In Which History Brushes the Dirt off its Shoulders and Starts Happening Again

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Never before has the English Channel seemed so oceanic.

Brexit is a dreadful portmanteau. I tried to divert myself last night coining better alternatives for other potential coming secessions, instead of “Frexit” and “Italexit” (my money’s on Fradieu and Italiciao, respectively).

But not only is the word ugly but so too the deed. Probably.

Given what our generation has grown up with – a fairly predictable march towards neoliberal consensus, general stability save the occasional earth-shattering global financial crisis, a world of solid borders and staid bureaucracy – we at least have an excuse for complacency in the absence of change. Those responsible for the referendum and the crisis that’s led us to this moment, not so much, as Adam Elkus pointed out. But it would seem that history is roaring back with a vengeance and threatening to upend the order we’ve taken for granted.

I would hope that an island’s decision to exit a common market does not throw the longest peace on the Rhine in a thousand years into jeopardy; indeed, this early on I cannot quite envision the chain of events that would lead to that (okay, well, since you asked, Brexit precipitates two to three other EU withdrawals, leading to a collapse of the European Union, returning us to a perfect Westphalian state of international anarchy, but I digress).

The mid-to-long-term effects have yet to be seen. In the short run, obviously the pound sterling has tanked (though seems to be making a slight recovery), wiping out significant economic value, and stock markets across Asia, Europe, and the United States have also opened down. This, however, seems a poor explanation for the panic breaking out online and in person, the sense of grief and loss that’s accompanied this momentous and shocking vote. Plummeting retirement accounts and weakened currency are disastrous, to be sure, but they’re hard to pinpoint as a source of raw emotion.

There’s also something unseemly about arguing that “the market” should have been given a veto over a decision of popular sovereignty. Which isn’t to say that material well-being shouldn’t be nor wasn’t a factor in yesterday’s vote, but the idea that the City of London’s reaction to a vote to leave should determine national standing in the world is rather jarring (if not entirely inaccurate even without a referendum at all).

No, what’s caused this international mood of mourning is something grander than sheer material impact. It’s the loss of an idea, that a united Europe could overcome the historical divisions and enmities that have led to so much bloodshed over the course of several millennia. To turn its back on that sectarian, internecine warfare and instead chart a common course towards a mutual future; in short, a true commonwealth.

Of course, the European Union as constituted was (and is) rife with problems of its own. It is both too unaccountable and too lacking in power. It enjoys a currency union without a fiscal one; legislative representation without political supremacy. The vote reflects general and intense (and well-deserved) dissatisfaction with the elite. There are cases to be made for exiting the EU as a positive, both from the right and the left. But they’re not wholly convincing, because whatever the “cost” or “savings,” the results of the referendum transcend a materialist analysis of Britain’s EU membership, and is the death knell of an ideal.

This a tragedy especially for the young people of Britain and Europe, who time and time again have had their desires thwarted by older voters who won’t be around long enough to live with the consequences. It happened in the US Democratic primary and to a lesser extent in Scotland; the trend was undeniable even before then. That comment from the Financial Times that’s gone viral really does summarize it well: there will still be an unaccountable elite, only with British accents instead of a European polyglot; and the freedoms to live, work, and study in Europe, to meet a future spouse there, to be exposed to the tremendous panoply of cultures that comprise modern Europe, to try and fit Britain into a larger context, into the world: all of that has been dashed by a generation that already got theirs.

So despair is the watchword of today. Of course, Parliament might choose to dishonor the results of the referendum, or there could be a second one, or the Queen could refuse her assent, or any manner of other things. At a minimum the process will take two years. But the fact that a majority of England and Wales would prefer to exist outside the European Union is a profound shift in the international order. Scotland, on the other hand, may well opt for a second independence referendum, given the significant changes since the previous one (i.e., no more EU membership). But with the price of oil having dropped significantly from its 2014 levels, the self-sustainability of that project might be more in question.

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Sinn Fein, as is their wont, has also made their announcement calling for a Northern Ireland vote to reunify Ireland, given the impending border checks and controls that would arise from a Northern Ireland outside of the EU.

