Forecasts – Why wait? Read tomorrow’s news … today! (part I)

Summary:  Part one of a four part series.  Here is part two, part three, and part four.

  1. Expect more successful Al-Qa’ida operations, of increasing sophistication
  2. Rise of the Petro-Empires!

Forecast #1: Expect more successful Al-Qa’ida operations, of increasing sophistication

It’s easy to scorn Al-Qa’ida as bit players on the global stage, inflated by western Governments for their own purposes. Note al-Qa’ida’s resemblance to standard Hollywood villains: the rich mad genius and his secret global organization of faceless bad guys.  In this view the news of foiled plots and numerous arrests represent a victory over this threat, however serious or minor it might have been.

There is another possibility.  The label “al-Qa’ida” may refer to the entire global Islamic Fundamentalist insurgency, of which al Qaeda is just the current flagship. Exactly what they seek is disputed. Perhaps there is no answer yet, even to be found among it adherents.

Here I’ll assume the broadest possible definition, that its members are Islamic Fundamentalists in revolt against the western ideologies that dominate most modern societies, and threaten to render extinct all competing ways of life. Capitalism. Democracy. Individualism. Moral relativism. Feminism.

This will prove difficult for our elites to contain.  Our secular elites have grown accustomed to their domesticated Christians. Tax money can be spent on an exhibit titled “Piss Christ” and they’ll laugh as infuriated Christians write futile letters to the their congresscritters.  Perhaps a mild demonstration, which if not ignored by the mainstream media, will be characterized as attempt by ignorant boors to censor Art.

Muslims have learned that western elites respect only force (an odd parallel to what we’re told about the people in Iraq).  They riot about some offensive cartoons; get apologies and censorship to prevent additional indignities.  Bombs in Spain; Spanish troops withdrawn from Iraq.  Bombs in the UK; increased Government efforts to appease “safe” radical groups and ignore moderate (hence “inauthentic”) moderate Muslim groups. 

Can they win?

Victory of insurgents, cultural or political, depends on many factors, but two of the most important are:

  • The strength of the personal fires that animate it, and
  • The amount of its fuel – the base population from which it recruits.

If the  too weak, the security services grind the insurgency down – decapitating its leadership and reducing its numbers.  The late 19th century anarchist movement died out, perhaps as its nihilistic nature – offering no realistic vision of society – appealed only to wackos – a base too small for sustained action.

On the other hand, a different dynamic emerges if its appeal and base are sufficiently large.  The early 20th century communist movement proved more appealing, with its roots in humanity’s utopian aspirations for liberty, equality, and fraternity. Despite its attractive theology, it lost to the capitalist-democratic competitor. Communism was unable to meet the material aspirations of its people. Perhaps worse, its communitarian aspects proved spiritually stifling. For example, the predominant share of the 20th century’s finest art came from capitalist-democratic societies, whose emphasis on individual freedom outweighed their roots in bourgeois materialism.

How do successful insurgencies differ from the above examples? The ones that “liberated” so many western colonies were driven by the powerful force of anti-colonialism (faux-nationalism), providing an enemy understood by most of their local population – all classes and ethnicities. This brought into play a Darwinian “ratchet”, in which the security forces power the insurgency.

The Darwinian Rachet

The security services cull the pack of insurgents. They eliminate the slow and stupid, clearing space for the “best” to rise in authority. That is, those most able to survive, recruit, and train new ranks of more effective insurgents. The more severe our efforts at exterminating the insurrection, the more ruthless the survivors.

Hence the familiar activity pattern of a rising sine wave, seen in Palestine, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Iraq, and a dozen other places: successes by the security forces, a pause in activity, followed by another wave of activity – but bigger and more effective.  For more about the “ratchet” on this see Another “must-read” presentation by Kilcullen about COIN.

Our expedition to Iraq

This was the basis of my November 2003 forecast that the Iraq insurgency would prosper despite the worst we could do to them. Our wealth, our technology, our overwhelming military forces, and our sophisticated interrogation techniques – all these would only force the insurgency to more rapidly evolve.

We fueled the insurgency, providing both its casus belli and the incentive to constantly improve. In just three years they’ve developed a new mode of war consisting almost entirely of standoff weapons (i.e., mortars, IEDs, suicide bombers) to an extent not seen since the extinction of the Mongol horsemen.

Our expedition to Iraq lies in ruins, with our only hope for a benign defeat being the development of a largely Islamic fundamentalist Government with close ties to one of our greatest enemies (Iran) – and sufficiently strong to crush the insurgency. The insurgents have ended our dreams of a feminist, secular, capitalist, democratic ally in the Middle East.

The same dynamic is at work for al-Qa’ida. The efforts of western Governments to crush it early is only radicalizing more recruits and sifting out the chaff from the grain in its membership. Result: an acceleration in its growth and skill.

