How It Could Happen, Part One: Hubris
Over the course of this year, my posts here on The Archdruid Report have tried to outline the trajectory of America’s global empire and explore the reasons why that trajectory will likely come to a sudden stop in the near future. To bring the issue down out of the realm of abstraction and put them in the context of history as lived, I’ve returned to the toolkit of narrative fiction, and this and the next four posts will sketch out a scenario of American imperial defeat and collapse. The narrative takes place at some unspecified point in the next two decades; it’s probably necessary to say outright that is not how I think the end of America’s empire will happen, simply one way that it could happen—and thus a model that may help expose some of the vulnerabilities of the self-proclaimed hyperpower currently tottering toward history’s compost bin.
The news of the latest Tanzanian deepwater oil discovery broke on an otherwise sleepy Saturday in March. Thirty years before, a find of the same size might have gotten two column inches somewhere in the back pages of a few newspapers of record, but this was not thirty years ago. In a world starved for oil, what might once have been considered a modest find earned banner headlines.
It certainly loomed large in the East Wing of the White House, where the president and his advisers held a hastily called meeting that evening. “The Chinese already have it wrapped up,” said the Secretary of Energy. “Tanzania’s in their pocket, and there are CNOOC people—” CNOOC was the Chinese National Overseas Oil Corporation, the state-owned firm that spearheaded China’s quest for foreign oil. “—all over the place on site and in Dar es Salaam.”
“Is it close enough to Kenyan waters—”
“Not a chance, Mr. President. It’s 200 nautical miles away from the disputed zone, and that last clash with the Tanzanians isn’t something Nairobi wants to repeat.”
“Dammit, we need that oil.” The president turned and walked over to the window.
He was right, of course, and “we” didn’t just refer to the United States. Jameson Weed won the White House the previous November with a campaign focused with laser intensity on getting the US out of its long and worsening economic slump. Winning the country a bigger share of imported oil was the key to making good on that promise, but that was easier said than done; behind what was left of the polite fiction of a free market in petroleum, most oil that crossed national borders did so according to political deals between producer countries and those consuming countries strong and wealthy enough to compete. These days, more often than not, the US lost out—and the impact of that reality on Weed’s upcoming reelection campaign was very much on the minds of everyone in the room.
“There’s one option,” said the president’s national security adviser. “Regime change.”
President Weed turned back from the window to face the others. The Secretary of Defense cleared his throat. “Sooner or later,” he said, “the Chinese are going to stand and fight.”
The national security adviser gave him a contemptuous look. “They don’t dare,” she said. “They know who’s boss, and it’s too far from their borders for their force projection capacity, anyway. They’ll back down the way they did in Gabon.”
The president glanced from one to the other. “It’s an option,” he said. “I want a detailed plan on my desk in two weeks.”
* * *
Regime change wasn’t as simple as it used to be. That was the sum of scores of conversations in meeting rooms in the Pentagon and the CIA headquarters in Langley as the plan came together. Gone were the easy days of the “color revolutions,” when a few billion dollars funneled through Company-owned NGOs could buy a mass uprising and panic an unprepared government into collapse. The second generation strategies that worked so well in Libya and half a dozen other places—backing the manufactured uprising with mercenaries, special forces, and a no-fly zone—stopped working in turn once target governments figured out how to fight it effectively. Now it usually took ground troops backed up by air power to finish the job of replacing an unfriendly government with a compliant one.
Still, it was a familiar job by this point, and the officials in charge got the plan put together in well under the two weeks the president had given them. A few days later, when it came back signed and approved, the wheels started turning. Money flowed to CIA front organizations all over East Africa; Company assets in Tanzania began recruiting the ambitious, the dissatisfied, and the idealistic to staff the cadres that would organize and lead the uprising; elsewhere, mercenaries were hired and the usual propaganda mills went into action. The government of Kenya, the nearest American client state, was browbeaten into accepting American troops on its border with Tanzania, and a third carrier strike group was mobilized and sent on its way to join the two already within range.
It took only a few weeks for the government of Tanzania to figure out that its recent good luck had put it in the crosshairs of American power. One afternoon in early May, after a detailed briefing from his intelligence chief, the president of Tanzania summoned the Chinese ambassador to a secret meeting, and told him bluntly, “If you abandon us now we are lost.” The ambassador promised only to relay the message to Beijing, but he did so within minutes of returning to the Chinese embassy, and included a detailed and urgent commentary of his own.
Three days later, a dozen men sat down around a table in a conference room in Beijing. A staff member poured tea and disappeared. After an hour’s discussion, one of the men at the meeting said, “What is it that the Americans say? ‘Draw a line in the sand?’ I propose that this is the time and place to do that.”
A quiet murmur of agreement went around the table. In the days that followed, a different set of officials drew up a very different set of plans.
