America is at a crossroads; does it want to retain its superpower status? Events in the Gulf suggest otherwise.
So “somebody” torpedoed (!) two tankers, one Norwegian and one Japanese at the entrance to the Hormuz Straits. While it is difficult to imagine who other than Iran or Iranian proxies would do such a thing, it is also beside the point. Perhaps it was done by Iranian proxies like the Houthis acting on their own contrary to the Tehran’s wishes, trying to embarrass the mullahs as they were entertaining Japanese PM Abe by blowing a huge hole in the hull of one of his own tankers. To quote Hillary Clinton, what difference, at this point, does it make?
The difference is precisely about the point. The point in time at which we find ourselves. In 1945, having won WWII in both the European and Pacific theaters, America made a strategic decision, one that shaped the world since then. It decided to become a superpower. Faced with an expansionist and ideologically aggressive Soviet Union, the US decided to protect not only its own interests, perhaps by making a separate deal with the USSR, but act as the guarantor and protector of the interests of others, first against the Soviets and later against the Chinese.
Not even a decade later, American resolve to play the role of a superpower was being challenged by the Russians and by the Chinese alike on the Korean peninsula and in Berlin. The US met these challenges, but they kept coming. Cuba and Vietnam were the big ones, but far from the only ones. Later, after the fall of the USSR, America was being challenged again, this time in the Middle East, by Iraq with its invasion of Kuwait and by various non-governmental entities like Al-Qaeda, well funded by America’s enemies as well as so-called “friends”.
The essence of the role of a superpower is to guarantee a peaceful world. Peaceful enough, in any case, that major commerce can flow uninterrupted and conditions that favor technological progress prevail across most parts of the globe for the benefit of most humans. This was true for the Pax Romana period under Augustus in the first century AD and in the Pax Americana period the end of which we are now witnessing.
There is a certain under-reported and not sufficiently well-understood condition for superpowerdom. The people that make up the superpower from the bottom to the top have to believe in their own superiority over others. This is a fundamental condition, it is, in fact, the NECESSARY condition for superpowerdom. All superpowers throughout history met it. Romans were convinced that they and their system of governance were far superior to anyone else. So were the 18th and 19th century British or, in Asia, the Chinese. This is a rather intuitive proposition; how can one justify lording it over others when they are not convinced of their own superiority?
For better or for worse, this feeling of superiority, one that Americans of all political stripes used to have in spades long before America became a global superpower, is now all but completely gone. Neither those Americans who oppose president Trump nor those who love him are feeling very superior these days. Trump haters feel that America, far from being superior, is the source for much of the evil in the world and that half of its people, those who support Trump, are the lowest of the low. Trump supporters love America, but, misguidedly, believe that it can maintain its greatness while giving up on its role as the “policeman of the world”.
With the loss of that feeling of superiority, the necessary condition for American superpowerdom is no longer met. America is a superpower today only by virtue of inertia, an abundance of caution by its enemies. When a great lion lies dying, the hyenas do not immediately attack. After all they have made that mistake before and it didn’t end well for them, to say the least. So a foray here, a bite there, a bit of a snarl perhaps, followed by a quick retreat, a quiet observation. Is there any life yet left in the old King of the Jungle?
A small IED is placed by a small boat on the hull of an oil tanker. There is a small leak, easily contained. The lion does not budge. Now torpedoes are launched from a ship or a submarine equipped to do so and two tankers are on fire, bound for the scrap heap, their crews evacuated. Oil prices are rising, markets are wary. The Hormuz straits is one of the world’s most critical waterways. Will America allow it to be threatened? Will it allow oil prices to be set not by supply and demand but by “random” acts of terror? The hyenas are watching.
Acoustics used to be my area of technical expertise and believe you me, the sea lanes around the Persian Gulf have the densest population of hydrophones anywhere. These seas are also under constant satellite and drone surveillance. There is no conceivable way that the launch of two torpedoes went undetected by hydrophone arrays and the acoustic signatures of the torpedoes and the vessels that launched them were not uniquely identified. America knows who did it, of that there can be no doubt. Alas, there is grave doubt as to America’s willingness to act on that information because doing so would mean a real war with a real enemy: Iran.
One thing is certain: the seas around the Arabian peninsula and the Persian Gulf will be secured. The only question is will they be secured by the US, or will the US step aside and let China do it whether by force of arms or by brokering the removal of sanctions against the Iranian regime. It may take further escalation on the part of Iran or its proxies, an escalation they will be happy to provide, but in the end, very soon, the question will have to be answered: does America still have the will or the desire to be the world’s policeman? If it doesn’t, America’s superpowerdom will be a thing of the past and Pax Americana will be replaced by something else. What it may be is hard to tell, but one thing is for sure: Americans will live to very much regret turning in their badge and their gun.
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