Michael Klare: US Plans to Muscle Up for “Great Power” Conflict With China

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Yves here. The US military, having gotten mired in a series of neverending but costly misadventures in the Middle East, is now proposing to double down on failure, or at best mediocrity. Even though though US forces are badly overextended, the National Defense Strategy for 2020 proposes reorienting military spending not for regional conflicts but for taking on great power aggression frontally. This of course means China above all others.

Readers will likely wince at Klare’s efforts to depict a war with Iran as a cakewalk:

Make no mistake: if President Trump ordered the U.S. military to attack Iran, it would do so and, were that to happen, there can be little doubt about the ultimate negative outcome for Iran.

That presumptuous assessment misses that the US could come out as big a loser. It has been clear for quite a while that Iran would target the sitting duck of Saudi oilfields, as well as block the Strait of Hormuz, and is believed to have amassed enough well-bunkered missile capacity to survive a first strike and turn the Middle East into a conflagration. The point is that if this is what the US officialdom and the military actually believes, God help us re the accuracy of their assessment of our ability to take on China.

Now having said that, China is very dependent on ocean-bound trade; no wonder the Belt and Road initiative is such a big strategic priority. If the US can and would interfere with shipping before the Belt and Road is far enough along to be a significant channel for imports and exports, the US could in theory hamstring China. But what might China do in response? And if containing China was a priority, why did we sit pat as they created new facts on the ground by creating artificial islands in the South China Sea so as to legitimate their claims about the extent of their territorial waters?

In other words, this looks like a justification for bigger and better pork.

Michael T. Klare, a TomDispatch regular, is the five-college professor emeritus of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and a senior visiting fellow at the Arms Control Association. His most recent book is The Race for What’s Left. His next book, All Hell Breaking Loose: Why the Pentagon Sees Climate Change as a Threat to American National Security, will be published later this year. Originally published at TomDispatch

The recent White House decision to speed the deployment of an aircraft carrier battle group and other military assets to the Persian Gulf has led many in Washington and elsewhere to assume that the U.S. is gearing up for war with Iran. As in the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, U.S. officials have cited suspect intelligence data to justify elaborate war preparations. On May 13th, acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan even presented top White House officials with plans to send as many as 120,000 troops to the Middle East for possible future combat with Iran and its proxies. Later reports indicated that the Pentagon might be making plans to send even more soldiers than that.

Hawks in the White House, led by National Security Advisor John Bolton, see a war aimed at eliminating Iran’s clerical leadership as a potentially big win for Washington. Many top officials in the U.S. military, however, see the matter quite differently — as potentially a giant step backward into exactly the kind of low-tech ground war they’ve been unsuccessfully enmeshed in across the Greater Middle East and northern Africa for years and would prefer to leave behind.

Make no mistake: if President Trump ordered the U.S. military to attack Iran, it would do so and, were that to happen, there can be little doubt about the ultimate negative outcome for Iran. Its moth-eaten military machine is simply no match for the American one. Almost 18 years after Washington’s war on terror was launched, however, there can be little doubt that any U.S. assault on Iran would also stir up yet more chaos across the region, displace more people, create more refugees, and leave behind more dead civilians, more ruined cities and infrastructure, and more angry souls ready to join the next terror group to pop up. It would surely lead to another quagmire set of ongoing conflicts for American soldiers. Think: Iraq and Afghanistan, exactly the type of no-win scenarios that many top Pentagon officials now seek to flee. But don’t chalk such feelings up only to a reluctance to get bogged down in yet one more war-on-terror quagmire. These days, the Pentagon is also increasingly obsessed with preparations for another type of war in another locale entirely: a high-intensity conflict with China, possibly in the South China Sea.

After years of slogging it out with guerrillas and jihadists across the Greater Middle East, the U.S. military is increasingly keen on preparing to combat “peer” competitors China and Russia, countries that pose what’s called a “multi-domain” challenge to the United States. This new outlook is only bolstered by a belief that America’s never-ending war on terror has severely depleted its military, something obvious to both Chinese and Russian leaders who have taken advantage of Washington’s extended preoccupation with counterterrorism to modernize their forces and equip them with advanced weaponry.

For the United States to remain a paramount power — so Pentagon thinking now goes — it must turn away from counterterrorism and focus instead on developing the wherewithal to decisively defeat its great-power rivals. This outlook was made crystal clear by then-Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee in April 2018. “The negative impact on military readiness resulting from the longest continuous period of combat in our nation’s history [has] created an overstretched and under-resourced military,” he insisted. Our rivals, he added, used those same years to invest in military capabilities meant to significantly erode America’s advantage in advanced technology. China, he assured the senators, is “modernizing its conventional military forces to a degree that will challenge U.S. military superiority.” In response, the United States had but one choice: to reorient its own forces for great-power competition. “Long-term strategic competition — not terrorism — is now the primary focus of U.S. national security.”

This outlook was, in fact, already enshrined in the National Defense Strategy of the United States of America, the Pentagon’s overarching blueprint governing all aspects of military planning. Its $750 billion budget proposal for fiscal year 2020, unveiled on March 12th, was said to be fully aligned with this approach. “The operations and capabilities supported by this budget will strongly position the U.S. military for great-power competition for decades to come,” acting Secretary of Defense Shanahan said at the time.

In fact, in that budget proposal, the Pentagon made sharp distinctions between the types of wars it sought to leave behind and those it sees in its future. “Deterring or defeating great-power aggression is a fundamentally different challenge than the regional conflicts involving rogue states and violent extremist organizations we faced over the last 25 years,” it noted. “The FY 2020 Budget is a major milestone in meeting this challenge,” by financing the more capable force America needs “to compete, deter, and win in any high-end potential fight of the future.”

Girding for “High-End” Combat

If such a high-intensity war were to break out, Pentagon leaders suggest, it would be likely to take place simultaneously in every domain of combat — air, sea, ground, space, and cyberspace — and would feature the widespread utilization of emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, and cyberwarfare. To prepare for such multi-domain engagements, the 2020 budget includes $58 billion for advanced aircraft, $35 billion for new warships — the biggest shipbuilding request in more than 20 years — along with $14 billion for space systems, $10 billion for cyberwar, $4.6 billion for AI and autonomous systems, and $2.6 billion for hypersonic weapons. You can safely assume, moreover, that each of those amounts will be increased in the years to come.

