A Dangerous World
Tries To Snuff Out Hope
A crowded world
Tears itself apart
And never stops bleeding
An empty world
Revisits the past
With unknown consequences
A Dangerous World
Tries To Snuff Out Hope
A crowded world
Tears itself apart
And never stops bleeding
An empty world
Revisits the past
With unknown consequences
The below comes from a sermon I was invited to give at my childhood church. It was originally published on their website. There’s a video of me giving the sermon embedded below, and an audio-only version here.
Kelsey D. Atherton
February 8th, 2015
Delivered at First Unitarian Universalist of Albuquerque
It is good, however briefly, to be home. I grew up in this church, wound my way through religious education and La Amikoj, and found myself on more than a few committees before leaving for Tulane in 2007. The sanctuary is new, and lovely!, but I trust that the coffee hours are the same.
I am coming here today as a lifelong Unitarian Universalist, and a journalist covering defense. It’s a long journey that took me from that point A to point B, and the story of that journey starts here, in the early 2000s. I came of age in this church, and I came of age in the midst of a great, colossal, mistake. I’m sure everyone has something in their teen years that feels that way about, but this one, at least, wasn’t my fault. In 2003 I learned, as we all learned, that our country was going to invade Iraq, the second country we’d have invaded in three years. We’d already invaded Iraq once in my lifetime, and depending on how you count no-fly-zones, sanctions, and military assistance, we’ve been at war in Iraq in one way or another for almost the entirety of my life.
In 2003 I didn’t know we’d be out of Iraq in 2010 and then back again in 2014. I knew we were in Afghanistan, and I knew that war would last longer. The war in Afghanistan, for those keeping score at home, officially ended this past December. Now, instead of a war, we have a “contingency operation.” That’s 10,000 American troops training a local army that we’re still funding, but the war’s technically over.
Iraq, though. I was not expecting Iraq. Afghanistan had a connection, at least, to the September 11th attacks, though no civilians should ever be condemned to war like that for what their government allowed. But Iraq? An awful dictator, but outside of his country a largely neutered one. We went to war, and for the first time in my life I felt 100% completely out-of-step with my country.
Now, I’m on the younger side of things. I’m sure for many of you that moment happened decades ago. The 1960s are the obvious example, and I’ll get to that later, but there was anti-war sentiment for other conflicts too. We remember the anti-war sentiment in America during the late 1930s and in 1940 as isolationism. It’s a historical artifact, but we forget how widespread it was before Pearl Harbor. Woody Guthrie, like many other Americans at the time, was against the war before he was for it. Our country has a long tradition of anti-war skepticism, even in the heart of what now seem clear-cut conflicts. It’s a good skepticism, and a worthy one, borne of love for people in this land and other lands far away.
Iraq was no World War II, and as a kid growing up in this church, I wrestled with how we, as a people of faith, could be so powerless in the face of such enormous, terrible purpose. That’s the Leviathan of Thomas Hobbes, which I borrowed to title this sermon. Hobbes was an English philosopher, who lived during the English civil war. His greatest fear was the violent anarchy of small wars, and he thought the only way a government could protect its people from that violence was being so powerful it crushes all possible alternatives. It’s been a long time since America tore itself apart in civil war, and we live now inside this Leviathan, this powerful, unified force. We refer to Leviathan colloquially as the Pentagon, the White House, the military industrial complex, and it is all those things combined into one colossal beast.
Leviathan going to war abroad isn’t always so inevitable. A favorite line of my dad’s in the early Bush years was “Suppose they gave a war and nobody came.” The quote, popular throughout antiwar movements of the sixties, was the title of an essay by Charlotte Keyes, published by McCalls in 1966. The essay was about her son, who repeatedly burned his draft card and resisted service in Vietnam. And it turns out that draft resistance, at least in part, worked. Nixon, who included a promise to end the draft in his 1968 campaign, finally did so a few months after winning reelection in 1972. We haven’t had a draft since.
