Retirement’s an odd thing, that time when you no longer have to show up at the office, or actually when no one will ever hire you again, and you get to do what you always wanted to do. That’s of course a joke. Few have the funds to more than just get by, so moving to that flat on the Left Bank just down the street from the Flore isn’t going to happen, nor will any of us be running a winery in Napa or some such thing. Those retirees who travel do so in discounted group tours, or in enormous RV’s chugging through the odd parts of sunny states in the winter. The romance of kicking around all alone in foreign lands is for the young. That’s something you should have gotten in years ago, and some of us did. The memories are fine. You’ll always have Paris – and Aix and Arles and Avignon, and London too. As for the present, it seems the trick to what some call the Golden Years is to have positioned yourself so that when all you have is empty time you’ve ended up somewhere interesting, not Altoona. And Hollywood is just fine, as is blogging and dabbling in fancy photography. It more than passes the time. It forces you to think clearly and see carefully. You attend to all the stuff you missed when the issue was office politics and getting ahead, and satisfying some customer you really didn’t give a damn about anyway. It’s stepping back and gaining perspective. All sorts of things were going on that you had no idea were going on. It’s almost like waking up.
That’s why so many retirees read history. There’s a lot of catching up to do. How the hell did things get to be the way they are now? Inquiring minds want to know, or really, if you just woke up you do want to know what’s up. It’s time to rub the sleep from your eyes. This is what’s going on in the world? How did that happen?
It’s time to find out, and in the bookcase there was a dusty old paperback edition of Walter Lord’s The Good Years – a breezy popular history of the last years of America’s Gilded Age, the first decades of the twentieth century, from Teddy Roosevelt through the start of the First World War. Hey, it seems that our history is a tale of a few very rich people running everything and everyone else having next to nothing, sometimes admiring those rich folks and sometimes ready to fight them tooth and claw for a few scraps from their table. We’re just in a period now where we think having a solid middle class is the way things have always been and always should be. Ah, so that’s the problem – that’s just not the natural order of things in a free-market economy. That’s good to know, but it would be also good to know how that book ended up hidden in that dark corner. Maybe someone assigned it back in 1965, in freshman year, and with all the moves over all the decades it never got tossed out. It also never got read before. Go figure.
The odd thing is reading Lord’s account of how it all ended. On June 28, 1914, there was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, by a Yugoslav nationalist in Sarajevo. Lord notes our press hardly covered it at all and our diplomats just shrugged. The nation was following the Perils of Pauline and having a lazy summer. Our diplomats reported all was quiet – these things happen occasionally. But then came a Habsburg ultimatum against the Kingdom of Serbia, with terms Serbia could never accept, and they went to war, and then all the alliances formed over the previous decades came into play – treaties regarding who would stand up for whom – and within weeks all the major powers were at war, along with their far-flung colonies. We suddenly had a full-blown world war, everywhere. Lord chronicles how Americans were stunned, and then in the war themselves, and the Gilded Age was over. No one saw this coming.
It’s dangerous to read history. We may be there again, but right now it’s a Wednesday in early October, the day before the vice-presidential debate, featuring wily old Joe Biden versus sanctimonious young Paul Ryan. That’s what’s dominating the news, along with something like the Perils of Pauline. You might have heard of that 1914 silent film serial – Pauline is tied to the train tracks or whatever and there’s no way for her to escape, and it’s fade to black. Audiences had to wait a week and plunk down another five cents to see how she actually escaped, which she always did, somehow. That’s the Barack Obama story, fascinating the nation. After a poor debate performance against a sly shyster who simply changed all his positions and denied he ever said all the things he’d been saying for the last year and a half, Obama’s lead in all the polling evaporated and it seems certain now, at least among those who like to panic, that Obama will lose the election. Obama is in an awful position – it’s a Perils of Pauline thing. Will wily and warm and loose and happy Joe Biden put the pompous and shallow twit, Paul Ryan, in his place and change the dynamic of everything again? Will Obama come out guns-a-blazing in the second presidential debate and show Mitt Romney to be a fool and a liar? We all have to wait for the next episode. That’s all anyone is talking about.
