The opposition (read Nepali Congress and CPN-Unified Marxists Leninists) has been given yet another blow from the Maoist side. The Maoist-led Bhattarai government is all set to legalize the ownership certified by the 'People's' government's seized lands. Thousands of land-transactions that were certified by the Maoists during the decade-long armed conflict have now been given legal status, as per government's recent decision to this effect.
Opposition parties are 'doing their duty' of 'pressurizing' the government to take back that decision. As a result, the elusive 'peace process' has been stalled. 'Constitution making' too is not making any visible headway. 'Major' parties blame each other for not doing the desired, and agreed upon, tasks. Opposition parties are disrupting the House proceedings as usual.
Various works to be carried out under 'peace process' were stalled earlier because of the Maoist's intra-party disputes. Months have gone by, but no progress as such had been achieved in the past and once again the same is being repeated. Oppositions, especially the Nepali Congress and CPN-UML, are in a dilemma. They neither give up all stocks to Maoist, nor are they in a position to do anything they pursue.
Maoist has been achieving what the party desires, especially after the election of the Constituent Assembly, or after the non-political and non-ethical abolition of Monarchy from the country.
The parliamentary parties, who believe in ballot, in a loud voice, used to claim 'bringing the terrorists (read Maoists) into the mainstream political process.' Yes, Maoists came into political helm through people's ballot, bagging majority of the votes at time of the CA elections held April 10, 2008. Maoist, the largest party in the CA with more seats than Nepali Congress and CPN-UML combined, is in a position to dictate the political course since last four years. It's parliamentary parties' turn to push 'demands' to the perusal of the Maoist for its implementation. And the Maoist does not even see the need to heed to their demands. Obviously, Maoists have been using others by dragging into their own terms.
The so called 'Loktantrik forces' as they boast for themselves, NC and the UML, have been put into an awkward position, politically and morally. It is because politics is the game of power. Whatever a powerful does becomes correct. And Maoists are doing just that. Keep it up ... the 'former rebels'!
Maoists are doing as per its declared policy and strategies. One should remember that Maoist's official declared policy was to abolish Monarchy, its main enemy, from Nepal and establish 'people's republic.' In addition, it was, and still is, Maoist's declared policy to 'destroy' old Nepal's all systems, political, cultural, economic and otherwise, and to create a 'New Nepal', meaning People’s Republic on lines with what the North Korea is at the moment. Most importantly, Maoists have not given up violence. In principle, this party is still holding guns. The shadow of the guns is seen everywhere in the country, even upon NC and UML, others also not spared.
By now, it should be clear to any sane person that 'Loktantrik' parties have been living in a fantasy. And it is them who are creating an illusion that Maoists have entered into the 'mainstream political course.' The outcome of an illusion is never realistic. Thus is the situation for parliamentary parties, especially for Nepali Congress and Unified Marxists Leninists.
It is no surprise that the Maoists are working on its own chartered party’s line. This party is pushing all others to the wall and forcing them all to reach to a 'national consensus' on their terms and desires. And the Maoist's terms are to annihilate their declared 'enemies.' Since Monarchy has already been sidelined, though undemocratically, it's now the turn for a new 'enemy,' the parliamentary parties, those who believe in ballot, and denounce violence.
It seems that Nepali Congress and UML, including other newly made 'republican' parties, have still not realized the Maoist's strategy, of destroying all its enemies, real or virtual. So, it will be interesting to watch the politics of this nation in the days ahead.
$869 billion for Iraq, $487 billion for Afghanistan, and everything else your almost $8 trillion in military spending bought you in the last decade.
The killing of Osama bin Laden did not put cuts in national security spending on the table, but the debt ceiling debate finally did. Andmildas those projected cuts might have been, last week newly minted Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta was already digging in his heels and decrying themodestpotential cost-cutting plans as a"doomsday mechanism"for the military. Pentagon allies on Capitol Hill were similarly raising the alarm as they moved forward with this year's even larger military budget.
None of this should surprise you. As with all addictions, once you're hooked on massive military spending, it's hard to think realistically or ask the obvious questions. So, at a moment when discussion about cutting military spending is actually on the rise for the first time in years, let me offer some little known basics about the spending spree this country has been on since September 11, 2001, and raise just a few simple questions about what all that money has actually bought Americans.
Consider this my contribution to a future 12-step program for national security sobriety.
Let's start with the three basic post-9/11 numbers that Washington's addicts need to know:
1. $5.9 trillion:That's the sum of taxpayer dollars that's gone into the Pentagon's annual "base budget," from 2000 to today. Note that the base budget includes nuclear weapons activities, even though they are overseen by the Department of Energy, but—and this is crucial—not the cost of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nonetheless, even without those war costs, the Pentagon budget managed to grow from $302.9 billion in 2000 to $545.1 billion in 2011. That's a dollar increase of $242.2 billion or an 80 percent jump ($163.6 billion and 44 percent if you adjust for inflation). It's enough to make your head swim, and we've barely started.
2. $1.36 trillion:That's the total cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars by this September 30th, the end of the current fiscal year, including all money spent for those wars by the Pentagon, the State Department, the US Agency for International Development, and other federal agencies. Of this, $869 billion will have been for Iraq, $487.6 billion for Afghanistan.
Add up our first two key national security spending numbers and you're already at $7.2 trillion since the September 11th attacks. And even that staggering figure doesn't catch the full extent of Washington spending in these years. So onward to our third number.
3. $636 billion:Most people usually ignore this part of the national security budget, and we seldom see any figures for it, but it's the amount, adjusted for inflation, that the US government has spent so far on "homeland security." This isn't an easy figure to arrive at because homeland security funding flows through literally dozens of federal agencies and not just the Department of Homeland Security. A mere $16 billion was requested for homeland security in 2001. For 2012, the figure is $71.6 billion, only $37 billion of which will go through DHS. A substantial part, $18.1 billion, will be funneled through—don't be surprised—the Department of Defense, while other agencies like the Department of Health and Human Services ($4.6 billion) and the Department of Justice ($4.1 billion) pick up the slack.