But we’ve had quite a few wars since then.
It turns out the answer to “what if they threw a war and nobody came?” is to just not make everybody to go. When I turned 18, I registered for Selective Service, but I didn’t expect I’d ever be called to war. Draft resistance shook the military, and despite the fact that this new century saw two long wars, the military never asked Congress for a draft, and Congress never offered to give them one. Almost every member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff serving right now started their military careers in the mid-1970s, when public support for the military and for wars abroad was very much at a low point. They know it’s a bad idea to throw a war and require everybody to show up.
In high school I wrote an essay saying that, because drafts are unpopular, I thought America having to draft an army to fight a war meant we’d have less wars. President Nixon realized the opposite. He wanted to end the Vietnam draft, not because the war was immoral, but because the draft made wars less popular. There are two main ways to fight a war without a draft, and Nixon was a fan of both. One is arming and training a local army. It was “Vietnamization” first, and we’ve had variants of it in Afghanistan and Iraq since.
The other half is that, instead of a draft army, the American military is now what’s known as an “all-volunteer force.” Rather than a draft compelling Americans from all walks of life and all backgrounds to serve together, the military is opt-in, so plenty of people morally uncomfortable with war or uninterested in a military career can sit out. That is no doubt a good thing, but it means our values are rarely present within the military. In 2003, at the start of the Iraq war, Lieutenant Eric Johnson, a Navy Reserve chaplain, estimated there were just 550 Unitarian Universalists serving in a military of 1.5 million. Because of that, we have a world where America can fight two wars in parallel for a decade, and many Unitarian Universalists can live day-to-day without noticing it.
All this is to say: if we are a people interested in the moral consequences of what our government does abroad, it’s not nearly enough to not show up. Decades after the fact, political and military leaders adapted to anti-war protests and draft resistance, and figured out how to fight wars without the draft. That’s our reality now, and steering America’s war machine means we have to do more than just actively not get on board.
I didn’t realize this at first. As I saw America launched needlessly and violently into Iraq, I saw and cheered the protests that broke out across this nation and the world. I was elated to see my peers joining with the anti-war old guard to decry a conflict both needless and sure to be disastrous. I wanted to see a change in plans, an acknowledgement from on high that such popular outcry in a democracy meant we weren’t doing this war, that our leaders would find another answer, something else to focus on. Maybe they’d content themselves with just the war in Afghanistan. I don’t know what I expected, but I expected something.
We got nothing. I am visiting today from Washington, and while it’s a cliche to decry the insularity of the beltway, I wasn’t in Washington when we went to war. I was here, a youth in this church, and I could see Washington’s insularity as a problem already. Both political parties supported the Iraq War at the start. John Kerry, who rose to prominence as a veteran opposed to the Vietnam war, voted in favor of invading Iraq. Unlike the isolationists who opposed World War II before supporting it, Kerry stated on the 2004 campaign trail he was for invading Iraq before he was against it. It seemed there was very much an anti-war voice in the country, but with the all-volunteer force and the parties in agreement about the war, there wasn’t a mechanism for that voice to change how things got done.
I went to Tulane struggling with this question, and found myself in classes about international security. There, Iraq wasn’t a bad war because it was about blood for oil, but because it carried with it a lot of unnecessary risk. Scholars of international law decried it because of the precedent it set. Self-described realists hated it because Iraq, though ruled by a horrible dictator, posed no threat to the United States. Military historians were skeptical of the war because the United States didn’t want to just overthrow a government, we wanted to stay and remake the country, a project that very rarely goes well for the invader. Humanitarians were skeptical because the sanctions already on Iraq made the people suffer, and the only thing guaranteed to make that suffering worse was the chaos and violence of war. These were moral judgements, and they were strategic ones. The language could coexist.
I learned at school this new language to express my discontent. I thought, with the full idealism of youth, that if protest didn’t work, new words would. After graduation, like so many young idealists before me, I moved to Washington to see what these words could do.
