Tag Archives: Pearl Harbor

Pearl Harbor, 9/11, Ebola

When all the debris is cleared away from the present controversies concerning the possibility of an outbreak of the deadly virus Ebola in the U.S., an important geopolitical marker will be registered.
Epidemics have invaded U.S. shores before of course. There was the notable worldwide influenza epidemic [“Spanish ‘flu”] of 1918 which claimed 50 million lives worldwide. As World War I was ending, it laid low almost half of the then mobilized American soldiers, killing more than died in combat. In an era of poorer sanitation, long before antibiotics and the sulfa drugs and some of today’s routine emergency medical procedures, more than 375,000 died in the U.S. But it was also the world of steamships not of vast international air traffic.
Today on an annual basis the highly mutable influenza virus, often sweeping out of south China, claims an average of 200,000 victims in the U.S. with deaths often reaching 35,000 among the more vulnerable, especially the elderly.
Again with the prospect of an invasion of Ebola – against which there is not yet a cure with mortality in Africa running as high as 70% – Americans face a possibility, however remote, of a health catastrophe.
That the U.S. was not prepared is obvious; how could it be otherwise? That the Obama Administration did not take adequate measures when a threat was identified will be debated long after the November mid-term elections are decided and gone. At what level blame for the initial chaotic preparation for an onslaught should be assigned to the $3 trillion annual government and private health care establishment will also be a subject for discussion. Will the Ebola crisis focus the spotlight on hospital-acquired infections costing $30 billion annually and leading to nearly 100,000 patient deaths a year?
But what appears already clear is that the whole Ebola affair forces a turn on the political consciousness of the American electorate. It goes further than identifying the immediate culprits/scapegoats. Just as Pearl Harbor destroyed for all time the U.S. dogma that it was protected from foreign attack by two wide oceans, 9/11/2001 demonstrated how vulnerable the homeland – a word rarely employed before that time – was to clever if accident-prone fanatics. That both these episodes could have been prevented, that with 20-20 hindsight the most fundamental aspects of security were breached, is not a new phenomenon in the history of the U.S. and other great powers. Historical calamities, however destructive, most often are like personal disaster, are the result of pervasive stupidity — even in political circles.
But “Ebola” has taken on grandiose proportions, whether indeed an epidemic materializes in the U.S. With near panic in some quarters, and certainly with the full faith and credit of the 24-hour media, the internet, and its new bastard offspring, the social networks, the American public is being bombarded with the imagined reality of an Ebola epidemic in the U.S.
What is obvious if yet widely still unacknowledged, is that Americans are getting demonstrable proof that even “local” epidemics in as isolated parts of the world as tropical west Africa are a threat to American domestic peace and stability. [There may be some irony in the fact that Liberia owes its founding to Americans. Monrovia, its capital, named after James Monroe, one of the Founding Fathers and the fifth U.S. president, was an ardent supporter of freed American black slaves colonizing the area.]
The world intrudes, whether the delivery of a poisonous Brazilian Wandering spider with his tropical fruit to an unsuspecting British householder using internet delivery or the spread of one of the several killing hemorrhagic fevers of Africa [including Ebola] for which science does not yet have a defense through the growing worldwide migrations for business and pleasure.
Isolation is a thing of the past. The old-fashioned and somewhat effective method of quarantine so long used against disease contagion and infection becomes problematical in a world where one aircraft not only hosts 100 passengers or more but where it is run through a half dozen airports in all directions within 24 hours.
The burden, then, of being one’s brother’s keeper not only becomes a laudatory moral precept but a necessary function if such pandemics are not increasingly to spread worldwide. That is not only in terms of helping to prevent the suffering and death of disease of West Africans is already demonstrating, but in terms of the world economy and individual livelihood. Firestone’s hospital on its 100-year-old leased lands in Liberia which have long been the beginning of where the rubber meets the road in America are going to have to take on new duties [and costs]. Exxon’s postponed drilling in West Africa, including Nigeria which until recently supplied 10% of American oil imports, is going to effect cascading world energy prices.
Whatever its costs, by mid-October 2014 Ebola has become a notorious American household word. That infamy is likely to grow whether or not the virus spreads in the U.S. because the pandemic will continue to rage in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, and perhaps move elsewhere in Africa. [It takes its name from an identifiable outbreak in the Congo decades ago.] The still collapsing primitive health facilities that existed in West Africa before its onset, the tardiness of promised American aid through U.S. military construction of new health facilities, the lack of a European response, the abysmal failure of the UN World Health Organization –all indicate as much. So long as that is the case, even if the debate ends with a travel ban on these West African states, the threat will continue. [Their isolated jungle borders are commonly crossed by informal migrants. And one can only be suspicious of the claim of a quick end to the spread of the disease to neighboring countries.]
“Security”, therefore, in the new world of mass communication and increasing cheap and swift transportation now takes on new aspects.

