In the Twilight of Empires

Last week’s post on the logic of nuclear deterrence in an age of decline got what was, all things considered, a much less irrational response than discussions of nuclear war generally field.  I’m not sure whether or not that counts as evidence for my theory that we’ve all somehow slipped into an alternate reality, the kind of eerie parallel universe where right-wing shock jocks quote archdruids approvingly and delusional claims about limitless shale oil get critiqued in the media.  Still, it’s emboldened me to go on to the second of the hot button topics I have in mind—perhaps the hottest of hot button topics these days, in fact, one that routinely attracts top-of-the-lungs bellowing from both ends of a hopelessly polarized debate.

Yes, it’s time to talk about Israel.

By this I don’t mean that we need to go through yet another round of who-did-what-to-whom rhetoric in the shrill tones of moral absolutism that pervade the subject these days. There’s a point to discussing ethical issues surrounding the origins, conduct, and future of the nation-state of Israel, to be sure, but that discussion is already happening elsewhere, or more precisely would be happening if most of the potential participants weren’t too busy shouting past each other.  What gets misplaced in all the noise, though, is that this is not the only discussion worth having.

In particular, the central theme of this series of posts—the decline and fall of America’s global empire—has aspects that are easiest to see from the perspective of one of America’s more vulnerable client states.  Those aspects are not particularly moral in nature, and the stridently self-righteous arguments that fill most current discussions of Israel’s fate have nothing to contribute here.  For the moment, then, I’d like to set aside squabbles about whether the nation-state of Israel as currently constituted should survive, and ask instead whether, in the post-American world of the not too distant future, it can survive. That’s a much simpler question, and the answer is equally simple:  no.

To explain that answer, I’d like to tell a story.  Once upon a time—isn’t that how stories are supposed to begin?—there was a group of people who believed that their god had promised them a particular corner of the Middle East, and decided to take him up on the offer. It so happened that conditions just then were propitious for their project.  The cultural politics of the major Western powers of the time favored it, and not merely in an abstract sense:  money and weapons could be had for the attempt, and a great deal more could be made available if the project succeeded in establishing a foothold.

Even more crucial was the state of the Middle East at that time.  The history of that region has a regular rhythm of systole and diastole that can be traced back very nearly to the earliest clay-tablet records: periods of centralization, in which a single major Middle Eastern power dominates as large a fraction of the world as the current transport technology will allow, alternate with periods of disintegration, in which the region fragments and turns into a chessboard on which powers from outside the region play their own power games.  At the time we’re discussing, the Middle East was in one of its diastole phases, fractured into small quarrelling states, and the sudden seizure of a strategically important part of the region drew only a local and ineffective response.

So a new state came into being, surrounded by hostile neighbors, and a great deal of the shrill self-justifying rhetoric already described came from both sides of the new frontiers. Several of the major Western powers supported the new state with significant financial and military aid; of at least equal importance, members of the religious community responsible for creating the new state, who remained back in those same Western nations, engaged in vigorous fundraising efforts to support the new state, and equally vigorous political efforts to get existing governmental support maintained or increased. The resources thus made available to the new state gave it a substantial military edge against its hostile neighbors, and its existence became enough of a fait accompli that some of its neighbors backed away from a wholly confrontational stance.

Still, the state’s survival depended on three things.  The first, and by far the most crucial, was the ongoing flow of support from the Western powers to pay for a military establishment far larger than the economic and natural resources of the territory in question would permit.  The second was the continued fragmentation and relative weakness of the surrounding states.  The third was the maintenance of internal peace within the state and of collective assent to a clear sense of priorities, so that it could respond with its full force to threats from outside instead of squandering its limited resources on civil strife or popular projects that contributed nothing to its survival.

In the long run, none of these three conditions could be met indefinitely.  Shifts in cultural politics and, more importantly, in the economic stability of the Western powers of the time turned the large subsidies supporting the state into a political liability that eventually lost out in the struggle for available wealth. Meanwhile, in the Middle East, the power struggles between competing statelets began to give way to a new era of centralization.  Finally, the internal cohesion of the state broke down in power struggles between different factions, and too many resources had been committed to politically necessary but practically useless projects such as the support of large religious communities that did nothing but pray and study the scriptures.  The arrogant certainty that the state could always overcome its enemies and that the Western powers owed it the subsidies that paid for its survival put bitter icing on an already overbaked cake, and all but guaranteed the final disaster.

And that, dear reader, was why the Crusader kingdom of Jerusalem fell to the armies of Saladin in  1187, and why the last scraps of the kingdoms of Outremer, as the Crusaders called the land now known as Israel, were mopped up by Muslim armies over the century that followed.

Now I’m quite aware that comparing the current state of Israel to the Crusader states of Outremer is waving a red flag at some already overexcited bulls.  Any of my readers who are ready to leap up and insist that Israel either can or can’t be compared to the Crusaders on moral grounds are encouraged to stop, and remember that that’s not what we’re talking about. The relative moral standing of Crusaders and Israelis is irrelevant to the issues this post is trying to discuss; what’s relevant is that, in the purely pragmatic realms of politics and war, there are a great many parallels between the two examples.