In my day-to-day job, I write about how, exactly, America fights and plans to fight future wars. I write about this mostly for Popular Science, so I am often tasked first with explaining a new military technology, and then understanding that technology as a way to explain something about humans. It also means that my headlines, more often than not, have “drone” or “machines that puts holes in people” in them.
It means that when I write about drones, I can explain to those who are less inclined to care about the victims of drone strikes that drone pilots, even ones stationed in the United States flying remotely over Afghanistan, experience PTSD at the same rates as combat pilots. It is frustrating that there are people who care about the pilots but not about civilians accidentally killed by drone strikes, but those people exist, and they exist in Washington, so it helps to provide the full truth of what our weapons do, not just to our foes, but to ourselves.
To tell that truth, and to make that truth palatable to people who otherwise wouldn’t care, I had to learn to speak like Leviathan. I had to know that talking to power about power means talking about the tools they use, and showing that I understand the intended purpose of those tools, before I can talk about why that tool doesn’t work the way they want. Consider it a parseltongue or secret language for national security. In journalism circles, we call it Pentagonese.
This week, we got to witness a particularly bad birth of new slang. On Wednesday, the Senate held a confirmation hearing for a new Secretary of Defense. These hearings are theater in nature, but they are bad theater, where every actor is playing the role of biggest, strongest man. What kept coming up, was the idea that the United States should provide “defensive weapons” to Ukraine.
“Defensive weapons” is a mostly meaningless term. What the Senate meant, and what the defense secretary nominee correctly clarified, was “lethal weapons.” “Defensive weapons” mask the ugliness implied in giving another country at war the tools they need to kill people, and it masks it with a sense of vulnerability, of justice. It’s a value judgement from the phrase itself. “Lethal weapons” has the clarity of truth, and if we talk about providing lethal weapons, we are at least having the conversation on honest terms.
This conversation is nothing if it doesn’t change the Leviathan’s behavior. It is much easier to show a war that happened despite public outcry than to show one called off because Washington thought it wasn’t worth it, but here’s something close.
Almost as soon as civil war broke in Syria, the pundit classes started calling for a “No-Fly Zone” over the country. Like “defensive weapons,” “no-fly zone” has a hidden technical meaning: it’s where our air force routinely flies over a country and shoots down every enemy aircraft they see, in theory protecting civilians on the ground. And like “defensive weapons,” “no-fly zones” are a salesman’s foot-in-the-door for pulling a country sideways into war. Arguments from think tanks and hawkish politicians calling for a No-Fly-Zone over Syria started in 2011 and continue to this day. One specific military historian called for a No-Fly-Zone over Syria 40 times in 2012 alone.
That intervention didn’t happen. We got pulled into Syria in other ways, chasing an insurgent group born during the Iraq war, but the No-Fly-Zone didn’t happen. As the Senate and White House debated what to do about Syria, what seemed like a politically easy way to get into a war there was countered with arguments about costs, historical examples of failure and risk, doubts about the humanitarian merit of picking between unsavory sides in a brutal civil war, and a general uncomfortableness with sending American planes routinely over a country hiding anti-air missiles. Leviathan, eager to do something, became plagued by doubt, and couldn’t see a clear way forward into war.
What I’ve learned since 2003 is that, as terrifyingly large and powerful as this Leviathan is, it is still a machine made of human parts. There are great sweeping emotions that govern its behavior. One of those emotions is doubt, profound doubt, and in that doubt is where talking about war matters.
I’d be lying if I said this journey was wholly my own. When I was a child growing up, I would hear stories from my Grandfather. He, like many of his generation, served in uniform in World War II. Shortly after the war, he joined the Foreign Service. When asked, years after retirement, if he intended his career path before graduating, my grandfather replied “I had no desire to be a diplomat. I think, if I had thought of anything beyond the war, it would be in journalism.” The foreign service was, at times, morally compromising work: his career spanned from the Truman administration to Reagan’s first term, and America did a lot of morally questionable things in that timeframe. But it also meant that, whenever possible, he could nudge leviathan towards a better course of action from the inside, speaking the language of the beast. He may have put down his sword and shield, but he didn’t stop his study of war, just his practice of it. It is important to speak truth to power, but it helps to do so in a language power understands.