Add those three figures together and you're at the edge of $8 trillion in national security spending for the last decade-plus and perhaps wondering where the nearest group for compulsive-spending addiction meets.
All of this brings another simple question to mind: Are we safer?
Now, for a few of those questions I mentioned, just to bring reality further into focus:
How does that nearly $8 trillion compare with past spending?
In the decade before the 9/11 attacks, the Pentagon base budget added up to an impressive $4.2 trillion, only one-third less than for the past decade. But add in the cost of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and total Pentagon spending post-9/11 is actually two-thirds greater than in the previous decade. That's quite a jump. As for homeland security funding, spending figures for the years prior to 2000 are hard to identify because the category didn't exist (nor did anyone who mattered in Washington even think to use that word "homeland"). But there can be no question that whatever it was, it would pale next to present spending.
Is that nearly $8 trillion the real total for these years, or could it be even higher?
The war cost calculations I've used above, which come from my own organization,the National Priorities Project, only take into account funds that have been requested by the president and appropriated by Congress. This, however, is just one way of considering the problem of war and national security spending. Arecent studypublished by the Watson Institute of Brown University took a much broader approach. In thesummary of their work, the Watson Institute analysts wrote, "There are at least three ways to think about the economic costs of these wars: what has been spent already, what could or must be spent in the future, and the comparative economic effects of spending money on war instead of something else."
By including funding for such things as veterans benefits, future costs for treating the war-wounded, and interest payments on war-related borrowing, they came up with $3.2 trillion to $4 trillion in war costs, which would put those overall national security figures since 2001 at around $11 trillion.
I took a similar approach in an earlier TomDispatch piece in which I calculated the true costs of national security at$1.2 trillion annually.
All of this brings another simple, but seldom-asked question to mind:
Are we safer?
Regardless of what figures you choose to use, one thing is certain: we're talking about trillions and trillions of dollars. And given the debate raging in Washington this summer about how to rein in trillion-dollar deficits and a spiraling debt, it's surprising that no one thinks to ask just how much safety bang for its buck the United States is getting from those trillions.
Of course, it's not an easy question to answer, but there are some troubling facts out there that should give one pause. Let's start with government accounting, which, like military music, is something of an oxymoron. Despite decades of complaints from Capitol Hill and various congressional attempts to force changes via legislation, the Department of Defense still cannot pass an audit. Believe it or not, it never has.
Members of Congress have become so exasperated that several have tried (albeit unsuccessfully) to cap or cut military spending until the Pentagon is capable of passing an annual audit as required by the Chief Financial Officers Act of 1990. So even as they fight to preserve record levels of military spending, Pentagon officials really have no way of telling American taxpayers how their money is being spent, or what kind of security it actually buys.
And this particular disease seems to be catching. The Department of Homeland Security has been part of the"high risk" seriesof the Government Accountability Office since 2003. In case being "high risk" in GAO terms isn't part of your dinner table chitchat, here's the definition: "agencies and program areas that are high risk due to their vulnerabilities to fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement, or are most in need of broad reform."
Put in layman's terms: No organization crucial to national security spending really has much of an idea of how well or badly it is spending vast sums of taxpayer money—and worse yet, Congress knows even less.
Which leads us to a broader issue and another question:
Are we spending money on the right types of security?
This June, the Institute for Policy Studies released the latest version of what it calls "a Unified Security Budget for the United States" that could make the country safer for far less than the current military budget. Known more familiarly as the USB, it has been produced annually since 2004 by the websiteForeign Policy in Focusand draws on a task force of experts.
As in previous years, the report found—again in layman's terms—that the United States invests its security dollars mainly in making war, slighting both real homeland security and anything that might pass for preventive diplomacy. In the Obama administration's proposed 2012 budget, for example, 85 percent of security spending goes to the military (and if you included the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, that percentage would only rise); just 7 percent goes to real homeland security and a modest 8 percent to what might, even generously speaking, be termed nonmilitary international engagement.
Significant parts of the foreign policy establishment have come to accept this critique—at least they sometimes sound like they do. As Robert Gatesput the matterwhile still secretary of defense, "Funding for non-military foreign affairs programs...remains disproportionately small relative to what we spend on the military...[T]here is a need for a dramatic increase in spending on the civilian instruments of national security." But if they talk the talk, when annual budgeting time comes around, few of them yet walk the walk.
So let's ask another basic question:
Has your money, funneled into the vast and shadowy world of military and national-security spending, made you safer?
Government officials and counterterrorism experts frequently claim that the public is unaware of their many "victories" in the "war on terror." These, they insist, remain hidden for reasons that involve protecting intelligence sources and law enforcement techniques. They also maintain that the United States and its allies have disrupted any number of terror plots since 9/11 and that this justifies the present staggering levels of national security spending.
Undoubtedly examples of foiled terrorist acts, unpublicized for reasons of security, do exist (although the urge to boast shouldn't be underestimated, as in the case of the covert operation to kill Osama bin Laden). Think of this as the "I could tell you, but then I'd have to kill you" approach to supposed national-security successes. It's regularly used to justify higher spending requests for homeland security. There are, however, two obvious and immediate problems with taking it seriously.
First, lacking any transparency, there's next to no way to assess its merits. How serious were these threats? A hapless underwear bomber or a weapon of mass destruction that didn't make it to an American city? Who knows? The only thing that's clear is that this is aloopholethrough which you can drive your basic mine-resistant, ambush-protected armored vehicle.