Why is everything going wrong?

It isn’t.

There is an old axiom in the news business – or what is left of it as traditional newspapers die to be replaced, for the moment at least, by amateurism on the internet and its social networks – that good news is not news. So we get a steady diet from the media of the worst/most dramatic happenings, now delivered in seconds across the world, and in apocalyptic terms. For nothing is as common as the young [or willfully ignorant] journalist who writes about this or that particular happening as “the first time ever”, “the biggest ever”, or “it is in [whatever other way] unique”. More times than not, the event is a repetition, however singular in its own way in time and space, of something that has happened before. As clichés go, “there is nothing new under the sun” is not a bad one.

But in direct contradiction, I was astonished at a recent Fortune magazine item: entrepreneurs in California have launched a $220-million assembly line – and photographs do make the completely automated selection, weight and packing facility the size “of four football fields” look something like Henry Ford’s old original. It will send to market 800 bags of fruit or 18 million “mandarins” harvested daily. That’s a new undertaking in what is all but a stagnant economy, with massive unemployment, and a Washington economic policy at war with business. Mind you, I doubt the little fruit which it and another rival company are developing almost overnight in California – already reaching half the households in the U.S. according to Fortune — will taste as good as the little old fashion Florida tangerine or that most delicious of all fruits, the Japanese mikan. But it will give large numbers of the American people more access to a cheap [in real terms] citrus than they have ever had. And that, my man, is progress in the face of the welter of bad news all around us.

Okay, now that I have dispensed with the Pollyanna, what is going wrong and why?

For it is not to say that we are in the midst of a cataclysm of troubles, at home and abroad, or again, to deny we have seen far deeper crises. Think of Abraham Lincoln’s outlook at the eve of the civil war. Or, as I recently was telling a friend, it was my duty as a 15-year-old high schooler in January 1942 to go from classroom to classroom reciting a narrative on world events erupting out of Pearl Harbor. It was a grim list of defeats and retreats by the U.S. and its allies. Britain had survived the Blitz, eight months of bombing of civilian targets, but just. Hitler had launched [and we did not know it was to be a disaster] the largest military adventure of all time against the Soviet Union. Two of Britain’s vaunted battleships had been sunk off Malaya’s east coast anticipating the fall of Singapore, what Winston Churchill called the worst defeat in British military history. Most of our Pacific fleet had been sunk at Pearl Harbor with only the aircraft carriers luckily absent at sea. It was the worst of times.

That’s, of course, what we used to call “the old Buddhist argument, things could always be worse. We could be in a 1914 situation – although I think the current widespread comparison highly deficient – and facing such calamities. But for the moment, our concerns of the worst and longest recession in the post-World War II American economy – with its repercussions for rest of the world – and a spate of regional conflicts, however bloody and ugly, around the world, is not the terrible conflict of World War II.

Truth is the carefully manicured narratives of past history usually present a straight-line story of what we now see as the major issues. But during the time those events were transpiring, the contemporaries probably felt the same way we do today, harassed by a whole series of displacements and conflicts, some of them bearing directly on our own lives.

Still, having listed all these caveats, it is appropriate, I believe, to look around and see what is happening and make our guesses as to why:

1] The world since 1945 had learned to live with one major, dominating power, the United States. Not only had it not seen at home the depredations which had scourged Europe and Asia, but it had grown new muscle in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s economic mobilization for war despite the tragic loss of 416,000 lives in combat. The overwhelming majority of industrial and agricultural production lay with the U.S. and whether it chose to use it or not, gave it the power to try to decide world events.

