Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Nobody Asked Me, But . . . (1/03/07)


'Tis the season to be jolly. It's also a time when pundits of every stripe trot out their predictions. Permit me to try a few. In the coming months, Wall Street will surge to record levels, oblivious to the false prosperity created by our military-industrial economy. We are now spending about $10 billion a month in Iraq and Afghanistan, with the total cost of both wars standing at well over $400 billion. These figures do not include the billions spent by the Department of Energy for nuclear weapons, by the Department of Homeland Security for "defense" of the homeland from terrorists or the cost incurred by the Department of Veterans Affairs for the lifetime care of those seriously wounded. A figure ranging between $1 trillion and $2 trillion would be a more realistic projected total cost.

Simultaneously, the U.S. trade deficit reached $782.7 billion in 2005, the fourth year at which this debt set a record. Our trade deficit with China alone stood at $201.5 billion, the highest deficit with any country. So great was the looming debt imbalance that last year Congress was forced to raise the national debt limit to $9 trillion from the previous $8.2 trillion. When George W. Bush took office six years ago the national debt was $5.6 trillion. Since then Clinton's big budget surpluses collapsed into deficits and the national debt has shot up by a whopping 50 percent. Because China and Japan enjoy huge trade surpluses with the U.S., we owe much of this debt to the central banks of the two countries.

So long as the Chinese and Japanese governments are willing to accept U.S. dollars in payment for their exported goods, we can continue to live in our fool's paradise on the brink of national bankruptcy. No wonder gold is close to $650 an ounce. To the nearly $9 trillion of national debt must be added the U.S. economy's nearly $9 trillion in mortgage debt and another $9 trillion in corporate bond debt--the latter up 34 percent since 2001. The U.S. economy also faces about $15 trillion in unfunded Social Security liability and an additional $35 trillion in unfunded Medicare liability. Add the statistic that the US has lost almost 3 million manufacturing jobs in the last six years, and the future looks grim.

Now, about the Iraq War. You remember the war, don't you? It's been in all the papers. Those who like to quote encouraging statistics are fond of pointing out that only four of Iraq's 18 provinces are aflame with resistance. What they don't point out is that the four provinces contain 40 percent of Iraq's population. The policy that American units would stand down as Iraqi units stood up has completely collapsed. Iraqi units have shown themselves to be undependable. The joys of the Christmas season were dampened by the sad news that American military deaths in Iraq had passed the 3,000 mark. In fact, December set a record for the number of casualties in any month in 2006, giving the lie to any claims that we are winning.

Between March 20 and May 1 (the date the “Mission Accomplished" banner was displayed), the period of active military combat, 140 American troops lost their lives. That means that 2,860 soldiers and Marines died unnecessarily because their commander-in-chief did not provide enough troops not only to defeat the enemy but also to smother any insurgency in its crib. The American military, intended to fight two wars simultaneously anywhere on the planet, has been humbled by a ragtag force of determined fourth generation war fighters.

For those unfamiliar with the term, fourth generation warfare is a concept developed by Thomas X. Hammes in his book The Sling and the Arrow. Defined as a war in which one of the participants is not a nation but a violent ideological network, it is similar to terrorism and asymmetric warfare, but is much narrower. The fierce conflicts in which we are embroiled in Iraq and to a lesser extent in Afghanistan are fourth generation wars.

There will be no drawdown of U.S. troops in Iraq. President George W. Bush has tabled the face-saving report of the Iraq Study Group co-chaired by James A. Baker, his father's friend, and will actually escalate the war by increasing the number of troops in Iraq under the cover of the term, "surge." His action will generate protests back home and will constitute a slap in the faces of Baker and Bush's father, who has frequently used his influence to assist his wayward son. These include pressure to gain "legacy" admission to Phillips Exeter Academy, Yale University and the Harvard Business School.

During the Vietnam War, the senior Bush got his son into the so-called "champagne unit" of the Texas Air National Guard and helped to cover up his yearlong absence without leave from that unit. Later his name surfaced in the bailout and cover-up of the financial skullduggery at Harken Energy Corp., where the son served on the board of directors while the firm created Enron-type deals that hid debt and artificially inflated its earnings. Ironically, the Harken debacle left George W. Bush's alma mater, Harvard University and its endowment fund, saddled with $20 million in debt.

Look for changes in military strategy that will come in part from the Israeli experience in the five-week midsummer war in Lebanon fought to an inconclusive cease fire between July 12 and August 14, 2006. "The war between Hizbollah and Israel?" you may ask. "What has that to do with Iraq?" Surprisingly, Hizbollah had achieved such a remarkable level of preparedness that it could respond successfully to the massive Israeli incursion. Despite intensive air attacks by the Israeli Air Force, Hizbollah fought one of the worlds most advanced and heavily armed conventional armies so cleverly, and so fiercely that Israel was glad to accept a UN-brokered cease fire. Hisbollah forces were robust, disciplined, well trained and intensely motivated and gave a remarkably good account of themselves, they shocked Israeli military planners.

A key factor in the Israeli campaign was the use of drone aircraft with near-saturation coverage of southern Lebanon. Unmanned drones were employed to detect the launch of medium-range missiles. Within a minute, the site's coordinates were communicated to waiting Israeli planes, making it possible for them to hit the crews and launchers before they could be moved to cover. The Israeli use of drones marked a turning point in unmanned warfare. Unfortunately for the Israelis, Hizbollah's more numerous short-range missile launchers could be brought out of hiding, fired and hidden again before there could be a retaliatory attack. Nevertheless, most military experts now see unmanned drones as one of the most significant developments in modern warfare.

Following the Israeli example, in Iraq there may be greater use of unmanned surveillance aircraft to combat the planting of roadside bombs, plus helicopter gunships and attack aircraft. Look for no major changes in strategy, however, with the departure of the two architects of the failed U.S. policy. Gen. John Abizaid, top U.S. commander in the Middle East, has already put in for retirement; Gen. George Casey, U.S. commander in Iraq, will be relieved in one or two months. Attacks on U.S. troops and bloody sectarian warfare will continue unabated. Expect Saudi Arabia, tired of witnessing the Iraqi Sunni minority being attacked by the more numerous Shiites and their militias, to pour still more funds into Sunni hands. Despite American efforts, there will not be a "victory," simply because what we want--a stable government--will be impossible to achieve in an unruly country riven by religious animosity and with many of its best professional people having left the country.


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