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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.

25 February 2006

Who profits from oil?

This is an interesting graph from the OPEC website (link):


Welcome, Mauritania

On Friday, Mauritania became Africa’s latest oil producer as it pumped oil from its offshore Chinguetti field. The expectation is that the country could produce 300,000 barrels a day within three to four years. The last country to pump oil out of the ground in Africa was Chad, and the problems it faces are well chronicled. Mauritania, which experienced a bloodless coup in September, is already facing some difficulties which emerge from the fact that the energy minister which negotiated the contract with Woodside Petroleum and the other foreign companies (and who belonged to the pre-coup government) is held under corruption charges. The government has indicated that it wants to revisit some amendments to the contract, though it maintains that the core of the agreement remains intact. That may be true. But I don’t think I am too much of a pessimist to think that we may be hearing some bad news coming from Mauritania some time soon.

“Mauritania becomes Africa’s newest oil producer,” Reuters South Africa, 25 Feb 06 (link); “What’s news: Mauritania,” Petroleum Intelligence Weekly, 13 Feb 06; “Mauritania Loses Some Of Its Hot Spot Luster,” Petroleum Intelligence Weekly, 23 Jan 06


24 February 2006

Attack on Saudi oil

Saudi authorities reported that they have prevented an attack on the country’s Abqaiq crude oil processing facility, “which handles as much as two thirds of the country’s production and most of its exports from the Persian Gulf.” The news caused the NYMEX crude oil index to jump $2.26 (since yesterday) to $62.91 (O&G Journal online). But perhaps it is more important to focus on the fact that the attack failed; although this attack underscores the increasing threat of terrorism and asymmetric warfare, its failure shows that such attacks are by no means easy to carry out. Nor is it obvious that such a random attack will cause irreparable harm, though it could disrupt markets at a time when there is little spare capacity left.

Eric Watkins, “Terrorists thwarted at Saudi production center,” Oil & Gas Journal Online, 24 Feb 06

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Sudanese man marries goat?

This from BBC News: “A Sudanese man has been forced to take a goat as his ‘wife,’ after he was caught having sex with the animal.” (link)

The Tom & Jerry conspiracy?

From MEMRI: “Film Seminar on Iranian TV: Tom and Jerry - A Jewish Conspiracy to Improve the Image of Mice, because Jews Were Termed ‘Dirty Mice’ in Europe.” (link)

21 February 2006

Arabs running US ports?

I love that title, “Arabs in charge of US ports?” which is from MSNBC; I think the way to look at it from the other side is, “well, Americans are running Iraq, we can have a few ports, no?”

The Financial Times puts it well: “But some western governments and international companies - while benefiting from the boom in Dubai and the UAE - tend to be either patronising or paranoid. Either Dubai's success is overreach and financial levitation, or murky and in hock to sinister Arab aims. Being the Singapore of the Gulf is not the same as being Singapore.”

My question is: if you can’t try to make your peace with the Arabs of Dubai, who exactly are you appealing to when America talks about the Arabs and their need for democracy? Who are you hoping will emerge on the either side?

“Paranoia about Dubai ports deal is needless,” Financial Times, 21 Feb 06 (link)

Energy independence: a mixed blessing

As George W. Bush intensifies his campaign to wean America off its addiction of foreign oil, I find myself torn. On one hand, energy independence is the wrong yardstick: just because America becomes more independent, it does not mean that it will become more energy secure. There is also plenty reason to think that many of the geopolitical problems that America hopes to solve by energy independence (funding or being held hostage by unsavory regimes) are likely to persist (more on this in an earlier post: “Energy independence again,” 15 Jan 06). On the other hand, I recognize that there is some merit in calling for energy independence in that this is likely to include cleaner, more efficient and more diverse fuels. Therefore, as long as there is overlap between energy independence and energy security, there is no harm in rousing public support by being somewhat dishonest and imprecise about what the real problem is and about what the solution might look like.

But there is a downside. The rhetoric of energy independence can succeed only by demonizing oil producers. No harm in that you may say—many producers deserve to be demonized. But a closer look at the world energy market reveals a striking fact: if America adopts a confrontational tone towards the producers it finds reprehensible, there will be so few producers left. What will they do? They might try to cozy up to countries that are less judgmental, say China or India. They may also adopt a more skewed view of their national interests; historically, Saudi Arabia has been the driver of moderation in OPEC and few countries are as keen to take into account the views of the consumers. Even if energy independence is a desired outcome, the path towards it has to be complemented with skillful diplomacy; and at the heart of that skillful diplomacy is the need to preserve the desire in producing countries to accommodate the interests of the consumers.