In the vast majority of cases, the plots we know about were broken up by "law enforcement" or civilians, in no way aided by the $7.2 trillion that was invested in the military.
Second, how exactly were these attempts foiled? Were they thwarted by programs funded as part of the $7.2 trillion in military spending, or even the $636 billion in homeland security spending?
An April 2010Heritage Foundation report, "30 Terrorist Plots Foiled: How the System Worked," looked at known incidents where terrorist attacks were actually thwarted and so provides some guidance. The Heritage experts wrote, "Since September 11, 2001, at least 30 planned terrorist attacks have been foiled, all but two of them prevented by law enforcement. The two notable exceptions are the passengers and flight attendants who subdued the ‘shoe bomber' in 2001 and the ‘underwear bomber' on Christmas Day in 2009."
In other words, in the vast majority of cases, the plots we know about were broken up by "law enforcement" or civilians, in no way aided by the $7.2 trillion that was invested in the military—or in many cases even the $636 billion that went into homeland security. And while most of those cases involved federal authorities, at least three were stopped by local law enforcement action.
In truth, given the current lack of assessment tools, it's virtually impossible for outsiders—and probably insiders as well—to evaluate the effectiveness of this country's many security-related programs. And this stymies our ability to properly determine the allocation of federal resources on the basis of program efficiency and the relative levels of the threats addressed.
So here's one final question that just about no one asks:
Could we be less safe?
It's possible that all that funding, especially the moneys that have gone into our various wars and conflicts, our secret drone campaigns and "black sites," our various forays into Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and other places may actually have made us less safe. Certainly, they have exacerbated existing tensions and created new ones, eroded our standing in some of the most volatile regions of the world, resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands and the misery of many more, and made Iraq and Afghanistan, among other places, potential recruiting and training grounds for future generations of insurgents and terrorists. Does anything remain of the international goodwill toward our country that was the one positive legacy of the infamous attacks of September 11, 2001? Unlikely.
Now, isn't it time for those 12 steps?
Chris Hellman, aTomDispatch.com regular, is a Senior Research Analyst at theNational Priorities Project. He is a member of the Unified Security Budget Task Force and the Sustainable Defense Task Force. Prior to joining NPP, he worked on military budget and policy issues for the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation and the Center for Defense Information. He is also a ten-year veteran of Capitol Hill, where as a congressional staffer he worked on defense and foreign policy issues.
From now on, the primary focus of American military strategy will not be counterterrorism, but the containment of China.
When it comes to China policy, is the Obama administration leaping from the frying pan directly into the fire? In an attempt to turn the page on two disastrous wars in the Greater Middle East, it may have just launched a new Cold War in Asia—once again, viewing oil as the key to global supremacy.
The new policy was signaled by President Obama himself on November 17th in anaddress to the Australian Parliamentin which he laid out an audacious—and extremely dangerous—geopolitical vision. Instead of focusing on the Greater Middle East, as has been the case for the last decade, the United States will now concentrate its power in Asia and the Pacific. "My guidance is clear," he declared in Canberra. "As we plan and budget for the future, we will allocate the resources necessary to maintain our strong military presence in this region." While administration officials insist that this new policy is not aimed specifically at China, the implication is clear enough: from now on, the primary focus of American military strategy will not be counterterrorism, but the containment of that economically booming land—at whatever risk or cost.
The Planet's New Center of Gravity
The new emphasis on Asia and the containment of China is necessary, top officials insist, because the Asia-Pacific region now constitutes the"center of gravity"of world economic activity. While the United States was bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, the argument goes, China had the leeway to expand its influence in the region. For the first time since the end of World War II, Washington is no longer the dominant economic actor there. If the United States is to retain its title as the world's paramount power, it must, this thinking goes, restore its primacy in the region and roll back Chinese influence. In the coming decades, no foreign policy task will, it is claimed, be more important than this.
In line with its new strategy, the administration has undertaken a number of moves intended to bolster American power in Asia, and so put China on the defensive. These include a decision todeployan initial 250 US Marines—someday to be upped to 2,500—to an Australian air base in Darwin on that country's north coast, and the adoption on November 18th of"the Manila Declaration,"a pledge of closer US military ties with the Philippines.
At the same time, the White House announced thesale of 24 F-16 fighter jetsto Indonesia and a visit by Hillary Clinton to isolated Burma, long a Chinese ally—the first there by a secretary of state in 56 years. Clinton has alsospokenof increased diplomatic and military ties with Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam—all countries surrounding China or overlooking key trade routes that China relies on for importing raw materials and exporting manufactured goods.
As portrayed by administration officials, such moves are intended to maximize America's advantages in the diplomatic and military realm at a time when China dominates the economic realm regionally. In arecent articleinForeign Policymagazine, Clinton revealingly suggested that an economically weakened United States can no longer hope to prevail in multiple regions simultaneously. It must choose its battlefields carefully and deploy its limited assets—most of them of a military nature—to maximum advantage. Given Asia's strategic centrality to global power, this means concentrating resources there.
"Over the last 10 years," she writes, "we have allocated immense resources to [Iraq and Afghanistan]. In the next 10 years, we need to be smart and systematic about where we invest time and energy, so that we put ourselves in the best position to sustain our leadership [and] secure our interests... One of the most important tasks of American statecraft over the next decade will therefore be to lock in a substantially increased investment—diplomatic, economic, strategic, and otherwise—in the Asia-Pacific region."
Such thinking, with its distinctly military focus, appears dangerously provocative. The steps announced entail an increased military presence in waters bordering China and enhanced military ties with that country's neighbors—moves certain toarouse alarmin Beijing and strengthen the hand of those in the ruling circle (especially in the Chinese military leadership) who favor a more activist, militarized response to US incursions. Whatever forms that takes, one thing is certain: the leadership of the globe's number two economic power is not going to let itself appear weak and indecisive in the face of an American buildup on the periphery of its country. This, in turn, means that we may be sowing the seeds of a new Cold War in Asia in 2011.
