Previous posts in this discussion:
PostKhashoggi Case: What We Know and What Will Happen (A. J. Cave, USA, 10/24/18 2:34 pm)
This is not meant to be the last word on the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. However, with the Turkish President Erdogan's speech done and done, I can pretty much guess what has happened.
This is extremely complicated and I have been thinking about how I can de-tangle the threads without creating more confusion. I should start by re-stating that I am not an expert on modern Turkey either and more "bugs" can easily get into my code.
That said, we have gotten to this point because of a series of unfortunate events. This is not just about the Khashoggi crisis anymore, but about the entire US engagement with the Middle East, dating back to early 1940s.
The question is no longer whether the Saudi crown prince had ordered the Khashoggi hit, but what are we (actually the President) going to do about it--or more realistically, can do about it.
Right now, we have 3 strategic interests in the region: 1) oil, 2) Israel, and, 3) settling our score with Iran. That's about it. Those who think we have any other interest (like spreading democracy, eliminating terrorism, and the like) are whistling in the wind.
As far as oil goes, 2 numbers matter: price of Brent Crude and price of WTI Crude. Brent crude is the international benchmark for a barrel of oil, and WTI (West Texas Intermediate) is the domestic oil benchmark. Both rallied by 1 or 2 percent when the President threatened Saudi Arabia with sanctions last week, and they have dropped by about 4% since then. New sanctions against Iranian oil would go into effect on 4 November. So, the current benchmarks have already priced the removal of Iranian oil and possibly a reduction by Saudis retaliation in the market. It simply means that we got this. The US will push out Russia as the number 1 oil producing country by next year, pushing Saudi Arabia to the third place, followed by Iraq and Iran. We already own the Iraqi oil, so the market is calling Saudi bluff to retaliate against possible sanctions. This reminds me of the iconic gun vs sword scene in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark , where Indy shoots the sword-wielding Arab assassin in bazaar. [Can I put a happy face emoji here?]
As far as Israel goes, we go. Period.
Now, about Iran (actually the Islamic Republic), what can I say that I haven't said before. Yes, they're gloating over Saudis' Khashoggi crisis. But, here's something that most people don't know. An unwritten part of the nuclear agreement was anywhere from 2,000 to 3,000 US visas (no one knows the exact number). President Obama was so desperate for a political "win" to ensure his legacy that he opened a backdoor to US for the friends and families of the Islamic Republicans. How about that?
If we are so bad, why are they secretly sending their kith and kin over? Just saying.
Ok, so, what happened to Khashoggi? Who knew what and when? And what should we do about it?
As far as I can see: Jamal Khashoggi stopped by the Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul late September. He was received warmly, even so, when he returned on 2 October to pick some paperwork, he gave one or two phones to his Turkish fiancé and told her to call a friend with ties to President Erdogan, just in case he didn't return shortly, and she did. Those who knew beforehand or found out in real-time or shortly afterwards, more than likely were: Saudis, Turks (and if the Turks knew, probably US and the Germans did too), Israelis, Iranians, Chinese and Russians. Turkish authorities followed the standard diplomatic protocols by contacting the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul and when they got the runaround, they called their own Embassy in Riyadh. Saudis ignored Turkish attempts to resolve this diplomatically, probably because King Salman was not informed. President Trump was kept out of it by his national security advisor too, so Turks started to leak the information to the media. It is true that President Erdogan has jailed Turkish journalists, but his connection to Khashoggi was on friendly terms. With a crashing stock market just couple of weeks before the mid-term elections, President Trump's plate has been more than full to focus on the Khashoggi crisis. So, it was President Erdogan who came up with a diplomatic face-saving for the Saudis yesterday. He didn't say anymore than what he has been saying for the past couple of weeks. But by keeping the crown prince out of it, he diplomatically offered to take the Khashoggi crisis off King Salman's hands by asking for the usual suspects to be handed over to the Turkish authorities to stand trial for murder. That is an offer Saudis should take and pay whatever the Turks expect in return (relief from their currency crisis, etc.).