In the midst of the worst zig in the business cycle since the Great Depression of the 1930s. we have an administration in Washington – in part representing a war-weary electorate and an increasingly redistribution of world power – with the most nexperience president and adminmistrative team in modern U.S. history. To add to the difficulties, Pres. Barack Obama believes he has received two mandates to “transform” the American economy and political scene. A part of his program is to increase the “redistricutive” mechanism of the U.S. government through heavier taxation and regulation.

Internationally, the President attempts to step back from the role Washington has taken during the whole post-World War II period. He proposes to “lead from behind”, imitating the old adage that the dagger being at its most powerful when it is still in the scabbard. The President and advisers believe they are sophisticated enough to arrange new patterns of world relationships which would require no U.S. military application of force while we tend to our own somewhat dilapidated infrastructure and meet the demands of a new post-digital revolutionary age.

But the question that goes begging is whether Washington may well have done is to remove itself from regional conflicts [except as feckless mediators] throughout the world leaving a large vacuum permitting the play of the always present destabilizing and destructive forces.

2] The Cold War is over and with it, largely, the alternative a vast bureaucracy forcing a top-down social engineering on a goodly section of the European population under the name of Communism. That was supposed to result in “a peace dividend” for the U.S. economy and the American people. That has not come to pass, in part because the largest part of maintaining world order and stability continues to fall on the shoulders of the Americans. Also an old threat to Western dominance and civilization, the Arab/Muslim fanatic, has again risen to become an international menace.

Using much of the same technology which has enriched Western life and the newly developing economies, the jihadists have learned to project terror into the very heart of non-Muslim societies as well as exacerbate age-old bloody feuds among the Prophet’s followers. Having failed to make the transformation into modern societies, the Arab countries and other Muslim societies are again ravaged by old tribal and ethnic conflicts. But these threaten to spill over into other parts of the world as repeatedly Islamic terrorist acts, successful, or unsuccessful have dramatized. The failure of U.S. military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan to dramatically curtail these terrorist activities seems likely to continue to be a preoccupation of the U.S. and its allies into a distant future.

3] The digital revolution has unfurled technology beyond the wildest dreams of even its most astute advocates. [I am reminded of an old piece of advice from a friend when interviewing an academic on Latin America: “Remember he knows far more than he understands”.] In fact, it has created a second industrial revolution in which technology – sometimes even at minimum expense – has disrupted the whole schedule of work. Jobs and even careers thought essential to industrial societies for generations are being eliminated overnight. The complications are infinite as the Obama Administration’s ham-handed effort to reform U.S. medical services has demonstrated. Yes, medical expenses have grown disproportionately to the rest of society’s costs – although they may be slowing temporarily because of the economic recession. But is it not obvious that increasing applications of expensive new science to our aches and pains would do just that?

The unanticipated events and unintended consequences of this technology is upending the entire world, including setting up new relationships within the American domestic society as well as among nations. Nothing could be more indicative of the new situation than the internet which arose almost by accident and now dictates an increasing part of our economic and social life. That means that government policy, so often written to placate particular sections of the electorate, is often upended by the new technologies. No clearer example exists than the attempt of the Obama Administration to dictate energy goals has been totally vanquished by the introduction of new technologies with the shale gas revolution..

Life has never been simple – not since the first caveman hit the second caveman over the head with a club as they wrestled for the same piece of meat or the affections of a blonde playmate. Common sense tells us that despite the huge and unknowable advances in technology that will continue to be the order of the day.

So, make the best of it. There is a jungle out there and we all must gird our loins to cope. But that has been the nature of life on this planet from its inception. It behooves us to make the most of it and get on with the job of living even in these troubled, as they always are, times.


“Allez, Alphonse ..” “Mais non! après vous, mon cher Pierre …”

A tiny mid-July ballet among American, Chinese and UN statisticians camouflages a growing geopolitical threat: China’s unquenchable thirst for and America’s dependence on imported oil.

When a UN’s International Energy Agency official named China the world’s No. 1 energy consumer, surpassing the U.S., Zhou Xi’an, a Beijing energy official, quickly snapped: “We should be on guard with those exaggerated statistics, and what’s more, prevent the issue from being politicized.”