The US military buildup and the potential for a powerful Chinese counter-thrust have already been the subject of discussion in the American and Asian press. But one crucial dimension of this incipient struggle has received no attention at all: the degree to which Washington's sudden moves have been dictated by a fresh analysis of the global energy equation, revealing (as the Obama administration sees it) increased vulnerabilities for the Chinese side and new advantages for Washington.
The New Energy Equation
For decades, the United States has been heavily dependent on imported oil, much of it obtained from the Middle East and Africa, while China was largely self-sufficient in oil output. In2001, the United States consumed 19.6 million barrels of oil per day, while producing only nine million barrels itself. The dependency on foreign suppliers for that 10.6 million-barrel shortfall proved a source of enormous concern for Washington policymakers. They responded by forging ever closer, more militarized ties with Middle Eastern oil producers and going to war on occasion to ensure the safety of US supply lines.
In 2001, China, on the other hand, consumed only five million barrels per day and so, with a domestic output of 3.3 million barrels, needed to import only 1.7 million barrels. Those cold, hard numbers made its leadership far less concerned about the reliability of the country's major overseas providers—and so it did not need to duplicate the same sort of foreign policy entanglements that Washington had long been involved in.
Now, so the Obama administration has concluded, the tables are beginning to turn. As a result of China's booming economy and the emergence of a sizeable and growing middle class (many of whom have already bought their first cars), the country's oil consumption is exploding. Running at about 7.8 million barrels per day in 2008, it will, according torecent projectionsby the US Department of Energy, reach 13.6 million barrels in 2020, and 16.9 million in 2035. Domestic oil production, on the other hand, is expected to grow from 4.0 million barrels per day in 2008 to 5.3 million in 2035. Not surprisingly, then, Chinese imports are expected to skyrocket from 3.8 million barrels per day in 2008 to a projected 11.6 million in 2035—at which time they will exceed those of the United States.
The US, meanwhile, can look forward to an improved energy situation. Thanks to increased production in"tough oil" areasof the United States, including the Arctic seas off Alaska, the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, and shale formations in Montana, North Dakota, and Texas, future imports are expected to decline, even as energy consumption rises. In addition, more oil is likely to be available from theWestern Hemisphererather than the Middle East or Africa. Again, this will be thanks to the exploitation of yet more "tough oil" areas, including the Athabasca tar sands of Canada, Brazilian oil fields in the deep Atlantic, and increasingly pacified energy-rich regions of previously war-torn Colombia. According to the Department of Energy, combined production in the United States, Canada, and Brazil is expected to climb by 10.6 million barrels per day between 2009 and 2035—an enormous jump, considering that most areas of the world are expecting declining output.
Whose Sea Lanes Are These Anyway?
From a geopolitical perspective, all this seems to confer a genuine advantage on the United States, even as China becomes ever more vulnerable to the vagaries of events in, or along, the sea lanes to distant lands. It means Washington will be able to contemplate a gradual loosening of its military and political ties to the Middle Eastern oil states that have dominated its foreign policy for so long and have led to those costly, devastating wars.
Indeed, as President Obama said in Canberra, the US is now in a position to begin to refocus its military capabilities elsewhere. "After a decade in which we fought two wars that cost us dearly," he declared, "the United States is turning our attention to the vast potential of the Asia-Pacific region."
For China, all this spells potential strategic impairment. Although some of China's imported oil will travel overland through pipelines from Kazakhstan and Russia, the great majority of it will still come by tanker from the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America over sea lanes policed by the US Navy. Indeed, almost every tanker bringing oil to China travels across the South China Sea, a body of water the Obama administration is nowseeking to placeunder effective naval control.
By securing naval dominance of the South China Sea and adjacent waters, the Obama administration evidently aims to acquire the twenty-first century energy equivalent of twentieth-century nuclear blackmail. Push us too far, the policy implies, and we'll bring your economy to its knees by blocking your flow of vital energy supplies. Of course, nothing like this will ever be said in public, but it is inconceivable that senior administration officials are not thinking along just these lines, and there is ample evidence that the Chinese are deeply worried about the risk—as indicated, for example, by their frantic efforts tobuildstaggeringly expensive pipelines across the entire expanse of Asia to the Caspian Sea basin.
As the underlying nature of the new Obama strategic blueprint becomes clearer, there can be no question that the Chinese leadership will, in response,take stepsto ensure the safety of China's energy lifelines. Some of these moves will undoubtedly be economic and diplomatic, including, for example, efforts to court regional players like Vietnam and Indonesia as well as major oil suppliers like Angola, Nigeria, and Saudi Arabia. Make no mistake, however: others will be of a military nature. A significantbuildupof the Chinese navy—still small and backward when compared to the fleets of the United States and its principal allies—would seem all but inevitable. Likewise, closer military ties between China and Russia, as well as with the Central Asian member states of theShanghai Cooperation Organization(Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan), are assured.
In addition, Washington could now be sparking the beginnings of a genuine Cold-War-style arms race in Asia, which neither country can, in the long run, afford. All of this is likely to lead to greater tension and a heightened risk of inadvertent escalation arising out of future incidents involving US, Chinese, and allied vessels—like the one that occurred in March 2009 when a flotilla of Chinese naval vesselssurroundeda US anti-submarine warfare surveillance ship, theImpeccable, and almost precipitated a shooting incident. As more warships circulate through these waters in an increasingly provocative fashion, the risk that such an incident will result in something far more explosive can only grow.
