By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
I’m thirty-seven years old. That means I was born in 1980 and grew up in the 1990s. It means my formative years were that turn of the century time as the euphoria of the 1990s, end of Cold War, peace dividend, thousand points of light, new world order turned into 9/11 and the War on Terror. It means we had no cell phones or Facebook or Google and played with G.I Joes when I was a kid.
I grew up in the United States so my memories are the First Gulf War, Rodney King, O.J Simpson, Waco, the Unabomber, the first World Trade Center Bombing, Anita Hill, Mike Tyson, Michael Jordan, Affirmative Action, Operation Desert Fox, the Balkans, Black Hawk Down. Then after 9/11 it all becomes more complex.
Recently I took a trip to Scotland. During the trip a saga was unfolding in the Mediterranean. The ship Aquarius was carrying more than 600 migrants it had picked up off the coast of Libya. These included, according to reports, “120 unaccompanied minors and seven pregnant women.” In Scotland we enjoyed the nice things in life, a hotel that was a converted estate house originally constructed in 1914. We slept in a Benedictine Monastery that had also been turned into vacation rentals and was deemed the Highland Club now. Meanwhile in the US 2,000 immigrant children had been separated from their parents at the US-Mexico border.
And other bad things are happening. Cyclists were attacked in the UK. In South Africa there are armed attacks on trucks carrying money by men with AK-47s almost every day. In the US some kind of “neighborhood beef” led to people shooting up an art festival. 20 people were murdered in an attack on mosques in Nigeria by Islamist terrorists. Oddly, when you Google “mosque attack” on June 17, 2018, the only story is about an attack in South Africa in which Shi’ite Muslims were apparently targeted. Meanwhile in London there were 23,000 moped crimes in London in 2017 (and more this year) amid a crime wave of stabbings and thefts sweeping the city.
It’s hard to know, should we be optimistic for indoor skiing in Dubai and revolving apartment towers, or depressed about stabbings and moped crime? Should we be depressed about migrants and refugees drowning at sea, and what should we think about the rising popularity of more authoritarian governments, such as those in Turkey or Russia.
It’s a bizarre world. In Iraq and Syria there are thousands of missing Yazidi women, kidnapped by ISIS in 2014. No one seems to care about them. Almost 70 countries joined the “global coalition” CJTF:OIR to fight ISIS but none put forward technology or plans to help find the missing women and children, the victims of the Yazidi genocide that prompted international intervention in the first place. In Mosul Angelina Jolie is wandering around the ruins in the western part of the city proclaiming it the worst devastation she has seen. The ISIS members who helped destroy places like Mosul and kidnapped the women are now being quietly released it seemed. They aren’t being charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity. No Nuremberg trials for them. No one wants responsibility for them, so they are being given cash and a cell phone and told to move somewhere else. Thousands died fighting ISIS, but it’s not clear for what. No one seems to care about the Yazidi victims, or doing much to help those who lost loved ones in the war. Because war has become an addiction. In Afghanistan where the US is fighting the Taliban still, after seventeen years, the Taliban are so confident they rejected extending an Eid truce.
Someone born on 9/11, the attacks that led the US into Afghanistan, is almost old enough to fight in the Afghan war. That’s odd, isn’t it. But very few US soldiers die in these wars, so it doesn’t make the news. On June 8 a US soldier was killed in Somalia, but no one seems to have been too alarmed by that. It turns out that “the Department of Defense has identified the U.S. soldier killed while serving in Somalia as 26-year-old Staff Sgt. Alexander Conrad. Four other U.S. troops were also injured.” Four US troops were injured? Four US soldiers were killed in Niger in October 2017 also.
Where is America fighting again? “We operate and fight in every corner of the world as an integrated joint, combined and interagency force. Today, there are approximately 56,000 active duty, 7,400 reserve, guard, and 6,600 civilian personnel across the SOF enterprise. On a daily basis, we sustain a deployed or forward stationed force of approximately 8,000 across 80- plus countries,” said General Raymond Thomas in May 2017.
Symbolic it seems of our era is the story of the Glasgow School of Art’s Mackintosh building. It was badly burned in 2014. There was a major fire in the building in 2014. Then painstaking restoration took place for four years. In June 2018 it burned down again, even before it could re-open. Odd, isn’t it. But it’s symbolic of the way things are these days. It’s like the European Union’s migration policy. “Who is responsible for helping out at sea,” the BBC asks. The answer is unclear. The 1974 Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea and 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea didn’t envision a time when migrants and refugees would board inflatables and try to make it into international waters where NGO-funded ships await to help them. A book about Libya by Frederic Wehrey explains it. “Later with the increase in patrols by European navies and humanitarian ships run by private NGOs, the smugglers shifted to even less seaworthy craft, huge inflatable Zodiacs with outboard motors. Bought from Chinese suppliers on the Internet, these craft could never make the entire voyage to Italy. But they didn’t need to: all they had to do was to reach the twelve-mile limits of Italy’s international waters, where the rescue boats waited. To cut costs further, the smugglers would skimp on fuel or, worse, send someone out to retrieve the motor, letting the migrants drift.”