Planning for such a future, Pentagon officials envision clashes first erupting on the peripheries of China and/or Russia, only to later extend to their heartland expanses (but not, of course, America’s). As those countries already possess robust defensive capabilities, any conflict would undoubtedly quickly involve the use of front-line air and naval forces to breach their defensive systems — which means the acquisition and deployment of advanced stealth aircraft, autonomous weapons, hypersonic cruise missiles, and other sophisticated weaponry. In Pentagon-speak, these are called anti-access/area-defense (A2/AD) systems.

As it proceeds down this path, the Department of Defense is already considering future war scenarios. A clash with Russian forces in the Baltic region of the former Soviet Union is, for instance, considered a distinct possibility. So the U.S. and allied NATO countries have been bolstering their forces in that very region and seeking weaponry suitable for attacks on Russian defenses along that country’s western border.

Still, the Pentagon’s main focus is a rising China, the power believed to pose the greatest threat to America’s long-term strategic interests. “China’s historically unprecedented economic development has enabled an impressive military buildup that could soon challenge the U.S. across almost all domains,” Admiral Harry Harris Jr., commander of the U.S. Pacific Command (USPACOM) and now the U.S. ambassador to South Korea, typically testified in March 2018. “China’s ongoing military modernization is a core element of China’s stated strategy to supplant the U.S. as the security partner of choice for countries in the Indo-Pacific.”

As Harris made clear, any conflict with China would probably first erupt in the waters off its eastern coastline and would involve an intense U.S. drive to destroy China’s A2/AD capabilities, rendering that country’s vast interior essentially defenseless. Harris’s successor, Admiral Philip Davidson, as commander of what is now known as the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, or USINDOPACOM, described such a scenario this way in testimony before Congress in February 2019: “Our adversaries are fielding advanced anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) systems, advanced aircraft, ships, space, and cyber capabilities that threaten the U.S. ability to project power and influence into the region.” To overcome such capabilities, he added, the U.S. must develop and deploy an array of attack systems for “long-range strike[s]” along with “advanced missile defense systems capable of detecting, tracking, and engaging advanced air, cruise, ballistic, and hypersonic threats from all azimuths.”

If you read through the testimony of both commanders, you’ll soon grasp one thing: that the U.S. military — or at least the Navy and Air Force — are focused on a future war-scape in which American forces are no longer focused on terrorism or the Middle East, but on employing their most sophisticated weaponry to overpower the modernized forces of China (or Russia) in a relatively brief spasm of violence, lasting just days or weeks. These would be wars in which the mastery of technology, not counterinsurgency or nation building, would — so, at least, top military officials believe — prove the decisive factor.

The Pentagon’s Preferred Battleground

Such Pentagon scenarios essentially assume that a conflict with China would initially erupt in the waters of the South China Sea or in the East China Sea near Japan and Taiwan. U.S. strategists have considered these two maritime areas America’s “first line of defense” in the Pacific since Admiral George Dewey defeated the Spanish fleet in 1898 and the U.S. seized the Philippines. Today, USINDOPACOM remains the most powerful force in the region with major bases in Japan, Okinawa, and South Korea. China, however, has visibly been working to erode American regional dominance somewhat by modernizing its navy and installing along its coastlines short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, presumably aimed at those U.S. bases.

By far its most obvious threat to U.S. dominance in the region, however, has been its occupation and militarization of tiny islands in the South China Sea, a busy maritime thoroughfare bounded by China and Vietnam on one side, Indonesia and the Philippines on the other. In recent years, the Chinese have used sand dredged from the ocean bottom to expand some of those islets, then setting up military facilities on them, including airstrips, radar systems, and communications gear. In 2015, China’s President Xi Jinping promised President Obama that his country wouldn’t take such action, but satellite imagery clearly shows that it has done so. While not yet heavily fortified, those islets provide Beijing with a platform from which to potentially foil U.S. efforts to further project its power in the region.

“These bases appear to be forward military outposts, built for the military, garrisoned by military forces, and designed to project Chinese military power and capability across the breadth of China’s disputed South China Sea claims,” Admiral Harris testified in 2018. “China has built a massive infrastructure specifically — and solely — to support advanced military capabilities that can deploy to the bases on short notice.”

To be clear, U.S. officials have never declared that the Chinese must vacate those islets or even remove their military facilities from them. However, for some time now, they’ve been making obvious their displeasure over the buildup in the South China Sea. In May 2018, for instance, Secretary of Defense Mattis disinvited the Chinese navy from the biennial “Rim of the Pacific” exercises, the world’s largest multinational naval maneuvers, saying that “there are consequences” for that country’s failure to abide by Xi’s 2015 promise to Obama. “That’s a relatively small consequence,” he added. “I believe there are much larger consequences in the future.”

What those consequences might be, Mattis never said. But there is no doubt that the U.S. military has given careful thought to a possible clash in those waters and has contingency plans in place to attack and destroy all the Chinese facilities there. American warships regularly sail provocatively within a few miles of those militarized islands in what are termed “freedom of navigation operations,” or FRONOPS, while U.S. air and naval forces periodically conduct large-scale military exercises in the region. Such activities are, of course, closely monitored by the Chinese. Sometimes, they even attempt to impede FRONOPS operations, leading more than once to near-collisions. In May 2018, Admiral Davidson caused consternation at the Pentagon by declaring, “China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States” — a comment presumably intended as a wake-up call, but also hinting at the kinds of conflicts U.S. strategists foresee arising in the future.

The Navy’s War vs. Bolton’s War

The U.S. Navy sends a missile-armed destroyer close to one of those Chinese-occupied islands just about every few weeks. It’s what the U.S. high command likes to call “showing the flag” or demonstrating America’s resolve to remain a dominant power in that distant region (though were the Chinese to do something similar off the U.S. West Coast it would be considered the scandal of the century and a provocation beyond compare). Just about every time it happens, the Chinese authorities warn off those ships or send out their own vessels to shadow and harass them.

On May 6th, for example, the U.S. Navy sent two of its guided-missile destroyers, the USS Preble and the USS Chung Hoon, on a FRONOPS mission near some of those islands, provoking a fierce complaint from Chinese officials. This deadly game of chicken could, of course, go on for years without shots being fired or a major crisis erupting. The odds of avoiding such an incident are bound to drop over time, especially as, in the age of Trump, U.S.-China tensions over other matters — including trade, technology, and human rights — continue to grow. American military leaders have clearly been strategizing about the possibility of a conflict erupting in this area for some time and, if Admiral Davidson’s remark is any indication, would respond to such a possibility with considerably more relish than most of them do to a possible war with Iran.