Nor will the potential risks and costs of such a military-first policy aimed at China be restricted to Asia. In the drive to promote greater US self-sufficiency in energy output, the Obama administration is giving its approval to production techniques—Arctic drilling, deep-offshore drilling, and hydraulic fracturing—that are guaranteed to lead to furtherDeepwater Horizon-styleenvironmental catastrophe at home. Greater reliance on Canadian tar sands, the"dirtiest"of energies, will result in increased greenhouse gas emissions and a multitude of other environmental hazards, while deep Atlantic oil production off the Brazilian coast and elsewhere has itsown set of grim dangers.
All of this ensures that, environmentally, militarily, and economically, we will find ourselves in a more, not less, perilous world. The desire to turn away from disastrous land wars in the Greater Middle East to deal with key issues now simmering in Asia is understandable, but choosing a strategy that puts such an emphasis on military dominance and provocation is bound to provoke a response in kind. It is hardly a prudent path to head down, nor will it, in the long run, advance America's interests at a time when global economic cooperation is crucial. Sacrificing the environment to achieve greater energy independence makes no more sense.
A new Cold War in Asia and a hemispheric energy policy that could endanger the planet: it's a fatal brew that should be reconsidered before the slide toward confrontation and environmental disaster becomes irreversible. You don't have to be a seer to know that this is not the definition of good statesmanship, but of the march of folly.
As demand rises and supplies dwindle, disputes over energy resources will dominate world affairs.
Welcome to an edgy world where a single incident at an energy "chokepoint" could set a region aflame, provoking bloody encounters, boosting oil prices, and putting the global economy at risk. With energy demand on the rise and sources of supply dwindling, we are, in fact, entering a new epoch—the Geo-Energy Era—in which disputes over vital resources will dominate world affairs. In 2012 and beyond, energy and conflict will be bound ever more tightly together, lending increasing importance to the key geographical flashpoints in our resource-constrained world.
Take the Strait of Hormuz, already making headlines and shaking energy markets as 2012 begins. Connecting the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean, it lacks imposing geographical features like the Rock of Gibraltar or the Golden Gate Bridge. In an energy-conscious world, however, it may possess greater strategic significance than any passageway on the planet. Every day, according to the US Department of Energy, tankers carrying some17 million barrels of oil—representing 20 percent of the world's daily supply—pass through this vital artery.
So last month, when a senior Iranian official threatened to block the strait in response to Washington's tough new economic sanctions, oil prices instantly soared. While the US military has vowed to keep the strait open, doubts about the safety of future oil shipments and worries about a potentially unending, nerve-jangling crisis involving Washington, Tehran, and Tel Aviv have energy experts predicting high oil prices for months to come, meaning further woes for a slowing global economy.
The Strait of Hormuz is, however, only one of several hot spots where energy, politics, and geography are likely to mix in dangerous ways in 2012 and beyond. Keep your eye as well on the East and South China Seas, the Caspian Sea basin, and an energy-rich Arctic that is losing its sea ice. In all of these places, countries are disputing control over the production and transportation of energy, and arguing about national boundaries and/or rights of passage.
In the years to come, the location of energy supplies and of energy supply routes—pipelines, oil ports, and tanker routes—will be pivotal landmarks on the global strategic map. Key producing areas, like the Persian Gulf, will remain critically important, but so will oil chokepoints like the Strait of Hormuz and the Strait of Malacca (between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea) and the "sea lines of communication," or SLOCs (as naval strategists like to call them) connecting producing areas to overseas markets. More and more, the major powers led by the United States, Russia, and China will restructure their militaries to fight in such locales.
You can already see this in the elaborate Defense Strategic Guidance document,"Sustaining US Global Leadership,"unveiled at the Pentagon on January 5th by President Obama and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. While envisioning a smaller Army and Marine Corps, it calls for increased emphasis on air and naval capabilities, especially those geared to the protection or control of international energy and trade networks. Though it tepidly reaffirmed historic American ties to Europe and the Middle East, overwhelming emphasis was placed on bolstering US power in "the arc extending from the Western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean and South Asia."
In the new Geo-Energy Era, the control of energy and of its transport to market will lie at the heart of recurring global crises. This year, keep your eyes on three energy hot spots in particular: the Strait of Hormuz, the South China Sea, and the Caspian Sea basin.
The Strait of Hormuz
A narrow stretch of water separating Iran from Oman and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), thestraitis the sole maritime link between the oil-rich Persian Gulf region and the rest of the world. A striking percentage of the oil produced by Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE is carried by tanker through this passageway on a daily basis, making it (inthe words of the Department of Energy) "the world's most important oil chokepoint." Some analysts believe that any sustained blockage in the strait could trigger a50 percent increasein the price of oil and trigger a full-scale global recession or depression.
American leaders have long viewed the Strait as a strategic fixture in their global plans that must be defended at any cost. It was an outlook first voiced by President Jimmy Carter in January 1980, on the heels of the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan which had, hetold Congress, "brought Soviet military forces to within 300 miles of the Indian Ocean and close to the Strait of Hormuz, a waterway through which most of the world's oil must flow." The American response, he insisted, must be unequivocal: any attempt by a hostile power to block the waterway would henceforth be viewed as "an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America," and "repelled by any means necessary, including military force."
Much has changed in the Gulf region since Carter issued his famous decree, known since asthe Carter Doctrine, and established theUS Central Command(CENTCOM) to guard the Strait—but not Washington's determination to ensure the unhindered flow of oil there. Indeed, President Obama has made it clear that, even if CENTCOM ground forces were to leave Afghanistan, as they have Iraq, there would beno reductionin the command's air and naval presence in the greater Gulf area.