* * *
The port at Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s capital and biggest city, was a busy place, thronged with oil tankers carrying black gold to China and its allies, and container ships bringing goods of every description, mostly from China, for the booming Tanzanian economy. In the bustle, no one paid much attention to the arrival of a series of plain shipping containers from Chinese ports, which were offloaded from an assortment of ordinary container ships and trucked to half a dozen inconspicuous warehouse districts along the coast between Dar es Salaam and the northern port city of Tanga. CIA agents watching for signs of a Chinese response missed them completely.
More generally, the number of container shipments to Tanzania and half a dozen other Chinese client states in Africa ticked up slightly—not enough to rouse suspicions, but then nobody in the US learned how many African companies found themselves facing unexpected delays in getting the Chinese merchandise they had ordered, so that other cargoes took the space that would have been theirs. Nor did anyone in the US worry much about the increased number of young Chinese men who flew to Africa during the four months before the war began. US intelligence did notice them, and their arrival sparked a brief debate at Langley—military observers, one faction among US intelligence advisors insisted, there to snoop on American military technology; military advisors, another faction claimed, there to assist the Tanzanian army against the American forces that were already gathering in Kenya.
Both factions were wrong. Most of the tight-lipped young men went to ground near those same warehouse districts between Dar es Salaam and Tanga, where the contents of those shipping containers were assembled, tested, and readied. Meanwhile, thousands of miles away, the Peoples Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) shifted six fighter wings, equipped with some of China’s most advanced aircraft, to Central Asian bases. The Chinese government had announced that it would be holding joint military exercises that August with Russia, and so the satellite photos of Chengdu J-20 fighters parked in the deserts of Turkestan got an incurious glance or two in Langley, and went into filing cabinets.
* * *
After years of budget battles on Capitol Hill, the US military was not quite so powerful or so swift to deploy as it had been in the last years of the twentieth century. Only two of the remaining eight carrier strike groups—CSGs, in naval jargon—were on station at any time, one in the western Pacific and one shuttling back and forth between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean; transport was a growing challenge by sea or air, and borrowing airliners from the civilian air fleet, a mainstay of late twentieth century Pentagon planning, was less simple to arrange now that air travel was only for the rich again. Still, the units assigned to the first phase of the Tanzanian operation—the 101st Airborne, the 6th Air Cavalry, and the 1st and 2nd Marine Divisions—were used to rounding up transport in a hurry and heading off on no notice to the far corners of the globe.
The first units of the 101st Airborne landed at Nairobi in the middle of May, when the heavy rains were over and the first riots were breaking out in Dar es Salaam. By the time President Weed gave his famous speech in Kansas City on June 20, denouncing atrocities he claimed had been committed by the Tanzanian government and proclaiming in ringing terms America’s unstinting readiness to support the quest for freedom around the world, all four divisions were settling into newly constructed bases in the upland country south of Kajiado, not far from the Tanzanian border. Alongside them, logistics staff and civilian contractors swarmed, getting ready for the two armored divisions, on their way from Germany by ship, who would fill out the land assault force, and the bulk of the supplies for the assault, which were on their way by sea from Diego Garcia.
Meanwhile three CSGs, headed by the nuclear carriers USS Ronald Reagan, USS John F. Kennedy, and USS George Washington, headed at cruising speed toward a rendezvous point in the western Indian Ocean, where they would meet the ships carrying the armored divisions from Germany and a dozen big supply ships from the Maritime Prepositioning Squadron based on Diego Garcia. Two Air Force fighter wings had already been assigned to the operation, and would arrive just before the carriers reached operational range; they and carrier-based planes would then take out the Tanzanian air force and flatten military targets across the country during the two weeks the armored divisions would need to land, join the rest of the force, and begin the ground assault. It was a standard plan for the quick elimination of the modest military forces of a midsized Third World country; its only weakness was that the US force was no longer facing a midsized Third World country.
* * *
In times of peace, August and September are the peak tourist season in East Africa; inland from the always humid coast, the climate is cool and dry, and the wide plains of the interior are easy to travel. Since plains in cool dry weather are among the best places on earth for an assault by tanks and attack helicopters, these were also the months the Pentagon’s planners assigned for Operation Blazing Torch, the liberation of Tanzania. Briefing papers handed to President Weed in late July sketched out the final details, and he nodded and signed off on the final orders for the invasion. The Secretary of Defense looked on from the other side of the room with a silent frown. He had tried several times to bring up the small but real chance that the Chinese might retaliate, and had his advice dismissed by Weed and mocked to his face by the president’s national security adviser and Vice President Gurney. As soon as this thing was over, he told himself for the fifteenth time, he would hand in his resignation.
Outside the White House windows, barely visible in the distance, a small band of protesters kept up a desultory vigil in the free-speech zone set aside for them. Pedestrians hurried past, ignoring the chanted slogans and the protest signs. It was another brutally hot summer day in Washington DC, part of the “new normal” that the media talked about when they couldn’t avoid mentioning the shifting climate altogether. Out beyond the Beltway, half the country was gripped by yet another savage drought; the states of Iowa and Georgia had just suspended payment on their debts, roiling the financial markets; eyes across the southeast turned nervously toward a tropical storm, poised off the Windwards, that showed every sign of turning into the season’s first big hurricane.
