The Long View 2004-05-07: The Patience of the Saints

Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico

The point John makes here about the imperialism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries is relevant to the condition of Puerto Rico today. Puerto Rico was the first foray of the United States into this kind of nationalist imperialism, but unlike either the Philippines, where were granted independence, and Hawaii, which was made a State of the Union, Puerto Rico languishes in a kind of state-limbo. And this seems to be just the way the Puerto Ricans like it.

As a territory of the United States, Puerto Rico enjoys the currency, citizenship, and Federal benefits of the United States  Puerto Rico received $6.5 billion USD in Federal aid in 2013. That is about 40% of the revenue for that year.  In contrast, my own state of Arizona had a budget of $8.8 billion USD that same year. I don't know whether the Puerto Rican equivalent of county and city governments are included in the official report, but I do find the relative budgets rather astonishing, since Puerto Rico has half as many people as Arizona does.

What all this means is Puerto Rico is a rather expensive bauble of the US, rather than any kind of productive part of the economy. Which is probably why most Puerto Ricans live on the mainland. However, unlike the African colonies of the European powers, we have never bothered to get rid of Puerto Rico. In large part, this is because the Puerto Ricans seem OK with this arrangement, other than the time some Puerto Rican nationalists tried to assassinate Harry Truman. It is far less clear what the rest of the US gets out of the deal.

John mentions a prediction by Paul Erdman that an oil crisis was coming, similar in scale to the OPEC embargo of 1973. Well, let's just see what that looks like in retrospect:

Yeah, that did actually happen. Paul Erdman died in 2007, but it looks like he was right. I don't know whether he also predicted the subsequent fracking boom. From the quote, it looks like Erdman was an advocate for Peak Oil. Maybe Peak Oil's day will come, it just hasn't yet.

The Patience of the Saints

Consider the differences between the war in Iraq and the last French war in Algeria. The attempt by France to retain Algeria was, for most purposes, the end of European colonialism. Colonialism, however, was simply the nationalism of the metropolitan powers, projected abroad. In hindsight, it was obviously going to end when European nationalism was discredited, as it was after the Second World War. What the peoples of the colonies did or wanted or said was epiphenomenal. The colonies were abandoned, not because they were ruinously expensive to maintain, but because the metropolitan countries lost interest in the national prestige that the empires had been created to express.

The war in Iraq thus could not be a colonial war, a point that even pro-imperialists like Niall Ferguson have trouble taking on board. Neither is it a Twilight Struggle war, like Korea and Vietnam, or like the USSR's war in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The wars of classic imperialism were fought as acts of national self-assertion. The wars of the Cold War were fought to advance or defend the interests of one or the other of the two power blocks. The Iraq War, like the Kosovo War that immediately preceded it, was fought in the name of universal right, of the ideal Empire as Dante and Negri conceived it.

This is, of course, why the recent prison scandal is so distressing. As the Catholic Church in America can attest, it is difficult to claim to represent universal justice while explaining how the ministers of justice abused persons under their care. However, just as the Catholic Church did not implode in the face of the scandals, neither will the Coalition project in Iraq. Saying "I'm sorry" again and again really does have some effect. Besides, the Iraqis are still intrigued by a government that does not answer criticism with gunfire.

The Bush Administration does not think of itself as the executive pro-tempore of Dante's Empire; any official of the Administration would no doubt vehemently deny that the Administration was any such thing. Transnationalists do vehemently deny that the Administration is acting as an ecumenical executive, but that is because they believe the legitimate executive is the UN. Nonetheless, the Coalition is in fact acting as an ecumenical agent in Iraq, and from that certain consequences follow.

The demands of Arab nationalists for Wilsonian states lose the revolutionary punch they had in the 20th century. The right to self-determination is still recognized, but now it means something more limited than it did 50 years ago. Progressives in particular cannot demand classical national sovereignty for Iraq when they reject it for their own countries. To put it another way: any claim is illegitimate that would undermine the prerogative of the Empire to maintain the tranquility of order.

