Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Approaching Armageddon? The World My Daughter's Generation is Inheriting

My daughter's 25th birthday approaches a few weeks hence.  She's made a wonderful start: graduated magna cum laude from a fine university (full disclosure: I teach there), and has achieved a position of significant responsibility at a historic establishment in Washington, DC.

If she were so well launched and positioned 30 years ago - or even 10 years ago - I'd think she had the world by the tail as she looked ahead.  But now, I'm more concerned that the world that's taking shape is going to be taking a huge bite out of her future.  Not that I needed convincing, but several new essays pointedly - and validly - make it clear that the security that Americans have taken for granted as the birthright of citizens of a powerful nation that seized global dominance in the late 1980s (when she was born) can no longer be assured, even in the immediate future.

For one thing, even as recently as 10 years ago, American citizens believed that with the world's strongest economy and most powerful military, the US effectively could call the shots for the rest of the planet.  Other countries challenged the US only at their peril.  Cross us, and we'll find a way to crush you.  But now, after the disaster of two poorly conceived, failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US colossus is wobbly-kneed, staggered by fiscal mismanagement on the part of a former president who opted to cut taxes while launching those wars).    Saddled with an economy near collapse, the US now stands exposed as a declining power whose writ has expired.  Its aspirations, grounded in imperial hubris, led it to squander billions of dollars in nation-building projects that were doomed to failure by the collective ignorance of leaders - and citizens - who were unable (or simply refused) to grasp that their solutions were not appropriate for the societies that they were so confident they could fix.  Instead, as the WaPo reported today (as relayed at The Atlantic's site),
the Democratic majority in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee released a report today warning that Afghanistan could be headed for a severe economic depression once foreign troops leave in 2014. The report finds that a whopping 97 percent of Afghanistan's gross domestic product stems from spending related to the presence of coalition troops and international donors, and recommends that the U.S. redirect its aid to sustainable development projects in Afghanistan rather than short-term programs to stabilize areas cleared of the Taliban--efforts that breed corruption, distort local economies, and currently consume the lion's share of the nearly $19 billion in assistance America has channeled to the country thus far. In short, The Washington Post writes, the congressional investigation concludes that despite some development gains like a a sevenfold increase in the number of Afghan children attending school, "the hugely expensive U.S. attempt at nation-building in Afghanistan has had only limited success and may not survive an American withdrawal.

In other words, billions of dollars have been, essentially, wasted to come up with a "fix" in Afghanistan that can be sustained only by pouring more billions into a situation that is, essentially, unsustainable.  No wonder that people at the White House, in Congress, and across the country are talking seriously about seizing upon Osama Bin Laden's assassination as a declaration of victory and pulling 15-30,000 troops out of Afghanistan.

In Libya, Mr. Obama's intervention that was supposed to be a matter of weeks, not months, is now into its fourth month, with no end in sight; costing the US hundreds of millions of dollars in hopes of a "victory" that most likely would bring to power either a completely untested government or one that will include significant representation of the regime that we're currently trying to bomb into oblivion.  This does not promise to be money well spent.

In Syria, Mr. Assad's forces continue to kill or imprison protesters.  The US huffs and puffs about democracy and that Assad has lost his legitimacy, yet all the while, as Tony Karon points out, the US may be hoping that, as the "devil you know," Assad can hang in and hang on.

In Iran, even as the feuding simmers between President Ahmadinejad and the forces loyal to the Supreme Guardian, Ali Khamenei, the decision has been made to ramp up uranium enrichment (despite the already nasty sanctions engineered by the US) - and to post submarines to the Red Sea, to keep an eye on the Israelis.

As for  Iraq, despite the pleas of departing Sec Def Robert Gates that the al-Maliki government request the US military to stick around past the 31 Dec withdrawal deadline, there's been no such request.  In fact, in a tasty bit of irony, the US has now been spurned by no other than Ahmad Chalabi, the darling of Dick Cheney, Bernard Lewis, Fouad Ajami, and all the neocon set who touted him as Iraq's messiah in 2002.  This is, of course, the same Ahmad Chalabi who fed the NYT's Judith Miller so much bogus intel about Saddam's horrible WMDs.

To connect all these dots - as Ray Takeyh observed in an essay for the IHT, the Middle East is witnessing the dawning of the post-American era:

The trend away from American dominance [in the Middle East] predated the Obama administration, and its ramifications are likely to unfold long after it leaves office. As America’s influence gradually recedes, and its alliance system deteriorates, the U.S. will find itself less capable of realizing some of its objectives. Washington may not have sufficient leverage to prevent the Syrian regime from abusing its citizens, compelling Iran to reverse its nuclear ambitions, or for that matter dissuade the Saudis from obtaining a bomb of their own. The post-American Middle East may be more democratic in some of its corners, but it is also likely to be more turbulent and unstable. The struggle of the Middle East during the past century was a determined quest to exempt itself from great-power rivalry and superpower dominance. This is a populace that eagerly participated in bloody anti-colonial struggles, lent its sympathies to those calling for neutralism from the Cold War power blocs, and expressed its solidarity with third-world revolutionary resistance. The era of self-determination may have finally arrived. But, it is likely to be an era accompanied by its own set of challenges and perils.

