September 2014

Positive Feedback

//mark jay


The American response to August’s armed conflicts in Palestine, Syria, and Iraq has been, for the most part, to answer violence with more violence. Despite its calls for diplomatic resolution, the US has officiously entered each of the above conflicts by either giving military aid — to rebel groups in the case of Syria, to governments in the case of Israel and Libya — or directly joining the fighting.

2014 ©   Lyz Luidens  ,  "Empathy"

2014 © Lyz Luidens, "Empathy"

In order to get a handle on the ongoing violence, it might be useful to refer to the concept of positive feedback. Positive feedback is a nonlinear process in which the causes and the effects are mutually intensifying; the effects act back on and intensify the causes (a produces more of b, which in turn produces more of a, ad infinitum). Recent American foreign policy has shown that 1) war is in a positive feedback loop with war, and 2) war is in a positive feedback loop with both environmental crises and development.

The Cycle of War in the Middle East

The underlying ethos of the American response to violence in “strategic” global regions is neatly summed up in a CRS report to Congress, “US Foreign Aid to Israel”: “Peace will not be made without strength. Peace will not be made without Israel being strong in the future.”

Pursuant of this strategy of strengthening Israel, throughout Operation Protective Edge (Israel’s ground and air assault of Gaza this July and August) Obama has allowed Israel to resupply itself with 40mm grenades and 120mm mortar rounds. Despite celebrating the truce agreement reached in late August between Israel and Palestinian authorities, the US government is also poised to double military aid to Israel in 2015.

The present situation in Iraq and Syria is a particularly striking example of the positive feedback of American intervention in the Middle East. Professor Vijay Prashad of Trinity College has argued that ISIS can be seen as an outgrowth of the 2003 Iraq War. According to Prashad, high-ranking members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party who were forced out during the American offensive helped to “reconfigure a very weird kind of Islamic Baathism ... link with the Islamic State, and provide the Islamic State, therefore, with the sophisticated battlefield experience of the Baath Party officers. And that ups the game .… So, this is the reason why I point the finger directly at the nature of the American destruction of the Iraqi state.” Now that the US has at least in part helped to create the Islamic State (ISIS), they are furthering the cycle of violence by attempting to thwart their advances in Iraq with a campaign of airstrikes. As of this copy, the US has already begun flying surveillance drones over Syria to monitor ISIS, and Obama is reported to be considering overt military action in Syria.    

Professor Prashad has been similarly critical of the US and NATO aerial bombardment of Libya in 2011. Although Gaddafi had an exceptionally brutal record of human rights violations, the heavy bombing of Libya has made the transition to a stable political state all but impossible. In a flailing attempt to help quell the chaotic violence that has plagued the country since Gaddafi’s ouster, the US government has sent the Libyan government $240 million to help address its “security concerns.” As Prashad argued in an interview on Democracy Now, although it was the United Arab Emirates that flummoxed the Obama administration by  carrying out their own round of air strikes in Libya in late August, the ongoing civil war in Libya still cannot be disentangled from the 2011 US/NATO bombing campaign:

When Gaddafi’s son visited Benghazi a week into the rebellion, he came running back to Tripoli and said, you know, ‘Papa, it’s over. We’ve lost Benghazi.’ You know, they essentially ceded that part of the country. Libya was going — Gaddafi’s rule was going to fall ... It was inevitable that Gaddafi was going to lose power. Let the process take its own way … Let there be a political dialogue within the rebellion. Let them create alternative structures of power. If you just give the Libyan people a destroyed country, how are they going to build a future? And that was the real danger of aerial bombardment of the style the Americans conduct. They level countries and then tell people, ‘Well, create a democracy.’ It doesn’t work like that.

The American strategy of peace via force has been espoused by both the Washington Post and The New York Times. Both papers have recently called on Obama to upgrade American military involvement in Iraq. The Post published an article which insisted that “both drones and manned aircraft would probably be useful tools, but they might not be enough,” and the Times editorial board argued that in order to stop the “terrorist forces,” the US government should “move quickly to meet the Kurds’ needs for ammunition and weapons.” The latter call to arms may be particularly unsettling for those who remember when Times’ columnist Thomas Friedman backed war in Iraq in 2003, claiming that the US needed to tell the Iraqi people to “suck on this.”

Both the Times and the Post have been keen to focus on the varying pretexts for the US war on terror — ranging from security concerns to the intermittent need to avert humanitarian crises — however, for the purposes of this analysis, I will focus on the perpetuity of American involvement in the Middle East rather than the range of pretexts. It has been widely documented that the global war on terror has increased terrorism; terrorist attacks have increased nearly fivefold since 2003, and the upsurge has been documented as largely a response to extra-legal killings and foreign occupation. [1] This stark fact has led not to a reduction in the US’s interventions in the Middle East. Rather, interventions have increased. The US Central Command, a command center responsible for US security abroad, according to its own website, is actively involved in 20 countries across the Middle East region. The extent of the US’s military involvement in the Middle East evidences unyielding dogmatism in Washington with regards to its flailing attempts to securitize the region; or, perhaps, it shows that the US has no real intention of ever reducing its involvement in the Middle East, that in the absence of attainable ends, the means themselves become the ends.

In other words, although the US’s efforts to stabilize the Middle East through military conflict may always result in instability, this will simply result in further opportunities to re-stabilize the region. So long as the US can debt-finance its military efforts — helped in part by militarizing other parts of the world, as in Tunisia, where the US just sold 12 black hawk helicopters for $700 million to help the Tunisian government repress its country’s infighting — war will simply beget more war.