It is conceivable that the Iranians will put Washington's capabilities to the test. On December 27th, Iran's first vice president Mohammad-Reza Rahimisaid, "If [the Americans] impose sanctions on Iran's oil exports, then even one drop of oil cannot flow from the Strait of Hormuz." Similar statements have since been made by other senior officials (and contradicted as well by yet others). In addition, the Iranians recently conducted elaboratenaval exercisesin the Arabian Sea near the eastern mouth of the strait, and more such maneuvers are said to be forthcoming. At the same time, the commanding general of Iran's army suggested that the USSJohn C. Stennis, an American aircraft carrier just leaving the Gulf, should not return. "The Islamic Republic of Iran,"he addedominously, "will not repeat its warning."
Might the Iranians actually block the strait? Many analysts believe that the statements by Rahimi and his colleagues arebluster and bluffmeant to rattle Western leaders, send oil prices higher, and win future concessions if negotiations ever recommence over their country's nuclear program. Economic conditions in Iran are, however, becoming more desperate, and it is always possible that the country's hard-pressed hardline leaders may feel the urge to take some dramatic action, even if it invites a powerful US counterstrike. Whatever the case, the Strait of Hormuz will remain a focus of international attention in 2012, with global oil prices closely following the rise and fall of tensions there.
The South China Sea
TheSouth China Seais a semi-enclosed portion of the western Pacific bounded by China to the north, Vietnam to the west, the Philippines to the east, and the island of Borneo (shared by Brunei, Indonesia, and Malaysia) to the south. The sea also incorporates two largely uninhabited island chains, the Paracels and the Spratlys. Long an important fishing ground, it has also been a major avenue for commercial shipping between East Asia and Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. More recently, it acquired significance as a potential source of oil and natural gas, large reserves of which are now believed to lie in subsea areas surrounding the Paracels and Spratlys.
With the discovery of oil and gas deposits, the South China Sea has been transformed into a cockpit of international friction. At least some islands in this energy-rich area areclaimedby every one of the surrounding countries, including China—which claims them all, and has demonstrated a willingness to use military force to assert dominance in the region. Not surprisingly, this has put it in conflict with the other claimants, including several with close military ties to the United States. As a result, what started out as a regional matter, involving China and various members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), has become aprospective tusslebetween the world's two leading powers.
To press their claims, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines have all sought to work collectively through ASEAN, believing a multilateral approach will give them greater negotiating clout than one-on-one dealings with China. For their part, the Chinese have insisted that all disputes must be resolved bilaterally, a situation in which they can more easily bring their economic and military power to bear. Previously preoccupied with Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States has now entered the fray, offeringfull-throated supportto the ASEAN countries in their efforts to negotiate en masse with Beijing.
Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi promptly warned the United States not to interfere. Any such move "will only make matters worse and the resolution more difficult," hedeclared. The result was an instant war of words between Beijing and Washington. During a visit to the Chinese capital in July 2011, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen delivered a barely concealed threat when it came to possible future military action. "The worry, among others that I have," hecommented, "is that the ongoing incidents could spark a miscalculation, and an outbreak that no one anticipated." To drive the point home, the United States has conducted a series of conspicuous military exercises in the South China Sea, including somejoint maneuverswith ships from Vietnam and the Philippines. Not to be outdone, China responded with naval maneuvers of its own. It's a perfect formula for future "incidents" at sea.
The South China Sea has long been on the radar screens of those who follow Asian affairs, but it only attracted global attention when, in November, President Obama traveled to Australia and announced, with remarkable bluntness, a new US strategy aimed at confronting Chinese power in Asia and the Pacific. "As we plan and budget for the future," hetold members of the Australian Parliament in Canberra, "we will allocate the resources necessary to maintain our strong military presence in this region." A key feature of this effort would be to ensure "maritime security" in the South China Sea.
While in Australia, President Obama also announced the establishment of anew US baseat Darwin on that country's northern coast, as well as expanded military ties with Indonesia and the Philippines. In January, the president similarly placed special emphasis on projecting US power in the region when he went to the Pentagon to discuss changes in the American military posture in the world.
Beijing will undoubtedly take its own set of steps, no less belligerent, to protect its growing interests in the South China Sea. Where this will lead remains, of course, unknown. After the Strait of Hormuz, however, the South China Sea may be the global energy chokepoint where small mistakes or provocations could lead to bigger confrontations in 2012 and beyond.
The Caspian Sea Basin
TheCaspian Seais an inland body of water bordered by Russia, Iran, and three former republics of the USSR: Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan. In the immediate area as well are the former Soviet lands of Armenia, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. All of these old SSRs are, to one degree or another, attempting to assert their autonomy from Moscow and establish independent ties with the United States, the European Union, Iran, Turkey, and, increasingly, China. All are wracked by internal schisms and/or involved in border disputes with their neighbors. The region would be a hotbed of potential conflict even if the Caspian basin did not harbor some of the world's largest undeveloped reserves of oil and natural gas, which could easily bring it to a boil.
This is not the first time that the Caspian has been viewed as a major source of oil, and so potential conflict. In the late nineteenth century, the region around the city ofBaku—then part of the Russian empire, now in Azerbaijan—was a prolific source of petroleum and so a major strategic prize. Future Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin first gained notoriety there as a leader of militant oil workers, and Hitler sought to capture it during his ill-fated 1941 invasion of the USSR. After World War II, however, the region lost its importance as an oil producer when Baku's onshore fields dried up. Now, fresh discoveries are being made in offshore areas of the Caspian itself and in previously undeveloped areas of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.
According to energy giant BP, the Caspian areaharborsas much as 48 billion barrels of oil (mostly buried in Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan) and 449 trillion cubic feet of natural gas (with the largest supply in Turkmenistan). This puts the region ahead of North and South America in total gas reserves and Asia in oil reserves. But producing all this energy and delivering it to foreign markets will be a monumental task. The region's energy infrastructure is woefully inadequate and the Caspian itself provides no maritime outlet to other seas, so all that oil and gas must travel by pipeline or rail.