So the reality of Libya and smuggling is that the increase in NGOs aiding migrants off the coast has increased the smuggling and helped fuel a vicious cycle. This is an unintended consequence of good intentions. But wait, it’s not so simple. Italy’s new government has been blamed for its hardline views on migration. It turns out that the last Italian government, the supposedly good one, cut migration by 87% through shadowy deals with one of Libya’s governments. Italy has blamed France and other countries for forcing its stance upon it because they have been turning migrants back to Italy, passing the buck from one place to another. Oxfam recently accused France of abusing migrants as well. Oxfam has also recently been banned from Haiti after a sex scandal. Let’s go back to the migrants rescued at sea for a second. The EU has a frontier force called Frontex. “A spokeswoman for the EU Border and Coastguard Agency, Frontex, told the BBC that its main purpose is border surveillance and security.” Right, so that organization also passes the buck.
Now, let’s go back to the unaccompanied minors being separated from families in the US. What’s going on in the US? Why are there 2,000 children separated from families? It turns out that the recent policy is a more harsh version of something that has gone on before. Back in 2014 the US suddenly confronted a new migration crises of Central Americans claiming refugee status. This was different than undocumented economic migrants. Back in 2014 CNN had a story about this: “The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees is pushing for the United States, Mexico, and Central American countries to treat many of the children as ‘refugees,’ which could prompt more from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador to seek asylum. However, the White House has said most won’t qualify as refugees to stay in the country.”
Refugee numbers in 2018 are skyrocketing from just a few Central American countries. “From about 18,000 in 2011 to 294,000 at the end of last year, the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, announced. That number grew 58% last year alone.” The UN says they are refugees. Meanwhile US-funded police are allegedly behind abuses of people in El Salvador. Not sure why but this reminds me that the US funded the Palestinian Security Forces and they recently broke up a peaceful protest in Ramallah. Perhaps because the US is shifting from supporting democratization to authoritarianism.
It’s hard to take this all in. More of these stories have come from the US, Central America, Europe and North Africa and the Sahel. This is part of a worldview of course, one that is largely westerncentric. But it is westerncentric because much of these population movements seem to be westerncentric. Migrants and refugees are moving to the West. They are fleeing the global south. They are fleeing failed states. They are fleeing lawless and unstable regions. They are fleeing “chaos” and civil war and persecution and poverty and the after affects of imperialism, neo-liberalism or ossifying regimes, sectarianism, religious extremism. The technical term is “ungoverned spaces.”
Back in the 1990s some people remember Jihad vs. McWorld and Clash of Civilizations. After 9/11 this became The Pentagon’s New Map and COIN. Yeah, someone has to read the COIN manual. Now the US policy is called “By, With and Through.” What’s important here is to try look at this from a global and regional perspective. But can we get a grip on the causes and affects here? How did Al Qaeda become ISIS? How did this world become the way it is? There are generational differences between the followers of Bin Laden and Baghdadi. Whose fault is it? Is the problem as simple as “instability.” Is it really as simple as narratives about how the Libyan civil war fueled chaos throughout the Sahel? Is it really true the fall of Saddam Hussein fed instability and emerging extremism, sectarianism, throughout the region? From Arab nationalism to Islamic Revolution. What if it goes deeper? Did Anwar Sadat’s visit to Israel provoke extremism that led to his death and the bombing of the Trade Center. Or was it the US bases in Saudi Arabia that caused 9/11? And weren’t they there because of Saddam Hussein?
It doesn’t really matter because the world today is one that is increasingly trending in the wrong direction. First of all the democratization and freedom agenda has been reversed. Authoritarianism is returning, and it is sometimes widely popular among people who are tired or fearful of chaos. Hopes and dreams, whether it was the 1990s era of naive “walk in the clouds” mentality, or the way the Arab spring failed, have become hollow. Cynicism, both under Obama and Trump have led to American retreat. But American retreat might not be a bad thing since the US has been blamed for many ills and many countries have a toxic relationship with the US now. But what will come into the vacuum? Not ISIS. But rather authoritarian regimes.
What’s happening in the West? Economies are not getting better. Youth unemployment is a problem in Europe. Wall Street seems to be doing well but evidence shows that the majority of the US is not doing better. There is decline in infrastructure, and increasing inequality. In fact the bubble worlds that seem to exist in the West, the growing social distances and “tribalism” in the US and Europe points to a major tear in the social fabric. This is a tear that has resulted in attacks on elites and the “deep state.” The intelligent commentators scoff at this as reactionary racism. But there are indeed increasingly insular groups in western society who are trying to isolate themselves. Things are not really becoming more diverse. Society at large is more diverse by the numbers. But small social bubbles are not. What has happened is that feudal worlds gave way to experiments with liberalism, progressivism, Communism, Fascism, Islamism, and the ostensible rise of meritocracy in many western states has given way to a complex neo-feudalism. This is because the expansion of various franchises in society has increased competition for the top schools and jobs. The competition has made merit less of a way to judge people because in an educated society many people have merit. Diversity and quotes doesn’t really work either, so what has happened is that more jobs go to people with family connections or other connections than before. No matter what the government seeks to do to redress this problem, the results tend to be the same, the wealthy and powerful seem to be increasing their wealth and power.
The twin results are concentrations of power, wealth and status alongside increasing immigration and a lack of hope and vision for the future. The decline in hope can be seen in movies, the obsession with superheroes and the inability to make movies about the future.
Instead of focusing on the major social issues that really cast a shadow, such as crime, social inequality, religious extremism, migration, the endless war on terror, it seems that instead we are focusing on other things that can be fixed, such as getting rid of straws.