And so the conundrum facing the United States is this: to achieve energy security it needs to adopt the rhetoric of energy independence and for energy independence to succeed, America must paint a highly unfavorable image of foreign oil producers; and yet the smooth transition towards that futuristic end-state depends on the desire of those unsavory producers to go along and make the process somewhat easier. I am the only one to think this is a risky strategy?

(Photo: AP)


20 February 2006

Saudi newspaper prints cartoons

Granted that the newspaper Shams (Sun) printed the cartoons to spur young people to action against Denmark, but the Saudi authorities still decided to suspend the newspaper’s operation until they investigate the incident. My only thought is: what was the newspaper thinking!?

“Saudi paper ‘shut’ in cartoon row,” BBC News, 20 Feb 06 (link)

Realism and European energy security

Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi accused Ukraine of causing a gas shortage in Italy: Mr. Berlusconi said that Ukraine was taking up to 70 billion cubic feet of natural gas a day from the pipeline that runs through Ukraine and feeds Italy (link). I am not reading too much into this story, but I think that there is something interesting developing in the geopolitics of energy in Europe: a gradual squeezing of Eastern Europe.

Germany and Italy are two countries in Western Europe who are called to reassess their attitudes towards Eastern Europe; whether they are sympathetic to Russian aspirations in this “traditional” sphere of influence will make a big difference on the reliability of their energy supplies. I wrote last week (“Energy cold war,” 13 Feb 06) about the Polish efforts to safeguard their overall defense against Russia (and the small impact those efforts have produced till now). Germany, at least under Chancellor Schroeder, was quite sympathetic to Russian interests; whether Italy becomes so as well will be shown over time.

But there is a definite realignment in Europe: those countries which rely heavily on Russia for their supplies and which have a certain political clout seem to be getting closer to Russia; those states which rely on Russia but which are less able to stand up on their own are asking for help but not seem to be getting much of it; and then there is the rest of Europe which may or may not be powerful but which is less dependent on Russia, which has yet to commit to any side. This is a fluid environment and is worth paying attention to.

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Danish regret

From Al-Jazeera: “Saudi newspapers have run full-page statements from the editor-in-chief of the Danish newspaper that first ran cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, expressing his ‘deep sorrow’ and saying the paper had not intended to denigrate the prophet. The statements, in Arabic, ran in advertisements in three of Saudi Arabia's main newspapers, Al-Jazeera, Al-Riyadh and Al-Youm, as well as the Saudi-owned Asharq Al-Awsat, which is distributed around the Arab world, put forward by the newspaper Jyllands-Posten in an effort to stem the wave of outrage in the Islamic world over the drawings.” (link)

From Flemming Rose, culture editor of the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten: “Has Jyllands-Posten insulted and disrespected Islam? It certainly didn't intend to. But what does respect mean? When I visit a mosque, I show my respect by taking off my shoes. I follow the customs, just as I do in a church, synagogue or other holy place. But if a believer demands that I, as a nonbeliever, observe his taboos in the public domain, he is not asking for my respect, but for my submission. And that is incompatible with a secular democracy.” (link)

19 February 2006

African oil

Two oil stories are making headlines in Africa these days: civil unrest in Nigeria and government management of oil revenues in Chad. The two stories are emblematic of the challenges that oil producers face and the developments there merit close attention.

In Nigeria, nine foreign workers have been kidnapped following a declaration from the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta which declared “total war” on foreign oil companies and gave them until Friday tonight to leave the country. The background to this latest events is well narrated in a Christian Science Monitor article: the dispute includes “local control of oil wealth, a $1.5 billion payment by Shell to compensate for pollution, and the release from jail of an oil-region militia leader … The dispute [in January 2006] grew out of a disagreement over which contractor should clean up the oil spill. In the wake of the accident, the village council appointed a contractor to do the job. Shell appointed another, and when he arrived, villagers chased him away. The reason: The village-appointed firm had agreed to do such things as fixing the village's defunct water wells and providing plastic chairs for residents sit on.”

In Chad, a battle is developing between the World Bank and the national government over an agreement on how to spend oil revenues. The World Bank helped finance a 670-mile pipeline on the condition that the money would be spent on poverty reduction programs. Since then, the Chadian government has come under pressure and has chosen to revise the agreement with the World Bank, prompting the bank to suspend “$124 million of International Development Association funds allocated to eight Chadian projects.”

