Gwynne Dyer's World

Journalist Gwynne Dyer has a gift for providing a unique perspective on war and conflict. Now he's taking on climate change as well. Metta Spencer gives us an introduction to Dyer's more recent arguments, from why we should leave Afghanistan to why we should embrace geo-engineering.

By Metta Spencer | 2009-01-01 12:00:00

It was good to see Gwynne Dyer again. He was my favorite journalist even before 1986, when Shirley Farlinger’s profile of him was our cover story. He used to wear a green leather aviator’s jacket everywhere, and now, twenty-odd years later, he’s wearing a new green leather jacket. It hasn’t acquired the patina of the old one, but Dyer has kept his own patina. He’s as wise and witty as ever.

He was in Toronto giving two big lectures, an hour apart, and signing books. At noon he talked about his book The Mess They Made: The Middle East After Iraq. An audience of undergraduates packed the hall, listening intently while eating the free box lunches that someone had provided. Then Dyer drove across town to lecture about another recent book, Climate Wars. I followed him.

Dyer travels the world almost constantly, writing columns that are syndicated in many newspapers, but no longer in a Toronto daily. (You can read them a few days late on his web site, ) Somehow, although he specializes in the analysis of dire global conflicts, his habitual optimism usually reveals itself.

For example, I was impressed several years ago by his upbeat perspective on (of all things!) social inequality. He was encouraged, he said, because a middle class was growing in so many countries. It’s not that he forgot the poorest of the poor, but rather that he noticed a social class that most other observers overlook — the burgeoning middle class, which had barely existed in traditional societies. It was rising, he proclaimed in an expansive mood; only the lowest fifth of the world’s population was making no progress or falling behind. That was true, but we’d never hear it from other travelers and journalists, who typically see only poverty and wealth.

But this noontime, he was going to bring us along on his regular specialty: covering some of the world’s ongoing conflicts. In this case, we’d hear about Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, and Iran.

The Middle East

As usual, Dyer’s lecture on the Middle East found new grounds for hope. He posed the question: What will happen in that part of the world after the American troops leave Iraq? His cheerful answer: not much. To be specific, he doesn’t expect the civil war between Iraqis that we have been warned to expect. Why? Because it has already taken place during the last couple of years, and it’s over now. The Shia won. Though we have been told that the Americans won with their troop surge, Dyer says it actually was the Shia, who are more numerous than the Sunni Iraqis. However, the Americans cleverly made allies of the traditional Sunni leaders who were fighting against the Islamists — the so-called “al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia” — and by dividing the Sunnis, helped end the civil war.

So there is a fairly democratic government in Iraq now, and their oil money is flowing again, so the Iraqis will get back on their feet in about ten years. Already they are setting limits for the Americans in their country and may even kick them out soon.

But that won’t be the end of America’s war. Dyer went on to discuss Afghanistan, reminding us of Barack Obama’s pledge to move most American troops there to capture or kill Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Dyer thinks Obama’s plan may have been intended primarily to win the US election, and that he may not carry through with it. (I wondered: Was Dyer being realistic here or just indulging his innate cheerfulness? In either case, the prediction may come true if President Karzai tells the US to leave, as he is now threatening to do.)

Moreover, Dyer corrected two other widespread misconceptions: first, that the Taliban had invited bin Laden to come to Afghanistan and prepare his 2001 attacks against America. And, second, that after 9/11 the American military responded by driving bin Laden across the border into Pakistan.

Not so, says Dyer. What actually happened was that the Pakistan intelligence agency had created a group called the Taliban to help them in their endless conflict with India. In September 11, 2001 the Taliban controlled about two-thirds of Afghanistan and were in the middle of a civil war against the ethnic groups of Afghanistan’s north: the Tajiks, Hazaras, and Uzbeks. The Taliban are almost all Pashtuns, the dominant ethnic group of Afghanistan, but they never controlled the whole country. They did admire Osama bin Laden, who had come to Afghanistan in the 1980s with 40,000 Arab volunteers to help them fight against the Russians, thus becoming a hero, so later the Taliban did indeed invite him to set up camp in their country. But they did not plan the attack on the United States, says Dyer, and probably did not even know it was going to happen. They take little interest in matters beyond their borders.

Dyer continued: After 9/11 the Americans did overthrow the Taliban, but without putting a large army into Afghanistan. Instead, the CIA went in first, with teams of two or three people who carried suitcases full of money and a laser target designator so the bombs would fall in the right places. Only about 500 Americans went in. They bought off the Afghan militia, who did the real fighting on the ground. The US Air Force bombed wherever they were told to bomb, and the whole operation cost only about 4,000 Afghan lives on all sides. As military operations go, it was “elegant,” said Dyer. Then, after the Taliban were gone, the American troops did pour in and establish an occupation regime. Their announced goals were similar to those of the preceding invaders from Russia — to bring civilization, educate the girls, build roads, and the like.