Yes, they view Iran as a menace in the Middle East and no doubt would like to see the demise of that country’s clerical regime. Yes, some Army commanders like General Kenneth McKenzie, head of the U.S. Central Command, still show a certain John Bolton-style relish for such a conflict. But Iran today — weakened by years of isolation and trade sanctions — poses no unmanageable threat to America’s core strategic interests and, thanks in part to the nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration, possesses no nuclear weapons. Still, can there be any doubt that a war with Iran would turn into a messy quagmire, as in Iraq after the invasion of 2003, with guerrilla uprisings, increased terrorism, and widespread chaos spreading through the region — exactly the kind of “forever wars” much of the U.S. military (unlike John Bolton) would prefer to leave behind?

How this will all play out obviously can’t be foreseen, but if the U.S. does not go to war with Iran, Pentagon reluctance may play a significant role in that decision. This does not mean, however, that Americans would be free of the prospect of major bloodshed in the future. The very next U.S. naval patrol in the South China Sea, or the one after that, could provide the spark for a major blowup of a very different kind against a far more powerful — and nuclear-armed — adversary. What could possibly go wrong?

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64 comments

  1. Kurt Sperry

    Maybe it’s just me but this whole challenging China in its backyard things seems positively Strangelovian in its outhouse rat crazy. And dangerous and stupid and counterproductive. Probably just me though.

    Reply
    1. PlutoniumKun

      As the article eludes, it is an inevitable outcome of policies that go back to the 19th Century, and the whole notion that the US’s ‘backyard’ extends to the shorts of Asian countries. But admitting to these distant roots of the policy means admitting that in the 19th Century the US was the same as the British and French and Dutch – imperialist naval powers seeking to carve up Asia. It often amazes me how reluctant even professional historians are to admit to this.

      Reply
      1. Carolinian

        Or the 20th century

        For the United States to remain a paramount power — so Pentagon thinking now goes — it must turn away from counterterrorism and focus instead on developing the wherewithal to decisively defeat its great-power rivals.

        1914 anyone? These idiots playing toy soldier will get us all killed if they don’t stop pretending we can have a “limited war” with a country that has nuclear missiles aimed at California. Say what you will about Trump, he did at least get it right when he said that DC is a swamp that needs to be drained. And the place to start would be that five sided building on the Potomac.

        Reply
        1. albert

          No, not the Pentagon. They are war experts; that’s what they know. They are given their orders from the CIC, along with lots of BS from other civilians in temporary positions.

          Good housekeeping requires cleaning out those who promote the insane ideologies from a bygone era. Start with the White House, and move through the State Dept., the CIA, and any agency that can act on it’s own.

          . .. . .. — ….

          Reply
      2. Watt4Bob

        One has only to consider that to be a ‘professional’ historian, one must demonstrate a commitment to telling the mandatory history, the ‘winner’s’ version of what happened.

        Ask the Irish, the Palestinians, East Indians, and Native Americans, and most indigenous peoples for that matter.

        Before we had asymmetrical warfare, we had asymmetrical access to information.

        Reply
  2. vlade

    The way to deal with China was to get to be good friends with Vietnam, Malaysia etc.. The boat for that has sailed more than 50 years ago. In particular, Vietnam post WW2 wanted to be friends with the US (Ho Chi Min liked the US and admired FDR), and wanted to help them to contain China (who historically was far from Vietnam’s friend).

    Cue in the idiots in the US driving the policy (especially since they were ok to help dismantle UK’s colonial empire, but somehow didn’t think the French one was worth it..)

    Reply
        1. skippy

          As discussed long ago, many viewed it as his Mea Culpa, too that one could say he got it towards the end.

          Hell of a thing devoting so much of ones life with the application of maths, only later on realize the most basic of mistakes with regard to the human condition.

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    1. PlutoniumKun

      Yes, one unstated element in the article is that for many smaller Asian nations, it is much preferable to have a ‘far distant’ power imposing its will on local seas than one of their big, historically aggressive neighbours such as China or Japan. It often amazes visitors to Vietnam about how relaxed the Vietnamese people are about what the US did to their country, but from their perspective the American and French wars were blips in the context of centuries of seeing the Chinese (and to a lesser extent the Japanese) as their neighbours and potential enemies.

      Throughout history small nations have always preferred to deal with relatively far away ambitious powers than the one on their doorstep, as it was always easier to manipulate these relationships to their advantage. The US’s big strategic failure it seems to me is its refusal to see that a more hands off attitude to those countries would work far more to its advantage. Soft power in the longer term almost always trumps hard power when you are trying to project to the other side of the world.

      Reply
      1. skippy

        McNamara’s opposite number left his jaw on the floor …. Mc – we offered you everything and you went to the Chinese.

        Opposite number – we have been fighting the Chinese for 2000 years, that we used stuff to fob off the french and then you was just us seeking self determination …

        Mc – thousand yard stare ….

        When anglophone nations self awarded superiority supersedes understanding the locals or their historical back drop, the results are never pretty …

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      2. LuRenJia

        Can you give some examples that China had been aggressive in the past, in the same standard/regard as Anglo-Saxon empires? If you did dig into history, Vietnam (at least the northern part) was part of China on and off since Chinese Han Dynasty. So the relationship between China and Vietnam has its historical perspective.

        Reply
        1. Oregoncharles

          Recently, Tibet; in the past, they fought for 100 years to conquer Viet Nam.

          It’s an imperial state, originally put together by force of arms. It does what imperial states do.

          The current example is the South China Sea, where their exaggerated, illegal claim is based entirely on an Imperial map. Taiwan is another example – de facto an independent country with non-Chinese ethnicity. Yet there are constant threats to reconquer it.

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    2. Steve H.

      > Iran would target the sitting duck of Saudi oilfields, as well as block the Strait of Hormuz

      Let’s take Qiao Liang’s analysis and invert (man muss immer umkehren):

      “Now the US claims it can hit any part of the world within 28 minutes, so no matter where capital is concentrated, it can hit anywhere in the world. As long as the United States does not want a particular place to have capital, a missile can get there in 28 minutes.”

