Politics, et Cetera

A publication from The Political Forum, LLC

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Tuesday, January 14, 2014

They Said It:

[Michael] Mandelbaum provides a useful reminder that the United States has played a critical role in building and sustaining the postwar global order. His contention is that this role is best described not as empire, but rather as a form of government. And it is a role that Americans did not aspire to play and that the world does not fully appreciate. The book echoes the thesis, advanced by Niall Ferguson and others, that the enlightened exercise of U.S. power has helped create a secure and prosperous global system — a liberal hegemony that provides reassurance, public goods, and frameworks for cooperation. Some readers will bristle at the U.S.-centric account of global order. Others will find the theoretical underpinning of the argument a bit skimpy: it does not probe very deeply into the causes of what might be seen as the current crisis of this U.S.-led order or explore the significance of Americans’ own ambivalence toward the rules and institutions of global governance. But the book is insightful in tracing decades of U.S. leadership and in describing the United States’ long-standing effort to prevent nuclear proliferation, a danger that would surely grow even more ominous if Washington were to retreat from its security responsibilities. Mandelbaum concludes that he does not know how long the United States will provide the world with government, but he is sure of three things when it comes to other people’s attitudes toward American hegemony: “They will not pay for it; they will continue to criticize it; and they will miss it when it’s gone.”

G. John Ikenberry, Review of The Case for Goliath: How America Acts as the World’s Government in the Twenty-first Centuryby Michael Mandelbaum, Foreign Affairs, March/April, 2006.

 

FOREIGN POLICY 2014:  A NEW YEAR AND A NEW WORLD ORDER.

We have been writing an annual foreign policy forecast piece for well over 20 years now.   At no time during this period have we ever been foolish enough to believe or to maintain that we would be “spot on,” as the saying goes.  As the distinguished Danish physicist Neils Bohr put it, “prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.”

Nevertheless, we believe the exercise is worthwhile, for it requires us – and by extension you gentle reader – to think in specific terms about the future.   Moreover, it provides us with a rhetorical vehicle that facilitates a discussion of what we think are the relevant variables affecting the geopolitical environment and how they may influence global stability going forward.

The tool of choice for this process is, of course, demographic, economic, social, and religious trends.  If you understand these, you can at least begin to get some limited understanding of the shape of the future, even though the specific means by which that future will arrive must remain unknown and unknowable.  Robert Kaplan recently put it this way:

[T]rends can be discerned that the daily media regularly miss.  They can be forecast because . . . while half of reality is utterly unpredictable events involving individuals, the other half is composed of large geographical, demographic, economic and technological forces whose basic trend lines can be foreseen, however vaguely at times.  If one concentrates on those larger forces, it still won’t be possible to predict, say, the philosophical makeup of a particular president’s foreign policy team, but it can be forecast to some impressive degree the kind of world that team will face.

And with that said, we will begin the process, as we have every year for a very time long time now, with our gloomy outlook for the European Monetary Union, even in the face of the fact that the situation “over there” appears to have settled down somewhat.

Forecast #1:  The Euro is done, kaput, fini.  Before the end of the year, the powers that be in Euroland will be forced to admit what the rest of the world already knows, namely that this attempt to forge EUtopia has been as unsuccessful as all previous attempts, with its only saving grace being the comparative lack of bloodshed, which unfortunately is likely due to the same spiritual ennui that makes the Europeans increasingly too demoralized to breed . . .

As we are certain you know, chief among a number of great and ongoing problems facing the Eurozone is the  risk of a deflationary spiral, wildly uneven growth, and ongoing structural unemployment that runs better than 12 percent for the region as a whole and is far, far higher in the southern portion of the continent, in countries like Greece, Italy, and especially Spain.

Last month, Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the IMF, shared our pessimism, stating that  it would be “premature to declare victory” over the union’s economic problems.  More specifically,  she warned that the current asymmetry of the recovery suggests that 2014 might be even more harrowing than was 2013.  Echoing her view, our old friend Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, the international business editor for The Daily Telegraph of London recently noted that with debt and unemployment piling up in the South, strong growth and near full-employment in Germany, and the threat of triple-dip recession in France, the hopelessness of the eurozone’s leaders’ task is more and more evident.  To wit:

The ECB faces an impossible task devising a one-size-fits-all monetary policy for economies at different stages of the cycle, and facing entirely different problems.

