We’re on deck with a full-up Ready Room today, after a relatively extended blogging hiatus. Strap in for some serious (if selective) situational awareness.
Biden’s Middle East adventure
It turns out to be a good thing I didn’t get the segment on President Biden’s Middle East trip posted on Sunday, as originally planned. Quite a bit has ensued since Sunday, all of it fallout from the essential failure of Biden’s junket, and the fallout is significant. It’s what needs to be highlighted up front.
Here’s the short list of fallout items. We’ll look at a few implications with each topic.
On Sunday, a senior Iranian official made a rare statement about nuclear weapons, and baldly averred that Iran is capable of producing them. I don’t need to embellish much on the comments I added to a re-tweet on this story.
Within hours of Biden concluding his hapless, ineffective visit with the Gulf Arab leaders in Saudi Arabia, Iran came out with an unprecedentedly direct statement about nuclear weapons capacity. The Iranian rhetoric hasn’t been highlighted by U.S. media because U.S. media’s agenda is to shape the narrative away from such policy signals by Iran. It’s not because the statement isn’t verging on inflammatory.
Iran chose to place the statement not after the visit to Israel, but after the visit to Saudi Arabia. It’s the latter visit that established Biden as the occupant of a vacancy.
Iran also announced that Iranian naval vessels would begin deploying with the capability to launch armed drones. This too is big. It will change the character of the security environment throughout the maritime space of the region.
For nearly a decade, the question of maritime drones and rules of engagement has been in need of affirmative update but left in abeyance (see links below), mainly because Iran hasn’t had the crust to break out and declare that drones will be armed. Up through the end of the Obama administration, the U.S. let Iran get away with overflying our warships, not only with unarmed maritime patrol aircraft but with drones that might or might not be packed with explosives.
Iran only tried that on Trump once. It didn’t go well for the drone. Iran did try to get an explosive-laden drone into Israel in 2018, and is assessed to have been behind explosive-drone attacks in Saudi Arabia more recently. See here from 2021 as well:
But the mullahs didn’t test Trump with overflight of U.S. warships. (They did shoot down one of our most expensive drone types in June 2019 – notably, an indicator of Iran’s going-in attitude about drones.)
The prospect of such testing is now before us – and with drones that are armed. It isn’t just U.S. warships that will be affected. Every Gulf Arab navy, as well as members of the U.S. naval coalition in the Gulf, can expect the potential for provocation as well. For the GCC nations, it won’t just be their navies at risk; drones launched from Iranian ships could attack their offshore infrastructure and their land-based facilities as well.
That also goes for the Red Sea, or anywhere else Iran deploys ships. Much more could be said about this; the takeaway for this article is that the Iranian regime was emboldened by Biden’s performance last week to announce this disruptive, destabilizing change. (Russia’s reported shopping spree for drones from Iran seems timed to boost the cred of the Iranian drone-mongers with a little advertising. The source is the “We’ve got the deets!” chorus from the U.S. intelligence community, however, so proceed with caution here.)
Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, disputed the U.S. version of Biden’s discussion with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). Biden said the two leaders spoke about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, including words from himself about holding MBS responsible for it. Biden also affirmed a U.S. request for Saudi Arabia to increase oil production. A White House announcement appeared to indicate MBS agreed to a minimal increase.
Saudi comments stated that Biden had not blamed MBS for Khashoggi’s death, and that MBS had made no agreement to increase production. The foreign minister even denied the two leaders had talked about a production boost at all.
U.S. media’s broom squad came in afterward and seemed to indicate that a preexisting Saudi plan to ramp up production between now and 2027 was interpreted as a Saudi agreement to increase it in response to Biden’s request.
It’s surprising to see differing diplomatic readouts to begin with. It’s equally astonishing to see them reported sotto voce and obliquely excused by the media as if they’re no big deal. (They’re always a big deal.)
Up in the West Bank, a Palestinian Arab official complained – explicitly, and without euphemism or art – that Team Biden had failed to suggest even a PA-Israel negotiation plan for the PA to reject. He seemed to think that was pretty cheesy.