Now, here is a window to reset our relationship with the Saudis. What we have to decide is whether we want to keep them as a regional client or cut them loose to make their deals with the Russians or Chinese. The President thinks like a businessman, so he naturally thinks about closing defense deals with the Saudis. But Saudis are a lot more desperate for keeping us around than we think. We are that "wall" that stands between them and the Iranians.
JE comments: And today, MbS may be breathing a sigh of relief as US attention is directed elsewhere, to the wave of "suspicious packages" sent to CNN, the Obamas, George Soros, and the Clintons. Now we have a new conspiracy to untangle.
What Are the US "Strategic Interests" in the Middle East?
(Istvan Simon, USA
10/27/18 3:55 AM)
A. J. Cave (October 24th) painted a picture with very broad strokes of our strategic interests in the Middle East. I would like to hear the views of WAISers who know a thing or two about what strategic interests are professionally. For example, I'd like to hear what General Michael Sullivan would say about this topic.
I am not a professional like Michael, so my thoughts are those of an everyday layman. But are our three strategic interests in the Middle East really oil, Israel, and settling our scores with Iran? The more I thought about this simple question, the less I agreed with A. J.'s characterization. The particular three interests that she mentioned which we undoubtedly have, do not seem strategic to me. They seem tactical.
What is a strategic interest? I would define it as something essential to our long-term survival. If we define it so, then none of the three interests mentioned by A. J. Cave is strategic.
Let's examine each in turn.
1. Oil: Oil is certainly important for the world and the United States in particular, but I would hesitate to call it a strategic interest. Why?
1. We are closer and closer to being self-sufficient in oil.
2. The medium-term energy prospect for oil is bleak. The world is moving towards renewable energy, and that means moving away from oil. There is ample oil supply today. So oil fails to be a strategic interest by my definition.
What about tactically? Should the United States be worried about oil and Saudi Oil? Once again, I'd say no, there is no reason for too much worry about this.
Could the Saudis restrict their production of oil like they did in 1973? I do not think so. The Saudis need oil revenue. They cannot turn off the spigot because they have become deeply dependent on the money it gives them. The Saudis also fear upsetting the apple cart. The Yemen war is not going particularly well for the Saudis, and they depend on US arms sales.
Could they replace their arms with Russian or Chinese arms? The answer is no. Not in the short term, anyway. All their current arsenal is US made. They need replacement parts, are trained in their tactics and use. They cannot opt to change suppliers in the short term. It would take decades for them to change suppliers, if they decided to do so. And the Saudis need the United States to defend them against Iran, as A. J. Cave correctly said.
Should Iran worry about American sanctions regarding not being able to sell its oil? Once again, the answer is no. Oil is a commodity. Iran can sell it to third parties which can sell it to anyone. And China and other consumer countries do not give damn about Trump's sanctions. They will continue to buy Iran's oil no matter what Trump does.
Israel: Is Israel a strategic interest of the United States? As I am a defender of Israel I'd like to say yes, but once again, by my definition Israel is not a strategic interest of the United States. The United States can survive without Israel indefinitely. Once again, we have a long-term important tactical interest in Israel's well-being, which is essential to our well-being too, but I think it is not strategic.
Settling Scores with Iran: This is even less strategic than the other two. Why do we need or would want to "settle scores" with Iran? We do not. We have no scores to settle. The Islamic Republic needs us much more than we need them, no matter what the rhetoric is.
JE comments: Strategic has become one of the signature words of our age. All organizations have their "strategic plans," and the higher-ups justify themselves by their ability to generate "strategic thinking." Istvan Simon gives us a useful primer on strategies vs tactics. I would add one more variable to the mix: politics. Israel is a political interest. Oil, I would (strategically?) suggest, is a tactical interest. As for "settling scores" for Iran, this does appear to be an obsession of the current US administration. Why should it be? Exactly.
It might be best to go back to Palmerston. Nations have, simply, "interests."