A new study by Bloomberg found that Germany currently needs an interest rate of 5.1pc under the so-called Taylor Rule to avoid overheating as unemployment hovers at 20-year lows and the housing market booms in Berlin, Munich and other key cities. France needs a rate of 0.15pc, Italy -1.5pc, Ireland -3.95pc and Greece -20.25pc. Such rates are obviously impossible.

This is nothing new, of course.  The task of “on-size-fits-all” monetary policy has always been a non-starter.  Greece will never be Germany which will never be France which will never be Spain and so on.  Already, three Eurozone countries – Greece, Cyprus, and Latvia – are facing official deflation, and it is presumed by many that the entire region is close behind.

Time will tell, of course.  But, in this case, time will NOT heal all wounds.  The only thing that will heal the Eurozone is some sort of peaceful and mutually agreed upon dissolution of the doomed-from-the start experiment.  And since that isn’t going to happen any time in the near future, the safer bet is a dissolution that is somewhat less peaceful, which is to say messy.

Will that happen this year?  We have no idea.  But it WILL happen.

Sometime.

And speaking of things that will happen sometime . . .

Forecast #2:  The United States will keep its commitment to get out of Afghanistan, leaving it in much the same state as the Americans found it 13 years ago.

As we and countless others have noted, when all is said and done, Afghanistan will show almost no sign of the Americans having ever been there.  Indeed, the only evidence that the United States fought a war there will be the thousands of American lives lost and the thousands of families forever shattered.

Compared to other wars, the Afghan war has been relatively light on American casualties.  In the 12-plus years since American special forces invaded the country with the aim of toppling the Taliban regime, some 2000 Americans have been killed and some 18,000 have been injured.  Next to, say, Vietnam, this is an impressively low figure.  Of course, given what will have been gained, that low figure is, in fact, staggeringly high.

The great tragedy is that no one will care.  And why should they?  The war in Afghanistan had a very limited purpose at its start.  And yet it has droned on for well over a decade since that limited objective was achieved.  The only question was how many Americans would die before they finally gave up, as the Russians did before them.

In 2001, American troops invaded and quickly toppled the Taliban.  They then installed their own government, headed by one Hamid Karzai and went about the business of chasing down the bad guys.  Twelve years later, the bad guys are still there and Karzai is no better than was the Taliban.  He may even be worse, in that he is also manifestly and unapologetically corrupt.

Five years ago, the Karzai government, under American supervision, enshrined Sharia as the constitutional law of the land.  This past fall, Karzai – still under American supervision – proposed reintroducing stoning as the appropriate punishment for adultery.  In the face of international protest, he backed down.  But rest assured that he will re-introduce the measure once the international types are gone.  All of which is to say that American troops fought and died so that women could be permanently oppressed and, in fact, publicly slaughtered for their sins.  If this is “victory,” we shudder to think what defeat would look like.  As the inimitable Mark Steyn intoned just last month:

Stoning is making something of a comeback in the world’s legal codes — in October the Sultan of Brunei announced plans to put it on his books.  Nevertheless, Kabul has the unique distinction of proposing to introduce the practice on America’s watch.  Afghanistan is an American protectorate; its kleptocrat president is an American client, kept alive these last twelve years only by American arms.  The Afghan campaign is this nation’s longest war — and our longest un-won war: That’s to say, nowadays we can’t even lose in under a decade.  I used to say that, 24 hours after the last Western soldier leaves Afghanistan, it will be as if we were never there.  But it’s already as if we were never there: The last Christian church in the country was razed to the ground in 2010.

At this point, Americans sigh wearily and shrug, “Afghanistan, the graveyard of empire,” or sneer, “If they want to live in a seventh-century s***hole, f*** ‘em.”  But neither assertion is true.  Do five minutes’ googling, and you’ll find images from the Sixties and early Seventies of women in skirts above the knee listening to the latest Beatles releases in Kabul record stores.  True, a stone’s throw (so to speak) from the capital, King Zahir’s relatively benign reign was not always in evidence.  But, even so, if it’s too much to undo the barbarism of centuries, why could the supposed superpower not even return the country to the fitful civilization of the disco era?  The American imperium has lasted over twice as long as the Taliban’s rule — and yet, unlike them, we left no trace….

