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Thesis & Antithesis

A critical perspective on energy, international politics & current affairs

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Location: Washington, D.C.

greekdefaultwatch@gmail.com Natural gas consultant by day, blogger on the Greek economy by night. Trained as an economist and political scientist. I believe in common sense and in data, and my aim is to offer insight written in language that is clear and convincing.

19 December 2005

Chirac and trade

It is a weakness, I know, but I just cannot resist quoting from today’s editorial in the Wall Street Journal:

“The most important thing to know about the global trade talks that ended Sunday in Hong Kong is that French President Jacques Chirac thinks they were a success. That means they were a bust for everyone else, especially the world's poor.”

References:
“Trading blows,” Wall Street Journal, 19 Dec 05

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18 December 2005

An Iraq to fight for

Henry Kissinger writes in the Washington Post about how to exit Iraq. Overall, it is a great article which peers into the challenges facing America; but there is one piece that needs to be extracted and repeated over and over in America’s political debate:

“The combat performance of new [Iraqi] units cannot be measured by training criteria alone. The ultimate metrics -- to use Pentagon terminology -- are to what extent they are motivated toward agreed political goals. What they fight for will determine how well they fight.”

References:
Henry Kissinger, “How to exit Iraq,” Washington Post, 18 Dec 05 (link)

Where are the cards?

The BBC reports that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was captured and released by Iraqi police forces in Fallujah last year, presumably because no one recognized him (link). When the Pentagon printed a deck of cards with the faces of Iraq’s most wanted, I remember receiving the news with a chuckle, as did many others. Now, I just wish they had an updated version in Arabic…

15 December 2005

The other blowback

Matt Pottinger is a former Wall Street Journal reporter who recently quit his job to join the Marines. He wrote an op-ed in the Journal explaining his reasons for doing so. There is this short passage that just stood out for me:

“But why the Marines?

A year ago, I was at my sister's house using her husband's laptop when I came across a video of an American in Iraq being beheaded by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The details are beyond description here; let's just say it was obscene. At first I admit I felt a touch of the terror they wanted me to feel, but then I felt the anger they didn't. We often talk about how our policies are radicalizing young men in the Middle East to become our enemies, but rarely do we talk about how their actions are radicalizing us. In a brief moment of revulsion, sitting there in that living room, I became their blowback.”

References:
Matt Pottinger, “Mightier than the pen,” Wall Street Journal, 15 Dec 05

Like a virgin?

This from the Wall Street Journal:

“For her 17th wedding anniversary, Jeanette Yarborough wanted to do something special for her husband. In addition to planning a hotel getaway for the weekend, Ms. Yarborough paid a surgeon $5,000 to reattach her hymen, making her appear to be a virgin again.”

No comment.

References:
Amy Chozick, “Virgin Territory: U.S. Women Seek A Second First Time,” Wall Street Journal, 15 Dec 05

09 December 2005

Oil and terror

Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s number two, has urged militants to attack oil targets in Muslim states. Where this attack to take place two things would rise: the price of oil and the chatter about the growing (and dangerous) dependence on Middle Eastern oil.

There is a growing consensus that increased instability in oil producing states is partly to blame for the increase in oil prices (what is called the “war” or “risk premium”). But to treat instability as the chief cause of concern is insufficient: oil producing states have always been unstable, and wars, revolutions, and strikes have disrupted oil supplies many times in the past.

What is different today is that there is no spare capacity in most producing countries and that there is growing concern of an attack in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is the only country with any spare capacity (estimated around 1 to 1.5 mbd); it has also traditionally acted as a “swing producer” adjusting supply to compensate for loses in production elsewhere. In other words, the oil system is less able to compensate for losses and the country that has usually served that purpose is under strain, both politically and in terms of oil capacity.

This brings us to a different idea: that the concept of oil security is bound to change. The lack of substantial investment in Middle Eastern countries means that there might not be sufficient supply to meet demand in reasonable prices; it also means that as countries expand capacity to meet demand, there is increased likelihood that they will not tolerate having idle capacity. This will take away a necessary element in crisis management. As J. Robinson West writes:

“it is worth recalling … that the excess capacity in Saudi Arabia was developed a long time ago, not from the Saudi government budget but by the former American partner companies of Aramco … It would be next to impossible for any government today to allocate billions of dollars from its current budget to build substantial production capacity for the intention of keeping it idle.”

In other words, regime stability is a threat that is only as strong as spare capacity elsewhere. We should be thinking about spare capacity more than we should be thinking about terrorism.

References:
In Jan H. Kalicki and David L. Goldwyn, eds. Energy & Security: Toward a new foreign policy strategy. (Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2005), p. 213

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Torturing debate

The debate on torture remains as vibrant as ever, with ever more words being written about what the Bush Administration has done and said in its questioning of prisoners. There is little need to say much on this—except to lament that the debate is focused too much on the whether the US government has tortured people and has lied about it instead of debating the more useful question of whether it should do so.

Such a debate would surface issues regarding the acceptability, utility and limits of torture and help answer the more vital question: is torture necessary in the war on terror. There is no doubt that there is truth to the idea that under pressure people will say anything to make the pain stop. But there is also no doubt that people have different cracking points, and that force could be more useful on certain people over others. This is a more useful discussion.