The unthinkable has been set in motion and may yet be halted. But this vote should be of absolutely no comfort to anyone. We’re in uncharted waters, and the idea of European unity and a whiggish progress towards some noble and enlightened end has been thrown into stark relief. As the developed world mourns the idea of growing integration and peace, we’ve been reminded that the trend of the past few years is no happenstance, but rather that chance and contingency are once again a part of geopolitics – for better or worse.

Expect the unexpected; choppy waters ahead.

What’s Scots for “Nuclear Weapons?”

No Cross of St. Andrew here

This is the year. 2014 will mark the historic referendum in which Scotland, yet again, votes whether or not to secede from the United Kingdom and go it alone. Having read Halting State, Charlie Stross‘ fantastic novel set in the nation of Scotland in 2018, there’s a whole realm of aesthetic and imagination and possibility associated with the prospects of an independent Edinburgh. Others are just as interested: Tyler Cowen makes one of the economic arguments against Scottish independence, and Tom Ricks asks all the questions, But part of my interest lies in more prosaic matters: namely, where do the nukes go?

Scotland’s defense policy would likely align much more closely with those of Norway and Denmark than with its southern neighbor. Between North Sea oil and Arctic issues, Holyrood’s posture and attention would be directed entirely upwards. And of all the realms in which nuclear weapons might not have such great utility (especially not as large submarine-borne countervalue weapons), the Arctic is probably #1. If NATO plays it cool and avoids major engagements, then a single brigade might just cut it. But otherwise that might be wishful thinking.

The Firth of Clyde is of major importance to the Royal Navy. But the shipbuilding contracts there are likely to depart along with UK forces. These could be repurposed by Scotland for new construction to augment its few unarmed fishery protection vessels (this, of course, depends on what Edinburgh is able to successfully wrest away from London). But more importantly, the Clyde is the heart of the British nuclear deterrent.

Right now, the UK’s four Vanguard-class Trident SSBNs are based at HM Naval Base Clyde at Faslane in the Clyde, with additional support coming from RNAD Coulport. And this is no abberration; Scotland has been critical to the UK deterrent from its inception. In 1963, when the Royal Navy was looking into acquiring Polaris from the United States, it drew up a short list of ten candidate sites for basing nuclear submarines. Of the ten, six were in Scotland. But what about the others? Would they play host to an atomic arsenal in the 21st century?

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Wot Won It?

From the London Evening Standard, more on American support to Britain during the Falklands Crisis:

President Reagan at first said the US would be impartial in the conflict between two of its allies. But on April 2, 1982, the day of the Argentinian  invasion, he sent Mrs Thatcher a note: “I want you to know that we have valued your cooperation on the challenge we both face in many different parts of the world. We will do what we can to assist you. Sincerely, Ron.”

A week later Reagan’s Secretary of State Al Haig visited London to mediate, but covertly delivered the message: “We are not impartial. We face a common problem. We must do all we can to strengthen you and your government.”

Much of what the article covers has been said already (the supply of Sidewinder and Stinger missiles have been known for some time). But there were some interesting tidbits to uncover, such as:

  • There was some sort of Civil Reserve Air Fleet support, at least infrastructure-wise: “The local Pan Am airline manager, Don Coffee, told us his president had told him that we had to make everything possible [on Ascension Island] available to British forces. He said he wasn’t referring to President Reagan, but the President of Pan Am.”
  • The Argentinian Air Force’s capabilities were qualitatively overestimated: Americans “assess at the outset that the Argentinians have about 220 first- and second-line combat aircraft — but only days after the landings at San Carlos on May 21, the Americans report about half the first-line Argentinian aircraft have been knocked out.”
  • Perhaps unlike my previous thesis, the Reagan Administration saw the USSR as the greater threat to the sanctity of the Monroe Doctrine: ” Washington believed the Soviet Union was prepared to provide ships, weaponry and ammunition to the Argentinians, in return for cheap grain.”

I assume there’s much more to be gleaned from the newly released Agency documents (you have to love that thirty-year rule), which seem to be held entirely at National Archives II, but a selection of which has been digitized by the Margaret Thatcher Foundation, available here. Looking forward to what else might be in there…

La Guerre de Longue Durée

So I wrote most of this over the weekend. In light of recent events, it may be more or less relevant. But presumably no less true.

Interesting read from the War Nerd (who is back with a vengeance) comparing Al Qaeda with the IRA. He comes to a somewhat surprising conclusion: the IRA was far more professional, they truly took the long view, and they essentially won.