Video of the sermon
As of the time of this writing, my second-most-popular tweet of all time is a subtweet just barely over a day old.
Trump supporters attacking the Holocaust Museum for supporting persecuted refugees is a real thing on the internet today.
— Kelsey D. Atherton (@AthertonKD) November 20, 2015
I dropped my wife off at work, came home, saw something vile, sent this tweet into the void, and took our dog for a walk
And then it skyrocketed.
The broader context of the tweet is a week of anti-refugee and anti-Muslim hysteria in the United States. Inherited wealth-holder, walking toupee stand, and GOP presidential frontrunner Donald Trump was particularly odious in that regard, and when asked by reporters said he would support a registry and database of Muslims multiple times on Thursday. (He walked this back, to some degree, though the denials are rather unconvincing).
The Holocaust Museum has been following the crisis in Syria, as part of their mission to work against and document future crimes against humanity. Thursday night, the Holocaust museum released this statement:
WASHINGTON, DC—Acutely aware of the consequences to Jews who were unable to flee Nazism, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum looks with concern upon the current refugee crisis. While recognizing that security concerns must be fully addressed, we should not turn our backs on the thousands of legitimate refugees.
The Museum calls on public figures and citizens to avoid condemning today’s refugees as a group. It is important to remember that many are fleeing because they have been targeted by the Assad regime and ISIS for persecution and in some cases elimination on the basis of their identity.
The statement was mostly heralded as important and vital, especially given the weight of the institution behind it.
But this is the reaction to it that I saw first:
Please do not ever again inject yourself @HolocaustMuseum in a political argument over the safety of Americans
— CoS TJ Mitch Johnson (@TJMitchJohnson) November 20, 2015
I quoted-tweeted my response, and TJ Mitch Johnson fired back with this:
— CoS TJ Mitch Johnson (@TJMitchJohnson) November 20, 2015
So I sent the subtweet. The account, Chief of Staff TJ Mitch Johnson, purports to be (from the accounts bio) “Chief of Staff, The Honorable Rep Steven Smith, Republican Representative of Georgia’s 15th Congressional District.”
Georgia has no 15th district, which means it’s not represented by any Steven Smith, so there’s no real staff for TJ Mitch Johnson to be chief of. (There is, of course, a Twitter account for this Steven Smith). I know this. I’ve encountered Johnson a few times before, include Thursday night, when Johnson tweeted at my employers urging them to fire me. A fake chief of staff for a fake representative from a fake district reads very clearly as a parody account, as BuzzFeed reporter Andrew Kaczynski and Washington Examiner reporter T Becket Adams both noted in replies. That’s fair. Johnson frequently attacks media figures and big online personalities, trying to draw them into internet fights.
But I think this is a different beast than, say, not knowing that the Stephen Colbert of the Colbert Report is a satirical character. Johnson is adamantly pro-Trump in his tweets, once finding my account after I compared the F-35 to the Trump slogan “Make America Great Again” to tell me that Bernie Sanders was a bigger supporter of the F-35 than Trump is (weirdly, at least half-true).
Johnson’s feed is filled with counter-attacks in defense of Trump, and provocations aimed at both Trump’s presumed weaker GOP rivals and the GOP establishment itself. This is less a sarcastic portrayal of what Trump fanboys might like than a very aggressive work by an anonymous Trump partisan.
So Johnson is, without a doubt in my mind, a Trump supporter.
But I used the plural in my tweet.
After walking the dog, I searched Twitter to see if Johnson’s attack resonated with any other part of the Trump base, and I found a few, scattered tweets. Most are from accounts with less than 300 followers, which is a threshold below which I don’t think we need to always publicly shame. So there are a few supporters who think this, but not many, and I haven’t yet seen evidence that attacking the Holocaust Museum on Twitter is part of anyone but Johnson’s game plan.