It may be the first time Beijing with its piquancy for gigantism – from population overcounts to the Olympics extravaganza to the elaborate Shanghai Exhibition to its growing bloated infrastructure — has tried for second place. True, America does consume per capita five times as much energy. But as the IEA notes, as with most Chinese statistics, Beijing’s 2009 energy numbers don’t match its GDP claims. It’s no secret that subsidies, general inefficiency and corruption have gorged Chinese consumption.

There are other reasons for Beijing’s sensitivity. In 2007 China zoomed by the U.S. as the world’s largest greenhouse gases emitter. Getting most of its electricity from coal, the most polluting fossil fuel, Beijing is under growing pressure to clean up its act.

But Zhou’s irritability hints at something far more significant.

In the early 1990s, Beijing became a net oil importer. And demand is growing exponentially as China moves into the motor age. [In 2009 China produced 13.79 million cars, the world’s largest market.] By June this year, China consumed almost 10 million barrels daily, half imported.

In several ways the U.S. and China may be returning to an old petroleum symbiosis. In the industry’s earliest years, John D. Rockefeller’s flamboyant distribution of millions of free kerosene lamps [mei po] to create Chinese consumers was part of building his monopoly. [Alice Tisdale Hobart’s novel, Oil for the Lamps of China, is a good read on an earlier generation’s fascination with the Marco Polo myth of an inexhaustible China market.]

Today, despite President Barack Obama’s highly subsidized “renewable energy resources” schemes, most experts agree the U.S. for decades will continue to depend on fossil fuels. U.S. oil imports plateaued in the new century because of increased domestic production from diminishing reserves, and more efficiency, in part produced by higher prices and mandated auto mileage standards. There is, of course, the present dip — due, only temporarily one hopes, to the economic downturn. But in 2008 America consumed almost a quarter of the world’s petroleum, more than half imported. Between them, the U.S. and China now burn nearly a third of the world’s total. Predictions for a flattening of China’s growth and improved energy efficiency are largely speculation.  So both are likely to increase their imports rapidly if and when the world economy recovers.

Beijing, despite its success in nailing deals – some real, some ephemeral – with would-be suppliers from Cuba to Angola to Kazakhstan, faces some hard realities. As with most consumers, China’s oil spigot turns on in the Persian Gulf. China is already best customer for Saudi Arabia – with the world’s largest reserves – and Beijing has bought heavily into renewed Iraq production – the world’s second.

Ironically, that energy lifeline depends on the U.S. Navy’s policing the Indian and Pacific Oceans and technology transfers from U.S and Europe-based producers. [Beijing’s refusal to honor the UN Iran embargo has left it stranded alone in the huge but stalled Persian Gulf South Pars reserve with partners retreating before Washington sanctions.]

Beijing is busily attempting detours. But pipelines from Central Asia into troubled westernmost Singkiang province, thousands of miles from coastal industries, off and on deals with Moscow enmeshed in disputes over routes and pricing, a proposed Burma pipeline to isolated Yunnan province to avoid the Malacca Strait chokepoint, an even more ephemeral pipeline from a Pakistan port at the entrance to the Persian Gulf, would still be Band-Aids.

So as domestic energy costs rise, oil is increasingly a major concern for Beijing planners, as it is with Washington.

The fact that Beijing now has just had its largest accident – but no competitor to the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico – and pollution of north China fisheries adds another parallel.

China’s no-holds-barred attempts at access to foreign oil already have complicated Washington foreign policy from Nigeria to Sudan to Burma. In fact, Beijing’s growing consumption is the primary cause of rising world fuel prices. [And, adding spice, that is impacting China’s competitive export pricing for Western and Japanese markets.]

Competition for access to world oil will grow. Add that to growing friction over Beijing’s refusal to help block North Korean nuclear weapons, export subsidies aggravating the U.S. balance of payments hemorrhage, and growing public truculence of Chinese military spokesmen and you have more than combustible oil.

It was, after all, petroleum access that was the final straw in Japan’s 1930s conflict with the U.S. when Washington’s oil embargo brought on the attack on Pearl Harbor. No one would argue that Chinese and American relations have reached that stage. But that history is all too familiar to be dismissed.