Lost in Lebanon and the China Conundrum

An explosion in Beirut, Trump's TikTok ban, and the consequences of a failed coup.

Hello and welcome to the Information War, Angry Planet’s (War College’s) weekly catalogue of a world in conflict. Every week Jason, Kevin, and Matthew watch the news and sort through the signal and noise so you don’t have to.

The focus shifted to Lebanon this week when an ammonium nitrate explosion leveled part of its capital city. Conspiracy theories abounded, but the real tragedy is shittier and more complicated than anything the dark corners of the internet could invent. Elsewhere, Beijing and Washington continue to piss each other off, America’s civil unrest is probably going to get worse, and the ex-Green Berets who tried to do a coup in Venezuela are going to prison for twenty years. 

All eyes on Beirut

There are approximately 2.4 million people living in the Beirut metroplex. At least 10 percent of them are now homeless because of a single ammonium nitrate blast. 

The cause? Not terrorism, even if the government would like it to be, but negligence and stupidity. The fertilizer-cum-explosive had been impounded off a Russian ship in 2013. The ship had been on its way to Mozambique when it was impounded by Lebanese authorities.

Two tons of ammonium nitrate blew up the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City and killed 168 people, including children in 1994. At least 2,750 tons exploded in the warehouse in Beirut’s port. The blast was so big, the usual nuclear bugs came out and claimed a Bomb went off. It didn’t. And nuclear bombs are far, far worse. Some on social media blamed Israel, unsurprisingly. But, nope, they didn’t do it. That hasn’t stopped conspiracy theorists from sharing digitally altered photos and videos of the incident. There are other large supplies of ammonium nitrate sitting in warehouses around the world, by the by, and something like this could happen again.

Lebanon was already in bad shape when the explosion went off. The country fought a civil war from 1975 to 1990. After the war ended, sectarian groups emerged—most notably Hezbollah—and now run the country. Starting in 1976, Syria occupied Lebanon and didn’t leave until 2005.

On top of that, Lebanon has an import-based economy which has all but collapsed. The government spent years doing shady deals and mismanaging debt. Its central bank is depleted of foreign currency reserves and the value of the Lebanese lira has plummeted. Inflation has made buying food and other staples almost impossible and thousands have lost their life’s savings. Around 65 percent of the country, some 3.25 million people, now live in poverty.

Protests against Lebanon’s leadership started on October 17, 2019. Though street action has waxed and waned over the past year, it never stopped. Prime Minister Saad Hariri and his cabinet resigned in January. Former Minister of Education Hassan Diab is in charge now, but has quickly become the face of government corruption and incontinence in the wake of the explosion. Amid growing unrest, Diab has called for an early parliamentary election.

But protests continue, much of the country is without work and COVID-19 infections have spiked. Also, one of the buildings vaporized at the port was a grain silo. Lebanon now has less than a month’s grain reserves.

As unrest spread in Beirut, the usual anti-Imperial ghouls came out to accuse the United States of stoking tension in the region. America often gets involved when and where it shouldn’t, but saying that the United States—which can barely get its shit together right now—is orchestrating a “color revolution” in Lebanon is disgusting. It robs the Lebanese people of their agency. America isn’t responsible for all the world’s ills.

Remember, it’s possible to be critical of American power without supporting anti-American authoritarian regimes abroad.

China’s Tech War 

China and the United States are moving closer to the brink… of something. 

The list of conflicts between the two powers just keeps growing–or deepening–depending on the specific case.

There’s espionage.

There’s the possibility that China is helping Saudi Arabia build the Bomb.

There’s the South China Sea and Taiwan.

There’s trade.

There’s nuclear weapons.

There’s China’s massive arms buildup and growing nationalism, which is pretty much already at a fever pitch.

Did we mention COVID-19?

And there’s tech. First, the stupid battle over TikTok, where it’s possible that China could manipulate a bunch of teens and tweens into giving away some completely unimportant personal information (most of which is fake, anyway). Also, have you seen TikTok? If you’re over 30 and might have any information that would actually be valuable, it’s not for you. And double also, Facebook, Google, and Amazon are gobbling up personal data in ways that TikTok only aspires to.

On a more serious note—because we needed one, right?—there’s weapons tech, both hardware and software. China is all over technologies that can be used for both civilian and military purposes, making sure they’re used for both. Artificial intelligence is one such area. Should the United States be doing the same? Read the article.

So, what would happen if the United States and China did go at it over some Japanese islands that China covets? It looks like a stalemate, which is not great for the world’s “only” superpower.

Angry Planet

Elsewhere on the internet, Coda ran an excellent piece on a social media campaign designed to downplay concentration camps and make Xinjiang look like a lovely place to live.

As Al-Monitor and The New Republic have reported, Trump has made good on his campaign promise of getting out of Syria while securing access to oil in the region. Turkey isn’t pleased.

The U.S. Army confirmed that there’s something rotten at Fort Hood. “The numbers are high here,” Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy told Task and Purpose. “They are the highest in most cases for sexual assault and harassment, and murders for our entire formation."

A Venezuelan court convicted two former Green Berets of attempting to overthrow President Nicolás Maduro. The sentence is 20 years. Plan stupid coups, win stupid prizes.

The U.S. State Department rolled out its Rewards for Justice Program. The scheme offers cash to anyone willing to drop a dime on terrorists and hackers. As part of its rollout, State spammed telephones in Russia and Iran asking for leads on election interference in America. The spam messages weren’t well received.

The U.S. Navy keeps streaming on Twitch and the Army is returning soon. Gamers keep trolling them, proving that the military isn’t prepared to handle a world where it isn’t beloved.

Last week was also the anniversary of the U.S. bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In a flash, the world changed. Since then, we’ve been trapped by nuclear weapons. And all the old arguments persist and a new generation rises to challenge those assumptions.

Oh, and the WWE is doing an Antifa storyline right now.

top image: Beirut at night, Kevin Knodell photo.