Al Qaeda played all out, spent all its assets in a few years. In my dumb-ass 2005 article, I called the Al Qaeda method “real war” and the IRA’s slow-perc campaign “nerf war.” That was ignorance talking, boyish war-loving ignorance. I wanted more action, that was all. I saw what an easy target the London transport system made for a few amateur Al Qaeda recruits and just thought that since the IRA had several long-term sleeper teams in place in London, they could have wreaked a million times more havoc. Which was true, they could’ve. But could’ve and should’ve are different things, and a guerrilla group that goes all-out, does everything it can, is doomed.

The first job of a guerrilla force is to continue to exist…

That’s how every modern guerrilla army except Al Qaeda has played, and that’s why every one of those groups has lasted longer than Al Qaeda did.

This seems to ring true. Looking at the pattern of terrorist attacks in the United States and Europe since 9/11, here’s what came next (and seemed at least vaguely Islamic extremism-related, so not necessarily Al Qaeda even):

  • December 2001 – Richard Reid’s attempted shoe-bombing.
  • October 2004 – Indonesian Embassy in Paris is bombed by the “French Armed Islamic Front,” though presumably Algeria-related.
  • July 2005 – the 7/7 Tube Bombings in London.
  • July 2005 – attempted duplication of 7/7; minor damage.
  • March 2006 – Mohammed Reza Taheri-azar drives an SUV onto the UNC Chapel Hill campus to “avenge Muslims,” injuring nine.
  • July 2006 – attempted suitcase bombings in Dortmund and Koblenz, in retaliation for the Muhammad cartoon publication. Failed to detonate.
  • August 2006 – foiled transatlantic plot between Heathrow and the United States.
  • August 2006 – Afghan Muslim Omeed Aziz Popal hits 19 pedestrians with an SUV in San Francisco, killing one.
  • December 2009 – the attempted “underwear bombing.”

There is very little in that list that was an objectively “successful” terror attack, in the sense that with the exception of the 7/7 Bombings, few people were killed in total. Yet somehow, every single one of these – including if not especially the failed attempts – has provoked a stronger and more intrusive security backlash.

There are a few possibilities with Al Qaeda today. The first is that they’ve been so disrupted and shattered that there’s no organizational capacity left to stage large terror attacks. The second is that they’re biding their time, rebuilding capabilities in order to strike. And the third is that we’ve reduced Al Qaeda to a shadow of its former self, yet preserved enough of the command structure that we can keep tabs on all of its associates and prevent any strikes by them.

But even if that leaves them unable to mount much more than a failed pants bombing around Christmas, that might just be all they need (see: failure as a strategy). Look at what that ‘attack’ – which killed and injured none – has wrought: the whole Yemen affair, a bigger bureaucratic push for the “rape scanners,” and a whole revamp of the no-fly lists to include Nigerian nationals and other useless security theater. They don’t need to succeed to have catastrophic effects on American politics and the ever-so-delicate American psyche. Even non-Al Qaeda actions, such as walking through airport security the wrong way, can paralyze an entire transportation corridor for hours and hours.

So where does the IRA come in? While Al Qaeda is still active and deadly in the immediate theater (Iraq, Afghanistan, etc.), it has little reach beyond its borders. Especially not as an organization its trying to kill people. Instead, the IRA strategy of as few casualties as possible – in many cases zero – aided by numerous telephoned warnings and carefully-chosen targets has enabled the organization to not be the target it might have been.

The IRA had this “Nerf” strategy of…not killing civilians, which seemed weak to me. But it worked way, way better than I could have imagined. First of all, by not reacting to LVF hit teams, the IRA kept the focus on the Brits, who they considered the real enemy. The Loyalist hit teams, I realize now, were a classic SAS attempt to turn the whole Ulster fight into a tribal war, so the British could come off as the impartial referees trying to keep the savages from tearing each other apart. If the IRA had settled for taking all these Loyalists down into nice soundproofed basements and giving them some hands-on experience of their favorite games, it would’ve been satisfying short-term but would have fed right into the enemy propaganda model.

Not only was the IRA never systematically wiped out, it was incorporated into peace efforts and brought into the government itself after the Good Friday accords.