As the day wore on, there were (from what I could tell) no more direct attacks on the Museum by Trump supporters. There were, however, a couple of wildly ineffective defenses of Trump, which casually invoke internment camps:
— Tyranny Hunter (@heroeslivesmat1) November 20, 2015
and mass murder:
— Jorge Arias (@shilohcat1) November 20, 2015
I also attracted attacks from a couple Neo-Nazis and white nationalists, who I’ve subsequently blocked on Twitter and don’t really feel a strong obligation to directly quote.
Whatever political savvy there is in not directly attacking the Holocaust Museum, it clearly doesn’t extend to not advocating internment camps and mass killings. As a journalist myself, I’d be hesitant to use my tweet as the basis for any “Trump Supporters Attack Holocaust Museum” story, but I think there’s definitely stories to be written in how White Nationalists have attached themselves to Trump as their candidate.
In the twenty-four hours since the attack, I stared at a glowing rectangle, looking for answers. I am a journalist by trade, and we as a profession mine tragedy for truth. This was big, we knew. This was dark, we knew, and this was not new, we knew, we knew, we knew.
My beat exists at the edge of news like this. I watch the attacks, scanning for technologies we haven’t seen before, and I will watch the aftermath, as hundred billion dollar planes search the skies for someone writing emails on the other side of a contested border. There is not, yet, a tech angle to the attacks themselves. Cell phones and computers are common, encryption is a known tactic, small arms and modest explosions are the stock trade of terrible days. It was a bomber’s vest at a check-point that alerted authorities. The bomber was late to the game, the president escaped, the attacks were bloody and many and horrific. Violence is as common and as old as dirt.
Blinking away in the glowing rectangles I saw news and rumor and sympathy and panic. People offered their same views, but with the urgency of grave effect, restated in 140 and news-pegged to tragedy. My wife is on a weekend trip to visit friends and so I spent my time watching a small apocalypse get written into the first draft of history.
When I woke this morning, I saw alerts that people in my network in Paris checked-in safe. People in Grenoble, far from Paris but identically far New Mexico, checked in that they were safe, too. There were transparent flags in my timeline, and the machine asked if I wanted one too.
I put on the flag, my face held behind the tricolor’s stylized ripples, and I decided that I would wear this symbol for four days. It was odd, to be presented with a timer on mourning, so I did the whole process again, capturing pictures of the options on my phone as I went. I picked a week, the second time around.
My flagged face joined that of others in the my feed, and there were essays, too. One friend declared that all flags are used to cover violence, and so he wouldn’t partake. Another noted that there were more tragedies than just the multiple attacks in Paris, and so he wouldn’t don the flag himself either. They were both as right as they needed to be.
I sit at the edge of how we use technology, caring about social networks mostly when they change how we watch news and when they change how we react to events. The safe check-ins for disaster is a new-ish feature, but we’ve had enough disasters since it debuted that it feels common, good. A machine can tell if you’re in a geographically-denoted area of danger, asks if you are safe, and then publishes the answer if you are.
A flag for my face was new. The platform, Facebook itself, pushed it. I’d donned other symbolic avatar alterations in the past, like a green filter and ribbon for a squashed protest in Iran, but those were third-party services, offered by people with a stake. The flag was new, and it said that Paris was burning.
There are, as a rule, many places on fire at any given time.
Beirut burned, a day before Paris. The deadliest single bombing in the city since their civil war, and they mourned. I was not offered a cedar tree, on a field of white between two bands of red, to wear on my virtual face. France got a flag. Lebanon did not.
The story, here, for the journalist mining truth in tragedy, is that Paris was chosen as the debut of the flag feature. How long was the feature ready, we will ask, and why did the attacks in Paris merit its debut? We will hear answers, and they will be varying degrees of satisfying. We will ask, the next time a tragedy occurs, why we are offered flags, or why we aren’t. The answer will matter, and the biases inherent will be revealing.