It’s just that that’s not all that’s going on. Right now the Colonel in the family is part of a group finishing up all sorts of meetings with the NATO bigwigs in Brussels, before he flies off to Afghanistan for high-level strategy sessions there, then back home to Fort Hood, before his deployment back to Afghanistan in the spring. We do have that war going on and it’s not going well. We’re supporting a government that’s hardly a government and training their guys to defend it, and those guys have taken to shooting our own guys dead with the arms we’ve provided them. It’s a bit of a mess, and both Romney and Obama say we’ll be out of there in 2014, right on schedule. It’s hard to imagine what we’ll leave behind, but at least the Colonel spent a year in Istanbul between the two Iraq Wars, so he’s fluent in Turkish and knows more about all the Kurdish factions, and their opponents, than anyone should know.
That might come in handy, as things are starting to feel like 1914 in Sarajevo:
With Syria’s civil strife coursing through major cities and unsettling neighboring countries, the Turkish military sounded a somber warning on Wednesday that it may respond more forcefully after days of shelling from Syria… The exchange of fire has raised concerns that the conflict will ignite a broader crisis in the region. On Tuesday, the NATO secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, emphasized that NATO, of which Turkey is a member and which considers an attack on one member to be an attack on all, had “all necessary plans in place to protect and defend Turkey if necessary.”
Alliances formed over the previous decades came into play, treaties regarding who will stand up for whom, and it seems that our own ground presence in the region is ramping up:
The United States military has secretly sent a task force of more than 150 planners and other specialists to Jordan to help the armed forces there handle a flood of Syrian refugees, prepare for the possibility that Syria will lose control of its chemical weapons and be positioned should the turmoil in Syria expand into a wider conflict. …
Officials said the idea of establishing a buffer zone between Syria and Jordan – which would be enforced by Jordanian forces on the Syrian side of the border and supported politically and perhaps logistically by the United States – had been discussed. But at this point the buffer is only a contingency.
Contingencies can be dangerous too.
And the Associated Press reports this:
Turkish jets on Wednesday forced a Syrian passenger plane to land at Ankara airport on suspicion that it might be carrying weapons or other military equipment, amid heightened tensions between Turkey and Syria that have sparked fears of a wider regional conflict.
The Syrian Air jetliner was traveling from Moscow when it was intercepted by F16 jets as it entered Turkish airspace and was escorted to the capital’s Esenboga Airport, the state-run TRT television reported.
Hours later, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said the Airbus A320 with 37 passengers and crew would be allowed to leave, but its cargo had been confiscated.
Things are hot:
The move comes as tensions between Turkey and Syria are running high. The countries, which were once close allies, have been exchanging artillery fire across the volatile border for days.
Earlier Wednesday, Turkey’s military chief vowed to respond with more force to any further shelling from Syria, keeping up the pressure on its southern neighbor a day after NATO said it stood ready to defend Turkey.
Gen. Necdet Ozel was inspecting troops who have been put on alert along the 565-mile (910-kilometer) border after shelling from Syria killed five Turkish civilians in a border town last week. Turkey has reinforced the border with artillery and also deployed more fighter jets to an air base close to the border region.
Somehow now it doesn’t seem all that important if Joe Biden slaps Paul Ryan silly, or not. Something far more ominous is brewing, or it isn’t. Patrick J. McDonnell in the Los Angeles Times says no one really expects a war between Turkey and Syria, then between NATO, including us, and everyone else. It’s just not going to happen:
The broader challenge facing the country now is how to handle the chaos that has inevitably spilled across the border from Syria, which is in the midst of a 19-month conflict between forces loyal to Assad and opposition fighters.
“Turkey’s toolbox is limited right now,” said Soner Cagaptay with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Turkey cannot live with Assad. But at the same time it cannot afford to launch a full-blown war campaign against him, especially not one without U.S. support.”