      Correct me if I’m out over my skis here, but if I wanted to affect capital inflow to the US, what would I do?

      Direct attack is one way (see 9-11), but that caused more war, which is bad for bidness. The indirect approach would be to target suppliers of capital inflow. So China can shut off the spigot. Close the Straits and bomb the oil chokepoints and Saudi Arabia is useless. Euro is an ally but a rival currency.

      Looking at you, Japan. Would you rather be in a free trade zone with your neighbors, or be a staging area for a hot war? Hmm.

      I’ve no expertise in international capital flows, so please rip this if I’m wrong.

      Paul Kennedy: “The “military conflict” referred to in the book’s subtitle is therefore always examined in the context of “economic change.” The triumph of any one Great Power in this period, or the collapse of another, has usually been the consequence of lengthy fighting by its armed forces; but it has also been the consequences of the more or less efficient utilization of the state’s productive economic resources in wartime, and, further in the background, of the way in which that state’s economy had been rising or falling, relative to the other leading nations, in the decades preceding the actual conflict. For that reason, how a Great Power’s position steadily alters in peacetime, is as important to this study as how it fights in wartime.”

      Reply
    3. ObjectiveFunction

      This is an oft repeated myth, and in my view mirrors the common Western error of denying the inscrutable Others agency of their own: they only turn out the way we cause them to be.

      Ho Chi Minh was, and remained, a lifelong orthodox Communist. Neither Woodrow Wilson not snubbing him on his US visit nor US neutrality in the French conflict was about to turn Ho or the Viet Minh into Western-aligned social democrats.

      The only alternate history that *might* have altered things is: (i) Imperial Japan facing down its militarists; (ii) accepting a US-brokered settlement in China in 1938; (iii) patiently sitting out World War 2; and then (iv) helping Chiang’s weak Republic neutralize Mao. With no Red China in the picture, and no Japanese occupation of Indochina, the French might have been able to exit on their own timetable, leaving a united Vietnam in the hands of a left-leaning but broad nationalist coalition not dominated by a battle hardened guerrilla army. Ho may still have emerged as national leader, but more on a Sukarno model.

      But we’ll never know. Fwiw.

      Reply
      1. vlade

        The fact remains that Vietnam fought a number of wars with China, and has a history of disliking China. In fact, northern Vietnam was occupied by Chinese in late 45 and took the surrender of Japanese there. Only to promplty return it to French for getting back French concessions in Shanghai.

        Please point out where in the post it claims Vietnam would become soc dem. Tito was committed communist, yet he was not in the Soviet bloc (and had pretty good relations with the West). Ho Chi Min was a commited nationalist, at least as commited as a communist (does it means he was Mr. Nice Guy? No. Why should it?).

        If the US helped him at the time of need, I very much doubt he would object to helping contain Vietnam’s long enemy.

        Re your alternate reality – that might have different Vietnam, but I doubt it would have significantly different China (in terms of wanting to have what it percieves as its rightful place in the sun).

        Reply
        1. The Rev Kev

          Agree with this line of reasoning. The most recent war between China and Vietnam, by the way, was only back in ’79 when China invaded Vietnam. I saw a doco on this war once and it was strange seeing a Chinese soldier referred to in a title underneath his interview as a “Vietnam vet”-

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sino-Vietnamese_War

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        2. Kilgore Trout

          Agreed. My reading on the topic is that Ho was more nationalist than communist. In any event, had we helped Ho after WW2 to end imperial France and GB–as FDR plainly told Churchill was our intent and one reason for fighting the war, post-war history might have been very different, and both Korea and Vietnam/Indochina avoided. Some other “what-ifs” had FDR survived the war, also give one pause: perhaps no Hiroshima or Nagasaki; FDR was opposed to recognizing a Jewish state in Palestine; would FDR have dealt with the events leading to the Iron Curtain in the way Truman did? Alas for the future that might have been.

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        3. rd

          Ho, Le Duan, and Le Duc Tho were anti-colonial nationalist first and foremost. Ho was neutral between China and Soviet Union. Le Duan and Le Duc Tho were anti-China amid pro-Soviet Union and purged the pro-Chinese people in the Vietnam Communist Party in the 1960s and 70s.

          While many of these anti-colonial people are also Marxists etc., it is almost always a mistake to view them as that first and foremost – this was the error the US made in Vietnam. In general, most of these leaders around the world are nationalists and the Marxism etc. is just a tool or background social philosophy. The Soviets and Chinese help with the anti-colonial aspects and then get backing form those groups or governments.

          We never seem to learn these lessons.

          Reply
    4. coboarts

      At one time the Issarak, the Cambodian Nationalists/Communists, collaborated with the Viet Minh. Their ability to maintain this collaboration was sold out by China in agreeing to split Vietnam well above the Cambodian border at the 17th parallel. Fast forward through a lot of pain and suffering and Pol Pot, a French trained communist who had been sheltered in the mountains near US ally Thailand, comes forth to enslave his people. The rice that was grown in the “death camps” was traded to China for weapons that were used to murder tens of thousands of Vietnamese across the eastern Cambodian border. After that bit of softening up, China stuck its toe into Vietnam, the Vietnamese hardened their cities and their resolve and showed China that they were still up for the fight. So who is who and what is what in this game?

      So, China is now this great threat to ‘our’ global domination. Are we sure that the great game is what the education/media/political actors are presenting it to be? All we need to do is read that oft mentioned little book by Sun Tzu. Why didn’t we attack China when it first began its militarization? Why don’t we arrest for treason the political and business ‘leaders’ who allowed the transfer of so much technological and managerial skill to such a rapidly evolving threat to our empire? Was it really just, oopsie? Or, before we all go down this primrose WWIII path, perhaps we should dare to ask questions that are ‘outside the box’. If we really wanted to have a population ready to withstand the modern warfare of global missile technology, why are we depopulating the heartland and concentrating population on the coasts?

      Reply
    5. anon in so cal

      The Vietnamese despise China, if anecdotes are any indication. When we were birding north of Hanoi and using a “Birds of China” field guide, it prompted our Vietnamese driver and guide to launch into a virulent anti-China tirade.