What many perceptive observers recalled afterward was the sullen mood that gripped the country that summer. Only the media and the most shameless of national politicians tried to pretend that the approaching war with Tanzania was about anything but oil; the president’s approval rating drifted well below 25%, which was still three times that of Congress and well above that of any credible candidate the other party had to offer; the usual clichés spewed from the usual pundits, but the only people who were listening were the pundits themselves. Across the nation and across the political spectrum, the patience of the American people was visibly running short.
Those who were dissatisfied had plenty of reasons. The intractable economic slump that had gripped the country since 2008 showed no sign of lifting, despite repeated bailouts of the financial industry that were each proclaimed as the key to returning prosperity, and repeated elections in which each candidate claimed to have fresh new ideas and then pursued the same failed policies once in office. The fracking boom of the early twenty-teens was practically ancient history; energy prices were high, and straggling higher; gasoline bumped against $7 a gallon that summer before slumping most of the way back to $6.50. None of these things were new, but they seemed to infect the national mood more powerfully than before. Shortly they would help spark an explosion—but there would be other explosions first.
At the end of July, the invasion task force assembled in the Indian Ocean almost two thousand miles east of the Kenyan coast. Fleet Admiral Julius T. Deckmann, commanding the task force, made sure everything was in order before giving the orders to sail west. A career officer with half a dozen combat assignments behind him, Deckmann had learned to trust his intuition, and his intuition told him that something was not right. From the bridge of the USS George Washington, his flagship, he considered the assembled fleet, shook his head, and ordered reconnaissance drones sent up. Real-time images from US spy satellites showed nothing out of the ordinary; data from the AWACS plane circling high overhead confirmed that, and so did the drones, once data started coming in from them. Deckmann’s unease remained as days passed uneventfully and the task force neared East Africa.
The fleet reached its assigned position off the Kenyan coast on schedule. Final news came via secure satellite link from Washington: the Air Force fighter wings had arrived and were ready for action; the Tanzanian Freedom Council, the puppet government-in-exile manufactured by the State Department, had called “the nations of the world” to liberate their country, a plea that everyone knew was directed at one nation alone; the CIA-led mercenaries who spearheaded the second, violent phase of the uprising had withdrawn from Dar es Salaam, leaving the local cadres to their fate, and were moving toward the Kenyan border to open the way for the invasion. Deckmann made sure every ship in his fleet was ready as the sun set in red haze over the distant African coast.
Very few of those involved in the war got much sleep, that last night before the shooting began. On the three carriers, and at two newly constructed airfields in southern Kenya, aircrews worked through the dark hours to get their planes ready for battle, unaware that other aircrews were doing the same thing thousands of miles away in Central Asia. Soldiers of the two armored divisions that had been brought down from Germany prepared for a landing in Mombasa most of them would not live to see. In Dar es Salaam and Nairobi, presidents met with their cabinets and then headed for heavily guarded bunkers; elsewhere in the world, heads of state read intelligence briefings and braced themselves for crisis.
Two hours before the East African dawn, the waiting ended. Two people ended it. One was Admiral Deckmann, barking out the orders that sent the first fighter-bombers roaring off the deck of the George Washington and the first Tomahawk cruise missiles blazing skywards. The other was an officer in a Chinese command center deep in central Asia, who watched the planes take off and the missiles launch, courtesy of a high-altitude observation drone—one of three that had been following the George Washington since it went through the Suez Canal, and were now stationed high above the fleet. As infrared images showed planes and missiles hurtling toward Tanzania, the officer typed rapidly on a keyboard and then hit enter twice. With the second click of the enter key, the Chinese response began.
End of the World of the Week #42
In the world of apocalyptic fantasy, an engineer’s degree is very often a passport to success. An engineer’s training focuses on figuring what can happen, not what did happen or will happen, and so engineers reign supreme in many fields of rejected knowledge; from creation science through the quest for ancient astronauts to past and present claims of imminent apocalypse, books by retired engineers are usually the most imaginative and least inhibited works on their eccentric subjects.
Retired electrical engineer Hugh Auchincloss Brown was a classic of the type, and had an even more vivid imagination than most of his peers. In his book Cataclysms of the Earth (1967), he argued that the amount of ice at the south pole was steadily increasing, and the excess weight would eventually cause the planet to unbalance and flip over in space, devastating the entire surface of the globe and leaving few survivors. Moreover, he insisted, this had happened before: the present Antarctic ice cap was “the successor to a long lineage of glistening assassins of former civilizations on this planet.”
Brown died in 1976, convinced to the end that the cataclysm was already overdue and might occur at any moment. His theory found eager listeners among late 20th century fans of apocalypse, but lost market share as better measurements made it clear that the ice cap on Antarctica is contracting, not expanding.
—for more failed end time prophecies, see my book Apocalypse Not
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