US Strategic Interests in the Middle East
(Michael Sullivan, USA
10/28/18 3:58 AM)
Responding to Istvan Simon's request of October 27th, I have no more expertise than any other WAISer discussing the strategic interests of the US in the areas of oil, Israel and settling our score with Iran. I've been retired from the Marine Corps for 26 years and my only information comes from what I read and watch on TV, except for a few retired General officer symposiums, where none of us have security clearances anymore. So it might as well be a meeting of the Officers' Wives Club!
Oil: I believe one of the US strategic interests in Mid East oil is to keep the Strait of Hormuz open, so oil can flow to nations that have purchased it. Our tactical interest is to provide the means with military force, if required.
Israel: Our strategic interest is to keep Israel as a "preferred," very close ally, as the only democratic country in the Middle East, while keeping Israel militarily strong enough to protect itself and act as a deterrent to Arab or Iranian threats. I'm not sure what the US would do tactically if a Mid East war broke out between Israel and the Muslim nations, as it isn't a given that US forces would fight to defend Israel, especially with US ground forces.
Iran: I don't think we a have a score to settle with Iran. Strategically, we definitely are trying to lessen their influence and military prowess in the Mid East and see a regime change but I don't think there is any push for the US to go to war with Iran and if it happened, it would be strictly in reaction to an Iranian attack. It would be a retaliatory action and no US ground forces would be involved. However, at the present time there is a possibility that US and Iranians ground forces could get into a fight in Syria, but it would be by mistake in communications or ROE.
Istvan, this is a short, oversimplification of severely complicated subjects but it's how I see it in today's world. Nothing is for certain and the best-developed plans usually never pan out the way they were conceived.
JE comments: Michael Sullivan raises a fascinating question. How far would the US get involved in an Israeli war? The common perception is "completely," including the use of ground troops, but in Michael's view this is far from certain. Fortunately, the chance of Israel going to war against one of its neighbors is next to nil--at present. Syria, the most likely candidate, is way too busy making war on itself.
Mexico's Bootleg Fuel: Huachicol (from Gary Moore)
(John Eipper, USA
10/29/18 3:52 AM)
Gary Moore writes:
On oil and US strategic interests (A. J. Cave, Timothy Ashby, Michael Sullivan and others, Oct 27-28),
here's a weird hop in the outfield: In Mexico's rising wave of lynchings (read: sheer inscrutable chaos),
a strange contributor is petroleum, because as Mexico's chaos has heated up, so has its epidemic of
clandestine tappings of petro-pipelines, many of which carry not crude but perfectly usable gasoline
and diesel, which is resold by the thieves as huachicol--bootleg fuel.
The mountain areas, often
indigenous-speaking, where the pipelines are being bled have become criminal no-man's lands,
where it's hard to tell apart the ordinary citizens who resent and fear the crime, and the armies
of those who are kin to or support the huachicoleros. There is now even (get ready)
a new underground religion, complete with household shrines to "the Holy Infant
of Huachicol," to whom one offers prayers--just as the older syncretism of drug gangs
produced, a generation ago, the cults of Jesus Malverde and Santa Muerte, the bloody
skull. Don't pause here for the fascinating reflections, because the ambiguities segue
into social media panics about ephemeral child-stealers, the robachicos, who are
sought triumphantly by neighborhood mobs targeting whatever stranger, suspicious
vagrant--or cop--who comes along, with horrific results, typically involving
live burning--whose chief agent is gasoline. To what degree the lynchings in areas
that are "paradises for huachicol" are actually promoted by the huchicoleros, to either
punish the cops (by burning lone strays they can catch) or subverting investigations
by accusing lurking investigators of being child-stealers--well, nobody knows these percentages....
But wait, you say. What has any of this to do with US petro-interests? It turns out
that the huachicoleros are just one more layer in a deteriorating situation complicated
in 2013 by the old ruling party, the PRI, cutting a Gordian knot they had said for decades
they never would cut: They allowed foreign investment into their long-protected Pemex
oil sector. Giants like TransCanada and Shell have rushed to get in, and deals have been
sealed for massive pipeline projects--though, like the old pipes bled by huachicoleros,
the new visions too are stalled--because the old populist tradition now finds assorted
indigenous communities rising up and saying they don't want pipelines in their
backyards (amid unknown ecological dangers, though mainly this looks aesthetic
or just extortionist). In broad indigenous-speaking belts across the mountains,
distrust of authority has gained a new push.