The interesting thing is how perfunctory this complaint feels, and how openly it’s registered. Naturally the official is annoyed. But he doesn’t seem to be speaking in the context of different expectations. It feels like he recognizes the old “peace process” dynamic is good and dead, and he just wants to emphasize whom he blames for killing it.
The EU came in Monday, for its part, and publicly pondered restarting European Council talks with Israel, suspended since 2012. This, like everything else, is big league. So many developments from the Biden trip are significant, it’s hard to keep in perspective how significant each one is.
I’d advise Israel to be very careful about this. The most likely motives for the EU are restructuring the Iran situation, which is on autopilot with the Biden quest for a JCPOA II, and expanding energy options for Europe.
It looks like the EU accepts Biden as an inert quantity after his showing in the Middle East, which affects both of those motives and everything else to do with Europe’s security conditions. That’s the “why” of most of these moves: the evidence of American weakness.
Note that the EU also unveiled a natural gas agreement with Azerbaijan on Monday.
Europe is taking meaningful steps to diversify its energy sourcing picture again (although I assume the Europeans aren’t deceived that Baku is free to act entirely without Russian retribution being held over its head. The agreement with Azerbaijan in any case won’t yield increased gas flow until 2027). The prospect of getting no real help from Biden – who could bolster Europe by increasing U.S. production – is evidently producing quick action.
Germany, in the midst of this shift, announced a plan to bring coal-fired power plants back online temporarily, to prepare for power needs as the onset of winter nears. The geopolitical problem with this is that coal users in Europe have been getting nearly half their coal (47%) from Russia in recent years – and Germany, Europe’s top coal producer, didn’t help matters by shutting down a lot of coal infrastructure in the move away from coal over the last decade.
Sourcing coal, for much of Europe as well as for Germany alone, will mean buying some substantial portion of it from Vladimir Putin for the near future.
So Israel, swimming in gas, may soon be receiving gift baskets and bouquets from Brussels. But a warning comes in with the implications for Iran strategy. If they can, the European leaders will hamstring Israel with a process of talks and negotiations that exerts a restraining effect on any Israeli plan to interdict Iran’s progress to a bomb.
Engaging with the EU in talks it would be politically costly to “sabotage,” should Israel take unilateral action against Iran, is exactly the situation the EU is likely to want to put Israel in. They probably see old points of friction like settlements, import labeling, and so forth as a way of getting hooks into Israel that keep Arabs (and Western radicals) stirred up. The Israelis need to watch their six and continue stroking forward with the Abraham Accords.
One note from outside the Middle East proper – one that is clearly related. In Libya this week, the prime minister of the UN-recognized Government of National Unity (GNU), Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh, signaled a political alliance with General Khalifa Haftar, the long-time opposition leader who actually controls most of Libyan territory.
Such a rapprochement would produce a unity government effectively based not on the GNU’s internal power (it has little) but on Haftar’s. It would acknowledge that the U.S. and EU backing of the GNU has little meaning.
Brief notes on this include the points that Haftar has strong backing from Russia (which has based military assets on territory he holds in eastern Libya), whereas Turkey has been backing the GNU. Egypt has been inclined to favor the stability of having Russia-backed Haftar on the other side of the border; Tunisia, which for a time provided a base of operations for the GNU’s predecessor (GNA), is in an increasingly parlous political condition and won’t be a significant factor in deterring a GN-Haftar hook-up.
This, if it comes to fruition, will be a major win for Putin. Libya as a source of natural gas isn’t even the point, although that’s still a meaningful one. The real point, however, is that a unified Libya with Russia as patron is a military cleaver lying in wait to divide the Mediterranean into two parts, with a belt of coastal missiles and probably other antishipping/anti-air threats poised for a latent veto over the Strait of Sicily chokepoint and its environs (especially looking eastward).
The former-Soviet Styx coastal missile system, reportedly tested by Haftar’s forces in 2020, is an outdated threat for modern warships, although not for undefended commercial shipping.
This “Bulgarian military” report of a Russian “Bastion” missile (K300P/NATO SS-C-5 “Stooge”) sale to Haftar in 2020 lacks other-source corroboration. It cites AMN, appearing to refer to Addis Media Network of Ethiopia.