The American way of war is to win the war in nothing flat, and then spend the next decade losing the peace.

In his recently released memoir, Robert Gates, the former Bush and Obama administration Secretary of Defense – the guy who was ostensibly responsible for the Afghan “surge,” – tells us now that his commander-in-chief, Barack Obama, never expected the surge to work, never wanted to put more troops into Afghanistan, and never really worried about the outcome of the war, except in how it might affect him politically.  Is anyone surprised therefore that it didn’t work?  Or that the Americans will now leave the country largely having lost the peace?

Does anyone still care?

And speaking of wars about which no one cares . . .

Forecast #3:  Iraq will explode into full sectarian civil war – if it hasn’t already.

We know it is poor form for us to bring up wars that were won but now are lost, especially since most American would just as soon forget they ever happened.  But that’s why we get paid the big bucks, right?

In any case, two weeks ago, al Qaeda overran and thus “captured” the Iraqi city of Fallujah.  If the name “Fallujah” sounds familiar, that’s because it was a symbol of all that was wrong and then was right about the American efforts in Iraq.  In the aftermath of Saddam Hussein’s defeat, Fallujah became a stronghold for the anti-American Sunni forces, who rather infamously hanged the charred bodies of two American contractors from a bridge in the city.  The eventual capture of Fallujah by American forces was hard-fought and bloody.  And it required quite a bit of improvisation on the part of American commanders.  In the end, Fallujah became the starting point for the American victory against Al Qaeda in Iraq.

That victory stands no more.  The Washington Post’s David Ignatius, a liberal who is generally a fan of the Obama administration, nevertheless noted the following last week, after Fallujah’s fall:

Four years ago, al-Qaeda appeared to have been destroyed in Iraq.  Last week, fighters from the group captured Fallujah, a city where hundreds of Americans were killed or wounded in the last decade fighting the jihadists.  How did this stunning reversal of fortune happen?

Like everything else about Iraq, this is a tragic and confusing story.  But two points seem clear: First, the Obama administration, in its rush to leave the country, allowed the sectarian Shiite government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to undo many of the gains made against al-Qaeda.  Second, Iran has waged a brilliant covert-action campaign that turned Maliki and Iraq into virtual clients of Tehran — and in the process alienated Sunnis and pushed them toward extremism . . .

The greatest irony of all is that Iraqis voted in March 2010 to dump Maliki in favor of an alternative slate headed by Ayad Allawi, a pro-American former interim prime minister.  In the horse-trading that followed, however, Maliki and his Iranian sponsors (bizarrely backed by the United States) ended up forming a new government, with Vice President Joe Biden, the architect of U.S. policy (if that’s the right word), proclaiming all the while that “politics has broken out in Iraq.”

In short, Iraq is a mess.  It is also merely one of the battlegrounds between the Shiite and Sunni Muslims for control of the Middle East.  Iran has long thought of much of Iraq as a mere province of the Shiite domain, and Iranian forces have been trying desperately to bring that country under control of Tehran since March of 2003, when the American forces invaded.  Most of this sectarian warfare was ended by the Bush-Petraeus surge, which began in 2007.  But, as David Ignatius notes, all of the victories gained during the surge were subsequently lost when the Obama administration, in a hurry to appear “victorious” and to “bring the boys home,” flubbed the status of forces negotiations and left the free Iraqi government with no American support whatsoever.

The rest, as they say, is history.  Iraq, like its neighbor Syria, is now but one front in the long, regional war between Sunni and Shiite forces.  And no matter who wins, the rest of the world – and the United States in particular – will lose.

And speaking of the Sunni-Shiite war . . .

Forecast #4:  Iran, fresh off its diplomatic victory with respect to its nuclear weapons program, will become more aggressive and more confrontational in attempts to establish itself as the regional hegemon.

As we noted at the top of this piece, it is important, when forecasting, to keep in mind the trends that drove past behavior, that are driving current behavior, and that will drive future behavior.  With respect to Iran, two trends are critical.

