Sudan, between the Dinka and Nuer; in Ukraine, between Ukrainian loyalists and Russian-speakers aligned with Moscow; in the East and South China Sea, among the Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Filipinos, and others. It would be easy to attribute all this to age-old hatreds, as suggested by many analysts; but while such hostilities do help drive these conflicts, they are fueled by a most modern impulse as well: the desire to control valuable oil and natural gas assets. Make no mistake about it, these are twenty-first-century energy wars.

It should surprise no one that energy plays such a significant role in these conflicts. Oil and gas are, after all, the world’s most important and valuable commodities and constitute a major source of income for the governments and corporations that control their production and distribution. Indeed, the governments of IraqNigeria,RussiaSouth Sudan, and Syria derive the great bulk of their revenues from oil sales, while the major energy firms (many state-owned) exercise immense power in these and the other countries involved. Whoever controls these states, or the oil- and gas-producing areas within them, also controls the collection and allocation of crucial revenues. Despite the patina of historical enmities, many of these conflicts, then, are really struggles for control over the principal source of national income.

Moreover, we live in an energy-centric world where control over oil and gas resources (and their means of delivery) translates into geopolitical clout for some and economic vulnerability for others.  Because so many countries are dependent on energy imports, nations with surpluses to exportincluding Iraq, Nigeria, Russia, and South Sudanoften exercise disproportionate influence on the world stage. What happens in these countries sometimes matters as much to the rest of us as to the people living in them, and so the risk of external involvement in their conflictswhether in the form of direct intervention, arms transfers, the sending in of military advisers, or economic assistanceis greater than almost anywhere else.

The struggle over energy resources has been a conspicuous factor in many recent conflicts, including the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988, the Gulf War of 1990-1991, and the Sudanese Civil War of 1983-2005. On first glance, the fossil-fuel factor in the most recent outbreaks of tension and fighting may seem less evident. But look more closely and you’ll see that each of these conflicts is, at heart, an energy war.

Iraq, Syria, and ISIS

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Sunni extremist group that controls large chunks of western Syria and northern Iraq, is a well-armed militia intent on creating an Islamic caliphate in the areas it controls. In some respects, it is a fanatical, sectarian religious organization, seeking to reproduce the pure, uncorrupted piety of the early Islamic era. At the same time, it is engaged in a conventional nation-building project, seeking to create a fully functioning state with all its attributes.

As the United States learned to its dismay in Iraq and Afghanistan, nation-building is expensive: institutions must be created and financed, armies recruited and paid, weapons and fuel procured, and infrastructure maintained. Without oil (or some other lucrative source of income), ISIS could never hope to accomplish its ambitious goals. However, as it now occupies key oil-producing areas of Syria and oil-refining facilities in Iraq, it is in a unique position to do so. Oil, then, is absolutely essential to the organization’s grand strategy.

Syria was never a major oil producer, but its prewar production of some 400,000 barrels per day did provide the regime of Bashar al-Assad with a major source of income. Now, most of the country’s oil fields are under the control of rebel groups, including ISIS, the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, and local Kurdish militias. Although production from the fields has dropped significantly, enough is being extracted and sold through various clandestine channels to provide the rebelswith income and operating funds. “Syria is an oil country and has resources, but in the past they were all stolen by the regime,” said Abu Nizar, an anti-government activist. “Now they are being stolen by those who are profiting from the revolution.”

At first, many rebel groups were involved in these extractive activities, but since January, when it assumed control of Raqqa, the capital of the province of that name, ISIS has been the dominant player in the oil fields. In addition, it has seized fields in neighboring Deir al-Zour Province along the Iraq border. Indeed, many of the U.S.-supplied weapons it acquired from the fleeing Iraqi army after its recent drive into Mosul and other northern Iraqi cities have been moved into Deir al-Zour to help in the organization’s campaign to take full control of the region. In Iraq, ISIS is fighting to gain control over Iraq’s largest refinery at Baiji in the central part of the country.

It appears that ISIS sells oil from the fields it controls to shadowy middlemen who in turn arrange for its transportmostly by tanker trucksto buyers in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey.  These sales are said to provide the organization with the funds needed to pay its troops and acquire its vast stockpiles of arms and ammunition. Many observers also claim that ISIS is selling oil to the Assad regime in return for immunity from government air strikes of the sort being launched against other rebel groups. “Many locals in Raqqa accuse ISIS of collaborating with the Syrian regime,” a Kurdish journalist, Sirwan Kajjo, reported in early June. “Locals say that while other rebel groups in Raqqa have been under attack by regime air strikes on a regular basis, ISIS headquarters have not once been attacked.”