For those who still can’t see that the world has become volatile and militarily at-risk enough that this is a real threat, I’m not sure what to do for you. This potential outcome has been evident for years, and over time it has become ever more likely. It’s U.S. weakness, on display in the Biden trip to an extent I don’t recall seeing before, that encourages wild-card actors like Dbeibeh and Haftar to make decisions now.
Neither the EU nor NATO, without backstop from the United States, has the combined motive and will to push back. The timing is especially propitious for a move against the European alliances’ interests, because Italy’s government is in a dither and unlikely to marshal the unity needed for a strong response.
The backstory you’ve already heard
All of this comes in the wake of a Biden visit to Israel in which the Biden assurances to Israel were emphatically stated, in soaring language, but almost entirely vague and without accountable measuring factors.
We can rejoice, on the one hand, that the U.S. has promised to continue, with Israel, “their shared and accelerated efforts to enable Israeli passport holders to be included in the U.S. Visa Waiver Program as soon as possible.” I think if I were Israel I would have asked for a formal commitment on some kind of date for that. But at least the fulfillment of this commitment is measurable.
On that pesky other hand, little else is. Holding a meeting of the new U.S.-Israel Strategic High-Level Dialogue on Technology would also be a measurable check in the box, but there’s no guarantee of any meaningful consequence from the meeting.
The rest is boilerplate, depending not on specifics and methods of verification but on perceptions about sincerity (e.g., as regards the pledge to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons). On the sincerity front, Biden has the U.S. all but “Winchester.”
The promises to the Palestinian Authority, however, were more concrete, and included two eminently measurable actions that are inimical to Israel’s security: (1) resuming, in fact increasing, U.S. monetary aid to the PA, which will facilitate PA payments to terrorists’ families; and (2) providing the West Bank with 4G telecom infrastructure. Israel has long been concerned about the latter because it would improve the tactical capabilities of terrorists operating in and from the West Bank.
In all, Biden’s commitments to the PA have been characterized by numerous observers as a reversion to the Obama posture. Besides resuming old language about a two-state solution, Biden ponied up some rhetoric on “East Jerusalem” as a special territorial interest of Palestinian Arabs (e.g., as a capital city), and revived the theme about access for all faiths, essentially for the purpose of ignoring Israel’s unique record as the only authority to ever guarantee access for all faiths to the holy sites.
The rhetoric is settling back into the grooves of the pre-Trump era, including the Biden administration’s hostile view on Israeli settlements in Judea and Samaria. That view carries with it the inherent implication that Israel should not hold the territory necessary to defend herself to the east – which as I explained back in 2009, after Obama made settlements a centerpiece obstacle for Israel to overcome (by giving them up), is a signal that U.S. policy doesn’t support Israel’s territorial integrity, and therefore Israel’s existence. (For an update from 2013, see here.)
With the Abraham Accords in play now, we can hope that responsible, forward-looking Arab leaders have no intention of trying to take advantage of that dog-whistle by which weak U.S. support signals “open season” on Israel.
But Iran’s radical regime has never forsaken the intention to exploit weak U.S. support for Israel, and actors like ISIS and Al Qaeda may be encouraged to embrace it more urgently.
Signs of geopolitical weakness come not single spies but in battalions, and President Biden demonstrated that with his visit to the Middle East last week. At its conclusion, the price of oil jumped up. The main image from the whole itinerary was the absurd fist-bump with MBS (previewed for days, as if it weren’t already ridiculous enough).
But that was probably a good thing, because otherwise the most memorable event might have been Biden comparing the Palestinian Arabs to the Irish insurgencies against Great Britain since the 17th century – an analogy that, couched in garbled Irish revolutionary terms by a really old-school Irish-American, managed to insult simultaneously the Arabs, the Irish, and Israel. (Throw in the scions of arrogant Norman-era Britain if you like, and a bunch of sell-out Scots, and you can add the nobler Celts, and even Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, to the insulted.)
Saudi Prince Turki Al-Faisal summed it up with a few uncharacteristically wince-inducing words. “President Biden, in my view, is coming in as a much diminished president than when he was first elected,” said Turki in an interview on Sunday with CNBC.