The United States and other North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies have shown little inclination to become directly embroiled in a muddled and bloody struggle that has drawn freelance Islamic militants and Al Qaeda affiliates to the fragmented anti-Assad alliance.
You can show little inclination, but there is the NATO treaty. An attack upon one is an attack on all, and Turkey is a member of NATO, except Turkey made a bad bet:
Early on in the Syrian crisis, the government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan adopted a forceful stance against Assad and called on the Syrian leader to step down. Turkish territory became the main resupply base for Syrian rebels, and the more than 500-mile border became an opposition logistics corridor. But expectations that Assad would follow in the footsteps of other strongmen who succumbed expeditiously to the “Arab Spring” whirlwind proved illusory. Meantime, multitudes of refugees continue to stream across the border, taxing Turkey’s ability to care for them.
Turkey brought this on, and his critics now accuse Erdogan of taking Turkey down a path that might lead to war, even if his “zero problems with neighbors” policy was his big thing. Now he’s saying this – “We do not seek war, but we are not far from it.”
That’s where the geopolitical analysts say everyone should calm down:
Among other things, war would not be good for business. Turkey’s stunning economic expansion in recent years is closely linked to its political and social stability.
“If Turkey was seen as a country in a full-scale war, regardless of who started the war … the image on which it has built its economic growth – a stable country in this vastly unstable region – would erode overnight,” Cagaptay said.
World War I was bad for business but it happened anyway, and you get things like this:
The Turkish armed forces chief of staff, Gen. Necdet Ozel, visited this border region Wednesday and vowed that Turkey would respond “more strongly” to any future Syrian shelling.
This is not looking good. Did Romney change his position on abortion? Is Obama going to defend letting the Bush tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires expire, so they go back to paying thirty-nine percent, not thirty-four percent, which none of them pay anyway?
Follow that, or follow Robert Wright in the Atlantic with this:
 Turkey could decide before long that war is preferable to the alternatives. The Syrian civil war is creating all kinds of problems for Turkey. There’s a big influx of refugees, and there’s also the Kurdish issue: Many of Syria’s Kurds hope to use the civil war as an opportunity to carve out an autonomous or even sovereign Kurdish region in Syria, and Turkey fears that this could prove contagious, emboldening Kurdish separatists in Turkey and energizing longstanding dreams of a new Kurdish nation that comprises parts of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran. Both of these issues – refugees and Kurdish nationalism – could lead Turkey to conclude that the sooner the Syrian civil war ends, the better. And helping fight it could help end it – especially if Turkey’s fellow members of NATO help out.
 Speaking of NATO: The fact that a Turkish-Syrian war could draw America into the conflict will make such a war more attractive to some backers of American intervention. That includes some influential Americans (largely, but not entirely, drawn from the crowd that got the U.S. into the Iraq war), but it also includes non-Americans, among them, presumably, the leaders of some Arab states. And the more influential players there are who want a war to happen, the more likely it is to happen.
Wright also adds this:
I should emphasize that I don’t think either government really wants war. God knows Bashar Assad has his hands full fighting a civil war, and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan would presumably like to avoid war (particularly what Syria expert Joshua Landis has called the “potential Vietnam” that could result from putting ground troops in Syria). That Erdogan is scrambling to find alternatives to war is evident in his administration’s pointedly suggesting this weekend that Syria’s vice president would be acceptable as the leader of a transitional government.
But wars are often fought by countries whose leaders didn’t really want them. (See World War I.) A common reason is that neither regime feels it can afford to be seen by its people as backing down.
That’s why Wright also offers these factors:
Syria feels it can’t afford to ignore the Turkish border. The casual reader of the news might ask: If Syria doesn’t want a war, and Syrian shells that fall on the Turkish side of the border could start a war, why doesn’t Syria quit firing shells anywhere near the border? Indeed, why not bow to the Turkish demand for a buffer zone on the Syrian side of the border?