The point is that in the long run, killing civilians – if you’re fighting an insurgent, guerrilla, terrorist-style war – is counterproductive. That’s not to say that for these groups ‘terrorism’ in and of itself might be ineffective. Rather, it’s all about targeting. If instead of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and (presumably) the White House, bin Laden had selected a virtually empty Statue of Liberty, an early-morning deserted Lincoln Memorial, or the Washington Monument, wouldn’t the blow to our psyche have been nearly as great? But even if we were just as horrified, would we have pursued him for ten years with the same fervor?

Either way, whatever command hierarchy Al Qaeda once had will now certainly cease to be. The rigid discipline required to avoid killing civilians at all costs will be impossible to impose on disparate, franchised mini-Qaedas – and that might, in the long run, lead to shooting themselves in the foot. One can only hope.

Escape from Heathrowistan

I’ve been back in America for several days now (and thank God, made it home in time for Christmas), but it became quite an ordeal getting out of the United Kingdom.

Quite possibly the only snowplow at Heathrow Airport attempts to accomplish the herculean task of clearing several inches of snow.

The four-inch snowpocalypse at Heathrow Airport led to an air travel catastrophe, with more than half a million passengers unable to get where they needed to be. I was lucky enough to have hotels and such at my disposal, unlike the thousands forced to sleep on the floor of various terminals at the airport. But let me break it down:

It snowed four inches on Saturday, December 18. This prompted the full closure of both Heathrow and Gatwick airports. By Sunday, Gatwick had reopened at more than 50% of capacity – but Heathrow remained closed. My flight, initially scheduled for Sunday, was thus canceled. Rather than spend hours on long-distance hold with the airline, I opted to book a new one-way flight for Tuesday, connecting in Dublin and leaving from Gatwick, which was operating more smoothly.

By Tuesday, Gatwick was almost 100% operational, but Heathrow was still operating at about a third of capacity, and its second runway remained closed. I then spent eight hours at Gatwick waiting for my constantly delayed flight, which was finally canceled because it had been snowing in Dublin for five hours.

At that point, I thought I was screwed. From what I could tell and from what a travel agent told me, the next available flights were not going to be until today – Boxing Day. Thus I would miss Christmas, stranded in a foreign land. But miraculously, ten minutes later the travel agent called back to report a block of seats on Air Canada flights had opened up. We quickly managed to a book a flight connecting in Ottawa for Wednesday, and despite snow-induced delays on the ground in Ottawa and later in the air above Boston, I made it home for Christmas. We landed in snow, because flakes don’t necessitate entire airport closures. Continue reading

“There is nothing to be gained by trying to get away”

Between the weather and a complete lack of good news in the world, I’ve been in not so much a foul mood lately as a dark mood; I’ve found myself exploring all manner of eschatology and other ridiculousness related to the apocalypse (great resource: Exit Mundi). And rereading my own article hasn’t helped anything. I know this is old news to most, but I was reminded of the BBC’s nuclear war transcript the other day and thought it deserved some reprinting.

If Britain had been attacked with nuclear weapons during the Cold War (I believe the years 1974-79 were when this particular transcript would have been used), then BBC presenters would have read the following chilling passages to the nation:

This is the Wartime Broadcasting Service. This country has been attacked with nuclear weapons. Communications have been severely disrupted, and the number of casualties and the extent of the damage are not yet known. We shall bring you further information as soon as possible. Meanwhile, stay tuned to this wavelength, stay calm and stay in your own homes.

Remember there is nothing to be gained by trying to get away. By leaving your homes you could be exposing yourselves to greater danger….

Make your food stocks last: ration your supply, because it may have to last for 14 days or more. If you have fresh food in the house, use this first to avoid wasting it: food in tins will keep…

Do not, in any circumstances, go outside the house. Radioactive fall-out can kill. You cannot see it or feel it, but it is there. If you go outside, you will bring danger to your family and you may die. Stay in your fall-out room until you are told it is safe to come out or you hear the “all clear” on the sirens.

The actual BBC link above has a clip of Harry Shearer reading the transcript while doing a pretty serviceable impression of Cronkite. But I’d love to hear it from an actual Briton. Is there anything more despair-inducing than “nothing to be gained by trying to get away”?

Play Up! Play Up! And Play the Game!