There were 33 armed conflicts in 2013, most in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East [2]

There were 33 armed conflicts in 2013, most in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East [2]

War and Environmental Crises

The tragic nature of the positive feedback relationship between war and environmental crises can been seen unfolding in the Syrian Civil War. Between 2006 and 2011, as a result of climate change, Syria was plagued by the worst drought and resultant crop failures in the country’s recorded history. This led to massive population migrations and high unemployment; water and food became precarious resources; and the collapsing economic conditions added impetus to political and ideological disputes. Eventually the country boiled over into civil war.

In turn, the more-than-three years of violent conflict has exacerbated the environmental crisis that in part gave birth to it. Clean water is increasingly scarce as pollution resulting from the conflict has made much of the country’s water undrinkable. The bombing has also made much of Syria’s land unfarmable. The ruined land and the massive migrations from Syria have resulted the country's agricultural capabilities being destroyed, leading millions to crowd refugee camps. Presently, millions of Syrian refugees are almost entirely dependent on humanitarian aid for their day-to-day survival.

And the vicious cycle continues to this day. The deteriorating environmental conditions in Syria have not abated fighting; rather, the vicious cycle continues: the more Syria’s land is devastated, the worse the conditions of drought, the more ideal Syria becomes as the site of an intensified proxy war aimed at filling the socio-political-ideological vacuum.

The 2013 IPCC assessment on Climate Change has documented the lessons from the leadup to the Syrian Civil War, warning that climate change threatens food security, causes poverty, and increases the risk of violent conflict. Compounding the IPCC’s findings, the National Academy of Sciences have published a report finding that the “response to temperature [increases] suggests a roughly 54% increase in armed conflict incidence by 2030.”

It seems that military conflict as a result of environmental crisis is something the US has prepared for. The US African Command is already involved militarily in 54 African countries where conditions of drought and environmental degradation are most severe. And according to a 2012 US Intelligence Community Assessment, titled “Global Water Security:"

"During the next 10 years, many countries important to the United States will experience water problems — shortages, poor water quality, or floods — that will risk instability and state failure, increase regional tensions, and distract them from working with the United States." [3]

2014 ©   Erica Hernandez  ,  "Untitled"

2014 © Erica Hernandez, "Untitled"

The assessment no doubt has in mind that more than 50% of oil wells drilled since 2011 were in areas experiencing drought. Thus, American access to energy resources is invariably tied up with issues of water security. But if the US’s response to its threatened access to the global reservoir of energy is military intervention, then it will only plunge the world deeper into the cycle of environmental calamity and war.

Just as the IPCC has warned that environmental crises leads to war, so does war lead to environmental crises. As the Pentagon has ramped up its activity across the globe, it should come as little surprise that the largest consumer of oil in the US is the Pentagon, spending $17.3 billion on petroleum alone in 2011. Despite documentation that the Department of Defense produces more hazardous waste than the US’s largest five chemical companies combined, President Obama has signed an executive order ensuring that military operations will not in any way be checked by international or domestic environmental laws. [4] But it is not just an American problem: up to 10% of global air pollution is caused by military activity. [5]

Another aspect of the cycle of war and environmental crises is the tendency of military conflict to destroy a land’s ability to cultivate food. The two previous American wars in Iraq “have created severe desertification of 90 percent of the land, changing Iraq from a food exporter into a country that imports of 80 percent of its food.” [6] According to sociologist Daniel Faber, the same phenomenon can be seen in Central America, where political instability was the result of

Vietnam-style ‘scorched earth’ operations and military maneuvers [which] have obliterated vast agricultural lands and crucial ecosystems, pushing millions of refugees into overcrowded cities and overtaxed hillsides. A US military official happily reported that in Honduras ‘you don’t need to worry … about the EPA or ... environmentalists. Those are not concerns down there.’
— [7]

Another node in the positive feedback machine is cement, which is the second most consumed substance on Earth after water. In the aftermath of wars and environmental crises, cement is the material of choice for development and rebuilding. Gaza requires 50,000 tons of cement to rebuild destroyed homes after Israel’s military assault, and another 41,000 tons will be needed in Gaza for public buildings. And the rate of cement consumption is growing rapidly: as it invested more and more of its surplus into building new cities, China used more cement in the past three years than the US did in all of the 20th century. This is ominous for the environment; even before China’s industrial boom, the cement industry was responsible for 5% of global CO2 emissions. [8]

                                              The New York Times Top Headlines from August 27, 2014

                                              The New York Times Top Headlines from August 27, 2014

In May of this year, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon wrote an op-ed in The Guardian, a call to arms for action on climate change. His plan is essentially to assemble the world’s top leaders in hopes of creating legislative solutions to the problem that “affects us all.” Unfortunately, legislation seems an insufficient tool to solve a problem as interwoven as climate change. As we have seen, climate change is but one of many interrelated forces acting on one another and producing wide-sweeping and mutually intensifying global effects. Any effort to address climate change must necessarily account for war’s intensifying effect on global temperatures and environmental disasters, as well as environmental disasters' intensifying effect on global war. Cement’s disastrous environmental impact also indicate that it should not be the substance forming the backbone of any sustainable global development model.

In other words, the issues of war, power, environmental crises, and development are hard to disentangle. Legislation can attempt to curb emissions, but can we really hope to significantly change the outputs of the world system without first addressing the relations between its inputs?

//Mark Jay is a co-founder of The Periphery.


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