“The logical response to the necessity of uneven mourning isn’t “there should be no more mourning at all,” either”, tweeted Faine Greenwood, a fellow journalist.
We cannot, by virtue of our very finite being, mourn every tragedy, or even know every tragedy. We are compelled to mourn, and we bound to mourn unevenly.
Facebook is mourning Paris more than Beirut right now, and it provided a tool to make it easier for those who wish to join in sympathy for France. That’s a decision to pick apart, to question, to call into account. Facebook may change how it offers sympathy tools; it may even have offered flags for tragedies I don’t know about. It can change, in part, how we mourn, and the tools we have for mourning.
We cannot change that mourning will be uneven.
I am here, a day after a terror attack, writing abstractly about a place I’ve never been and the deaths of people I’ve never met. My wife is in her home state for the weekend. She is there, in part, to mourn a friend, who died much too soon. When she boarded the Amtrak at 3:15 am, she knew her weekend would already have a portion devoted to mourning. It is deeply personal: a car accident, a protege from undergrad, a loss finite in its details and unfathomable in missed potential.
As I blanket my virtual face in a transparent filter of a foreign flag, there are hundreds if not thousands of similar, personal mournings happening this weekend. Terror inflicts wounds unevenly. War inflicts wounds unevenly. And so it is. We are, in this moment as in every moment, struck by that unevenness.
Technology cannot change that the mourning is uneven. Nothing, really, can change that. It can, if driven by its better angels, do more to make sure that the tools we use to mourn aren’t unevenly distributed.
As is tradition, I start the New Year by reviewing it as though already passed. When the year ends, I’ll come back and fact-check my predictions, as voluntary pundit accountability. (My 2012 predictions and 2013 predictions can be found here).
In previous years, I’ve focused on nations, regions, and broad international problems. This year, I’ve found myself a journalist on the military technology beat, so I’m going to bend my speculation a bit more towards my expertise.
The FAA drone test sites, greeted with so much hyperbole and promise in late 2013, mostly spent 2014 the site of protest. Technology testing is underway, but so far the robots are only tentatively greeted with acceptance in rural America. Even that is limited; farmers who enjoy the fast field surveys provided by an unmanned quadcopter are at odds with locals who prefer the proliferation of free skeet shooting targets.
Newspaper editorials still make Terminator references. STILL.
Following Google’s acquisition in 2013 of a half-dozen robot companies, in AUgust they announced “Google Trailview,” which uses cameras mounted on Boston Dynamic’s BigDog to track the natural beauty of America’s national parks. This makes it much easier to appreciate the outdoors without leaving air conditioning.
In Nevada, where Google has for years tested driverless cars, the internet giant announced a completely automated cab service, where people can summon a robot car and then get dropped off at home. High traffic, combined with erratic customer behavior over New Years, could shutter the plan.
If 2013 was the year of spying revelations, 2014 was a clusterfuck of reform attempts. Legislation, on the state and federal level, aimed at preventing the storage and collection of metadata, but was met with fierce obstacles on every level, from government claiming a national security threat, corporations claiming financial risk, privacy advocates worried about half-measures, and internet architects unsure that a removal of metadata from everything is even possible. Multiple cases stand ready to go to the Supreme Court, but it looks like 2015 will be the year they rule on secrecy & data collection. Until then, competing and overlapping laws provide enough loopholes for data collection that the situation is more muddled than resolved.
It exists and countries are buying it and I’m just going to have to accept that fact. The $1.5 trillion albatross of the US Defense Budget is a plane that, despite its many failings and limited capabilities, will constitute a large part of American air power for years to come. It’s a bad plane, a master of no trades and a jack of only a few, but it’s what it is. The only bright spot in its existence in 2014 was the testing of remote piloting capability. If that continues, by 2016 it could be the world’s most capable drone, and only cost $2 trillion for the airplane’s lifetime.