Despite all the 1960s nostalgia, Iraq is not going to turn into Vietnam. There is no local analog to North Vietnam, for one thing, so there is no power that could roll up the country. Moreover, the bar for a Coalition victory is not actually very high. The war has demonstrated the paper maché insubstantiality of totalitarian nationalism in the Islamic world. A post-occupation state might bear a grudge against the US, but it could not entertain anything like the ambitions of the former Baathist regime. That is true of the whole region now. That's what the war was for. Yes, it was worth it.

* * *

Here is yet another comment, this time from Paul Erdman, about an impending oil crisis:

1. A growing geopolitical crisis in the Middle East...For there can be no doubt whatsoever that the fall of the House of Saud would...thrust the entire Western world into an energy crisis of unprecedented proportions...

2 A surge in global demand for energy and particularly crude oil and its derivatives, fueled by the recovery of both the American and Japanese economies and the unprecedented growth of China...

3. A structural deterioration of the world's oil supply. What is involved here is nothing short of an imminent peaking out of production of crude oil on a global basis -- known by energy industry insiders as "Hubbert's Peak" -- which would turn a cyclical supply/demand crisis into a structural energy crisis of unprecedented proportions.

Had the Iraq War not occurred, the House of Saud might well be in even worse case. There would still be a large American military presence in Saudi Arabia, which was actually Osama bin Laden's chief rationale for starting the Jihad against the West. There would still be badly guarded borders with Iraq and Syria, whose governments would surmise that support for Islamist movements carries only limited risk. When the Saudis did start to crack, there would be little that the US could do about protecting the oil supply, especially with the hostile unknown of Baathist Iraq to the east. Now, in contrast, the detachment of the oil fields from the crumbling Saudi Kingdom has become a policy option favored in some circles.

There is another factor here. The loss of Saudi oil would be a catastrophe for every major power in the world except Russia, which has oil to sell. China, Japan, India, the EU: all would have a life-or-death interest in getting the Saudi fields up and running again. To do that, they would contribute troops and money, but only the US has the logistics to make it possible. The fall of the House of Saud would not mean resource wars among the great powers. Rather, transnational cooperation would break out all over.

* * *

If this sounds a little unrealistic to you, maybe you are right, but it's not as unrealistic as the attitude in continental Europe toward the threat it faces.

I actually missed the following incident, which occurred just after the immolation of the bodies of four contract workers in Falluja. It was reported on the wire services, though. This version is from an article by Christopher Caldwell in the May 10 issue of The Weekly Standard, entitled "Zapatero's Spain":

The police chose to blame the incident on skinheads.

* * *

As someone who was a child in the 1960s, I developed certain expectations about the future, but I have been stoic about their disappointment. I can live without flying cars (perhaps longer than if they existed, actually). I shrug at the lack of colonies on the moon. The same goes for the submarine cities. Something I will not tolerate, however, is the lack of videophones. By that, I mean videophones that people use to talk to one another, rather than to view pornography or to hold business conferences with colleagues who are not important enough to meet in person.

That's why I look out for products like these Beamer phones. They are cheap enough that ordinary consumers might actually buy them, but you have to wonder about the quality of any image sent over a standard phone line.

* * *

Speaking of facts paling in the light of Higher Truth, here are a few links to some old detective-stories that turn Sherlock Holmes on his dolichocephalic head.

Arthur Conan Doyle's example made it difficult for writers in the early 20th century to avoid trying their hand at detective fiction, but some of his younger contemporaries took the opportunity to create an "anti-Holmes," a class of detective who solves crimes by ignoring the clues. Rather, he focuses on the character of the suspects.

One such anti-Holmes was Simon Iff, created by Aleister Crowley. In the Iff stories, the point is not so much to solve crimes as to show why the guilty so richly deserve their dreadful punishments. G.K. Chesterton, oddly enough, was writing pretty much the same kind of fiction at the same time. His neglected Basil Grant stories are about deducing facts from character. The Father Brown stories are of much the same sort, but they are the only works by Chesterton I really can't stand, so the less said the better.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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