To begin with, Israel, as Outremer did in its time, depends for its survival on very large subsidies from the major Western powers.  In the case of Israel, those mostly come from the United States.  The US government spends many billions of dollars a year on direct and indirect aid to Israel, while America’s large and relatively wealthy Jewish community—which comprises the largest number of Jews in any single nation on Earth—engages in a great deal of fundraising for Israel on its own behalf.  Many synagogues and other Jewish community instititions in America serve just as effectively to channel resources to Israel as, say, the European properties and chapter houses of the Knights Templar and Knights Hospitaller did to keep wealth and weapons flowing to the kingdoms of Outremer.  Without that aid, governmental and private, the large and well-equipped Israeli military would be far too great a burden on the economy of what is, after all, a very small and resource-poor country, and the balance of power in the region would shift dramatically to Israel’s disadvantage.

Equally, the continued fragmentation of the Middle East is a crucial factor in Israel’s survival. The last two centuries or so have seen the long rhythm of Middle Eastern history enter a diastole period, splintering the once-powerful Ottoman Empire into more than two dozen small, quarrelsome, and vulnerable nations that were generally unable to counter incursions from Europe and America. To a real extent, the current condition of the Middle East is one of waiting for the next Saladin, with Iran, Turkey, or a future Islamic Republic of Arabia likely contenders for the center around which the next Middle Eastern superstate will coalesce. Of course it’s a core principle of Israeli diplomacy and military strategy to prevent the emergence of a single center of power capable of  mobilizing any large fraction of the resources of the Arab world; still, it bears remembering that this was an equally central principle of the strategy of Outremer, and the Crusaders’ efforts in this direction eventually failed.

I don’t propose to pass judgment on the current state of Israeli politics and culture, even to the extent of deciding whether current trends toward political factionalism and the support of Orthodox communities at state expense do or don’t mirror the vicious political infighting of the Kingdom of Jerusalem’s final decades and the economic burden of Christian monasteries and nunneries that played so large a role in weakening Outremer. The crucial point just now, it seems to me, is Israel’s dependence on a constant inflow of funds from the United States.  If that goes away, the military balance of power shifts irrevocably, and so does the Israeli government’s capacity to afford the unproductive but politically necessary payoffs that maintain such social cohesion as there is; these shifts, in turn, promise an outcome as unwelcome to Israel, at least as currently constituted, as the equivalent was to Outremer.

One of the central consequences of the trajectory of imperial decline we’ve been discussing over the course of the past year, in turn, is that the capacity of the United States government to afford lavish subsidies to client states overseas, as well as the capacity of any significant group of American citizens to carry out large-scale fundraising projects on their own, will not last indefinitely.  The United States has the ample wealth that allows it to support Israel because of the imperial wealth pump, that is to say, the systematic patterns of unbalanced exchange that funnel an oversized share of the world’s wealth into American hands.  As those patterns break down—and they are breaking down already—the subsidies that keep the Israeli economy afloat and make its current rate of military expenditure possible  will inevitably slow to a trickle and then stop.

 When that happens, Israel will find itself backed into a corner with no readily available means of escape. Finding another nation willing to take over the American role as sugar daddy is easier said than done; much of the support Israel gets from the US comes out of the fact that the American Jewish community is one of the better organized veto groups in American politics just now, with the votes and funding to swing a close election, while none of the rising powers likely to take over America’s role in the world has either a large enough Jewish minority or a political system sufficiently gridlocked to allow the same sort of pressure to be applied.  Given a choice between funding Israel and placating the petroleum-rich nations and ample export markets of the Arab world, it’s not hard to see where, for example, China’s obvious interest lies.

Lacking outside support, in turn, Israel faces a future in which it can no longer dominate its region and may not be able to ward off military threats.  Its military depends, like most modern militaries, on large and reliable inputs of petroleum products, and petroleum is one of the many resources that Israel lacks; its ability to import as much gasoline, diesel fuel, jet fuel, and so on as it needs depends, like so much else, on the subsidies it gets from the United States.  The ability to field a large and technically advanced military machine also depends on those direct and indirect subsidies.  Lacking them, Israel’s military potential is not much greater than, say, Lebanon’s or Jordan’s—not enough, in other words, to sustain anything like its current dominance.  Its nuclear arsenal gives it a temporary edge, but one that will last only until a rival power in the region equips itself with its own stockpile of warheads and delivery systems.

It’s probably necessary at this point to put paid to one of the widely repeated fantasies of our time, the notion that Israel might set out to guarantee its survival by threatening the rest of the world with nuclear war, or might simply start flinging warheads around in the event of its imminent demise. That’s one of those theories that seems to make sense as long as no one asks what happens next. The downside to any such action on Israel’s part, of course, is that the nations threatened or attacked would be able to respond with far more compelling threats and far more devastating reprisals.