First, there is the Islamic Republic’s longstanding support for terrorism and its concomitant belief that it must use any means necessary to establish itself as the dominant power in the region, thereby winning a victory for Shiite Islam (and, to a lesser extent, for the Persian people).  Since its inception, the Iranian regime has used “unorthodox” methods to accomplish its goals – everything from taking diplomats hostage, to car bombing Marine barracks in other countries, to using waves of children as suicide bombers to hold off their enemies.

Today, the Mad Mullahs have their grubby little hands in every war in the region, from Saudi Arabia to Lebanon, from Iraq to Syria.  Additionally, they are bound and determined to acquire nuclear weapons, both to threaten the Israelis, and to give them an advantage over all other Muslim powers in the region, namely the Saudis.

Anyone who believes that the Mullahs will give up their pursuit of nukes or their strategy of fomenting military conflict throughout the region is both naïve and ignorant of the regime’s history and thus of the trends that help to explain its current and future behavior.

The second trend that matters when discussing Iran is the same one that matters when discussing a great many nations these days, namely historically unusual and potentially destructive demographics.

For years now, most observers of Islamic tensions with the West have assumed that the Muslims – ALL the Muslims – were ascendant demographically.  The decadent, post-modern Westerners quit having kids, but the Muslims were making babies like rabbits.  Soon that would give the Muslims an advantage.

As it turns out, though, that assumption is, in some instances, false.  And one of those instances is Iran.  As it turns out, Iran is, like most of the Western world and most of the Far East, in a demographic death spiral.  The columnist and analyst David P. Goldman – also known as “Spengler” – put it this way in a piece last November:

Dying civilizations are the most dangerous, and Iran is dying.  Its total fertility rate probably stands at just 1.6 children per female, the same level as Western Europe, a catastrophic decline from 7 children per female in the early 1980s.  Iran’s present youth bulge will turn into an elderly dependent problem worse than Europe’s in the next generation and the country will collapse.  That is why war is likely, if not entirely inevitable . . .

[T]he UN’s “low variant” puts the country’s total fertility rate at 1.9 children as of 2015, but it already has fallen to just 1.6.  This means in simple arithmetic that a generation hence, there will be two elderly dependents for every three workers, compared to 7 elderly dependents for every 93 workers today.  That is a death sentence for a poor country, and at this point it is virtually irreversible.

As the United States Institute of Peace wrote in its April 2013 “Iran Primer”:

“Iran’s low fertility rate has produced a rapidly aging population, according to a new U.N. report.  The rate has declined from 2.2 births per woman in 2000 to 1.6 in 2012.  This has pushed the median age of Iranians to 27.1 years in 2010, up from 20.8 years in 2000.  The median age could reach 40 years by 2030, according to the U.N. Population Division. An elderly and dependent population may heavily tax Iran’s public health infrastructure and social security network.”

Goldman goes on note that the Mullahs’ fixation on their country’s demography is reminiscent of Hitler’s obsession with the Aryan race.  Likewise, the scapegoat on whom the Mullahs have settled is reminiscent of Hitler, the Jews.  This is a fair point we think, and one that helps explain the Mullahs’ preoccupation with Israel, despite the fact that the two nations have no real history of animosity.

At the same time, though, we think it’s important to remember that the country’s demographic trends are driving not just its policy toward Israel but toward the rest of the world as well, and especially toward its regional rivals.  The Mullahs know that their window of opportunity is brief.  If they do not assert themselves as the regional hegemon today, thereby dominating the Sunnis on behalf of the Shia, they will be unable to do so tomorrow.  They must move now, in other words, which explains why they have been and will continue to be so aggressive in fomenting chaos throughout the region.  If you are looking for the Iranians to calm down, in short, you will be sorely disappointed.

As for the other side in this intra-Islamic war . . .

Forecast #5:  Saudi Arabia, determined to act more independently and to thwart the Iranian/Shiite threat, will become a more active and aggressive player in the Middle East’s regional war.

The Royal House of Saud has always fashioned itself the contemporary successor to the old Caliphs, which is to say the sole protector of the two holiest sites in Islam, the mosques in Mecca and Medina.  Indeed, in 1986, Saudi King Fahd took for himself the title of “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques.”  As such, the Saudis have long been seen as the driving political and military force in Sunni Islam, the “protectors” dedicated to protecting not just the holy mosques, but protecting “true” Islam from the heretical Shiites.  In 2014, we believe that the Saudis will begin to take this role much more seriously and will begin to establish themselves as the regional adversary to the Iran’s Shiite Mullahs.