“The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton.”

– Arthur Wellesley

There’s a breathless hush in the close to-night
Ten to make and the match to win
A bumping pitch and a blinding light,
An hour to play, and the last man in.
And it’s not for the sake of a ribboned coat.
Or the selfish hope of a season’s fame,
But his captain’s hand on his shoulder smote
“Play up! Play up! And play the game!”

The sand of the desert is sodden red-
Red with the wreck of the square that broke
The gatling’s jammed and the colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed its banks,
And England’s far and Honor a name,
But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks-
“Play up! Play up! And play the game!”

This is the word that year by year,
While in her place the school is set,
Every one of her sons must hear,
And none that hears it dare forget.
This they all with joyful mind
And bear through life Eke a torch in flame,
falling fling to the host behind-
“Play up! Play up! And play the game!”

– Sir Henry Newbolt

Underground Testing

Recently, France and Britain concluded a defense agreement which, among other things, provides for increased joint nuclear research between the two. In the spirit of that nuclear cooperation – and also in the spirit of getting things done while Congress has their heads up their asses – I have decided to reprint my essay “Underground Testing: Anglo-American Nuclear Cooperation, 1946-58.”

The mushroom cloud over Hiroshima, August 6, 1945.

In 1946, atomic collaboration between Great Britain and the United States screeched to a halt. The fruitful partnership between the ‘Tube Alloys’ team in the United Kingdom and the scientists of the Manhattan Project had grown increasingly one-sided, with the United States’ research contributions far outstripping those of the British by the end of World War II. Two atomic bombs were dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945, demonstrating the arrival of nuclear hegemony. The British were merely informed of the decision, to which they acquiesced with “little or no debate.”[1] As the technology gap across the Atlantic Ocean continued to widen in the immediate postwar period, Britain was increasingly thrust into a lesser, subordinate role.

With the passage of Senator Brien McMahon’s Atomic Energy Act in 1946, Anglo-American collaboration in the field of nuclear power and weaponry appeared to be at a congressionally-mandated end. Much of Thatcher-era historiography views that collaboration as entirely dormant until the McMahon Act’s repeal in 1958, and that in the meantime Britain forged on as the jilted partner in the ‘special relationship’.[2] While true on an official level, this ignores the underlying reality of close continuing cooperation on atomic weaponry between 1946 and 1958. Nuclear cooperation did not hit a wall in 1946; it merely endured ‘underground’ for twelve years.

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Frenemies?

Two age-old adversaries finally joined forces in recognition of their weakened position today. Putting aside the divisions of the past and recalling times when they could reach across and work with each other in harmony, the two parties committed to a radical, unprecedented new arrangement.

No, Charlie Crist didn’t win, and Congress didn’t actually decide to start functioning. Instead, France and Good Britain signed a defense treaty. It’s pretty out there: provisions for a joint expeditionary task force and a timeshare arrangement of their aircraft carriers, which many had speculated on. At least now one will always be at sea, exorcising the specter of a naval aviation-less Great Britain. Also: joint nuclear research! Though not extending to actual issues of deployment, it seems to have supplanted the old Tube Alloys project between America and Britain as the new centerpiece of nuclear partnership.

Still, we have come a long way since the days of Viscount Gort and the BEF. Rule Britannia? Well, co-rule maybe.

“The 15 minutes I spent imagining what I’d name it were perhaps the happiest 15 minutes of my life.”

If the Royal Navy really does decide to sell HMS Queen Elizabeth in 2020, who might buy it? And even more importantly, what would they name it? Robert Farley handicaps the race, giving odds and possible names to potential suitors:

China
Empress Dowager Cixi
Odds: 99-1

Russia
Imperitsiya Ekaterina Velikaya
Odds: 50-1

France
Carla Bruni
(R92)
Odds:  20-1

Canada
HMCS Queen Elizabeth
Odds: 15-1

India
INS India Gandhi
Odds: 15-1

Japan
JDS Empress Michiko
Odds: 7-1

Australia
HMAS Queen Elizabeth
Odds: 9-2

South Korea
ROKS Empress Myeongsong
Odds: 4-1

Brazil
NAe Empress Isabel
Odds: 3-1

If I were a gambling man…

Also, guess what the source of the title is. Then check your answer here.