He went on to give examples, but his astringent comments included this one – not what practitioners of statecraft hope to harvest from a round of diplomacy: “So what I would say is, any visitor and not just the American president who has complaints about Saudi issues like human rights and so on, please get off your high horse.”
The Bannon pile-on
[This segment was written before Friday’s verdict in the Bannon trial, by which he was convicted of two misdemeanors for originally declining to comply with subpoenas from the House’s 6 January committee. I’m just leaving it as-is to keep the post on track. – J.E.]
Steve Bannon’s trial for contempt of Congress starts this week, with jury selection underway as of Monday 18 July. The 1/6 committee wanted him to testify, but until a few days ago he had refused, citing executive privilege for the subject matter. Former President Trump reportedly released him from executive privilege, however, and Bannon then agreed to testify. He’s still being tried for the original refusal, because all Trump-related persons and events are guaranteed lengthy, punitive pile-ons.
CNN helped out by running an hour-long special on Bannon Sunday night (see accompanying article here). I don’t know why I expected a more balanced, less idiotically propagandistic narrative from CNN, but I guess I just wasn’t alert enough to see the thematic onslaught coming.
I carry no brief for Bannon. It was evident early in the Trump administration that Bannon isn’t suited to the politics of governing. He’s a political arena fighter, and a strategic-vision guy who exerts himself to think outside the box, rather than play government politics as chess; i.e., a competition, of wiles and insight, less with the opponent than with the rules.
Bannon is unconventional. In 2016 he seemed to be onto something important, with his political views influenced by the thesis of a 1997 book entitled The Fourth Turning (William Strauss and Neil Howe): that “Modern history moves in cycles, each one lasting about the length of a long human life, each composed of four eras—or ‘turnings’—that last about twenty years and that always arrive in the same order.” Strauss and Howe outline the periods of each cycle as High (confident expansion), Awakening, Unraveling, and Crisis, from the last of which comes a regeneration or rebirth that starts the cycle over again.
One need not buy into the specific Fourth Turning thesis to see how it would frame as “Crisis” the major turning point just about everyone has sensed in his spirit over the past decade. (I don’t regard the thesis – and I did read the book – as the best guide; I’ve thought for some time that we’re in a much bigger turning than a recurring Crisis-passage within the bounds of modern history. The real question for me has been whether the scope of the upheaval in human affairs has no parallel nearer than 800 years ago, or 2,000, or even longer.)
But as far as the Fourth Turning concept goes, it would validate the animating idea of the Trump candidacy that it’s time for a truly significant change of direction in the consensus on governance in the United States. This hasn’t been about circumventing the Constitution; it’s been about undoing a gigantic latter-day government apparatus, never prescribed by the Constitution or envisioned by America’s founding generations, that the people no longer control but instead are too often hunted and extorted by.
The ”Fourth Turning” thesis differs from other major schemes for historical analysis in not being a prescriptive or morally prophetic ideology. It’s pattern analysis; based on some (fairly conventional) political ideas, to be sure, but far from being a “weltanschauung” or positing an eschatological “dynamic” spinning out a “world-historical crisis.” It’s observation-based, as opposed to polemical and goal-oriented (in the manner of Marxism or Nazism).
In 2016, one could see how Bannon’s philosophical framework made a ready, explanatory background for what voters were looking for, and what Trump wanted to do.
At any rate, there was plenty of material like that to ponder as regards Bannon. Not a hint of the actual thought-patterns or content of Bannon’s media work prior to 2015 came through in CNN’s treatment, however. CNN also could have used most of the hour to recount facts about Bannon’s activities in and since 2016, but without framing them in the tedious “right-wing extremism” narrative that misleads viewers on the import of every fact, big or small. But CNN didn’t do that.
Instead, CNN dragged in every tired article of faith from the media catechism on “right-wing extremism.” The result is a caricature designed to foment a two-minutes hate for Bannon.
“Cambridge Analytica,” for example, which turned out to just be the usual use of Facebook data for predicting voter behavior (something for which the Obama campaign was extravagantly praised in 2008 and 2012, and which had become standard for all well-funded campaigns – including Hillary Clinton’s – by 2016), is depicted as a diabolical plot. As with all the other themes-n-tropes, CNN offered no explanatory specifics to justify its claims about the nature of the “Cambridge Analytica” rap. It just interviewed people on camera who said that what was happening was alarming or whatever, without being explicit as to what it entailed.
