Belmont Club

Another Strand in the Wire

The Economist‘s data team notes that “Europe will soon have more physical barriers on its national borders than it did during the Cold War”.  More wire, watchtowers and rotating sensors than ever before. Three quarters of the barriers went up after September 11, more than a third of them in this year alone.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, 40 countries around the world have built fences against 64 of their neighbours. The majority have cited security concerns and the prevention of illegal migration as justifications. More than 30 of those decisions were made following 9/11, 15 of them this year. In the Middle East, the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria as well as the associated wave of refugees have prompted most countries to close borders. By the end of this year, when it completes its border-wall with Jordan, Israel will have surrounded itself entirely. In Asia, too, walls and fences have proliferated, generally designed to prevent illicit movement of people and goods rather than to seal disputed borders, though Kashmir’s line of control at India and Pakistan’s disputed northern boundary remains a highly-militarised example.

This is not the One World Without Borders that the 21st century promised.  Somehow things went wrong, yet the walls are only likely to multiply. Yemen is tipped to generate the next migrant flood toward Europe. The country has imploded, leaving multitudes desperate for a way out. The wealthiest are considering booking passage to on cattle boats to Djibouti, where they can expect to wait, and wait … and wait.

Or maybe the next country to totally dissolve will be Palestine. The Jerusalem Post believes the Palestinian Authority is about to collapse. When it does, all semblance of organized fighting will melt into total madness. “After the Kalashnikov era was put down and defeated during the second intifada and Operation Defensive Shield, the Palestinians are going back to their roots – fireworks, Molotov cocktails, and stones. It’s a return to the stone age.”

It’s not quite accurate to say the “stone age”. Egypt’s plan to flood the underground tunnels through which the Gazans important unregulated food, people and weapons is more in keeping with the Age of the Pharaoah than the neolithic period.

Underground, an entire network of smuggling tunnels was fully operational. As it had been for years, allegedly with Egyptian border guards looking the other way. Hamas earned millions of dollars in tax revenues from these smuggling operations.

But aside from seemingly harmless goods, the tunnels were also used as passages for weapons and fighters. Hamas denied such “transits”…but with the changing political tides in Egypt, the denials meant nothing. And such passages became an even bigger concern than they might have previously been.

So the Egyptians tried to build a wall, and also destroyed built-up areas to create a buffer zone. The Gazans only dug deeper, and farther.

People here say there are so many tunnels – some going as deep as 30m – that these have likely already destabilised the ground. But many feel they were left little other choice than to dig a way out.

This time Egypt is going to dam up the land and let the water seep down into the burrows. The Associated Press says “Gaza’s Hamas rulers are calling on Egypt to halt a project aimed at destroying the last remaining smuggling tunnels along the border. The project is being billed as an Egyptian military-operated fish farm that would effectively fill the border area with water.” There were even rumors that “fish” was a euphemism  for crocodiles to serve as further deterrent from tunneling.

Things are not going quite as expected under the administration’s banner of “smart diplomacy”. A vast tide of misery is sweeping across the Middle East and North Africa on a “biblical scale”.  But the administration isn’t done with its diplomacy yet. John Hudson at Foreign Policy describes yet another grand strategic plan of the Obama administration. “China Has a Plan to Take Over Central Asia — and America Loves It”.

As U.S. troops prepare to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of President Barack Obama’s presidency, Washington is desperately looking for stable governments in the region to share the burden of trying to contain terrorist groups. If China wants to play that role to advance its regional ambitions, the United States says it won’t get in the way…

Neighboring powers such as India and Russia are suspicious and, in some cases, alarmed at Beijing’s growing presence in the region. But for U.S. officials, China’s Silk Road ambitions promise to put some flesh on the bones of Washington’s own long-sought — but ultimately doomed — plans to link underdeveloped but resource-rich parts of South and Central Asia with points west and east.

In other words, China’s grand vision of an interconnected trade network for South and Central Asia represents the realization of an older U.S. policy initiative. For the last four years, the U.S. State Department has been trying to foster a similar regional trade network through its “New Silk Road Initiative,” a policy unveiled in 2011 to foster economic cooperation, trade liberalization, and better ties across South and Central Asia.