There is an alternative course of treatment for this “infection” in western nations.

Let’s reverse our Governments’ policies from multiculturalism to encouragement of assimilation. Our most effective weapon is not our Gestapo-lite security forces, in their dark suits and sunglasses — menaces equally to the insurgents and our freedoms. It’s our culture, which gives individuals access to freedom, money, and sex. Especially intermarriage, which removes women from the stifling control of their parents and opens their children to a new range of choices.

That we’ll push to extinction their way of life is perhaps the fundamentalists’ greatest fear. Unfortunately, to survive we might have to make it so.

Forecast #2: Rise of the Petro-Empires!

The rise of OPEC in the 1970’s oil shocks was only a dress rehearsal for the current cycle. It does not matter if global oil production peaks today or, as the optimists believe, in 2020 – we’ve moved from the age of oil surplus to the age of oil scarcity.

In the first cycle, vast oilfields were discovered long before there was any need for their production. Oil producers struggled to prevent overproduction and collapsing oil prices. Cartels were necessary to allocate production. First the Rockefellers filled this role, then the Texas Railroad Commission, then OPEC.

In the age of scarcity those with oil produce as much as they like; oil prices rise and fall accordingly. Canada eagerly mines bitumen (misleadingly called “oil sands”), turning Alberta into a wasteland (although they promise to restore it when they’re done). The Saudi princes and Russian Government weigh the benefits of excess production – what to do with all that extra cash? – versus keeping the oil in the ground for future generations (aka “political peaking” of oil production).

No matter what they decide, this cycle will see a massive transfer of political power and wealth from oil consumers to oil producers. Watch Russia and Iran, likely candidates for the first Petro-Empires to emerge. We can only guess at their goals. Perhaps they themselves do not yet know.

Let’s remember these words when examining these proto-empires:

People, Ideas, and Hardware. “In that order!” 
the late Col John R. Boyd, USAF, would thunder at his audiences.

Russia

1.  Materials: great mineral wealth, especially in oil and natural gas

2.  Ideas: Putin is perhaps creating a 21st century form of popular despotism

3.  People: The Czars’ realm and the Soviet Union were flawed multicultural Empires. Their people’s aspirations to great power status remain, and now mineral wealth gives them another opportunity.

The first great lesson from Russia’s rise from its 1998 lows: people relying on the mainstream western media (i.e. The Economist, the New York Times) need new information sources stat (for those of you who do not watch American TV, “stat” is a medical term from the Latin statim, meaning immediately). Only after years of denouncing Putin as evil and forecasting doom for Russia have they realized that Putin is rebuilding Russia into a great power – although on non-western lines and with the aid of a long-term rise in oil prices.

To date Russia has paid off its debts, made the rouble convertible for the first time since the czars, and begun to reclaim its traditional sphere of influence.

What’s next? Expect from Russia great and bold things that challenge America’s hegemony.

Iran

1.  Materials: great wealth in oil and natural gas

2.  Ideas: Islamic Fundamentalism

3.  People: After 100 generations of rest, perhaps they will again become a great power.

Will someone harness the vast oil wealth and seething popular energies of the Middle East? As we have eliminated the only secular contender among the potential regional hegemons, Iran becomes the most likely candidate to do so.

Many steps remain before they grasp that laurel wreath.

Iran needs nukes, the prerequisite to great power status. So far they have played that game well, dividing the great powers and seizing every opportunity to slow our efforts to build an alliance against them. Of course, these diplomatic games are inherently futile. What could we possibly offer Iran in exchange for nukes? How many nations will risk a global depression by supporting a US military strike at Iran?

Many options beckon once they have nukes. Support uprisings by the oppressed Shiite minorities in the Middle East? Seek to become the leader of an ecumenical alliance of Islamic states?

All we can say with confidence is to expect from Iran great and bold things that challenge America’s hegemony.

Afternotes

Please share your comments by posting below (brief and relevant, please), or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

For more about these things, see my archive on Military and strategic theory.

12 thoughts on “Forecasts – Why wait? Read tomorrow’s news … today! (part I)

  1. Dear Maximus

    Thank you for an interesting post. It will be difficult to cover everything: Regarding Al Qaeda I think you make a mistake by connecting it to for example the Iraqi insurgency. There is actually very little connection despite the attempts of both OBL and George Bush to make the connection. Zarqawi was the connection and he has been dead for two years, the Al Qaeda in Anbar has been destroyed. There are many Islamic groups and organisations in the world, but they are mostly preoccupied with their own struggles. If Nasrallah should choose between political gains in the Lebanese power play and the glory of participating in blowing up a building in America I am confident about his choice. The groups cooperate, but only as long as they consider it beneficial.

