Rural fort soldiering is a classic imperial mode, so it isn’t unusual that the US does it in the Middle East, except that so many of the outposts in Syria and Iraq have become liabilities. So why haven’t they been shut down?
The Red Sea is usually one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. Nearly 30 per cent of maritime container trade, and a significant quantity of oil, passes through the Suez Canal and the Bab al-Mandab. Or it used to, before the Houthis in Yemen began trying to shut it all down last month.
We are used to a thermonuclear dyad. For most of the Cold War, Washington and Moscow commanded massive arsenals far in excess of those of other nuclear-armed states. However pre-eminent the US may have been in other ways, in nuclear terms the world was bipolar. That picture still more or less holds true. But for how long?
Last month, Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee finally published a report on China on which it had been working, on and off, for almost four years. The main finding, reported approvingly across British media, was that China represents a threat to the UK because of Beijing’s ‘global ambition to become a technological and economic superpower’.
Countries that purport to hold democratic values do not like admitting that they run death squads and carry out night-raid executions. So instead they talk of special forces on ‘deliberate detention operations’. But there is a limit to the concealing power of language when you are flying helicopters into mud-brick villages and killing people in front of their families.
‘If we can perturb an asteroid out of impact trajectory,’ Sagan and Ostro wrote, ‘it follows that we can also transform one on a benign trajectory into an Earth-impactor.’
The current US government has tried to tie its domestic political projects to a confrontation with China. As Scipio Nasica said of Rome’s relations with Carthage, the existence of an official enemy can have a stimulatory effect on the home state. But the risks are too high. The US military used to have reasonably friendly contacts with the Chinese military. US undersecretaries of defence would visit Beijing. They now travel to Taipei. The hotlines are quiet, the rules unclear. Without a framework for managing Sino-American relations, too much depends on the personal moderation of a few leaders.
You can’t escape the heat by dodging between patches of shade. It’s more a case of driving between climate-controlled buildings, and better not to move around at all. Around the Persian Gulf, fifty-degree days are no longer aberrations. In Iraq and Kuwait they have become routine.
There is a tendency to view the UK-Saudi relationship in purely commercial terms, as though arms industry profits were the main point. Orders from Saudi Arabia are some of the most significant for British weapons manufacturers. But they do not account for the vehemence of the British commitment to the war in Yemen. The enthusiastic support British politicians have for Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf monarchies suggests more than an amoral exercise in profit-seeking.
Talk of Iran and nuclear weapons has long since taken on the structure of an old joke: Iran has supposedly been weeks away from terrible advances for the last thirty years. The joke gets told nonetheless. When Joe Biden visited Jerusalem in June, he spoke of his commitment to stopping Iran from getting the bomb, even though the US government’s own assessment two months earlier was that Iran ‘is not currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons-development activities’.