      (off topic, but they both spoke fluent English, claimed to be college-educated, and had tried, unsuccessfully, to emigrate to the US for over a decade)

      Reply
      1. Olga

        Yes, I find this truly bizarre. An exhibition of the thousand-year history of Vietnam entirely skipped the war… stopped at 1954, with the exaltation over the defeat of the French, and then resumed in 1975 – as if the Vietnam war never existed. (I wish I were not too polite to ask the Viet. ambassador.) I wonder if it is similar to the dynamic between the Poles and Russians. One day, will have to figure this out.

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    6. Susan the other`

      Dismantling the British Empire came with a poison pill. We were too connected to the trickle-down wealth of the old empire. We benefited, but we didn’t want the crumbs; we wanted a bigger share. The empire was a structure for cooperation among elites, and without it nothing. I wonder how much the British understood the whole process. There were cabals on both ends of the spectrum after WW2. One wanted to just nuke China and get it over with. I have always suspected that LBJ was in tune with them, but hesitant. Whereas his mentor, FDR, certainly wanted to be patient and give China the room to develop. What is it in us humans that when it really comes to devastating each other, we hesitate? Nagasaki and Hiroshima were such blatant exceptions to that instinct we will certainly never get over it. Nor should we.

      Reply
      1. Olga

        US/Brits also wanted to nuke USSR – right after the war, then again in late 1940s – and then again, the military tried to persuade JFK to nuke it in early 1960s. Not entirely clear what saved us (all).

        Reply
      2. Norb

        I believe the answer lies in the fact that good and evil reside in everyone. Most healthy people battle with this conflict by trying to do good- to not willingly cause pain and suffering upon others. In this manner, good should triumph over evil. However, destroying things has its own power and lure. Destroying is easier than creation. It seems to touch on the innate knowledge that human beings are insignificant in the universe.

        Human destiny should be seen as a mission to overcome violence and aggression. However, it is also possible to turn this statement on its head. Violence and aggression are tools to be used for self-preservation, and advancement, then the motivation of certain people becomes clearer. Violence is a powerful lever to reinforce your worldview.

        How does one find balance? A strong, principled pacifism seems the only way. One must be willing to fight and die for the cause of peace. Collectively, we need to better define that cause. What does in mean to live in peace?

        Difficult ideas when contemplated in the land of forever war.

        Reply
  3. Sound of the Suburbs

    The Washington Consensus planned to create an open, globalised world.

    China was the big winner from an open, globalised world.

    Maximising profit is all about reducing costs.

    China had coal fired power stations to provide cheap energy.
    China had a low cost of living so employers could pay low wages.
    China had low taxes and a minimal welfare state.
    China also had lax regulations reducing environmental and health and safety costs.

    China had all the advantages in an open, globalised world.
    What were the Americans doing?

    American politicians are controlled by lobbyists.

    The 1% would get better returns from investing their capital in the rapidly growing Asian economies than the mature economies of the West.

    Multi-national corporations could make higher profits in Asia due to the low cost of living that they had to cover in wages.

    (Employees get their money from wages, so the employer pays through wages.)

    American politicians were governed by interests different from those of the US as a nation.

    Reply
    1. Sound of the Suburbs

      Why do US firms off-shore to Mexico?
      See list above.

      US companies prefer Mexico with its cheap labour, lax health and safety standards, and lack of environmental regulations. They can expose workers to hazardous chemicals and just pump toxic chemicals straight out into the environment, without incurring the costs associated in dealing with them in an environmentally friendly way.

      https://thoughtmaybe.com/maquilapolis-city-of-factories

      Female workers are best as they are less likely to stick up for themselves and are easier to exploit.

      Every avenue must be explored to reduce costs.

      The lower the costs, the higher the profit.

      Reply
      1. anon in so cal

        If it’s production for export back to US markets, then US corps typically preferred Mexico over China because of its geographic proximity. Shipping costs and logistics were a factor.

        Reply
  4. The Rev Kev

    Of course the $64,000 question is how does one nuclear power – America – get into a fight with another nuclear power – China – while it is supported by a third nuclear power – Russia – and without the fight itself going nuclear. That is the big question that must be answered before trying to push China back to its own seashore and let the US dictate its own laws. I was reading a Chinese viewpoint this morning at http://thesaker.is/special-china-sitrep-analysis-by-larchmonter445/ which had its own take on what was going on. Its tone may be off but then again, one man’s nationalism is another man’s patriotism.
    I was thinking too of the weaponry that the US would bring to the fight but the latest generation of weapons are not something that you can have confidence in. The F-35 may be emblematic here in that most of them are grounded due to lack of spare parts and other F-35s are cannibalized for parts to use. At this point, I wish to recommend a 1951 Arthur C. Clarke Called “Superiority” which was at one point required reading for an industrial design course at the MIT though it is probably banned in Silicon Valley these days. It may have a long white beard now but it gives a good insight to what is going on in the military-industrial complex these days with lots of implications–

    http://www.mayofamily.com/RLM/txt_Clarke_Superiority.html

    Reply
  5. Hayek's Heelbiter

    Make no mistake: if President Trump ordered the U.S. military to attack Iran, it would do so and, were that to happen, there can be little doubt about the ultimate negative outcome for Iran.

    Is history about to repeat itself again?

    During the run up to the Iraq war, even as the bellicose speeches were being made by the government and the media, I was struck by the fact that many of these calls to war could have been lifted verbatim from Thucydides’ account of the exhortations by the Athenian leaders to invade Syracuse.

    And we all know HOW that turned out. Or maybe we don’t.

    Now, listening to all the saber rattling directed at Iran, I can’t help but reminded by the Delphic oracle’s reply to Croesus when she was asked about the wisdom of invading Persia.

    God forbid that we ever find out.

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  6. Thuto

    If “strategists” in the Pentagon can get together every year for a fantasy fest about how enough funding would allow them to penetrate China and Russia’s heartlands in a “few days or weeks”, leaving them completely “defenseless”, and gleefully extract $750billion from the national budget based on such fantasies (to say nothing of diverting the best engineering talent towards weapons “innovation”) then the question has to be asked whether MMT for the military isn’t already reality?