3-D Printed Guns
2013 saw the world’s first 3-D printed gun, and then an explosion of improvements. By the end of 2014, while countless youtube videos demonstrate the gains made by gunprinting hobbyists, none had yet to be linked to a violent crime or terrorist action. They are banned from shooting ranges, following a shoddy gun exploding on an amateur user, but otherwise they remain a quaint historical novelty.
The Year In Weapons Actually Used
Insurgencies and civil wars saw a blossoming of improvised killing technology. Crude barrel bombs, stuff with explosives and literally rolled down hills at their targets, were improved by rudimentary cheap remote control technology, adding wheels and steering to just a very deadly crude weapon.
Small arms continued to kill more people than all other weapons combined. Rockets, mortars, rifles, other cheap and deadly things fueled conflicts in South Sudan, Syria, fighting in the 35-year-long Afghan war, and elsewhere.
2014 in WMD
2014 was another year in which Iran did not acquire a nuclear weapon, though in June North Korea tested another atomic blast. Chemical weapons continued to leave Syria, in a dark bargain that took Assad’s scariest weapon away but kept him in power. The international community largely hailed this as a success.
In late 2011, I wrote a review of 2012 as though it had already passed. Then I reviewed my predictions against the newly-sealed historical record. Now, an exercise in the same: here is what happened in 2013.
Despite two years worth of calls for it, there was no intervention in Syria this year. While multiple videos made it out of the country attempting to prove that Assad had used chemical weapons, no government ever conceding a red line as crossed. Following Assad’s late-August ouster,* after a month of siege, the contours of a new Syria state could just be made out. Militias still clash, and the west’s long-hoped-for moderate coalition appears to have only been a pipe dream.
*”ouster” is a euphemism. “Brutal murder in the style of Qaddafi” is a more accurate description.
The world’s slowest nuclear program again failed to produce a viable weapon, and 2012’s talk of pre-emptive strikes subsided as the years-long impact of a tough sanctions regime became more widely known. The year lacked protests, and as the Ahmadinejad era came to a close, Khamenei re-asserted the public role & dominance of the Supreme Leader.
While Afghanistan has long faded from American popular consciousness, the drone war continued under the logic that “as long as there are dead Taliban, we can keep claiming fragile but reversible progress.” Turning points may have been reached.
In Yemen, while drones operated with impunity, the on-the-ground human intelligence that locates targets became almost impossible to obtain. A brutal campaign against the vulnerable humans that make this work has left the US blind to the situation on the ground. Rather that revising strategy away from tech solutions and air power, the United States has increased signature strikes, against what started as a small al Qaeda off-shoot but is now blossoming into a proper insurgency.
In Somalia and Mali, drones were the chosen solution to complex problems, based largely on a public that assumes drones require no deployment of Americans near the field of battle. GWOT, the unwieldy acronym that has now defined over 12 years of US foreign policy, began a full pivot to Africa.
Despite being largely absent from the presidential election campaign that both defined and drained all the energy from 2012, there are countries south of the Rio Grande and in 2013 what happened in them mattered politically. As the DEA mostly turned a blind eye to marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington, undercut cartels accelerated their violence. Monterrey descended into chaos, while the Mexican Naval Infantry were a rare successful institution in a country beset by failings.
In Venezuela, after Assad declined his offer of asylum from his hospital bed, Hugo Chavez never managed to recover and died quietly. A frustrating political process was complicated by divisions among former Chavezistas and the lack of an organized opposition, so the military stepped in to guide a transition. This move was welcomed by exactly no one, but as 2013 winds down that is where things remain.
Tensions over the Senkaku Islands / Diaoyu Islands / Tiaoyutai Islands / Pinnacle Islands remained as ridiculous as a power struggle over uninhabitable rocks could be. The United States, professing an Asia Pivot and committed to the security of the region, sent ships to calm tensions but failed to matter in negotiations, as a refusal by the Senate to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea excluded them from discussing the most peaceful solution possible. While no fire was exchanged, the frequent arrest of trespassing fishing vessels escalated to competing contracts for oil exploration being awarded by China and Japan. As of December 2013, no drilling had commenced, but news stories are already stuffed with “Eastern Guns of August” stories.