    The “true” Al Qaeda might be very small – perhaps less than a few hundred men – living in Afghanistan and constantly on the run. If 4GW-theorists were right they would be able to mount devastating attacks around the world, but everything we have seen sine the bombs in London in 2005 has been a sorry excuse for a terrorist attack. Perhaps this will be considered George Bush’s greatest success. He didn’t destroy OBL and Al Qaeda, but he destroyed their capabilities.

    My impression is also that Al Qaeda lost the support of the Moslems. Everybody is agains the Americans and their presence in the Middle East. But this is not the same as support for terrorism against innocents. Unlike what people might think Arabs are not babarians. Most of them are actually decent persons and surprisingly polite. Please remember: What exactly can Al Qaeda offer? Violence and killing. No much more. That might appeal to a guy like Zarqawi, but most people want something positive. Something to believe in. They are more likely to support a national or local movement like Hezbollah that offers everything from social support and hospital access and act in defence of Shiite rights.

    I might be wrong, but I think Al Qaeda has lost. It has nothing to offer and its leaders are on the run. If it survives it will because a new leadership arise with the ability to articulate a positive vision for the Moslems around the world. Not one of destruction and death and a vague promise of a caliphate. That would take a George Washington and not a OBL.

    Regarding our viewpoints about the rise of petro-powers: I fully agree, so no comments.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: This was written in July 2006. Events since then have run as I expected when I wrote “It’s easy to scorn Al-Qa’ida as bit players on the global stage, inflated by western Governments for their own purposes.”

    But if we consider al-Qaeda as an intellectual movement, its progress runs over a larger time-scale. How many times during the 19th century did the West believe communism was destroyed, only to see it again rise from its ashes?

    We have destroyed its first incarnation. But the “Darwinian ratchet” suggests that if it rises again, it will do so in an even more powerful form.

    Thanks for these comments! I see these things more clearly after responding to thoughtful critiques like yours.

  2. Fabius, I’m going to say the opposite of Robert Petersen. I fully agree with your comments on terrorism and have been arguing that we should view terrorism as a police problem rather than a military problem.

    I’ve got three disagreements with you are on the petro-empires.

    1. Both Russia and Iran have decaying infrastructures and both have been very reluctant to spend money on maintenance and expansion because both coutries are already using every dime for other purposes. Besides, at the moment, slowly falling production is an advantage but restoring production takes time and money. Failure to plan ahead can mean much pain for the petro-empires in the future.

    2. While petroleum is undoubtedly the current fuel de jour, raising the price too high will cause massive research into alternative fuels. It is unlikely that we will find a single replacement for petroleum in the near future but it is very likely that we will find whole bunch of little replacements such as wind, solar, kerosene, etc. that could seriously dent our future consumption and restore balance more in our favor.

    3. Russia and Iran don’t like each other much and are likely to compete rather than cooperate.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Excellent! These posts explore the limits of what we know, even what we can guess. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis…

    1. I agree. Oil wealth risks the natural resource curse: deindustrialization, corruption, civil war, etc. Due to their size, history, and (for Iran) young population, Iran and Russia may avoid this. But they can blow the opportunity.

    2. I agree, but believe we have entered peak oil (probably political peaking now, geological peaking in the next decade). No amount of alternative energy — except for massive breakthrough, like this — will send prices down in the next generation.

    3. I agree. I said they could be powerful — not that they would be friends.

  3. Fabius:
    No amount of alternative energy — except for massive breakthrough, like this — will send prices down in the next generation.

    I basically agree with your premise but note that there have been quite a few surprising developments in the alternative energy market that offer at least the appearance of an opportunity to some of the pain of peak oil prices.

    Your picture of Mr. Fusion from “Back to the Future” reminded me of my current favorite alternative energy source, here’s a link that starts to describe it: “FUSION QUEST GOES FORWARD“, MSNBC (12 June 2008).
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    Fabius Maximus replies: I agree. The Polywell has been discussed here seveal times, esp in “Fusion energy, too risky a bet for America (we prefer to rely on war)“. This was the basis of my forecast that prices will not fall during the next generation.” The process from lab bench to large-scale rollout takes at least one — probably two — generations.

  4. What can we do to encourage assimilation?
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Why not the standard tools, such as we did in the early 20th century — which worked so well?

  5. “What can we do to encourage assimilation?”

    This will seem flippant but… When ATM’s don’t ask you to chose between Spanish and English is a sign of encouraging assimilation. The sad fact is that too many mistake the idea of assimilation for xenophobia.

  6. “This will prove difficult for our elites to contain.  Our secular elites have grown accustomed to their domesticated Christians. Tax money can be spent on an exhibit titled “Piss Christ” and they’ll laugh as infuriated Christians write futile letters to the their congresscritters.”

