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Arms and the common man

In this photo provided by the US Navy, the Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group transits the Suez Canal on May 09, 2019.                     —Photo: Petty Officer 3rd Class Darion Chanelle Triplett/US Navy via AP In this photo provided by the US Navy, the Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group transits the Suez Canal on May 09, 2019.                    —Photo: Petty Officer 3rd Class Darion Chanelle Triplett/US Navy via AP

There is no romance in this conflict-ridden setting as there was in George Bernard Shaw's widely regarded 1894 play of a similar name - Arms and the Man (about fleeing troops from the just-ended Bulgaria-Serbia war of 1885), no "chocolate cream colored" Captain Bluntschli, no clash of classes, no happy ending. Today's arms race and the stubborn old-fashioned habit of clinging to power when the sinews keep melting is to forget the future rather than redesigning it. As part of the setting, nationalism helps us understand it (as always is the case during war): it sprouted across some parts of Europe in the late 19th century, before spreading across the world from the start of the 20th century, also against the same imperial villain. Today it seems to be the arms industry, to keep it profitable, test new technologies, and uphold a decaying world order. Interestingly, though it was US intervention through President Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points that allowed the genie of self-determination to come out of the imperial bottle then, today's US intervention seems to be driving aspiring democratic countries back into an authoritarian bottle.

Two deducible dimensions of that boil down to perhaps a single springboard: which political party is in power ultimately determines how safe, or democratic, the world will be. Such a correlationship not only spun viciously, but also predicted the biggest (non-nuclear) bang of them all. The first dimension to make that cycle spin is the arms industry, or as President Dwight David Eisenhower, a star-studded general who delivered World War II victory in Europe, dubbed it, the military-industrial complex (MIC). That was in his January 1961 Farewell Address, the dividing line between a highly protectionist and an inwardly-oriented Republican Party that, in the post-Cold War era, became the engine of history's most unnecessary and expensive wars. Ultimately this ratchets living costs upwardly throughout the world. On the flip-side, concerned more with consolidating and spreading worker welfare, the Democratic Party has since become the least malleable representation agency of the type the Republicans had been a century ago: it is not just that manufacturing workers do not dominate production today as they did through a large chunk of mid-20th century (owing to technological changes), but their spiralling welfare costs have helped both low-waged foreign production and off-shore US multinational relocation.

This opens up the second dimension, the foreign setting. The grave US mistake of anchoring Cold War containment upon dictators meant that, though the Cold War was rightfully, thankfully, and deservedly won by the United States, with its MIC might delivering the final blow in the 1980s (through "Star Wars" capabilities, even if only on paper), that dictatorship structure and mindset not only persisted but also snuffed away every attempted democratic drive. Pivotal US Cold War partners ranged from a series of military generals across South America (to ensure Fidel Castro's revolution would not spill over from Cuba), but also the generals in Turkey (NATO's most increasingly pivotal member after the United States), to a range of myopic Asian authoritarians (from the Shah of Iran to the gluttonous Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines). Few have connected the dots between how this military Cold War superstructure was propped up by cheap Saudi petroleum, in turn strengthening the embrace of two very unlike dynasties: the Saudi monarchy and the Texan oil-billionaire Bush family.

Fast-forwarding to today, we can read more into the US naval deployment against Iran, for allegedly violating the P5+1 nuclear agreement: it directly buttresses the growing external belligerency of the Saudi Crown Prince, Muhammad bin Salman, and the equally obnoxiously imperial designs of Benjamin Netanyahu's Israel. Both have made Iran their top enemy for entirely different priorities: Saudi Arabia out of the original Sunni-Shia divide, which it sees as a growing encircling threat, and Israel from local fears of Hezbollah, the threat it could not quench in the 1980s as it did the Palestinians from the 1960s. The fear of both, that Iran's nuclear weapons could hit and hurt them directly, became the mission of the United States to quell, as evident by President Donald J. Trump's maiden foreign visits were to these two countries. Then he ignored the Saudi Crown Prince for heinously murdering US journalist Adnan Khasoggi, and recognised Jerusalem (as well as unofficial Israeli Golan Heights claim) as that country's capital.

Trump was only continuing the harmonious Bush-Saudi relationship. President George H. W. Bush's most legitimate Operation Desert Storm from January 1991 against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait not only targeted Saudi Arabia, but also eliminated Iraq as a US partner against Iran (the 1980s Iran-Iraq war exposed how palsy-walsy US-Saudi relations were with Iraq). No one might connect how escalating oil prices became part and parcel of this relationship, but importing countries across the world paid the price through delayed economic growth, in turn, diminishing democratic fortunes.

George H. W. Bush's petulant son exposed the US bluff. The Bush Junior, President George W. Bush's initial reluctance to blame terrorism, particularly the 9/11 attacks, upon Muslims, stemmed partly from many of its perpetrators being Saudis. When he extended his terror-cleansing war against Taleban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan to Iraq, the lie lay on his lips. Saddam, "tried to kill my dad," he first quipped about the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, until his advisers, led by Vice President Dick Cheney (and others in the "Vulcan" Washington, DC, group), changed his vocabulary to Islamic terrorism.

Both domestic and international hidden forces lay behind all the above policies: the MIC legacy was to test new technologies and sustain employment in military industries (an unnecessary expense and effort in the post-Cold War democratic climate of the 1960s); and the rising oil prices containing the growth of "emerging" countries owing to their oil dependence. Just as Operation Desert Storm helped test cruise missiles MIC technocrats had produced during the Cold War, the Afghani War helped test drones, leaving us to hypothesise what new tests a war against Iran might facilitate or experiment. Given China's astronomical economic growth, its military counterpart cannot be far behind. Such has been this growth that US fear can no longer rely on MIC capabilities: Trump's tariffs upon unfairly priced Chinese exports may be exposing the United States running out of options to regain competitiveness.

Blockading Iran could become a stepping-stone to eventually intensifying the Chinese containment. It was tried with North Korea, again unnecessarily, produced the Kim-Trump sideshows, but ultimately fizzled. Then, as with the Iran blockade now, oil-prices rallied from the spiralling slump it was in even two years ago. As they escalate, the more they will hurt the growth-rate of a string of countries importing that oil, including, importantly, China. For once the United States does not have to worry about oil price-hikes, given its newly recovered self-sufficiency through shale production (another technologically-driven outcome related to security), but military costs might be the Rubicon the United States will have to cross, sooner or later. With China and Russia aligning up behind Iran, the United States might have to rely on an Iranian provocation in the Gulf of Persia to attack, as opposed to a direct assault. That should not be hard to foment. The world stands with baited breath, not because of a military exchange, but what its onset would do to the prices the common man pays the world over for basic necessities, from energy to food and finished manufactured goods.

With the genie now out of the bottle, no one knows what the future holds but conflict.

Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the Department of Global Studies & Governance

at Independent University, Bangladesh.



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