To begin with, Israel is a very small country.  Any nation with a significant nuclear arsenal could turn the whole of it into incandescent ash, along with its entire population, and still have bombs left over.  The threat to wreck a city or two has very little clout when the cost of following through on that threat could quite easily amount to immediate national annihilation.

Furthermore, many of the nations that might plausibly be threatened with a bomb or two can respond at least as effectively by means of conventional warfare. Let’s imagine, for example, that Israel were to threaten Russia, among other countries, with nuclear bombs—we’ll assume, borrowing one of the common tropes, that the bombs in question have been smuggled into Saint Petersburg and Moscow—unless something is done to stop an otherwise unstoppable Arab advance.  Anyone who thinks Russia would respond in a manner favorable to Israel knows nothing of Russian culture or history, but then that’s a common mistake on this side of the Atlantic.

We’ll assume, for the moment, that for some reason the Russian government decides not to inform the Israelis calmly that thirty minutes after either bomb goes off, a MIRV-tipped missile or two will return the favor to Tel Aviv with several hundred kilotons of interest.  The obvious alternative is to inform the Israelis with equal sang-froid that if either bomb goes off, Russia will declare war on Israel, and twenty or thirty Russian divisions with air support and all the other desiderata of modern warfare will join the Arab forces assaulting Israel. We don’t even need to talk about what additional threats the Russian government might quietly make concerning, for example, Russia’s remaining Jewish population. The same logic applies to other countries facing some comparable threat, since the only nation that would face assured destruction in a nuclear exchange with Israel, after all, is Israel.

The existence of Israel’s nuclear arsenal, mind you, makes it unlikely that the sort of final Arab assault beloved of American fundamentalist apocalypse-mongers will happen at any point in the near to middle future. A far more likely scenario, as America’s empire enters its twilight, would see economic and political crisis in Israel spiraling out of control as moderate and extremist factions scramble for control of a dwindling stock of wealth and resources, and everyone who has the resources and common sense to flee the country gets out.  How the endgame would play out is anyone’s guess at this point, and it’s not impossible that a few mushroom clouds may have a part in it one way or another. As I mentioned in last week’s post, the next few decades may well see a few nuclear weapons being used, and it’s exactly in situations like Israel’s that this seems most likely.

The western shores of the Pacific Ocean include another flashpoint of the same kind.  Taiwan is another American client state that has everything to lose as America’s global empire goes down, and it’s also a likely focus of the old and bitter geopolitical rivalry between China and Japan. It’s a core requirement of Chinese policy to regain control of Taiwan in order to secure the Chinese coast against any hostile power; Ir’s an equally core requirement of Japanese policy to keep China from regaining control of Taiwan, in order to secure the sea lanes that carry Japan’s fuel and food supplies against Chinese interdiction. It’s hard to think of a more perfect zero-sum game in the post-American world.  Japan’s position is by far the weaker, and it will face the difficult choice between submitting to Chinese suzerainty, and going to war as it did in 1941 against a rising superpower with vastly greater resources. Either way, it’s not going to be pretty.

That’s the sort of thing that happens routinely in the twilight of empires, when client states that have staked everything on support from an imperial patron find themselves twisting in the wind. In empires that expand by annexing territory, it’s the frontier provinces that get clobbered first and hardest when decline sets in; in empires that prefer to expand by building a network of client states, it’s the client states closest to major hostile powers that generally pay the heaviest price when the empire falters. Israel is wedged tightly into such a position; and its fate will be the result of the hard realities of history, not of any set of ethical considerations—nor, it probably has to be said, of which side in the current debates claims the moral high ground most loudly.

End of the World of the Week #49

What could be more colorful than a rogue planet crashing into the Earth, or at least sweeping by close enough to send the poles topsy-turvy and wipe out most of humanity?  Whether or not that’s what motivated New Age writer and self-proclaimed extraterrestrial abductee Nancy Lieder to announce, in 1995,  the imminent and Earth-wrecking arrival of the planet Nibiru, her proclamation quickly became a cause célèbre in New Age circles. The name of the planet came from the ancient-astronaut theories of Zechariah Sitchin, who got it from ancient Babylonian astrology texts via his own dubious translations, but Sitchin’s notions were quickly swallowed up by the apocalypse meme once Lieder got hold of it—or, as she described the situation, was warned of it by the little gray aliens from Zeta Reticuli who talk to her via a mysterious implant in her brain.

Lieder’s original prediction was that Nibiru would come zooming past Earth on May 27, 2003, causing the Earth to stop rotating for 5.9 days and then undergo a pole shift. When that didn’t happen, she stopped giving specific dates, but still insists that Nibiru’s arrival will happen very, very soon. Fortunately for connoisseurs of absurdity, others are not so squeamish, and this June, the Weekly World News loudly announced that Nibiru’s long-awaited collision with the Earth would take place on November 21, 2012.

Yes, that’s today. So, dear reader, if you’re sitting at your computer reading this, and haven’t been scattered into interplanetary dust by a vagrant planet, the long list of failed apocalyptic predictions has just gained another entry...

—for more failed end time prophecies, see my book Apocalypse Not