Viktor Orban of Hungary makes his usual appearance as the most vicious autocrat on the planet, with Bannon tarred by association with him. Slogans like “blood and soil” are tossed around in proximity to both of them – without evidence of any such allusions on their part – seeming to imply a connection (that doesn’t exist) with neo-Nazism.
At one point, CNN leaves a damning impression by making a drive-by reference not to what Bannon or another key personality said or did, but to what some commenters at Breitbart were saying, in threads on topics in which Bannon made an appearance. (If we used the same comment-thread standard on the other end of the political spectrum, we could attribute to, say, Jake Sullivan or Colin Kahl a bloodthirst like Lavrentii Beria’s for torturing designated “political enemies” to death or shipping them off to excruciating forced-labor sojourns, featuring starvation and disease, in Siberia.)
Trump’s early decision to seat Bannon on the National Security Council – a presidential discretionary move no different from decisions made about high-level aides by previous presidents – is presented almost as an effort to subvert the U.S. federal government. (It’s probably true that Bannon wasn’t a real clubbable “interagency process” guy. But as a non-Principal of the NSC, Bannon wouldn’t have had an institutional vote on top-line issues or been a member of the Principals Committee. CNN didn’t mention that part.)
Yada-yada-yada; etc., etc. The central passage in the CNN special shows Bannon’s comments to colleagues shortly before Election Day in 2020, in which he was recorded describing his version of what Trump planned to do on election night. It’s perfectly legitimate for CNN to run that recording and frame it prejudicially; the framing is CNN’s editorial choice, if they run the recording fair and square. Bannon’s words rolled out a red carpet for prejudicial framing, in any case, something for which he had only himself to blame.
But CNN cooked its credibility with the rest of the hour filled to overflowing with tendentious claptrap. Steve Bannon’s comments about ta Trump election plan were basically the only part of the CNN special that wasn’t reprehensibly misleading about Bannon, his work and motives, and his role with Trump. Watching for that hour on Sunday night was a melancholy reminder of why no one trusts the media anymore.
The bonus observation for this edition of the Ready Room comprises a few remarks about energy prices and the Biden administration’s intentions.
For many readers, I probably don’t need to point out that the sense of waiting for the price-surge storm to stop, and for things to get back to normal, is a false one.
But for others, reality may not have registered yet. Team “Biden” intends to ensure that we never go back.
The “cabal” behind Biden (Time’s word, not mine) wants the end of this to be an America that doesn’t look like the one we live in today. Your gas-guzzler will no longer be on the road; if you’re one of the many fewer Americans still driving a personal vehicle, it will be an electric vehicle – and they don’t care how many applications it isn’t suited for, like supporting the transport needs of your plumbing business, or hauling a horse trailer or a boat trailer yourself, rather than always having to pay a contractor to do it.
You’ll just have to learn to code instead of wrangling pipe under your own brand. You’ll have to sell off your horses. You’ll need to rent a boat when you get to the lake, if the bus goes there and you can afford to be selfish about recreation during a climate crisis; plus, we’ll be transitioning away from fossil-fueled boats anyway, tool. Marinas for local boat parking will be declared carbon-free zones. (Just forget being a small family fishing enterprise, servicing local markets. Not happening. Too much process that can’t be replicated with EVs and mass transit.)
Otherwise, be a millionaire and billionaire and buy yourself a humongous yacht with its own helicopter deck and small boat bay.
Sure, there’s only one of you, and the humongous yacht business can’t help sustain a robust economy as thousands of independent plumbers can, or businesses that cater to middle-class recreation (not to mention fishing for food) and small ranching and animal husbandry. A lot of people do those latter things, while hardly anyone is in the humongous yacht market. But it’s those small entrepreneurs tending R1-residential plumbing, and people’s handfuls of farting horses, which make owners imagine they, personally, need excess land, who are an infestation on the planet.