But while America's loss of hegemony in the Middle East is a sign of the times, it's only one tip of the humongous iceberg that's about to wreck us all.  Thomas Friedman's essay today, "The Earth is Full," paints a picture of impending global catastrophe:
You really do have to wonder whether a few years from now we’ll look back at the first decade of the 21st century — when food prices spiked, energy prices soared, world population surged, tornados plowed through cities, floods and droughts set records, populations were displaced and governments were threatened by the confluence of it all — and ask ourselves: What were we thinking? How did we not panic when the evidence was so obvious that we’d crossed some growth/climate/natural resource/population redlines all at once?
 “The only answer can be denial,” argues Paul Gilding, the veteran Australian environmentalist-entrepreneur, who described this moment in a new book called “The Great Disruption: Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring On the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World.” “When you are surrounded by something so big that requires you to change everything about the way you think and see the world, then denial is the natural response. But the longer we wait, the bigger the response required.”
Gilding cites the work of the Global Footprint Network, an alliance of scientists, which calculates how many “planet Earths” we need to sustain our current growth rates. G.F.N. measures how much land and water area we need to produce the resources we consume and absorb our waste, using prevailing technology. On the whole, says G.F.N., we are currently growing at a rate that is using up the Earth’s resources far faster than they can be sustainably replenished, so we are eating into the future. Right now, global growth is using about 1.5 Earths. “Having only one planet makes this a rather significant problem,” says Gilding.
Ya think?

Friedman continues:

We’re currently caught in two loops: One is that more population growth and more global warming together are pushing up food prices; rising food prices cause political instability in the Middle East, which leads to higher oil prices, which leads to higher food prices, which leads to more instability. At the same time, improved productivity means fewer people are needed in every factory to produce more stuff. So if we want to have more jobs, we need more factories. More factories making more stuff make more global warming, and that is where the two loops meet.
But Gilding is actually an eco-optimist. As the impact of the imminent Great Disruption hits us, he says, “our response will be proportionally dramatic, mobilizing as we do in war. We will change at a scale and speed we can barely imagine today, completely transforming our economy, including our energy and transport industries, in just a few short decades.”
We will realize, he predicts, that the consumer-driven growth model is broken and we have to move to a more happiness-driven growth model, based on people working less and owning less. “How many people,” Gilding asks, “lie on their death bed and say, ‘I wish I had worked harder or built more shareholder value,’ and how many say, ‘I wish I had gone to more ballgames, read more books to my kids, taken more walks?’ To do that, you need a growth model based on giving people more time to enjoy life, but with less stuff.”
I wish I shared his optimism.  There was a time when the US might have been relied upon to spearhead such a mobilization.  Unfortunately, we have a Congress populated - and at least one major committee chaired - by Biblical literalist dimwits who have decided that only God will decide such things; ergo, humankind need not act.
Of course, those same dimwits look forward to the coming End of Days and Second Return, which will be heralded (according to Biblical prophecy) by global conflagration.  Their God-inspired failure to promote an ecologically sustainable way-ahead may just bring that into being.  Over the weekend, the NYT published an excellent report on the emerging global food crisis that global warming is bringing.  And at the always informative Open Democracy site, Paul Rogers pulls together the threads of crisis and conflict:
the main global-security challenges of the early-to-mid-21st century will stem from an economically polarised and ecologically constrained world - where these problems, in combination with welcome improvements in education and communications, provoke frequent “revolts from the margins” . . . .

The response to these outbreaks, which have deep roots in desperate but knowledgeable communities, will be attempts to reinstate strict control. Many of the techniques developed in the “war on terror”, including armed-drones, will be used to protect the billion-plus inhabitants of the planet who have gained from the neo-liberal economic system established since the 1980s.
It is not yet clear whether a morphed version of al-Qaida will be an agent (and thus a continued target) in this pattern of revolt. A more indicative present-day insurgency could be the neo-Maoist Naxalite rebellion in India, which already wields great influence across much of the country’s east-central belt (see "India's 21st-century war", 5 November 2009). It is too early to be prescriptive: both the new movements and the state responses will evolve. What can be said is that just as drones, night-raids and precision-guided weapons have changed the nature of the “war on terror” over its first decade, so paramilitary radicals will learn from their own experience and that of their adversaries (see “America’s military: failures of success”, 12 May 2011). . . .

Such unavoidable realities necessitate radical change towards emancipated and sustainable economies, in the wider context of a sustainable approach to security (see, for example, the New Economic Foundation's "great transition" project, and the Oxford Research Group's "sustainable security" initiative).
That transition has to be achieved in the 2010s if deep instability in the 2020s and 2030s is to be avoided.

The need for cooperative global leadership ought to be evident.  I wish I could be more optimistic about the ability and willingness of America's political class to be part of the solution.  Instead, I see too much evidence of denial, or of kicking that can down the road to let someone else - perhaps of the "other party" - push for the tough decisions and bold actions that will be needed, and take the consequent political hit.

Such is the nature of the zero-sum politics that have become so deeply entrenched in America.  They may prove to be the undoing of my daughter's generation, and their hopes and dreams.

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