As with Iran, this development was entirely foreseeable, for a couple of reasons.  One need only look at the trends.

The trend that matters most in this case is not demographic, but geological.  And two months ago, the Saudis gave the biggest clue yet what it all means.

In November, Prince al-Waleed bin Talal, the billionaire investor and one of the most prominent public faces of the royal family, sat down with Toronto’s Globe and Mail and discussed, among other things, the state of the global energy market.  The paper put it this way:

The Prince makes this point repeatedly in an interview with The Globe and Mail, one of his first since he rattled global oil markets in July by disclosing on his Twitter account a letter to Saudi Arabia’s Oil Minister.  The missive warned that the American shale oil boom would soon threaten demand for crude from members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.

New shale oil discoveries “are threats to any oil-producing country in the world,” he says . . .

In less than two years, Prince al-Waleed says, the United States will be producing so much oil that it will be a competing exporter of crude.  Oil prices currently hovering a little below $100 (U.S.) a barrel could sink as low as $80 over the next few years and potentially fall even further if more shale oil discoveries emerge in the United States, Europe and Australia.

“It is a pivot moment for any oil-producing country that has not diversified,” he says.  “Ninety-two per cent of Saudi Arabia’s annual budget comes from oil.  Definitely it is a worry and a concern.”

Obviously, the Prince does not speak for the regime.  But he does express the fear that many in the royal family feel.  And he does correctly identify the trend in the energy business that threatens the Saudi way of life.  More to the point, he is hardly alone in understanding all of this.

Now, the International Energy Agency has declared that all of the hype surrounding shale exploration is just that, hype, and that the Middle East will reassert its energy dominance by the mid-2020s.  That may be.  But then again, it may not.  And in any case, the Saudis and the rest of the oil producers are looking at a rather lean decade in the interim.  This is especially the case if you figure, as the Saudis must, that the next American president will be far less likely than the current one to work aggressively to dissuade domestic energy production.  The energy picture may brighten for Saudi Arabia in 2025, but it is quite possible that January 20, 2017 will make said picture much darker in the meantime.

All of this is to say that the Saudi royals likely understand that they will have a rough couple of years.  And if they allow the Shiite enemy to make too much headway during those years, their own reign will be at even greater risk than it is already.  Al Qaeda is fighting Iran in Iraq and in Syria.  And al Qaeda would gladly take the lead in protecting the Holy Mosques as well.

Two weeks ago, the Saudis made clear precisely how they will deal with these emerging threats.  They struck out on their own and decided both to enter the war against Iran in a serious way and to divorce themselves from the irresolute American administration.  Benny Avni provides the details:

In promising $3 billion to Lebanon to bolster its military, Riyadh attached two conditions: 1) that the cash go to the Lebanese army’s stalled drive to disarm the terrorists of Hezbollah, and 2) that Lebanon buy its arms from France.

For decades, the Saudis have furnished their own military almost exclusively with US arms.  But the French are much more proactive than America these days in the Mideast and African theaters, so the Saudis trust them to assure that the weapons will go to the right cause . . .

As in the rest of the region, the Lebanese warring factions, friend and foe, no longer expect Washington to offer much beyond feeble rhetoric.

Not so the Saudis.  Like other forces in the Mideast, Riyadh is jockeying for position, trying to expand its influence as chaos grows in the wake of America’s withdrawal.  Fearing the rise of Iran and its Hezbollah lapdog, Riyadh is financing anyone who might stand up to Shiite militants.

In short, the Shiites are on the offensive in the Middle East.  The Sunnis are on the defensive.  And the Americans are on the run.  Sounds like a recipe for success, no?

Unfortunately, the Middle East is not the only part of the world where such a recipe may be used to concoct a potent foreign policy cocktail.  Similar, if not exactly identical trends are pushing events in the Far East as well, which brings us to . . . .

Forecast #6:  China and Japan will NOT go to war this year, but the Japanese will begin preparing for such a war, which is to say that a nuclear arms race in the Far East is all but inevitable.