By early 2002 the Americans had smashed bin Laden’s camps and he had fled into Pakistan. The military phase of the war on terror was over, for no terrorist military bases were left in Afghanistan. After all, said Dyer, most terrorists are civilians; they don’t live in camps but in houses and apartments. To catch them, it’s not appropriate to use the army but rather the police and intelligence-gathering agents. George Bush should have announced at that point that the military war on terror was over; the secret service would finish the job by tracking terrorists down in their homes.

We should then have left Afghanistan to the Afghans, said Dyer. Which Afghans? It doesn’t matter. None of these groups run the country by themselves anyway. The ethnic warlords traditionally make deals among themselves to share the power. If left to their own devices, the powerful Afghans would have held a Loya Jirga, made their deals, and Afghanistan would be a peaceful country by now. It would still not be a good place to be born a girl, but there’s nothing we can do about that. They have to do that for themselves, Dyer declared. (Two female students sitting near me shook their heads sadly after he said this.)

But, he said, instead we invaded, aligned ourselves with the northern ethnic minorities — the Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras — and participated in the civil war that was already going on. The northern provinces of the country are at peace now, but the Pashtuns, the dominant ethnic group of the country, were shut out of power, so they turned to the Taliban.

“How are we going to fix that?” asksed Dyer. “We can’t fix that. We have to go away. Then they can fix that. We won’t like what they do when they fix it, but then we’re not Afghan.”

He pointed out that President Karzai, recognizing that we’re going to leave, already is trying to make a deal with the Taliban, and he may be able to do it. If he doesn’t, someone else will. What will happen then? Will Afghanistan become a nest of terrorists? Probably not. They are not interested in determining the fate of the world.

After The Troops Leave

But Dyer’s cheerfulness almost failed him when he began considering how the rest of the Middle East will behave after the Western armies leave. He predicted that, after five years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, many people will be radicalized. Arabs everywhere have been outraged by the images they have seen on TV. There already have been Islamist revolutions and others may arise: the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hamas in Palestine, Hezbollah in Lebanon, al-Qaeda in Syria. New Islamist regimes may come to power in a few countries, he said. Suppose Osama bin Laden achieves his life ambition and becomes the head of Arabia. What will happen then?

Not much, Dyer said, with renewed optimism. Their population has tripled. Even if they hate us, they have to sell us their oil, just to feed themselves. “So I wouldn’t worry. It won’t hurt us.”

Next he considered Israel, the nation that he calls “the big loser in all this.” He said that fifteen years ago Israel could have made peace with all its neighbors in exchange for land, but now that opportunity has passed. Israel still has three big advantages: a monopoly on nuclear weapons, the strongest army in the region, and the support of America — but none of these things will last forever. Suppose Israel now agrees to trade land for peace with its Arab neighbors. In five years there may be an Islamist revolution in one of those countries and its new government may abrogate the treaty, having pocketed the land. In fact, Israel will be lucky if the existing treaties with Egypt and Jordan survive, said Dyer.

How about Iran? Dyer doesn’t think it’s developing nuclear weapons, though it is developing the ability to enrich uranium to reactor grade — 20 percent enrichment. That’s perfectly legal, according to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. But if you can do that, you can just run the uranium through the machinery ten times more and you’ll have 90 percent enriched uranium — which works in a bomb. Why does Iran suddenly want the technology to do that?

It’s not because of Israel, in Dyer’s opinion. Israel had nuclear weapons all along; there’s nothing newly threatening about that, he said. But now Pakistan and India have nuclear weapons, and Pakistan is a Sunni country where anti-Shia radicals might come to power. Probably Iran wants the ability to move fast in such a situation, that’s all.

So again, Dyer ended his lecture on a buoyant note, anticipating that nothing catastrophic is likely to happen after the troops come home.

He took questions from the audience. One was from a fellow named Kalevar whom I have seen at dozens of lectures over the past twenty-five years. He always seems to like the question period. “You missed the oil,” he said. “Western addiction to oil is the cause of these problems.”

Dyer re-iterated that it’s not necessary to invade places to get oil; just send them a cheque. But then he offered a different interpretation. The American military is obsessed with China, not the Middle East, he said. Seeing China as a potential enemy, they would like to control the areas where the Chinese get their oil. “If the Chinese know you’ve got those bases in Iraq they will be nice because they know you can turn off the taps.” That sounded plausible to me.

I put up my hand and asked, “Would it be possible for the US to go get Osama and his henchmen, and then leave the Taliban alone, as you suggest?”

Dyer replied, “Whether you go get Osama or not, leave the Taliban alone. Getting Osama doesn’t matter.”

I said, “Politically in the US it would.”