However the present fighting in northern Iraq plays out, it is obvious that there, too, oil is a central factor. ISIS seeks both to deny petroleum supplies and oil revenue to the Baghdad government and to bolster its own coffers, enhancing its capacity for nation-building and further military advances. At the same time, the Kurds and various Sunni tribessome allied with ISISwant control over oil fields located in the areas under their control and a greater share of the nation’s oil wealth.

Ukraine, the Crimea, and Russia

The present crisis in Ukraine began in November 2013 when President Viktor Yanukovych repudiated an agreement for closer economic and political ties with the European Union (EU), opting instead for closer ties with Russia. That act touched off fierce anti-government protests in Kiev and eventually led to Yanukovych’s flight from the capital. With Moscow’s principal ally pushed from the scene and pro-EU forces in control of the capital, Russian President Vladimir Putin moved to seize control of the Crimea and foment a separatist drive in eastern Ukraine. For both sides, the resulting struggle has been about political legitimacy and national identitybut as in other recent conflicts, it has also been about energy.

Ukraine is not itself a significant energy producer. It is, however, a major transit route for the delivery of Russian natural gas to Europe. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), Europe obtained 30 percent of its gas from Russia in 2013most of it from the state-controlled gas giant Gazpromand approximately half of this was transported by pipelines crossing Ukraine. As a result, that country plays a critical role in the complex energy relationship between Europe and Russia, one that has proved incredibly lucrative for the shadowy elites and oligarchs who control the flow of gas, whille at the same time provoking intense controversy. Disputes over the price Ukraine pays for its own imports of Russian gas twice provoked a cutoff in deliveries by Gazprom, leading to diminished supplies in Europe as well.

Given this background, it is not surprising that a key objective of the “association agreement” between the EU and Ukraine that was repudiated by Yanukovych (and has now been signed by the new Ukrainian government) calls for the extension of EU energy rules to Ukraine’s energy systemessentially eliminating the cozy deals between Ukrainian elites and Gazprom. By entering into the agreement, EU officials claim, Ukraine will begin “a process of approximating its energy legislation to the EU norms and standards, thus facilitating internal market reforms.”

Russian leaders have many reasons to despise the association agreement. For one thing, it will move Ukraine, a country on its border, into a closer political and economic embrace with the West. Of special concern, however, are the provisions about energy, given Russia’s economic reliance on gas sales to Europenot to mention the threat they pose to the personal fortunes of well-connected Russian elites. In late 2013 Yanukovych came under immense pressure from Vladimir Putin to turn his back on the EU and agree instead to an economic union with Russia and Belarus, an arrangement that would have protected the privileged status of elites in both countries. However, by moving in this direction, Yanukovych put a bright spotlight on the crony politics that had long plagued Ukraine’s energy system, thereby triggering protests in Kiev’s Independence Square (the Maidan)that led to his downfall.

Once the protests began, a cascade of events led to the current standoff, with the Crimea in Russian hands, large parts of the east under the control of pro-Russian separatists, and the rump western areas moving ever closer to the EU. In this ongoing struggle, identity politics has come to play a prominent role, with leaders on all sides appealing to national and ethnic loyalties. Energy, nevertheless, remains a major factor in the equation. Gazprom has repeatedly raised the price it charges Ukraine for its imports of natural gas, and on June 16th cut off its supply entirely, claiming non-payment for past deliveries. A day later, an explosion damaged one of the main pipelines carrying Russian gas to Ukrainean event still being investigated. Negotiations over the gas price remain a major issue in the ongoing negotiations between Ukraine’s newly elected president, Petro Poroshenko, and Vladimir Putin.

Energy also played a key role in Russia’s determination to take the Crimea by military means. By annexing that region, Russia virtually doubled the offshore territory it controls in the Black Sea, which is thought to house billions of barrels of oil and vast reserves of natural gas. Prior to the crisis, several Western oil firms, including ExxonMobil, were negotiating with Ukraine for access to those reserves. Now, they will be negotiating with Moscow. “It’s a big deal,” said Carol Saivetz, a Eurasian expert at MIT.  “It deprives Ukraine of the possibility of developing these resources and gives them to Russia.”