The plan to partner with China may have made some sense were the administration even moderately competent instead of haplessness. But it’s just sitting there smiling through broken teeth. For example,  Rukmini Callimachi and Eric Schmitt of the New York Times report that Iran has just released 5 top al-Qaeda commanders,”  odd behavior for the administration’s chosen partner for peace.

The government of Iran released five senior members of Al Qaeda earlier this year, including the man who stepped in to serve as the terrorist group’s interim leader immediately after Osama bin Laden’s death, and who is the subject of a $5 million bounty, according to an American official who had been briefed on the matter. …

Analysts tracking Al Qaeda described the release as alarming, given the seniority of the five men. It comes at a time when much of the organization’s leadership has been lost in back-to-back airstrikes, including the death earlier this summer of Nasser al-Wuhayshi, considered to be the organization’s general manager. At the same time, the organization had been hemorrhaging members to the more brutal and media-savvy Islamic State.

The release of the men could re-energize the militant group, providing an influx of vetted leaders at a crucial time, terrorism experts say.

Even second-rate powers seem able to tell Obama what to do. Raghida Dergham  of al-Hayat says that Vladimir Putin has told Obama to let him handle Syria while the US helps Iran along in Iraq.

Russian diplomacy is going to New York in ten days carrying a comprehensive project for engagement in the Middle East … Warning Europe against the flow of Syrian refugees, President Putin explicitly linked the issue to terrorism, saying that failure to comply with his proposals, including handing the Syrian issue over to him, would exacerbate the crisis of refugee flocking to the petrified European nations.

Such a high handed proposal would once have been considered ludicrous — had they been presented to Ronald Reagan.  But Peter Baker of the New York Times says that president Obama seems reluctant to take responsibility for anything, arguing he is not to blame for the Syrian mess, having been a skeptic of his own policies from the beginning.

the White House says it is not to blame. The finger, it says, should be pointed not at Mr. Obama but at those who pressed him to attempt training Syrian rebels in the first place — a group that, in addition to congressional Republicans, happened to include former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

At briefings this week after the disclosure of the paltry results, Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, repeatedly noted that Mr. Obama always had been a skeptic of training Syrian rebels. The military was correct in concluding that “this was a more difficult endeavor than we assumed and that we need to make some changes to that program,” Mr. Earnest said. “But I think it’s also time for our critics to ‘fess up in this regard as well. They were wrong.”

In effect, Mr. Obama is arguing that he reluctantly went along with those who said it was the way to combat the Islamic State, but that he never wanted to do it and has now has been vindicated in his original judgment. The I-told-you-so argument, of course, assumes that the idea of training rebels itself was flawed and not that it was started too late and executed ineffectively, as critics maintain.

Under these circumstances it’s only natural to get the jitters when the administration says it’s going to fix things.  It’s almost as if they don’t know what the word means. In an exchange that purportedly showed the president’s superior acumen over Mitt Romney, Obama told the former governor how silly he was to ever think Russia would be a problem again. Salon wrote:

In an exchange about al-Qaida during the debate, Obama attacked Romney for calling Russia “without question, our No. 1 geopolitical foe” earlier this year. Salon reported:

“Gov. Romney, I’m glad you recognize al-Qaida is a threat, because a few months ago when you were asked what is the biggest geopolitical group facing America, you said Russia, not al-Qaida,” Obama said. “You said Russia. And the 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back. Because the Cold War has been over for 20 years. But Governor, when it comes to our foreign policy, you seem to want to import the foreign policies of the 1980s, just like the social policy of the 1950s, and the economic policies of the 1920s.”

In retrospect the exchange shows the opposite.  It demonstrates as nothing else does, a shallow mind with an exaggerated opinion of itself. If anyone had told Candy Crowley on that debate evening that three years later Russia would have an army in Ukraine, an expeditionary airbase in Syria; that Europe would be beseiged by millions of Africans and Middle Easterners; that China stood to inherit Afghanistan at the cost of American lives and treasure — and that there would be more watchtowers in Europe than in Harry Lime’s day who would have believed them?

Who’s laughing now? Nobody. It’s all you can do to keep from crying.

Cold War fence vs Open Borders fence

Cold War fence vs Open Borders fence


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