The new pipelines, if they ever get completed, are to bring in mainly natural gas, from--where?
From the US. Mexico has become a fuel importer, despite its vast reserves, and the United States
is now, with fracking, moving toward the position of energy leader of the world, ahead of Russia.
And what rank is Saudi Arabia? Ask the bone saw.
I remember (Lethe and Nepenthe!) in 1978, when a constant stream of thundering trucks was
bringing pipeline materials across northern Mexico, so they could build a line to export north
to the US--amid President Carter's calling US oil weakness "the moral equivalent of war."
But those pipelines never got completed. The dire warnings of those days look startling now.
The bottom line in this--the lynchings, oil, chaos, anger at child-snatchers who don't exist--
may help suggest why a new world of populist strongmen may be emerging--whether in India,
Turkey, Russia, or Trump Tower--or in AMLO's still unseen new Mexico, which will begin operating
after inauguration on December 6. The populists can speak the language of the crowds too angry
to otherwise listen--while reason has all it can do just to keep itself from getting lynched.
JE comments: Fascinating topic, Gary. Huachicol was originally a term for adulterated moonshine, often of the blinding sort (methanol). Wikipedia traces the word's etymology to the nomadic Huachichiles, who were famous for savagery and the eating of human flesh.
- Other US "Strategic Interests" in the Middle East (Timothy Brown, USA 10/28/18 4:19 AM)
I would suggest that there are other things, in terms of maintaining standards of life, for which the Middle East is of "strategic importance." The Suez Canal; nuclear Pakistan, nuclear India; nuclear Israel; nuclear-hopeful Iran? These are all in the Middle East.
And what about the region's next-door neighbors, nuclear Russia? Nuclear China? Or nuclear North Korea?
Then there are other strategic interests of major importance like the Panama Canal's role in world trade (assuming international trade continues), and contagious diseases (a while back Europeans killed off some Native Americans and they returned the favor by giving syphilis to Europe.)
If "properly" defined, nothing is "strategic." Not even the Strait of Malacca, South China Sea, Strait of Gibraltar or Panama Canal (nor was Europe prior to the run-ups to WWI and WWII, or during the Cold War).
And what about "Global Warming," since we can solve that problem since "its only possible causes are coal, oil, natural gas, and the burning of wood." Are we sure? The population of the world has grown from est. 1.8 billion in 1918 to 7.7 billion today (440%); life expectancy has increased from 35 to 71 (200%); the average dwelling has doubled in size (200%), together with the number of dwellings with electricity, heating and cooling, running water, sewage treatment, wireless telephones, etc. And each of these continues to grow. Can we do away with coal, oil and wood and replace them entirely with wind, solar, hydrology and ocean tidal waves--and another doubling of demand for energy?
Of course, there's one thing that can solve all these problems, a large-scale nuclear war. Might one start in the Middle East where there are more nuclear powers than in the Americas? But I don't recommend taking that road.
JE comments: That's a harsh remedy, Tim! A tad over a century ago, the Italian Futurists spoke of war as the "world's only hygiene." They got their wish in 1914, but the Great War was anything but hygienic. Many of the Futurists didn't live to see it (the future).
Draconian solutions aside, might the biggest threat of all be overpopulation? This was one of Prof. Hilton's beliefs. In the 1950s he organized a conference at Stanford on the "population problem" in Latin America. Since that time the region's birthrate has declined markedly. What about the demographic explosion in Africa and the Middle East? Shall we discuss? Is there even a way to discuss this without sounding condescending or imperialist?
- Other US "Strategic Interests" in the Middle East (Timothy Brown, USA 10/28/18 4:19 AM)
- Mexico's Bootleg Fuel: Huachicol (from Gary Moore) (John Eipper, USA 10/29/18 3:52 AM)
- US Strategic Interests in the Middle East (Michael Sullivan, USA 10/28/18 3:58 AM)