He replied. “It would have saved Bush’s reputation, but Obama’s doesn’t need saving. It would have done Bush an enormous amount of good with at least part of the electorate if he’d had Osama’s head. But this is not part of Obama’s agenda. He never promised to do that.”

“I think he did,” I said.

Dyer said, “He said he’d go after them. But that’s what you say in an election…. I am hoping, though I have no guarantees, that that was election talk.”

Well, maybe, but this lecture was over. Still, I wanted to hear more, so after lunch I tracked him down to a campus on the west side of Toronto.

Climate Change

I found Dyer in a basement room facing an audience of faculty members. I was surprised at his choice of topics. He had started his career as a military analyst, but had expanded to cover international politics. This climate change issue seemed to be a new angle for him.

Indeed, he started by admitting that he hadn’t paid much attention to it until he discovered that the Pentagon was studying it covertly. During Bush junior’s administration they couldn’t do such research openly, so they asked some Washington think tanks to do so, and then they passed their findings around so they wouldn’t be blamed.

Dyer had titled this new book “Climate Wars,” presumably to link it to his field of expertise. And yes, it does mention the possibility of warfare. For example, it notes one consequence of global warming: that the rivers fed by glaciers will dry up when the glaciers melt. Pakistan is a desert; at least 80 percent of its food depends on the glacial water. Five of the six branches of the Indus River run through India before reaching Pakistan. There is a treaty between them specifying how much water each country gets — but it is not determined on a percentage basis. It allocates a certain volume of water to India and Pakistan gets the rest. When the water diminishes, India may go on taking its regular share. But Pakistanis must have water or they’ll starve. Both countries have nuclear weapons. You can imagine what may happen.

In this lecture Dyer went beyond analyzing possible wars and discussed climate change problems more broadly, making four key points.

First, the climate is changing much faster than the governments say. The official projections are made by an international panel of scientists commissioned by the United Nations, but their projections are always overtaken by events.

Second, there will be consequences, especially from the loss of food production globally. There will be more rainfall, but not over the breadbasket regions. Already the global food supply is too low, and the aquifers are being depleted for irrigation faster than they can be refilled. When the temperature increases one degree, about 175 million people in India will be without food, and similar effects will occur elsewhere.

Third, there is a limit that we must stay within — no more than two degrees of increase in global temperature. Beyond that level there will be irreversible feedbacks. For example, when the permafrost melts, methane will be released. Its warming effect is about twenty times that of carbon dioxide, molecule for molecule. The process will enter a runaway phase. Likewise, the ocean is a sink for carbon dioxide, but if it warms, it will retain less and less of the CO2, eventually putting out more than it takes in. So we cannot let these feedbacks begin — though we will almost certainly exceed the limit. Technically, solutions still exist, but politically they cannot be negotiated quickly enough. Game over?


A fatalist would surely fall into despair at this point, but not Dyer. Instead, he proceeded cheerfully to his fourth major proposition: There is a way of cheating, of avoiding the worst consequences of this impending failure. He joked that it’s unacceptable to talk about it “in front of the children (us).” It is called geo-engineering.

Of the many technical ways of limiting climate change, Dyer mentioned only two in his lecture. Both of them involve blocking the penetration of the sun’s rays to the planet. One method is to sow the stratosphere with particles of sulfur, which will reflect enough sunlight to cool us, just as big volcanoes do. You can add the particles to airplane fuel and spew it out at high altitudes. Or the second method would be to build a fleet of unmanned wind-powered vessels that sail around the ocean, spraying mist five meters into the air. Some of it will be picked up and turned into clouds, which will reflect much of the sunlight back into space.

Neither of these schemes will solve all our problems. But they are a safety net, giving us time to get our emissions down, which makes Gwynne Dyer a happy man. “We will take some losses,” he said, “but it is a soluble problem. I am more optimistic at the end of this journey than when I started it.”

Me too. Years ago I began reading about the various geo-engineering proposals that are being explored. But I almost lost some friends when I became too enthusiastic about them. Most people evidently hate the idea of geo-engineering, partly because it may bring risks that we cannot foresee. I agree with Thomas Homer-Dixon that we should start experimenting with these solutions on a small scale right away. If we measure the effects as we go along, we’ll be able to change our plans if serious unexpected consequences appear.

Indeed, I think we should experiment with several different methods at once, including some that may be even less risky than the two methods Dyer named. For example, there are ways of removing the ambient CO2 from the atmosphere and potentially returning the greenhouse gas concentrations and global temperature to pre-industrial levels — albeit at great cost. There are agricultural methods that make better use of the soil to retain CO2. So there are “technological fixes” after all! Let’s start working to develop them. Gwynne Dyer’s world — and yours — has a future after all. I’m glad he’s spreading the word.

Metta Spencer is editor of Peace.

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2009

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2009, page 8. Some rights reserved.

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