Sunday, September 11, 2011

What About the 100th Anniversary?

Like most of you, I found myself glued to the TV on Sunday morning, watching coverage of the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Reliving the shock and grief seemed like a responsibility. I was required to watch it, to remember. The sight of the memorial, so powerfully designed and executed, and the backdrop of a new tower rising from the ashes caused the emotions of 10 years ago to well up inside me again.

I remember taking a business trip shortly after the beginning of the Iraq war and being seated next to a contemporary, a retired Army Colonel who worked for a defense contractor. He and I had much to talk about and found ourselves making the same rationalization. It went something like this: no, there weren’t any WMDs but we won’t know the true impact of our military venture for quite some time. The real reason for the attack was to create a democratic government in the Middle East to serve as a model – to prove it could be done. To prove that free societies could exist in the Islamic world. It would take quite some time to see if it would work. A generation or more.

That was our rationalization. Our way of being supportive to our country and our troops.

I opposed the war from its conception. It made no strategic sense to me. To understand why, you have to remember your geography lessons and mix in a little macroeconomic analysis. The United States is blessed by the most favorable geography in the world. We are the only nation with long seacoasts and navigable seaports on both the Atlantic and Pacific. You see, much like the global economy of 400 years ago, it is still cheaper to move goods by sea than by any other method.

Our geography also favors food production beyond the capacity of any other nation. That, coupled with our long navigable rivers to bring products to the seaports made us an exporting giant from the mid to late 19th Century onward. Expressed in financial terms, because of our natural infrastructure, investment in the U.S. provides a higher return than any other nation.

Okay, let’s shift from our geography lessons to our history lessons. From the presidency of George Washington to that of JFK, the U.S. made a series of strategic moves to consolidate and secure its economic future.

From Washington’s signing of "Jay's Treaty" which was highly unpopular (and which I wrote about in a blog post titled "Let's Put the Washington Back in DC") to the Louisiana Purchase, the Mexican-American War, the Spanish American War and WW II, we fought to secure our sea lanes. These gains were further consolidated by the post-war institutions set up by Truman and Eisenhower (the UN, NATO, SEATO et al.) and defended without a shot being fired during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

The result? Today, the US Navy controls every sea lane in the world. We take it for granted. But many Americans died to establish this awesome sea power and many politicians and presidents put their country ahead of self-interest to create it.

Which brings me back to Iraq. There are only two other geographic ranges with the potential to compete with the U.S. One is the plain that stretches from France to Russia. And, the other, in the Middle East and Southern Asia, stretches from the Mediterranean to the Himalaya Mountain range.

Ever wonder why there have been so many wars fought by Germany against northern European competitors? It’s because there are no natural boundaries between France, Germany, Poland and Russia. Southern Europe has numerous mountain ranges and rivers. And, less history of warfare as a result.

The partitioning of the Middle East, primarily achieved by the British between the two world wars, was designed to establish dictatorships that would serve our interests – oil exports. It has always been in our interest to have internecine competition between the larger Middle Eastern states. Why? Because a consolidation of all those countries coupled with their oil wealth could create a serious strategic competitor to the U.S.

Which brings me back to Iraq. Saddam Hussein’s government served as a wedge between Iran and its sympathetic allies to the west of Iraq, mainly Syria which has great influence over Lebanon. His removal, coupled with the installation of a democratically elected government in Iraq, enabled by and legitimized by the U.S., has provided Iran with an opportunity.

Iran has developed security and trade relationships with not only Iraq but also with Syria and Turkey. Turkey? Aren’t they a U.S. ally and NATO member? Yes. But, they are also an emerging economic power whose rejection by the European Union has caused it to look eastward for trade relationships. Toward Iran and, of course, China. And, they have an Islamic democratically elected government.

Against this backdrop, we are pulling out of not only Iraq but also Afghanistan. The decision to leave only a few thousand troops in Iraq coupled with our timetable to get out of Afghanistan will provide Iran with the opportunity to consolidate its power from Lebanon to Pakistan, creating a strategic competitor for decades if not centuries to come. The Pakistani’s, our ally in the war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda, are not likely to be our allies post-war. Indeed, NPR Reports that elements within Pakistan’s security force favor the reinstallation of the Taliban in Afghanistan to stabilize that country.

Back in the US, there is little patience left to support our land wars in Asia. And, in Washington, the pressure to reduce the deficit will take its toll on our military capability. What’s worse is that, despite our natural advantages, investment capital is flowing out of the U.S. not into it. How can this be so?
US multi-nationals are incentivized by our tax code to invest their money overseas. Manufacturers with high tech operations in the US can’t find workers with the math aptitude to fill jobs despite our 9% unemployment rate. And, our political system is mired in partisan fighting rather than finding solutions.

Why? US multi-nationals are incentivized by our tax code to invest their money overseas. Manufacturers with high tech operations in the US can’t find workers with the math aptitude to fill jobs despite our 9% unemployment rate. And, our political system is mired in partisan fighting rather than finding solutions.

Before turning off the TV on Sunday morning, I watched an excerpt of a Tom Hanks narrated documentary, BOATLIFT, a 9/11 Tale of Resilience. Americans pulled together on that day. Many, who were safe in another part of New York, participated in a heroic effort to save their countrymen without regard to their own safety. Hanks’ narration compares the event to another famous boatlift when British and French citizens were rescued from Dunkirk. It was on that occasion that Winston Churchill delivered his famous speech declaring that “this was their finest hour”.

Has our hour passed? Can we pull together? WHO WILL LEAD?


  1. Sorry, we were justified on a variety of counts -- here are just a few. We didn't find WMD, doesn't mean they could not have been moved with all the UN manuvering just prior to shock and awe. The 1991 cease fire came with numerous resolutions all of which were violated. When you agree not to annihilate your enemy because they concede you better ensure they follow up -- Munich should have taught us that. Finally, we need to weigh capability vs intent. It would have only been a matter of time. The world is better off w/o Saddam. We could have destroyed him in 1991, we chose not to because of arrangements, he violated those. All this other stuff is just a red herring

  2. John:
    Well-written, and good questions. I had to look up the word internecine, because I didn't realize it implied bloody or deadly. I just thought it was warring factions within a group. OK, dude, so once again I learn something from you. Will YOU lead please!