If you look back at the predictions made thus far in this forecast piece, you will note that they all have one thing in common:  they are all, in whole or in part, the result of another geopolitical trend, namely America’s diminished role in the world.  When Barack Obama was elected in 2008, he promised to “nation-build at home.”  And in this particular case, he has been true to his word, leaving the rest of the world – and American allies in particular – to fend for itself.  As we put it just over a year ago:

[Jonah] Goldberg is right, of course.  Hagel and Kerry were both picked by Obama “at least in part out of spite.”  But he’s flat out wrong about the people at whom that spite is directed.  It’s not the Republicans.  It’s anyone, anywhere counting on the United States for military or security aid and assistance.  It’s the Iraqis, the Afghanis, the Libyans, the French, the Brits, the Japanese, and yes, the Jews.  They’re all going to find out in a hurry that Barack Obama is not just indifferent to their petty little problems, but is disdainful of them.

We’re not sure if the rest of the world is ready for this; if those who have long insisted that they just want America to go away are entirely aware of what it will mean when America does, indeed, go away.  But they should be.  And if they aren’t, they might want to begin making themselves aware, begin planning for a much uglier and much more violent world.  Because that’s what they’re gonna get.  As countless wags have noted over the last few weeks, the nominations of Hagel and Kerry indicate that Obama is finally, some 40 years later, putting George McGovern’s words into action and telling America to “come home.”  The good guys in the rest of the world – and yes Dorothy, there are some good guys – are going to learn in a hurry that this homecoming, joyous though it may be for America’s isolationists, is going to be rather miserable for them.  It’s true that Obama decided that he couldn’t or shouldn’t free the freedom fighters in Guantanamo.  But he’s going to free those on the outside to do as they wish….

Throughout this nation’s history – and especially over the course of the last century – attempts to withdraw from the world and to “nation-build at home,” have resulted in global humanitarian and commercial disasters.  Interestingly, Obama’s “Progressive” predecessors have usually been quicker than anyone to realize this.  Time will tell how his policies play out and how they fit with the Progressive history, philosophy, and constituencies.

Throughout the Middle East, the effects of Barack Obama’s policies and of his conscious decision to remove the United States from its traditional leadership role are obvious.  A region-wide war is inevitable, indeed, may already be underway.

In the Far East, the dynamic is similar, though slightly different – because of yet another demographic trend.

Many in the foreign policy field are concerned about growing tensions between China and Japan.  We too are concerned, though not necessarily for the same reason.  The basic problem, as most observers see it, is the fact that Japan has been the region’s dominant power for just over a century, but China now believes that it has earned the right to regional hegemony.  Japan is yesterday’s news.  China is economically powerful and vibrant.  And it has the military might to back up its claims.  The question is whether Japan will go gentle into that good night.  We, for two, doubt it.

The consensus seems to be that the tensions will eventually be diffused and that China will realize that crossing Japan means crossing the United States as well.  This, we fear, is a mistake.

As we just noted, the one near certainty in this uncertain world is that the Obama administration will abandon those whom it is pledged to defend at the first sign of trouble.  It is far harder, in the Obama era, to be an American ally than an American enemy.  And while the Chinese may not yet realize this, the Japanese most certainly do.  And this, in turn, means that Japan is undoubtedly ready and willing to take care of itself and to do whatever is necessary to defend itself, regardless of what the Chinese do.

Last month – on the day after Christmas – Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the Yasukuni Shrine, a monument to Japan’s war dead.  The catch is that Yasukuni is considered an abomination by most in East Asia and especially by the Chinese, who note that some of those honored at the shrine are war criminals.  Visiting Yasukuni has always been considered a provocative act for a Japanese leader, and there is little question that Abe went with a purpose and with what we might call malice aforethought.  Michael Auslin, a resident scholar in Asian affairs at the American Enterprise Institute, recently put it this way:

In doing so, he has all but acknowledged that a cold war exists between Japan and its northeast-Asian neighbors China and South Korea.  It’s a shot across the bow of both countries, boldly, perhaps recklessly, announcing that Japan will no longer seek better relations on their terms.  . . .