Russia, long the dominant power in the region, is pursuing control over the transportation routes by which Caspian oil and gas will reach markets. It is upgrading Soviet-era pipelines that link the former SSRs to Russia or building new ones and, to achieve a near monopoly over the marketing of all this energy, bringing traditional diplomacy, strong-arm tactics, and outright bribery to bear on regional leaders (many of whom once served in the Soviet bureaucracy) to ship their energy via Russia. As recounted in my bookRising Powers, Shrinking Planet, Washington sought to thwart these efforts by sponsoring the construction of alternative pipelines that avoid Russian territory, crossing Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey to the Mediterranean (notably the BTC, or Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline), while Beijing is building its own pipelines linking the Caspian area to western China.
All ofthese pipelinescross through areas of ethnic unrest and pass near various contested regions like rebellious Chechnya and breakaway South Ossetia. As a result, both China and the US have wedded their pipeline operations to military assistance for countries along the routes. Fearful of an American presence, military or otherwise, in the former territories of the Soviet Union, Russia has responded with military moves of its own, including its brief August 2008war with Georgia, which took place along the BTC route.
Given the magnitude of the Caspian's oil and gas reserves, many energy firms are planning new production operations in the region, along with thepipelinesneeded to bring the oil and gas to market. The European Union, for example, hopes to build a new natural gas pipelinecalled Nabuccofrom Azerbaijan through Turkey to Austria. Russia has proposed a competing conduit called South Stream. All of these efforts involve the geopolitical interests of major powers, ensuring that the Caspian region will remain a potential source of international crisis and conflict.
In the new Geo-Energy Era, the Strait of Hormuz, the South China Sea, and the Caspian Basin hardly stand alone as potential energy flashpoints. The East China Sea, where China and Japan are contending for a contested undersea natural gas field, is another, as are the waters surrounding the Falkland Islands, where both Britain and Argentina hold claims to undersea oil reserves, as will be the globally warming Arctic whose resources are claimed by many countries. One thing is certain: wherever the sparks may fly, there's oil in the water and danger at hand in 2012.
But at what cost to ourselves and the rest of the world?
Perhaps you've heard of"Makin' Thunderbirds,"a hard-bitten rock & roll song by Bob Seger that I listened to 30 years ago while in college. It's about auto workers back in 1955 who were "young and proud" to be making Ford Thunderbirds. But in the early 1980s, Seger sings, "the plants have changed and you're lucky if you work." Seger caught the reality of an American manufacturing infrastructure that was seriously eroding as skilled and good-paying union jobs were cut or sent overseas, rarely to be seen again in these parts.
If the US auto industry has recently shown sparks of new life (though we're not making T-Birds or Mercuries or Oldsmobiles or Pontiacs or Saturns anymore), there is one form of manufacturing in which America is still dominant. When it comes to weaponry, to paraphrase Seger, we're still young and proud and makin' Predators and Reapers (as in unmanned aerial vehicles, ordrones) and Eagles and Fighting Falcons (as in F-15 and F-16 combat jets), and outfitting them with the deadliest of weapons. In this market niche, we're still the envy of the world.
Yes, we're the world's foremost "merchants of death," the title of a best-selling exposé of the international arms trade published to acclaim in the US in 1934. Back then, most Americans saw themselves as war-avoiders rather than as war-profiteers. The evil war-profiteers were mainly European arms makers like Germany's Krupp, France's Schneider, or Britain's Vickers.
Not that America didn't have its own arms merchants. As the authors ofMerchants of Deathnoted, early on our country demonstrated a "Yankee propensity for extracting novel death-dealing knickknacks from [our] peddler's pack." Amazingly, theNye Committee in the US Senatedevoted 93 hearings from 1934 to 1936 to exposing America's own "greedy munitions interests." Even in those desperate depression days, a desire for profit and jobs was balanced by a strong sense of unease at this deadly trade, an unease reinforced by the horrors of andhecatombs of deadfrom the First World War.
We are uneasy no more. Today we take great pride (or at least have no shame) in being by far the world's number one arms-exporting nation. A few statistics bear this out. From 2006 to 2010, the US accounted fornearly one-thirdof the world's arms exports, easily surpassing a resurgent Russia in the "Lords of War" race. Despite a decline in global arms sales in 2010 due to recessionary pressures, the US increased its market share, accounting fora whopping 53 percentof the trade that year. Last year saw the US on pace to delivermore than $46 billionin foreign arms sales. Who says America isn't number one anymore?
For a shopping list of our arms trades, try searching the Stockholm International Peace Research Institutedatabase for arms exports and imports. It reveals that, in 2010, the US exported "major conventional weapons" to 62 countries, from Afghanistan to Yemen, and weapons platforms ranging from F-15, F-16, and F-18 combat jets to M1 Abrams main battle tanks to Cobra attack helicopters (sent to our Pakistani comrades) to guided missiles in all flavors, colors, and sizes: AAMs, PGMs, SAMs, TOWs—a veritable alphabet soup of missile acronyms. Never mind their specific meaning: they're all designed to blow things up; they're all designed to kill.
Rarely debated in Congress or in US media outlets is the wisdom or morality of these arms deals. During the quiet last days of December 2011, in separate announcements whose timing could not have been accidental, the Obama Administration expressed its intent to sellnearly $11 billion in armsto Iraq, including Abrams tanks and F-16 fighter-bombers, andnearly $30 billion in F-15 fighter jetsto Saudi Arabia, part of a larger, $60 billion arms package for the Saudis. Few in Congress oppose such arms deals since defense contractors provide jobs in their districts—andready donationsto Congressional campaigns.
