Some Things We Learned in 2009
America is beset by airport chaos after a 23-year-old Nigerian tried to bring down a Northwest-Delta flight to Detroit with an underwear explosive device (UED).
To update the good Doctor Johnson's bon mot about 18th-century maritime voyages, air travel will now offer all the joys of Supermax prisons, plus a chance to crash, or be marooned in Buffalo.
As of this writing, we don't know if the Detroit incident was a plot by a Yemen-based al-Qaida cell (much more about Yemen in my next column) or the act of an enraged individual helped by a Yemeni explosives-maker.
This thwarted attack was the latest in a series of violent incidents that have been staged by criminally misguided young Muslims protesting the western occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq. Attacks have occurred in the US, Spain, Canada, France, Britain, North Africa, Turkey, India and Indonesia. I was on London's Underground when it was bombed in 2005 by young British Muslims protesting Afghanistan.
More attacks may be expected as those wars grind on. Distressingly, many of these outrages were done by educated young men. In Britain, medical doctors were actually involved. Such is the anti-western fury among some Muslims, particularly in Pakistan.
CNN's Larry King asked me on his show last Saturday if there is any end in sight to terrorist attacks against American targets. My politically incorrect response: with the US so deeply involved in the affairs of the Third World, we have to expect more attacks.
It may have been no coincidence that US air strikes had killed a reported 50 or more Yemeni tribesmen just before the Detroit incident. Yemen, in my view, is the Afghanistan of Arabia.
US military forces are currently engaged in combat operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, West Africa, the Philippines and, likely, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Blowback is inevitable.
In 1991, I was aboard a Lufthansa airliner bound from Frankfurt to Cairo. A young Ethiopian smuggled aboard a pistol and hijacked us on a long ordeal — first to north Germany, then to New York City. He planned to crash the Airbus A310 jumbo into Wall Street. Fortunately, the FBI talked him down and he surrendered. Unfortunately, the lesson that a hijacked airliner would make an excellent guided missile was quickly forgotten — until 9/11.
The hijacker got his gun through very tight German security by secreting it under his hat. Security agents who were checking us with metal-detecting wands forgot to pass one over his head. Airport security cannot be airtight, particularly at rush periods, unless we adopt Israeli-style security which is highly effective but hugely time-consuming. I don't think North American air travel could handle such onerous security.
Our lesson from this latest scare: if we can afford to spend $200 billion per annum alone in Iraq and Afghanistan, we should be able to afford two air marshals on larger passenger jets. Pat downs will become mandatory.
More and more people will decide to drive, or avoid travel altogether. Bad news for the suffering airline industry.
Having said all this, we must remember than Osama bin Laden has been trying to give America a national nervous breakdown. We should not overreact and certainly not panic. Personally, I am more worried about germs and viruses aboard commercial aircraft than bombs.
The global recession that began in America in 2008 was triggered by run amok speculation, failure of government supervision, and massive fraud by accounting and credit-rating agencies. The global banking system came within hours of total collapse.
America's and Britain's economies were artificially juiced up and distorted by the narcotic of cheap, easy credit. Both are now experiencing painful withdrawal from credit addiction. It's an ugly sight. Their leaders still call for more massive debt to supposedly cure the disaster caused by too much debt. Interestingly, Canada's "stuffy, boring" banking system turned out to be the industrial world's most solid.
The financial fraud and reckless gambling that ignited the worst recession since the 1930's began under the Clinton administration, then ran rampant during George W. Bush's two terms. Federal regulators, media, Congress and three presidents were suborned by Wall Street. Finance became America's leading industry. Parasitism replaced production.
Millions are out of work. America is crushed by trillions in debt. US global power has taken a staggering beating. Yet the perpetrators of this biggest crime in modern US history and the politicians that allowed it to occur remain unpunished. Wall Street churns obscene, government-financed profits while small investors lost billions. Taxpayer money went to rescue Wall Street nabobs ordering $350 bottles of wine while people on main street America could not pay their medical bills.
The big money houses should have been broken up by federal trust busters. Instead, the surviving big banks now control 40% of all deposits in America.
President Barack Obama does not walk on water. To worldwide disappointment, his foreign policy is floundering. Obama's promise to solve the Mideast mess, America's largest overseas headache, was scorned by Israel, which refused to stop colonizing Palestinian land. Israel made Obama look like a weakling and amateur who is clearly not in command of US Mideast policy.
Those who hoped the US would change course under Obama to play a positive, cooperative, non-imperial role in world affairs were profoundly dismayed.
We see continued occupation of Iraq, the expanded, trillion-dollar war in Afghanistan, military operations in Africa and now Yemen. The White House stonewalling on releasing torture documents, failure to prosecute the Bush era's torturers and kidnappers, refusal to end domestic surveillance and continued violations of the Geneva Convention.
Almost nothing has been done to end the idiotic blockade of Cuba, which infuriated Latin Americans. We trade with Communist Vietnam but not Communist Cuba.
Military spending has risen from US $667 billion under Bush to $734 billion under Nobel Peace Prize laureate Obama. Add an astounding $49.8 billion more for intelligence.
The US is bankrupt and living on credit from China. But Washington's national security juggernaut keeps rolling on, finding new enemies around every sand dune.
Pakistan is fast becoming a huge, very dangerous problem. The isolated, corrupt, US-backed government in Islamabad is crumbling. The Afghan war is fast spreading into Pakistan's Pashtun tribal zones.
The Pentagon can't wage war in Afghanistan without total Pakistani cooperation. But 95% of Pakistanis oppose the US-led war. Their nation of 168 million seems about to erupt into truly dangerous chaos while India gets ever more deeply involved in Afghanistan.
Washington's $15 billion effort to buy its way out of trouble in Pakistan won't work. Obama has truly stuck is head in the proverbial hornet's nest. He could have withdrawn it, but chose, instead, to go deeper. The president has only himself and his neocon advisors to blame.
What he and we should have learned is that waging wars without clear strategic or political purpose in the middle of nowhere is a fool's errand, and a very dangerous, expensive one. Afghanistan, graveyard of empires, may also become the graveyard of Obama's presidency.
December 30, 2009
Eric Margolis [send him mail] is contributing foreign editor for Sun National Media Canada. He is the author of War at the Top of the World and the new book, American Raj: Liberation or Domination?: Resolving the Conflict Between the West and the Muslim World. See his website.
Copyright © 2009 Eric Margolis