In late 2011, as everyone was summarizing the year just passed, I set out to concisely describe what would happen in 2012, but all past tense. In the spirit of accountable pundits, it is time to check my predictions against reality.
What I got right: “Superficial progress was noted by diplomats and bureaucrats, while the generals insisted that with indefinite time and infinite resources, progress towards total victory in Afghanistan could continue.”
But getting that is the easiest bet on Afghanistan. It’s like getting to pick “not green” in Roulette. It would be news if anything other than fragile & reversible progress was discussed.
What I got wrong: “A new militia program, despite claims modest gains in some provinces, has now widely been accepted as a means NATO to deliberately channel weapons to anti-Taliban factions, and unintentionally as a way for the Taliban to continue their successful practice of acquiring NATO equipment.”
What I missed entirely: Green on Blue was the real story out of Afghanistan this year, as a building trend hit peak. Rather than warlords & militias, which I was expecting to be this late-stage narrative, we had a Taliban strike on a Marine airbase and a running narrative that ISAF was threatened by the very security forces it was trying to establish to safeguard Afghanistan.
What I got right:”Despite this tension, aid continued to flow from US coffers to Pakistan, with all the sympathy and good intentions of a divorced couple waiting out the last two months left on the lease.”
But, again, this is an incredibly easy prediction to make. Moving on.
What I got right: “Despite a 2011 in which fears of Iranian nuclear ascension were expressed only slightly louder than calls for US military action to prevent this possibility, Iran ends 2012 without a nuclear weapon and remains technically at peace with the United States. A promised Iranian naval mission to the Caribbean fell through when the possibility of resupply at a Syrian port was derailed by the ongoing civil war there.”
What I got wrong: I optimistically predicted a Persian Summer (ugh, seasonal revolution clichés), and then grimly predicted it’s demise. Neither came to pass.
What I got right: a connection to the ongoing Syrian civil war was inevitable, and my prediction that “the American embassy has become little more than an awkwardly luxurious Alamo” foreshadows “When U.S. officials emerge from their fortresslike embassy compound, they are clearly no longer the de facto rulers of the country they once were,” though I was hyperbolic.
What I got wrong: everything else. While the US role in Iraq is far diminished following the 2011 withdrawal, it was not immediately replaced by Iran as a sponsor for a client state. While there has been a competition between the two for Maliki’s favor, involving duplicitous statements about overflights to Syria, the real story in Iraq was continued violence and political crisis. Coalition politics are always challenging, but they are much more so when vice presidents get jailed on terrorism charges and armed militias are still a presence.
What I got right: The international community and the conflict itself. Libya was clearly the template for intervention suggestions, but such moves died in the security council or were only tepidly considered by NATO. Specifically:
“too much had been set in motion for the Assad regime to calmly hold on to power, as what began as a protest movement has become a disparate resistance of militias with foreign backing.”
What I got wrong: I missed Iranian support for Assad, put a lot of emphasis on a relatively short-lived observer mission, and thought that sanctions would matter more in Assad’s calculus than SCUDs, chemical weapons, and airpower.
Spring: Arab, Russian, and Otherwise
What I got right: Yemen, Bahrain, “while successive governments in Libya have found that a dispersal of arms make overthrow easy but governance incredibly hard” is about half right – the arms make governance difficult, but there have not been successive governments.
What I got wrong: Egypt, Russia. I expected the SCAF to entrench itself in Egypt, rather than lead to the current Morsi-ocracy, and I expected Russian protests to have a larger enough impact that they would be met with violent repression and massacres.
The Horn of Africa
I expected that the Horn would be far more important this year, but I was very much premature in calling 2012 the year we explicitly acknowledge an Africa pivot. Instead, that looks to be 2013’s honor.