The answer is simple: The Syrian regime is fighting for its life, and along the Turkish-Syrian border lies the lifeline of its enemy. The rebels are being supplied with weapons via Turkey and are seizing control of border crossings inside Syria, and their goal is to build, from there, an expanding zone of control.
Can you imagine any regime, in the Syrian regime’s situation, not fighting to keep control, or retake control, of border crossings, and not trying to disrupt the enemy’s supply of arms and ammunition near the point of origin?
And there’s this:
Turkey is, in a sense, already at war with the Syrian regime. The rebels aren’t just being supplied via Turkey; they’re being supplied by Turkey – at least in the sense that Turkey has willingly, even eagerly, turned itself into an arms and ammunition conveyer belt that is stocked by such countries as Saudi Arabia and Qatar. (The US is confining its contribution to “non-lethal” supplies such as communications equipment–which, of course, does in fact help the rebels kill people.)
So the Turkish indignation at shells landing on Turkish soil is ironic; Turkey is sending lots more ammo into Syria than Syria is sending into Turkey – the difference is that the ammo Turkey is sending actually kills lots of people. That Turkey’s role as a conduit of arms and ammunition isn’t a passive one may make Syria even less inclined to keep its fire far from the border.
Wright is not hopeful:
None of this changes the fact that the Syrian regime doesn’t want a war with Turkey or the fact that the Turkish regime can’t possibly be sanguine about war with Syria. But in the end these two facts may not matter.
On June 22, the Syrian military shot down a Turkish warplane, dealing a massive embarrassment to Ankara at home and abroad. Turkey escalated by establishing a de facto buffer zone on the border, deploying two armored brigades and anti-aircraft batteries to the frontier, and scrambling F-16 jets three times as Syrian helicopters approached the border. In April, when Syrian troops fired across the border, Ankara promised: “We will certainly take necessary measures if such incidents reoccur.” Ankara then discussed the idea of a buffer zone with Washington but the idea was rejected.
Four days after the jet was shot down, an emergency NATO meeting convened to discuss measures under Article 4 of the alliance’s charter, which could potentially spell out Turkey’s plan of action. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan prepared the Turkish nation for an escalation, saying that the military’s “rules of engagement” had changed, and that any Syrian army activity near the border would be treated as a threat. He also affirmed Turkey’s full support for the Syrian opposition’s goal to bring down the regime.
Reports from the Geneva talks indicated that Ankara presented plans for a no-fly zone, much to the surprise of its NATO allies.
While the alliance’s chief, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, unequivocally condemned the incident, he fell short of supporting an escalation. When asked whether NATO would take further measures if a similar incident occurred again, Mr Rasmussen dodged the question: “Such an incident won’t happen again … We closely monitor the situation and if necessary we will consult and discuss what else could be done.”
A day before the Geneva meeting, senior US intelligence officials, in leaked statements to The Wall Street Journal, had said the Turkish jet was “most likely” struck down by shore-based anti-aircraft guns while it was inside Syrian airspace – despite Ankara’s detailed presentation to its NATO allies to the contrary. The leaked statements could be interpreted as an attempt to undermine Turkey’s account of the incident and force it to de-escalate.
There was a lot of maneuvering. Russia is on Syria’s side here, against Turkey – and against NATO and us. That Turkey sort of backed down, a little, was a victory for them. Or maybe someone remembers late June 1914, when Russia told the Kaiser and his buddies that any attack on Serbia was an attack on all Slavs, and they’d be all in. Sorry about Archduke Franz Ferdinand and all that, but back down or they’ll be a real war, a big one.
It’s the same sort of thing now, and back in 1914 we seemed to think that our common sense and the superiority of our political institutions would keep us out of the whole mess. Americans sat in the dark and watched the Perils of Pauline. That was a mistake, and that’s why those of us who are old folks end up reading history. All sorts of things were going on that we had no idea were going on, and it really is almost like waking up. That might be the bad part, actually.