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925 Silver Collection

A Toxic Mix of Conflicts / Mark Van Proyen

When average Americans are asked about the start date of World War II, most would likely cite the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor which led to a Congressional declaration of War the following day. But hostilities were well under-way years before that, over two years in the case of Europe and over five in East Asia. My point?  We are already in the early stages of an undeclared third World War escalating at a slow albeit inexorable pace, with at least three and as many as six theaters of open or potential conflict inviting whack-a-mole military responses with precision-guided munitions.

Ed Ruscha, “Start Over Please,” 2015, oil on canvas, 64 x 72”.
Courtesy of Phillips Auctioneers, New York.

In recent weeks, such responses have gone from show-of-force threat displays to multiple airstrikes in Yemen and Eastern Syria, responding to attacks from Iranian supported proxy fighters. The fact that we are now in an election year in the U.S. and several dozen other countries makes this recognition ever more urgent because political grandstanding often leads to miscalculation. On this point, I most sincerely wish and hope that I am wrong, but wishful thinking can be very dangerous. When circumstances make wishful thinking irrelevant, compensatory over-reaction often leads to panic and bad decision-making engendering even worse decision-making moving along a downward spiral to catastrophe.

After I posted my last contribution to The Democracy Chain [“Soft Speech and Big Sticks”] I was asked how I felt about the military situation that the article described, even though I downplayed the emotional aspect on purpose in favor of a sober assessment. I was not counseling neutrality. Rather, I was pointing to a kind of realism stripped of shrill hyperbole and misleading double talk. The subject of that article was the relationship between geopolitical negotiation (or lack thereof) and credible threats and counter-threats of military force necessary to achieve (read: coerce) desired outcomes. Insofar as the feeling question is concerned, the short answer is that I was and still am anxious and terrified, which is better than being merely depressed about it. Depression concedes too much to the murky enormity of the geopolitical powder kegs that are being lit, whereas anxious terror can motivate a call for clarity. In general, the therapeutic language of “political feelings” that permeates social media bespeaks a naïve presumption that such expressions matter enough to impact policy. Political candidates fan this illusion in election years and ignore it in off years. Their foremost concern is fundraising, using polls and primary votes to substantiate that end. This is why clarity needs to come into the foreground, if only to keep a clear eye on the bullshit machines that are working with ulterior motive to rationalize a dangerous escalation of conflict.

Peter Howson, “Prophecy,” 2016, oil on canvas, 72 x 96 1/2”. Courtesy of Flowers Gallery, London.
Photo: Antonio Parente.

Right after that article was posted, Houthi insurgents in Yemen started firing rockets and drones at commercial shipping transiting the southern chokepoint of the Red Sea. U.S. naval forces responded with sea and air strikes in an attempt to “degrade” Houthi capability of launching additional attacks on future shipping. This has not prevented many maritime freight haulers from opting to make the costly detour around the Cape of Good Hope. So much for threat displays directed at “containment” and “deterrence.” One CNN report mentioned that Chinese flagged ships were immune from Houthi attacks, feeding speculation that, even though the Houthis are supported by Iran, Iran itself may again be functioning as a proxy actor for China, as it has in the past. Meanwhile, American and Iranian troops have been taking regular pot shots at each other in northeastern Syria.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian campaign has effectively come to a halt because of winter weather and concerns about continued funding from the U.S. Indeed, there was a spectacular 1,000-mile drone strike on January 22nd that incinerated an oil refinery near St. Petersburg, but the possibility of a Ukrainian recapture of the Crimean Peninsula remains unlikely, if for no other reason than that Vladimir Putin has never seen a warm water port that he didn’t like. The past eight years have given him plenty of time to fortify Crimea against assault. Meanwhile a low but steady level of conflict is ongoing between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon. This could escalate at any time, although the deterrence provided by nearby American naval assets seems to be working in the short term.

Nancy Rubins, “MoMA & Airplane Parts at forte Belvedere Florence Italy,” 2003. Courtesy of the artist.

Why is all of this happening now? Obviously, the distractions of election year politics create enticing opportunities for international mischief makers, even as those same mischief makers provide opportunities for grandstanding political figures. But there is much more to it than that. The October 7th Hamas attack in southern Israel was a grotesque atrocity, mirroring the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York. In both cases over-reaction ensued, with an exponentially greater tally of innocent lives lost in the counterattacks, 25,000 and counting in the Gaza Strip. Despite his efforts to appear even-handed while also vetoing a United Nations cease fire resolution, for President Biden this has thus far been a political loser, because the swing state pro-Palestinian youth vote that helped put him across the finish line in 2020 could stay home in sufficient numbers to usher in the Trump victory that will ensure a Ukrainian defeat.

Actually, Biden loses either way. Had he not exercised the UN veto or threatened to cut U.S. funding for Israel, that country’s U.S. Congressional allies would have staged a repeat end run around him as they did in 2009 when Barack Obama tried to link funding to a cessation of settlement building in the West Bank. President Obama’s initiative was fully in keeping with our long-standing policy supporting a two-state solution, but policy is one thing, and the exercise of real political power is quite another.

Chris Burden, “Bateau de Guerre,” 2001, 172 metal gasoline cans, 3 cannons on wooden swivels, 8 plastic torpedoes, 18 plastic submarine bombers, 4 plastic rescue submarines, 2 metal lamps, 5 plastic castle towers with attached weaponry, 1 straw Chinese radar hat, 71 x 174 x 41”. Courtesy of The Broad, Los Angeles.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has his own reasons for prolonging the conflict in Gaza. Recent polls have him holding onto a meager 20 percent approval rating, while his presumptive opponent Benny Gantz polls at almost twice that number. A major reason for Netanyahu’s dismal numbers is that Israeli intelligence knew well in advance that Hamas had plans to stage a major attack in southern Israel. Defensive preparations were never made, and the buck stops on the desk of the Prime Minister. Netanyahu needs to prolong the conflict to save his own political skin, lest he face criminal prosecution upon reentry to private life. At the same time, according to the Foundation for The Defense of Democracies, the Iranian nuclear arms development program is now close to having enough fissile material to make 10 bombs, setting up a possible six-month timeline for weapon deployment. Think back to 2018 when then-President Trump unilaterally shredded the JCPOA (aka, the Iran Nuclear Deal) negotiated by the Obama administration in 2015. Maybe that was not such a great idea. Israeli military commanders certainly didn’t think so.

Molly Crabapple, “Gaza,” 2023, illustration. Courtesy of VICE.

No analysis of the winds of impending war would be complete without mention of the January 13th election in Taiwan, which was celebrated by CNN as a victory for the anti-PRC (People’s Republic of China) faction of that country’s electorate led by President-elect William Lai, the hand-picked successor and sitting Vice-President for popular President Tsai Ing-wen. A closer look tells a somewhat different story. The Progressive-Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) led by The Tsai-Lai team lost their majority in that country’s legislature, owing to the surprising rise of a third party, the Taiwan People’s Party. Coincident with the announcement of Taiwan’s election results, the small South Pacific Island nation of Nauru has severed its allegiance to Taiwan to ally itself with the PRC. By itself, this is not big news. But since 2016, the PRC has poached ten small countries away from Taiwan, about half being small island nations in the South Pacific and the other half somewhat larger countries in South or Central America. Methinks there is a pattern here.

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