    Fabius, you encourage every American to vote, even Christians. However, the above passage seems to suggest that you realize that there’s no way to vote the anti-Christians out of office.

    Do you or do you not claim that voting can force a change in the anti-Christian congresscritter attitude?
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    Fabius Maximus replies: These things are difficult to assess, but I believe our professional poltical class does an OK job of representing popular opinion. On things of great interest to our poltical and economic elites (e.g., defnese policy, open borders), popular opinion must defer to the votes cast by dollars. But intellectual opinion in western culture has been anti-christian for centuries, and with great effect.

    It will be interesting to see our elites — worshipers of nothing but money and themselves — adapt to a strong community of true believers (Islam), some of whom are willing to use force to defent their faith from insult. I suspect that those without faith will, as so often in history, will defer to those with faith. Numbers mean nothing in such conflicts.

  7. Flippant? No, not at all. Language might be the most important element. I don’t think that you and i, or our government, have much influence over the language of an ATM machine.

  8. “Zarqawi was the connection and he has been dead for two years, the Al Qaeda in Anbar has been destroyed.”

    “Perhaps this will be considered George Bush’s greatest success. He didn’t destroy OBL and Al Qaeda, but he destroyed their capabilities.”

    Ahh yes, GWB & “Mission Accomplished” yet again, 5 years later, now let’s bring the kids home, and have a big ticker tape parade in NYC right after. Now go fill up your gas tank.

    US wars have helped al-Qa’eda, says report“, The Telegraph (26 June 2008) — “American military intervention in Muslim countries has bred a generation of “angry young men” vulnerable to al-Qa’eda recruitment, a report from a leading security analysis group has said.”

  9. “I might be wrong, but I think Al Qaeda has lost.”

    BEFORE we throw a victory celibration, and enshrine the GB Jr. Legacy with a monument, and another face on Rushmore, we just might be well advised to read this brilliant, and definative critical analysis peice.

    Special Report from the Battlefields: Who’s Actually Winning in Iraq?“, PATRICK COCKBURN, Counterpunch (26 June 2008)
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    Fabius Maximus replies: I agree that it is too soon to declare al Qaeda defeated.

    For what is al Qaeda? The media discuss it as though it were IBM, with a set structure and hierarchy. This seems unlikely. Perhaps it is more like the operational structure of a movement, like the late 19th century Communist organizations. In which case to determine progress we must examine the spread of the idea, not the specific organizations.

    I discuss there in greater length here.

  10. “The media discuss it as though it were IBM, with a set structure and hierarchy.”

    Agreed, and quite brilliantly covered in your peice.

    All that underscores the limits of thier shallow perception, (popular press) and imagination. Most of the TV News pepole I work with have never even heard of 4GW. William Lind laments this in his latest peice on the DNI site, “On War #264: The Yellow Press.” I feel sadness and sympathy for Lind, in his lonely crusades.

    And sure enough, timed perfectly to underscore this discussion, yet another “top Al Quida offical” has been dispensed with: “U.S.: Iraq’s top al-Qaeda figure killed“, Ap (26 June 2008)

    How many is that by now, like 30 ?! It’s becoming a mockery and cliche along with the next 3 months being “critical.”
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    Fabius Maximus replies: It is our strategy. As VP Cheney said:

    “We have not gotten Osama bin Laden, obviously, because he’s very careful and, say, he doesn’t communicate and he’s not sort of in direct contact on a regular basis. But we’ve taken out several times that whole layer of leadership underneath Osama bin Laden and Zawahiri. One of the most dangerous jobs in the world is to be number three in the al Qaeda organization, because a lot of them are now dead or in custody. So we’ve done a lot of damage to that senior leadership, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and many others, as well, too.”

    Excerpt from CNN Interview with VP Cheney, 27 January 2007

    Who knows? Perhaps this will work.

  11. “One of the most dangerous jobs in the world is to be number three in the al Qaeda organization, because a lot of them are now dead or in custody. So we’ve done a lot of damage to that senior leadership, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and many others, as well, too.””

    Yeah, sure and number 3s as you suggest, are apparently as dispensable and replaceable as spark plugs’

    As for the VP. (“greeted as liberators”) Of the United States and his insights you might be a little more circumspect about whom you quote.

    He’s been consitantly wrong on everything since 9-11.

    How he ever got into the same room as Boyd and managed to stay any length of time defies my wildest imagination.

    M

  12. Sorry for the previous somewhat reactionary, viceral response.

    Suffice to say that the track record of the incumbent leadership in
    the US with particular regard to the stratigies and tactics
    of the ongoing protracted campains, is wide open to critical
    analysis.

    Moreover there seems to be no end of the dis-enfranchised and angry
    throughout most of the troubled region to maintain, and swell the ranks.

    It least so it seems, now into the 7th year on conflict.

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