Let's pause to consider what such a weapons deal implies for Iraq. Firstly, Iraq only "needs" advanced tanks and fighter jets because we destroyed their previous generation of the same, whether in 1991 during Desert Shield/Storm or in 2003 during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Secondly, Iraq "needs" such powerful conventional weaponry ostensibly to deter an invasion by Iran, yet the current government in Baghdad is closely aligned with Iran, courtesy of our invasion in 2003 and the botched occupation that followed. Thirdly, despite its "needs," the Iraqi military is nowhere near ready to field and maintain such advanced weaponry, at least without sustained training and logistical support provided by the US military.
"Will the IqAF be able to refuel its own aircraft? Can the Iraqi military offer adequate force protection and security for its bases? Can the IqAF provide airfield management services at its bases as they return to Iraqi control after eight years under US direction? Can the IqAF ensure simple power generation to keep facilities operating? Will the IqAF be able to develop and retain its airmen?... Only time will tell if we left [Iraq] too early; nevertheless, even without a renewed security agreement, the USAF can continue to stand alongside the IqAF."
Put bluntly: We doubt the Iraqis are ready to field and fly American-built F-16s, but we're going to sell them to them anyway. And if past history is a guide, if the Iraqis ever turn these planes against us, we'll blow them up or shoot them down—and then (hopefully) sell them some more.
Our Best Arms Customer
Let's face it: the weapons we sell to others pale in comparison to the weapons we sell to ourselves. In the market for deadly weapons, we are our own best customer. Americans have a love affair with them, the more high-tech and expensive, the better. I should know. After all, I'm a recovering weapons addict.
Well into my teen years, I was fascinated by military hardware. I built models of what were then the latest US warplanes: the A-10, the F-4, the F-14, -15, and -16, the B-1, and many others. I readAviation Week and Space Technologyat my local library to keep track of the newest developments in military technology. Not surprisingly, perhaps, I went on to major in mechanical engineering in college and entered the Air Force as a developmental engineer.
Enamored as I was by roaring afterburners and sleek weaponry, I also began to read books likeJames Fallows'sNational Defense(1981) among other early critiques of the Carter and Reagan defense buildup, as well as the slyly subversive and always insightfulAugustine's Laws(1986) byNorman Augustine, later the CEO of Martin Marietta and Lockheed Martin. That and my own experience in the Air Force alerted me to the billions of dollars we were devoting to high-tech weaponry with ever-ballooning price tags but questionable utility.
Perhaps the best example of the persistence of this phenomenon is theF-35 Lightning II. Produced by Lockheed Martin, the F-35 was intended to be an "affordable" fighter-bomber (at roughly $50 million per copy), a perfect complement to the much more expensive F-22 "air superiority" Raptor. But the usual delays, cost overruns, technical glitches, and changes in requirements have driven the price tag of the F-35 up to $160 million per plane, assuming the US military persists in its plans to buy 2,400 of them. (If the Pentagon decides to buy fewer, the cost-per-plane will soar into the F-22 range.) By recent estimates the F-35 will now cost US taxpayers (you and me, that is)at least $382 billionfor its development and production run. Such a sum for a single weapons system is vast enough to be hard to fathom. It would, for instance, easily fund allfederal government spending on educationfor the next five years.
The escalating cost of the F-35 recalls the most famous of Norman Augustine's irreverent laws: "In the year 2054," he wrote back in the early 1980s, "the entire defense budget will [suffice to] purchase just one aircraft." But the deeper question is whether our military evenneedsthe F-35, a question that's rarely asked and never seriously entertained, at least by Congress, whose philosophy on weaponry is much like King Lear's: "O, reason not the need."
But let's reason the need in purely military terms. These days, the Air Force is turning increasingly tounmanned drones. Meanwhile, plenty of perfectly good and serviceable "platforms" remain for attack and close air support missions, from F-16s and F-18s in the Air Force and Navy to Apache helicopters in the Army. And while many of our existing combat jets may be nearing the limits of airframe integrity, there's nothing stopping the US military from producing updated versions of the same. Heck, this is precisely what we're hawking to the Saudis—updated versions of the F-15, developed in the 1970s.
Because of sheer cost, it's likely we'll buy fewer F-35s than our military wants but many more than we actually need. We'll do so because Weapons ‘R' Us. Because building ultra-expensive combat jets is one of the few high-tech industries we haven't exported (due to national security and secrecy concerns), and thus one of the few industries in the US that still supports high-paying manufacturing jobs with decent employee benefits. And who can argue with that?
The Ultimate Cost of Our Merchandise of Death
Clearly, the US has grabbed the brass ring of the global arms trade. When it comes to investing in militaries and weaponry, no country can match us. We are supreme. And despite talk of modest cuts to the Pentagon budget over the next decade, it will,according toPresident Obama, continue to grow, which means that in weapons terms the future remains bright. After all, Pentagon spending on research and development stands at $81.4 billion, accounting for anastonishing 55 percentof all federal spending on R&D and leaving plenty of opportunity to develop our next generation ofwonder weapons.
But at what cost to ourselves and the rest of the world? We've become the suppliers of weaponry to the planet's hotspots. And those weapons deliveries (and the training and support missions that go with them) tend to make those spots hotter still—as in hot lead.
As a country, we seem to have a teenager's fascination with military hardware, an addiction that's driving us to bust our own national budgetary allowance. At the same time, we sell weapons the way teenage punks sell fireworks to younger kids: for profit and with little regard for how they might be used.
Sixty years ago, itwas saidthat what's good for General Motors is good for America. In 1955, as Bob Seger sang, we were young and strong and makin' Thunderbirds. But today we're playing a new tune with new lyrics: what's good for Lockheed Martin or Boeing or [insert major-defense-contractor-of-your-choice here] is good for America.