I doubt we will hear it. There is a strong sense that torture is an a priori bad, an unacceptable compromise of Western ideas of freedom and justice. There is some truth to this idea; but it is not the whole truth. This belief rests on the implied assumption that moral clarity and righteousness are the key to winning battles and wars. Although any country needs such conviction in its view of history, to say that American military triumph rests on moral clarity alone is, at the very least, incomplete. Countries win by adopting tactics that work—morality is essential is maintaining the momentum for battle but it is not the whole story.

References:
Eugene Robinson, “Many Words, Little Clarity From Rice,” Washington Post, 9 Dec 05 (link)

07 December 2005

Osama is alive

Al-Jazeera has just broadcast a tape in which Ayman al-Zawahiri says that Osama bin Laden is “alive and fighting.” Well, if al-Zawahiri says so, I guess that settles the riddle.

The inconclusive war?

Anne Applebaum’s column in the Washington Post is one of the more sensible things written on the ongoing debate on Iraq. Here is an excerpt:

“But what if all of this vocabulary -- winning, losing, victory, defeat -- is simply misplaced? There are, after all, wars that are not actually won or lost. There are wars that achieve some of their goals, that result only in partial solutions and that leave much business unfinished. There are wars that do not end with helicopters evacuating Americans from the embassy roof but that do not produce a victorious march into Berlin, either. There are wars that end ambivalently -- wars, for example, such as the one we fought in Korea.”

There is something to this, which is why America should be engaged in a parallel debate: what kind of outcome is acceptable (not desirable or undesirable) in Iraq? With what kind of scenarios will America be willing to make its peace? There are two thoughts that could inform this talk: the first is that a not fully democratic Iraq probably remains an improvement to the status quo ante, posing a less significant threat to American interests in the region. Even if this political order sends fewer or slower ripple effects in the region, a functional polity in Iraq could still reverberate favorably to the neighborhood.

The second is that the delimitation of what is acceptable is very much a function of optimism and faith. As a Middle East analyst recently intoned, what America will settle for depends in large part on what America thinks it can accomplish. This faith is very much tied to the domestic political reality, which is the reason that prolonged fatalism is likely to produce its own result. But at least there is an escape from the constant back-and-forth about dates and timetables. This is a better discussion to have, even if only in the background.

References:
Anne Applebaum, “It’s Not Whether You ‘Win’ or ‘Lose’ …” Washington Post, 7 Dec 05 (link)

06 December 2005

Case for trade at home

John Audley, a fellow at the German Marshall Fund, writes in the Financial Times: “Europeans and Americans are of one voice when it comes to who benefits from trade: big multinational companies and the rising economic powerhouses…” He continues: “the case for farm subsidy reform and import barrier removed must be made at home on solid domestic policy grounds.”

I have much sympathy for this position as it highlights the limits of the politics of globalization. One of the reasons I have always taken issue with writers such as Thomas Friedman is that they rest too much of their case on the inevitability of globalization, making the argument, essentially, that if you can’t beat it, you should join it. Politicians have adopted a similar stance, underscoring their impotence towards the winds of trade.

The WTO was meant to make domestic political decisions easier by offering commensurate compromises across the board—to make the case for trade more convincing by showing that others were making sacrifices too. This was a second best, to be sure, as it implied that trade was something bad that needed others to make sacrifices in order to justify one’s own.

The question we are facing at Doha is whether this mindset has run its course—whether it is time to make the case for trade on its own merits and to win it domestically before we move to the international stage. In the past, this has proven an unsustainable proposition. But as the world becomes more integrated, the benefits from trade are progressively more elusive, at least in the public mind. Maybe we have reached a point of integration where past politics are no longer sufficient.

References:
John Audley, “The case for ending subsidies is yet to be won,” Financial Times, 6 Dec 05

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Donald Rumsfeld

Yesterday, I had the chance to listen to the secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld. Whatever one thinks of his politics, there is no doubt that this is a charismatic man. His ability to warm up an audience and then entertain it is almost unparalleled—his Q&A was very much like stand up comedy. I can imagine why he can be frustrating for the press to deal with—it seems like his chief function in a Q&A is to ridicule, in a good way (if there is such a thing), you and your questions. But he pulls it off so well that it is hard to escape his charm.

Another thing that struck me was his seriousness and straightforwardness. Unlike other people in the Bush Administration, I feel that Secretary Rumsfeld is much less willing to deny the obvious (VP Dick Cheney comes to mind as a person who often fails that test). He will explain in plain and unequivocal terms what he wants to say (rhetorical misgivings notwithstanding).

This was particularly true when he spoke yesterday about the Iraq war and listed all the things that could have gone wrong but didn’t, giving a sense of perspective into the worst-case scenario that the administration had considered. It was also true as he spoke about the press and their coverage of the war. While his exchanges with the press are often edgy, I find that he is right to bring up the idea that there are two divergent views on Iraq, an optimistic and a pessimistic, that do not seem to get equal coverage in the media.

The largest issue of contention, in the post-speech buzz, was whether his personal charm compensates for his policies. Here I found a majority, but not nearly a consensus, with the following idea: that we (the audience) are wise enough not to be charmed by a man to the extent that he could change our views on things. Many went to listen to him because he is the secretary, and maybe even to be entertained given his reputation for humor. While I can see people being offended by his style (to say nothing for his politics), my overall impression was more casual: it was a great thing to on a Monday morning, but we are ready to move on now.

References:
Link to the speech and to the Q&A