    Meanwhile, back in the real world where full spectrum dominance over Russia and China is a fairy tale, public infrastructure in the US is creaking, millions live in poverty, deaths of despair are on the rise, over 150 mass shootings this year alone, and the PE behemoth Blackstone Group, in the most egregious example of the rapacity embedded in late stage capitalism, has now made the leap from landlord to slumlord by going into trailer parks (apparently shipments of trailers have been rising for nine consecutive years and they couldn’t help but see an “opportunity” to profit from this burgeoning market by buying up land underneath the trailerparks to provide leasehold contracts to the downtrodden. Yves maybe there’s a story here?). The irony truly writes itself.

    America’s military strength means its national borders face no credible existential threat from any would-be invaders. As such, the term national security is an outmoded misnomer in so far as it applies to the US but continues being invoked as a cover story for continued military adventurism abroad and the running of a global protection racket. As regards the article itself, it fell disappointingly short as a critical analysis piece as it sounded more like a collection of quotes from pentagon officials with very little pushback against some of the outlandish claims made therein.

    Reply
    1. Norb

      The US will have to be shocked out of its self-inflicted stupor. Individuals will be shocked into awareness when they join the growing ranks of the jobless poor. America has the potential to become a very ugly place. If working people have learned anything over the years, its things can always get worse. Welcome to 3rd world America- no offense to 3rd worlders striving for a better and meaningful life.

      When American’s are no longer able to be power projectors and expansionists, they will have a reckoning to face. Sane intellectuals and politicians see this, but get no public voice.

      Best hope is to start preparing oneself mentally and physically for another great transformation- the dismantling of the middle class.

      What a sorry sight, an impoverished mass blaming everything and everyone instead of the corrupt people who put them there.

      Poor and proud is the only way to halt this decline. One must have some self-respect in order to successfully fight a rapacious elite.

      Reply
  7. voteforno6

    So, let’s say that the U.S. goes to war with China, and wins…then what? What does the U.S. get for winning any conflict (whether military or otherwise)? Is the long-term strategic interest here anything more than the desire to be on top? What then? How would that improve the lives of people in the U.S.?

    It’s not just the players in the great power game that are foolish – it’s the game itself.

    Reply
    1. Olga

      What is “a win?” US cannot even “win” in Iraq – how does it ever expect to win against a country of 1.4 bil.?

      Reply
      1. Lords of Chaos

        The chaos is the win, that is the goal, otherwise you won’t have perpetual war and therefore not feed the MIC and the whims of truly evil people like Bolton, Clinton, Cheney, Albright etc

        Reply
        1. Olga

          Well, true Glad we all know this… except, at some point, the chaos will descend on the US doorstep. Then what?

          Reply
  8. H. Alexander Ivey

    But Iran today — weakened by years of isolation and trade sanctions — poses no unmanageable threat to America’s core strategic interests

    Ahh, Professor, are you saying, or are you saying the Pentagon says, that control of The Middle East oil flow is not a threat to America’s interests? Or are you mincing words and arguing that the threat can be managed?

    Surely a quick view of the map, and a review of the attacks on a Saudi pipeline and tankers, would show that Iran could easily control that flow. And while the US can stiff its creditors, Saudi, et.al. can not. Slow down the flow, slow down the cash flow, and a guy named Louie will be knocking on your door.

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  9. Godfree Roberts

    Both Russia and China are ahead of us in military hardware. Chinese missiles outrange ours by 200%-400% in every class, weight and application, as does their detection technology–and that’s before we get to the exotic stuff like hypersonic glide vehicles. Russian hardware is also a decade in advance of ours.

    This kind of talk is fine for us groundlings but anyone who reads, for example, USNI bulletins knows that our professionals are well aware of the real situation. e.g., The J-20 also carries the specialized PLA-15. Propelled by novel dual pulse rocket motors and flying on a semi-ballistic trajectory, these giant missile home on AWACS and airborne tankers loitering behind battle lines. In 2015 USAF General Herbert Carlisle told Congress, “Look at the PLA-15, at the range of that weapon. How do we counter that?” The general added that the USAF can field two hundred F-22 Raptors carrying six missiles while China’s more numerous fighters carry twelve longer ranged weapons. In 2019, The Air Force canceled its E-8C AWACS recapitalization, explaining that any new non-stealthy airplanes would be easy prey for the PLA-15. Its smaller sibling, the PLA-10, is no less deadly. Douglas Barrie, ISIS airpower specialist, says the missiles have tipped the balance of power, “For the notional Western combat aircraft pilot, there is no obvious respite to be found in attempting to avoid within visual range threat of the PLA-10[1] by keeping beyond visual range. In this environment also the PLAAF will be able to mount an increasingly credible challenge and at engagement ranges against some targets that would previously have been considered safe. As one former US Air Force tanker pilot drily noted to this author, “‘That’s aimed right at me.’”


    [1] The PLA-10, an air-to-air missile, has a more advanced guidance system and twice the range, speed and payload of the USAF AIM-9.

    Reply
    1. PlutoniumKun

      Its pretty clear from the weapons the Chinese are pouring resources into that their strategy is to keep the US at an arms length and force it into long range engagements. By focusing on weapons that can knock out AWACS and air refuelling aircraft, along with long range anti-ship missiles, this would force the US to depend on a limited number of Pacific bases and long range cruise missile attacks only. Even aircraft carriers may be of limited use if they have to stay 1000km or more away from any Chinese base for fear of ASM’s and mines (for some bizarre reason, the US navy has only a handful of minesweepers).

      The huge size of the US military means it will always win a war of attrition against the Chinese if they have the time and will to keep throwing weapons into a conflict and if Asian allies are willing to offer airspace and bases. The Chinese probably hope that the cost of such an attritional war will be so high the US will do everything the can to avoid it. Of course, the Chinese will be aware that Japan made similar calculations in 1941 and didn’t pull it off.

      Reply
    2. PlutoniumKun

      Also, a point about Chinese hardware – it might well be that they are rapidly catching up, but as a number of sources have noted, the Chinese have failed pretty miserably to sell most of their weapons abroad, despite their cheap price. Even when copying Russian hardware, Chinese weapons don’t really match up. That strongly suggests that much of their weaponry doesn’t survive close examination.

      But I’ve always suspected that the Chinese are quite capable of investing in ‘bluffs’ (what used to be known as the ‘ship in port’ strategy). Weapons which work because of the fear factor they engender, rather than their actual effectiveness. You don’t need a weapon that can poke a hole in an aircraft carrier deck if your enemy thinks you have one – that perception alone will mean the aircraft carriers will stay well away.