Nigeria and South Sudan

The conflicts in South Sudan and Nigeria are distinctive in many respects, yet both share a key common factor: widespread anger and distrust towards government officials who have become wealthy, corrupt, and autocratic thanks to access to abundant oil revenues.

In Nigeria, the insurgent group Boko Haram is fighting to overthrow the existing political system and establish a puritanical, Muslim-ruled state. Although most Nigerians decry the group’s violent methods (including the kidnapping of hundreds of teenage girls from a state-run school), it has drawn strength from disgust in the poverty-stricken northern part of the country with the corruption-riddled central government in distant Abuja, the capital.

Nigeria is the largest oil producer in Africa, pumping out some 2.5 million barrels per day. With oil selling at around $100 per barrel, this represents a potentially staggering source of wealth for the nation, even after the private companies involved in the day-to-day extractive operations take their share. Were these revenuesestimated in the tens of billions of dollars per yearused to spur development and improve the lot of the population, Nigeria could be a great beacon of hope for Africa. Instead, much of the money disappears into the pockets (and foreign bank accounts) of Nigeria’s well-connected elites.

In February, the governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Lamido Sanusi, told a parliamentary investigating committee that the state-owned Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) had failed to transfer some $20 billion in proceeds from oil sales to the national treasury, as required by law. It had all evidently been diverted to private accounts. “A substantial amount of money has gone,” he told the New York Times. “I wasn’t just talking about numbers. I showed it was a scam.”

For many Nigeriansa majority of whom subsist on less than $2 per daythe corruption in Abuja, when combined with the wanton brutality of the government’s security forces, is a source of abiding anger and resentment, generating recruits for insurgent groups like Boko Haram and winning them begrudging admiration. “They know well the frustration that would drive someone to take up arms against the state,” said National Geographic reporter James Verini of people he interviewed in battle-scarred areas of northern Nigeria. At this stage, the government has displayed zero capacity to overcome the insurgency, while its ineptitude and heavy-handed military tactics have only further alienated ordinary Nigerians.

The conflict in South Sudan has different roots, but shares a common link to energy.  Indeed, the very formation of South Sudan is a product of oil politics. A civil war in Sudan that lasted from 1955 to 1972 only ended when the Muslim-dominated government in the north agreed to grant more autonomy to the peoples of the southern part of the country, largely practitioners of traditional African religions or Christianity.  However, when oil was discovered in the south, the rulers of northern Sudan repudiated many of their earlier promises and sought to gain control over the oil fields, sparking a second civil war, which lasted from 1983 to 2005. An estimated two million people lost their lives in this round of fighting. In the end, the south was granted full autonomy and the right to vote on secession. Following a January 2011 referendum in which 98.8 percent of southerners voted to secede, the country became independent on that July 9th.

The new state had barely been established, however, when conflict with the north over its oil resumed. While South Sudan has a plethora of oil, the only pipeline allowing the country to export its energy stretches across North Sudan to the Red Sea. This ensured that the south would be dependent on the north for the major source of government revenues. Furious at the loss of the fields, the northerners charged excessively high rates for transporting the oil, precipitating a cutoff in oil deliveries by the south and sporadic violence along the two countries’ still-disputed border. Finally, in August 2012, the two sides agreed to a formula for sharing the wealth and the flow of oil resumed. Fighting has, however, continued in certain border areas controlled by the north but populated by groups linked to the south.

With the flow of oil income assured, the leader of South Sudan, President Salva Kiir, sought to consolidate his control over the country and all those oil revenues. Claiming an imminent coup attempt by his rivals, led by Vice President Riek Machar, he disbanded his multiethnic government on July 24, 2013, and began arresting allies of Machar. The resulting power struggle quickly turned into an ethnic civil war, with the kin of President Kiir, a Dinka, battling members of the Nuer group, of which Machar is a member. Despite several attempts to negotiate a cease-fire, fighting has been under way since December, with thousands of people killed and hundreds of thousands forced to flee their homes.

As in Syria and Iraq, much of the fighting in South Sudan has centered around the vital oil fields, with both sides determined to control them and collect the revenues they generate. As of March, while still under government control, the Paloch field in Upper Nile State was producing some 150,000 barrels a day, worth about $15 million to the government and participating oil companies. The rebel forces, led by former Vice President Machar, are trying to seize those fields to deny this revenue to the government.  “The presence of forces loyal to Salva Kiir in Paloch, to buy more arms to kill our people ... is not acceptable to us,” Machar said in April. “We want to take control of the oil field. It’s our oil.” As of now, the field remains in government hands, with rebel forces reportedly making gains in the vicinity.