It’s not an accident that new fuel economy standards proposed by the Biden administration will make it effectively impossible by the end of this decade for car manufacturers to continue offering “carbon-fuel” vehicles. (Read the whole Heritage piece at the link, if you haven’t yet.)
The end of this decade would coincide pretty well with January 2029, the originally foreseeable end of a two-term Biden presidency. If a transition to another cabal-enabled president is made in 2024, that’s an additional four years to cement the energy “transition.”
Which is what Team Biden has in view. This situation with catastrophically spiraling energy prices isn’t a bug. It’s a feature, and the purpose of it is apparently to crash the existing economy so that there’s less resistance to “rebuilding” it; i.e., transitioning away from it entirely.
Sure, it looks like crashing the economy mainly to those who can’t continue in their line of work without the individual-oriented energy infrastructure that includes things like step-vans and pickup-truck/trailer assortments, with which you can travel however you need or want to rather than having the constraints of electric charging govern your calculations.
If you do other work, if you drive to an office or factory job, well, for one thing, you can just ride the bus and the train. Get over yourself. But if you insist, you can also easily adapt to a sedan or crossover type EV to make those short distances, and recharge at night (or at work), because you have regular hours and you’ll never have to haul anything heavy with your EV, just to get your work done.
Homo sapiens being a shortsighted species, you may continue in the blissful confidence that a massively disruptive energy “transition” isn’t nearly as bad as all those benighted conspiracy theorists claim. It’s barely affecting you, after all.
Of course, farmers, ranchers, landscapers, plumbers, mobile caterers, food truck vendors, local moving and delivery businesses – even moms with kids who play the bass violin – can’t “just ride the subway” with all their stuff. They can’t just switch their diesel- and gas-powered utility vehicles and machinery to batteries, or plug them into a grid to make them go.
But who needs them?
If “Biden” goes on unchecked, we’re going to find out the hard way who needs them.
It’s the 2020s – which have been targeted since the late-1990s (e.g., for CAFE standards) as the transition decade – and “Biden” is determined to see the transition through, and change everything starting already 18 months ago. In the 1990s, the 2020s were a long way away. But in 2022, it’s no longer theoretical and in the future. The ugly economic consequences we’re living through are the beginning of a process there’s no intention of stopping.
The spokespeople are actually saying this. John Kerry said not long ago during a visit in Poland that we’re behind on the “transition” to “green energy,” and we’ve got to accelerate our push.
Biden’s chief economic advisor Brian Deese has said it several times in the last few months.
His comment about stroking to the “liberal world order” a couple of weeks ago was one of the most notable instances, and that comment is best interpreted in the context of his campaign to sell what we’re being forcibly transitioned to: an order that includes “green energy” and specifically does not include the whole economy we’re transitioning away from, very likely at the cost of your business, your job, your food on the table, your single-family dwelling, your individual, personally operated vehicle, and your discretion over everything from church attendance and schooling for the kids to travel, recreation, and how you shop, and for what.
And that’s all aside from the discouraging reality that the capacity of “green energy” won’t be anywhere close to keeping us in the energy needs of hospitals and emergency responders by the end of this decade, which is now only eight years away. Not if we hope to keep everyone else’s lights and refrigerators on.
Of course, the larger point is that “we” don’t. Biden has said that the pain of today is the price we’ll have to pay to get to the “sustainable” future. It isn’t a gentle, manageable transition. It’s going to cost a lot of people a lot, but “we’re” plowing ahead with it regardless.
The collective vision of global “civil society” activists is that we don’t continue living as we have throughout your life. If you’ve been awake at all in the last decade – if you remember the Obama administration’s “Julia,” for example – you know that the vision is for most of us to end up in undisclosed living situations on government pensions, tending little plots in a community garden. We seem to get one kid each; spouse optional.
(The “Life of Julia” presentation was scrubbed rather quickly from Obama’s 2012 campaign website, and was rescued for posterity by conservatives. This is the closest I found to a re-creation of it without any counter-rhetoric embedded.)
At a certain point, we apparently may be able to give up at least some of that community-garden acreage, because we’ll be eating nutritious bugs.
Feature image: U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Felix Garza Jr. (Via Wikimedia Commons)