      Reply
      1. Thuto

        “The Chinese have failed pretty miserably to sell most of their weapons abroad”

        But China are the third largest arms exporter in the world after the US and Russia so i’m not sure how you come to this conclusion??

        Reply
  10. Ptb

    You would think 18 years at war would increase readiness, not decrease it…

    Also totally unclear how cold war 2.0 would imply a shift away from proxy wars (with dispersed guerilla style opponents).

    Anyway, more $ for Boeing & Lockheed.

    Reply
    1. Olga

      You’re too kind!
      Since 1945, US has been THE rogue state, although in the first few decades it was more circumspect about it, and had a bit more “sugar” to dole out to the foreign elites. Now, it does not even pretend. If the attitude of superiority persists, we are all staring down a barrel of WWIII. But perhaps – as Yves says – this is just more pork.

      Reply
  11. a different chris

    I like this:

    >rendering that country’s vast interior essentially defenseless.

    Yeah, but it’s still “vast”. How well did that whole style of “airstrikes on critical targets” thinking work with Iraq? Not to mention that China is now most of the US’s base for consumer industries, and those industrial centers would have to be said targers… so even a successful military campaign would be basically shooting both your own feet off.

    So you got “vast”, you got “they have fighter jets too”, you have all sorts of problems both war-based and on the home front where US consumers would be p(family blog)d when they can’t buy or sell anything. And yet our warmongers have big, expensive “plans”.

    I remember when Muhammad Ali made his last comeback, and we were all so amazed that he turned that puffy body into a ripped fighting machine. And the Champ entered the ring to much fanfare – and got his butt kicked. I can’t even remember by who. He just was past it. So I suspect are we.

    Reply
  12. shinola

    If attacked, China wouldn’t dare launch ICBM’s at the US mainland.

    If you believe that, I’ve got a bridge…

    Reply
  13. Susan the other`

    Left out of this essay is a discussion on climate change. Yet the military is focused on just that. There is no question that all the military rules have adapted. But their one goal, control, has not. Trump looks like some guy just full of puffery, but he is not as frivolous as he looks. His approach to avoiding war, talking the best deal possible, waiting it out – for how long we don’t know – and etc. is a logical tactic in this new era. Mattis’s long term strategic competition is an interesting plan. (But it doesn’t sound like him – he who says “I’m a professional killer.”) The military will continue to get exorbitant budgets and obfuscate its real action. The reason to fudge the facts is probably to keep people from panicking. What else is new? Iran is a sitting duck more than Saudi Arabia is. But we don’t come straight out and say it because we’d like to do everyone a favor and just get rid of the ayatollahs. I question whether we are eager to “combat peer competitors” or come to terms with them. It looks to me like we are rapidly dividing up the world’s resources among “peers”. And the goal is to endure climate change for the long haul. Climate change is serious business. Maybe too serious for old fashioned bloody war.

    Reply
    1. neo-realist

      I’m not all that sure that Trump tearing up the Iran nuclear deal to talk up a better deal was logical. Particularly when this “maximum pressure” approach on Iran by the administration has only had the effect of hardening the stance of the Mullahs.

      Maximum Pressure didn’t work with North Korea either. Kim gave up nothing, then Trump said there’s no timetable for North Korea to stop making nukes with the expectation that the issue would go to the back of the new cycle.

      Maximum Pressure may have worked as domestic posturing with the base, but is a ploy to cover up a lack of ability to negotiate and has achieved nothing.

      Reply
  14. Frank Little

    Clamoring for war with China and Russia is just PR for weapons dealers and their “cost-plus” business model. Unfortunately voting for military expenditure is about the only thing warmongers on the right and so-called “progressives” like Elizabeth Warren can agree on. After all, Raytheon is headquartered in Boston.

    I was driving near Oshkosh, WI the other day and saw a billboard touting that Oshkosh Corp, a main supplier of armored vehicles, had just been named one of the world’s “most ethical companies.” Couldn’t help but a chuckle at the that given that Al Qaeda and Co. are currently riding around in Oshkosh MRAPs thanks to our Saudi clients.

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  15. Hepativore

    Since I am relatively young, at 35, can somebody explain to me how the Pentagon plans to pull this off, considering how much of our industrial base is greatly dependent on Chinese manufacturing due to how US firms have offshored much of the manufacturing and research to China? Even much of the military hardware that we purchase from US private contractors have third-party components that are either made in China or have software programs that are designed by Chinese programming firms.

    Aside from suicidally attacking a nuclear-armed nation, we would basically be destroying our own industrial base. It could be used as an argument to reverse the process of offshoring to Asia, but it would take decades for the US to reverse what it has lost and it would have to find another host country to offshore to at this extent.

    Reply
  16. JerryDenim

    “Sometimes, they even attempt to impede FRONOPS operations, leading more than once to near-collisions.”

    The Chinese have been flexing their military muscle in the South China Sea for some time now. Just a few months into GWB’s first term in 2001 a US P-3 reconnaissance aircraft was involved in a mid-air collision with a Chinese fighter/interceptor J-8 aircraft over the South China Sea, just south of Hainan island. The harassing antics of an overly bold Chinese pilot finally resulted in a Chinese jet contacting an American P-3, slicing off the aircraft’s radome and badly damaging the aileron and elevator. The Chinese J-8 and its pilot were lost. The badly damaged P-3 made an emergency landing at a Chinese military base on Hainan island. The US spy plane was ransacked by the Chinese military and the 24-person crew was held and interrogated for eleven days, despite US demands that they be released immediately. The Chinese demanded an apology from the United States and they refused to release the US crew or the aircraft until the United States issued an apology. The Chinese were quite cheeky throughout the whole affair and the US military came out looking very weak and cowed. The whole incident was soon forgotten by the world as the events of September 2001 put the United States on a different course with regards to military priorities and foreign policy, but China’s aspirations of regional Pacific military dominance and their behavior in the region have changed very little since the mid-nineteen-nineties. I remember seeing unclassified Chinese military white papers in the mid-nineties which stated the Chinese plan to dominate the Pacific was to build up a bunch of little atolls with increasingly advanced offensive capabilities while assuring the world they meant no harm, then once the they had gained the strategic upper hand through their vast network of sea based citadels and improved air and sea power, the Chinese would launch a previously unthinkable territorial provocation with their new offensive and defensive capabilities. They would dare the US to fight in what would likely be a Pyrrhic US victory over an inconsequential piece of territory like Taiwan. The Chinese believe the US would back down in such a scenario instead of fighting a very messy and costly war over a tiny island mostly unknown to the American citizenry. After this gambit it would be clear to all the US was unwilling to fight over small Pacific islands which were not US territorial posessions, and the Chinese would be the new regional superpower with a free hand to consolidate gains and press their military advantage at various negotiating tables. The Chinese have been assiduously implementing their strategic plans in the Pacific since the Clinton administration while the United States has wrecklessly blundered from one expensive and strategically questionable military disaster to another since GW Bush’s decision to invade Afghanistan. Simultaneously we have hollowed out our economy and decimated our society with the poisonous policies of neoliberalism so well documented on this site, while the Chinese have used an authoritarian state capitalist model with a large assist from our elite policy makers to successfully transfer US manufacturing and its attendant wealth and technological innovation to its shores. Quite the “one-two” punch they have managed with our assistance.