Yasukuni Shrine is somewhat analogous to Arlington National Cemetery, being the religious site where the spirits of Japan’s war dead since 1867 are commemorated.  Founded in 1869 across from the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, there are nearly 2.5 million individuals enshrined there. Among them are 14 Class A war criminals from World War II, including wartime premier Hideki Tojo.  These individuals were enshrined in 1978, nearly two decades after the first Class B and C war criminals were included in the shrine.  Emperor Hirohito, who reigned during the war, refused to visit the shrine after 1978 and the inclusion of Tojo and others.

Hirohito wouldn’t go, but Abe would – did, in fact.  What does this mean?  Or as Auslin wonders, “The real question is not what China and South Korea will do in response to Abe’s visit.  The question is, rather: Why now?”

If you ask us, that’s a silly question.  The Chinese are currently threatening the Japanese Senkaku Islands and have established an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) that includes the islands, thereby asserting their supremacy in the East China Sea.  Additionally, and more to the point, the Japanese are concerned – and rightly so – that they are on their own when it comes to facing down China.  In the wake of the Chinese ADIZ provocation in late November, the Japanese expected the United States to respond vigorously.  Instead, Vice President Biden visited Beijing as planned, and the Obama administration asked American commercial airlines to respect the Chinese zone.  Abe signaled his displeasure and his intentions by ignoring Obama administration warnings not to aggravate the situation and by visiting Yasukuni.

All of this suggests rather strongly that Abe has decided to prepare his country for war.  And since he knows better than anyone his country’s limitations, he knows as well that to prepare for war can mean only one thing.

As anyone who has paid any attention to demographics knows, there is no country in the world that better personifies the “death spiral,” than Japan.  London’s Telegraph tells the story:

The population across the Japanese archipelago dropped by around 284,000 to an estimated 127.5 million by October last year [2012], the figures compiled by the government’s Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry found.

The number of elderly people aged 65 or over surpassed 30 million for the first time, accounting for as much as 24 per cent of the population – in contrast to children aged 14 and under which decreased to a record low of 13 per cent.

As a result, the elderly officially outnumbered children, with a higher number of over-65s compared to children aged 14 and under in each of Japan’s 47 prefectures for the first time.

The new figures confirm Japan’s growing reputation as one of the fastest ageing nations in the developed world.

How, pray tell, will a nation with a declining population, more elderly than young, and a heretofore constitutionally restricted military prepare to fight the world’s largest military force?  That’s easy.  They’ll do what they have to do, namely go “unconventional.”

Japan is what is known as a “latent nuclear state,” or a “de facto nuclear state,” which is to say that it has both the means and the materials to build nuclear weapons on demand.  It has simply chosen, for a variety of reasons, not to do so.

We suspect that as those reasons change, so will Japan’s nuclear status.  And we are not alone in suspecting so.  As of last May, the United States, among others, is officially concerned that the Japanese fuel reprocessing plant at Rokkasho might be used to stockpile material for the construction of weapons.  If you ask us, we’d guess that the Japanese will find it to their advantage to create a little bit of mystery around their weapons programs, much like Israel.  That way, the Chinese can take their chances if they want, but they better be damned sure about the outcome if they do so.

What all of this means, we think, is that war in the Far East is a possibility, but an unlikely one, at least for the time being.  As we said, Shinzo Abe is far from stupid.  And he will bide his time until he and his country are able to stand on their own.  The sad thing – and the theme of this entire piece – is that they, as American allies, will have to do so.

And that brings us, at long last, to . . .

Forecast #7, our “out of left field,” prediction:  Vladimir Putin will win the Nobel Peace Prize and will thus be acknowledged as the world’s preeminent statesman.

Vladimir Putin, the ex-KGB agent and noted mass murderer, has already demonstrated that he is far more proficient a statesman than his bungling American counterpart.  And said counterpart has already won a peace prize!

As the Americans’ influence continues to wane, someone, somewhere will fill the void that they have left.  And Putin clearly considers himself just the man to do so.

Ian Bremmer, one of the country’s most prominent academic foreign policy big shots, recently called Putin “the single most powerful individual in the world.”  That was a title that was once reserved exclusively for the American president.  This is no longer true, and that is both telling and frightening.

The American far Left and far Right, along with much of the rest of world, have long talked about how they want the United States to mind its own business and to quit trying to play global policeman.  To paraphrase Mencken: They know what they want, and in 2014, they’re going to get it good and hard.

 

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