January 18, 2006

Future Imperfect

Loyal Craigorian Chant reader and official timekeeper Larry has sent me a fascinating column in the Daily Telegraph by Neil Ferguson. It purports to be a work of a future historian, looking back at the causes of a “Great War” with Iran from 2007 to 2011. Now this is interesting for a couple of reasons. First of all, I love alternative and speculative historic fiction. I’m pretty deep right now in the “1632” series, which is about a modern small town in West Virginia getting thrown back in time to the Thirty-Years War and the religious, social and military impact of modern American ideals and technology on…but I digress. The other reason is that this is interesting is that Ferguson is completely wrong. About so very much. Ferguson cites three reasons why Iran’s power rises and leads to this future war:

The first underlying cause of the war was the increase in the region's relative importance as a source of petroleum. On the one hand, the rest of the world's oil reserves were being rapidly exhausted. On the other, the breakneck growth of the Asian economies had caused a huge surge in global demand for energy. It is hard to believe today, but for most of the 1990s the price of oil had averaged less than $20 a barrel.
A second precondition of war was demographic. While European fertility had fallen below the natural replacement rate in the 1970s, the decline in the Islamic world had been much slower. By the late 1990s the fertility rate in the eight Muslim countries to the south and east of the European Union was two and half times higher than the European figure.
This tendency was especially pronounced in Iran, where the social conservatism of the 1979 Revolution - which had lowered the age of marriage and prohibited contraception - combined with the high mortality of the Iran-Iraq War and the subsequent baby boom to produce, by the first decade of the new century, a quite extraordinary surplus of young men. More than two fifths of the population of Iran in 1995 had been aged 14 or younger. This was the generation that was ready to fight in 2007.
This not only gave Islamic societies a youthful energy that contrasted markedly with the slothful senescence of Europe. It also signified a profound shift in the balance of world population. In 1950, there had three times as many people in Britain as in Iran. By 1995, the population of Iran had overtaken that of Britain and was forecast to be 50 per cent higher by 2050.
Yet people in the West struggled to grasp the implications of this shift. Subliminally, they still thought of the Middle East as a region they could lord it over, as they had in the mid-20th century.
The third and perhaps most important precondition for war was cultural. Since 1979, not just Iran but the greater part of the Muslim world had been swept by a wave of religious fervour, the very opposite of the process of secularisation that was emptying Europe's churches.


Ferguson gets the oil part right but the other two completely wrong. These aren’t the Middle Ages. Sheer population and religious fervor don’t equal power. Science and technology equal power, both economically and militarily. All of which the West has in spades. Iran having a bigger army just means more targets for our smart bombs. Population growth without economic growth leads to poverty and unrest. Sure, Iran’s population is growing and now equals the UK’s. But Iran’s GDP is measured in billions and the UK’s in trillions. (CIA Factbook) Who would you bet on? Lots of disaffected young people in Iran are a much bigger threat to the Iranian regime than to the West. Going to church a lot isn’t going to get Iran a modern air force or navy. That is what you need if you want to play power games with the U.S., not lots of young people. Iran’s power is all about oil and the ability to make trouble in Iraq. You remember Iraq? It was the last overwhelming threat.

Iran with a nuke does not lead to war. If history has taught us anything, it’s that nukes and the perversity of MAD (mutually assured destruction) actually is huge incentive not to go to war. The U.S. and the USSR didn’t. India and Pakistan have fought four wars since independence, but nothing after they both got nukes. The math of deterrence is even worse for Iran. Let’s say a crash Iranian nuclear program produces one nuke by 2007 (Big If). Great Britain, France, and Israel have hundreds of nukes. The US has thousands. Iran could kill a city in Israel or Europe and will then cease to exist as a nation. Persian culture would be something we only study in books. Now I don’t care how much “youthful energy” you have, you don’t commit national suicide. I’m not saying that we should just let Iran have the bomb. Diplomacy and sanctions should be on the table Nuclear Iran would cause all kinds of problems in the region. A nuclear Iran would be bad, but the cure proposed is worse.

Ferguson's conclusion is that the only way to stop this future “war” is War Right Now. Some good old-fashion Bush-style pre-emption in the form of air strikes:

Yet the historian is bound to ask whether or not the true significance of the 2007-2011 war was to vindicate the Bush administration's original principle of pre-emption. For, if that principle had been adhered to in 2006, Iran's nuclear bid might have been thwarted at minimal cost. And the Great Gulf War might never have happened.

No, no, no. Air strikes will have all kinds of terrible fallout. They will not have minimal cost. The government we have installed in Iraq is Shia and pro-Iranian. They will not stand for us bombing Iran. The current insurgency is from the Sunni, who make up 20 percent of Iraq. The Shia make up 60 percent. When they rise up against us we are screwed. Helicopters on the roof of the embassy-type screwed, not to mention what a shooting war with Iran does to oil prices. So if we bomb Iran you can kiss Iraq and economic growth for the next five years goodbye, which is a pretty heavy price to pay for a pretty questionable “what if” future history. Please don’t buy what Ferguson is selling. I respect the literary device that he is using, but the world he is describing is as real as the one in my book with the time-traveling West Virginians.

1 comment:

Larry said...

I think you dismiss Ferguson's focus on population a little too quickly. I agree that the relative population vis-a-vis Europe is not relevant.

But you are on the right track when you say that population growth without economic growth leads to poverty and unrest. The poverty and unrest then leads to religious fundamentalism. That in turn leads to Al Qaeda. The rapidly growing Middle East population is definitely a source of the problem.

You are off track again when you say that only science and technology lead to power. That's so last century.

In fact, I think the reason we are so scared of people we call terrorists is because we know that science and technology are ineffective against them. Brute force isn't the game any more. If Osama threatened to send a dozen boatloads of attackers to New York, we'd be laughing hysterically. But instead, he sent less than a couple dozen and wounded the American psyche very badly. The best science and technology in the world didn't stop them.

Why? The true legacy of Ronald Reagan is our society of greed. We refuse to invest in security. We refuse to inconvenience people. We refuse to do anything that might cause our sacred megacorporations to make a few pennies less profit.

We look for easy solutions. So when George Bush says that he will protect us and no one will have to sacrifice, he gets 60 million votes.

I don't know whether Bin Laden and his ilk are very smart or very lucky. But somehow, they figured out that they don't have to battle a giant head-on to win. They can just scoot through his legs.