The South China Sea

In both the East China and South China seas, China and its neighbors claim assorted atolls and islands that sit astride vast undersea oil and gas reserves. The waters of both have been the site of recurring naval clashes over the past few years, with the South China Sea recently grabbing the spotlight. 

An energy-rich offshoot of the western Pacific, that sea, long a focus of contention, is rimmed by China, Vietnam, the island of Borneo, and the Philippine Islands. Tensions peaked in May when the Chinese deployed their largest deepwater drilling rig, the HD-981, in waters claimed by Vietnam. Once in the drilling area, about 120 nautical miles off the coast of Vietnam, the Chinese surrounded the HD-981 with a large flotilla of navy and coast guard ships. When Vietnamese coast guard vessels attempted to penetrate this defensive ring in an effort to drive off the rig, they were rammed by Chinese ships and pummeled by water cannon. No lives have yet been lost in these encounters, but anti-Chinese rioting in Vietnam in response to the sea-borne encroachment left several dead and the clashes at sea are expected to continue for several months until the Chinese move the rig to another (possibly equally contested) location.

The riots and clashes sparked by the deployment of HD-981 have been driven in large part by nationalism and resentment over past humiliations. The Chinese, insisting that various tiny islands in the South China Sea were once ruled by their country, still seek to overcome the territorial losses and humiliations they suffered at the hands the Western powers and Imperial Japan. The Vietnamese, long accustomed to Chinese invasions, seek to protect what they view as their sovereign territory. For common citizens in both countries, demonstrating resolve in the dispute is a matter of national pride.

But to view the Chinese drive in the South China Sea as a simple matter of nationalistic impulses would be a mistake. The owner of HD-981, the China National Offshore Oil Company (CNOOC), has conducted extensive seismic testing in the disputed area and evidently believes there is a large reservoir of energy there. “The South China Sea is estimated to have 23 billion tons to 30 billion tons of oil and 16 trillion cubic meters of natural gas, accounting for one-third of China's total oil and gas resources,” the Chinese news agency Xinhua noted. Moreover, China announced in June that it was deploying a second drilling rig to the contested waters of the South China Sea, this time at the mouth of the Gulf of Tonkin. 

As the world’s biggest consumer of energy, China is desperate to acquire fresh fossil fuel supplies wherever it can. Although its leaders are prepared to make increasingly large purchases of African, Russian, and Middle Eastern oil and gas to satisfy the nation’s growing energy requirements, they not surprisingly prefer to develop and exploit domestic supplies. For them, the South China Sea is not a “foreign” source of energy but a Chinese one, and they appear determined to use whatever means necessary to secure it.  Because other countries, including Vietnam and the Philippines, also seek to exploit these oil and gas reserves, further clashes, at increasing levels of violence, seem almost inevitable.

No End to Fighting

As these conflicts and others like them suggest, fighting for control over key energy assets or the distribution of oil revenues is a critical factor in most contemporary warfare.  While ethnic and religious divisions may provide the political and ideological fuel for these battles, it is the potential for mammoth oil profits that keeps the struggles alive.  Without the promise of such resources, many of these conflicts would eventually die out for lack of funds to buy arms and pay troops. So long as the oil keeps flowing, however, the belligerents have both the means and incentive to keep fighting.

In a fossil-fuel world, control over oil and gas reserves is an essential component of national power. “Oil fuels more than automobiles and airplanes,” Robert Ebel of the Center for Strategic and International Studies told a State Department audience in 2002.  “Oil fuels military power, national treasuries, and international politics.” Far more than an ordinary trade commodity, “it is a determinant of well being, of national security, and international power for those who possess this vital resource, and the converse for those who do not.”

If anything, that’s even truer today, and as energy wars expand, the truth of this will only become more evident. Someday, perhaps, the development of renewable sources of energy may invalidate this dictum. But in our present world, if you see a conflict developing, look for the energy. It’ll be there somewhere on this fossil-fueled planet of ours.

Michael T. Klare, a TomDispatch regular, is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and the author, most recently, of The Race for What’s Left.  A documentary movie version of his book Blood and Oilis available from the Media Education Foundation.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook and Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Rebecca Solnit's Men Explain Things to Me.

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