    If the US military has finally grown weary of the nineteen-year long “War on Terror” that sounds fantastic, but pivoting to war with China sounds even more terrifying, especially with the current corrupt and incompetent leadership at the Pentagon in charge. The whole thing sounds a lot like Trump’s half-baked trade war. Wrong-headed, and incompetent leadership leading a charge in a war that’s already been lost. Assuming they’re serious and assuming they could get the budget to do whatever they wanted, the US military is probably at least twenty years too late to do any good in the South China Sea. We could bring manufacturing back to the US if we were willing to spend massive amounts of money on a long-term national industrial policy, but the US will not be regaining military dominance in the South China Sea or the East China Sea without a bloody and potentially civilization-ending war.

    Reply
    1. Lambert Strether

      You’d think after debacles in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria that a little modesty would be in order for our military. (Yes, I’m aware of the self-licking ice cream cone aspect of those wars, but that works because there’s no real penalty for losing, as we did. That’s not true with China.)

      Reply
      1. animalogic

        “that works because there’s no real penalty for losing, as we did. That’s not true with China.)”
        The “heads we win, tails you lose” kind of point is always worth raising re : the US. Few indeed US military/adminstration leaders suffered for the Iraq -Afghan failures (perhaps because it’s never admitted that Iraq etc have been massive failures).

        Reply
    2. Oregoncharles

      The fly in the Chinese ointment is nukes. There cannot be a war between nuclear powers, or the world ends, as Jonathan Schell argued decades ago. Apparently some have forgotten that. I’ve been assuming that the contention in the South China Sea was relatively harmless because of the apocalyptic consequences if it goes too far.

      Here I thought the US neocons were the only ones that reckless.

      The Chinese may think they could survive a nuclear war because of their vast population. But in fact their heartland is quite concentrated. A nuclear exchange, and they lose control of all the peripheries. Not that that would help us much.

      Reply
      1. Ptb

        Nah, you can have perfectly good wars by proxy. Mass destruction, body counts in the 6 figures, all the goodies. Picture what’s going on now in Venezuela, but in the Philippines or Indonesia. Iran, naturally. Afghanistan, naturally (though it has minimal value even as a pipeline route, but that didn’t stop anyone, and won’t). All your Azerbaijan’s and Turkmenistan’s and Tajikistan’s, naturally longing for a new healthier govt. Oh and Yemen, if the Chinese work up the courage to bite back. And if you’re going there, and feel the need to match the insane ambition of Bolton gunning for Teheran, then the only way to do so is Saudi Arabia itself – surely the last of the mid sized pieces.

        Then the main event, the big domino, will be the already simmering indo-pak conflict.

        Reply
  17. Susan the other`

    About Afghanistan: We staked out Afghanistan a decade ago. It is smack-dab in the middle of Eurasia. There is a report out today about ISIS and other “moderate rebels” (everything is qualified beyond definition) amassing along the northern Afghanistan border, ready to defend it. This certainly doesn’t sound like a religious civil war anymore. Was I dreaming, or did NATO give Hamid Karzai and Afghanistan an honorary membership about 10 years ago, complete with a supply of nuclear weapons? That says a lot. And never mentioned again. The Karzai brothers seem to have totally disappeared. So what is so important about Afghanistan? It’s a stronghold. We take the position (against both Russia and China) of “you stay on your side and we’ll stay on ours” and it looks like we are cutting access to the Caspian right across the middle. The only reason we can do this is because Iran, except for the Gulf, is landlocked. If they blockade the Gulf, they blockade themselves. I’d be willing to guess that there is no way we’ll ever let them build a pipeline to Lebanon. So it comes down to Russia on the north, we to the south. Notice how quickly Russia defended their 2 warm water ports – Syria and Crimea. And after all, if we are dividing up oil, Russia has the Arctic locked up. But Russia is too wise to trust us and hence the grab for Venezuela. Russia is protecting her interests there to make sure we understand the geopolitics involved. And we include China without objection.

    Reply
    1. Oregoncharles

      Take another look at the map. Iran has quite a long coastline on the Arab Sea, which is wide open to the Indian Ocean. They also have a geographic connection to the Central Asian states at the Caspian. The only reason Afghanistan is important is as an alternative to running a pipeline through Iran, a far more attractive option.

      Reply
      1. Ptb

        China can and does run rail, roads, and pipe thru Pakistan and Myanmar, connecting it to the Indian Ocean. Afghanistan does have a pipe route from China-Iran, and and possibly India-Iran, making it valuable for Iran. But there are numerous alternatives for China and India.

        In this particular game, Afghanistan is nearly worthless as a chess piece. There is a reason empires go there to die – they go the when they can’t think clearly any more and are simply doing it out of habit.

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        1. animalogic

          It in no way justifies the vile treatment Afghanistan has received from the US/NATO, nor I guess was it much of a motive, but I believe Afganistan has very considerable mineral resources, in the $100’s of billions.
          Sadly for Afghans, little of it will be mined in the absence of peace & stability.

          Reply
  18. Another Amateur Economist

    This is the logic of authoritarian/fascist thinking. Everybody is your inferior until they beat the crap out of you.

    Then they’re your master. And- You keep on looking for fights until you find somebody to beat the crap out of you.

    Every authoritarian is a slave, looking for a master.

    Reply

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