In a general sense, both stories underscore the political troubles that emerge from oil. In Nigeria, it is likely that the increased militarism will force a greater consensus against the interests of the Niger Delta people; it is also likely to increase the premium for doing business in Nigeria, adversely affecting their and their country’s overall interests in the long run. In Chad, the story is more complicated and less explosive at the moment; but this battle between the World Bank and the government underlines the difficulty of handling oil revenues: the presence of the World Bank has allowed for more leeway, but it has also showed the limits of trying to make an a priori agreement about how to distribute oil money.

“Oil workers kidnapped in Nigeria,” BBC News, 18 Feb 06 (link); “FACTBOX: Nigeria’s foreign oil firms,” Reuters News Alert, 18 Feb 06 (link); Abraham McLaughlin, “Behind rising oil cost: Nigeria,” Christian Science Monitor, 19 Jan 06 (link)

“The Chadian experiment,” Oil & Gas Journal, 13 Feb 06; Lydia Polgreen + Celia W. Dugger, “Chad's Oil Riches, Meant for Poor, Are Diverted,” New York Times, 18 Feb 06 (link)

A summary, from Reuters, of foreign operations in Nigeria: “Royal Dutch Shell is the largest, producing over 40 percent of Nigeria’s oil. It employs 5,000 people; Exxon Mobil is Nigeria's second largest oil producer, with about 720,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day (boepd) of crude, condensate and natural gas liquids. It has 1,900 employees; France's Total produced around 270,000 boepd in 2004 in Nigeria and has about 1,200 employees; Italy's ENI produced around 161,000 boepd in 2004; U.S. major Chevron averaged production of 117,000 bpd of oil in 2004. It employs over 2,000 people.”


18 February 2006

Foreign policy confusion

The Washington Post writes today: “things do seem a tiny bit muddled at the Quai d’Orsay: France, after all, is simultaneously refusing to talk to Hamas and encouraging Russia to do so. Nor is Paris the only capital where ‘confused’ seems to describe the thinking about how to handle the Islamic majority that is due to be sworn in today in the Palestinian legislature. Though they are pretty sure they disagree with the French, neither the Bush administration nor the Israeli government is clear about many of the other questions Hamas’s ascendance has raised.”

I cannot pretend that Hamas’ election is not a complicated issue; but I believe that the confusion, at least in Washington, emerges from America’s own strategic misdirection. The identification of democracy promotion with the national interest is not only tenuous but counter-productive. For a region (Mid East) whose transition to democracy will surely be turbulent, the inability to handle and manage non-democratic regimes (either in terms of elected mandate or, like Hamas, in terms of agenda) will be disastrous. A few years ago, America tried to isolate Yassir Arafat with the hope that isolation would bring forth change. Instead, Arafat died and Hamas is now leading the Palestinians.

American policy in the region after Iraq has been to scream hard for democracy, close its eyes and hope that when it opens them, democracy will have emerged. And if it hasn’t, America can repeat the process over again, until democracy is the norm in the region. Alas, this is not a serious policy for a superpower. Democracy emerges from careful foreign policy planning, not from wishful thinking.

“Confused on Hamas,” Washington Post, 18 Feb 06 (link)


17 February 2006

Closing Guantanamo?

The United Nations has released a report calling on the United States to close down the prison facility at Guantanamo Bay which holds about 500 detainees (and which has held many more since September 11). Secretary General Kofi Annan received the report with the call to America to shut down the camp “as soon as is possible.”

Relating to my previous post (“Electronic surveillance and the war on terror,” 05 Feb 06), what I find particularly interesting (and troubling) is the general inability of the American government to appraise the long-term implications of the war on terror. The sense after September 11 that the terrorists were a new enemy that had to be confronted was both natural and logical; and so were many of the expediencies that were summoned to deal with this new threat.

But four and a half years after September 11, the US government has done little to adjust to this new environment by creating new institutions and forging new consensuses. Guantanamo Bay, the recently-revealed electronic surveillance system, and the secret prisons in Eastern Europe are a few examples of ways in which the American government has acted without building the necessary consensus to make these policies sustainable.

There is no doubt that the US cannot combat terrorism by relying on the strategies and tactics that it used to fight the Soviet Union; but the problem with the American government is that it has taken this truth and elevated it to the illogical extension that everything that it tries and is new is acceptable and useful. This is a long-haul battle and the US government will need to do better that than.

“Annan backs UN Guantanamo demand,” BBC News, 17 Feb 06 (link)
United Nations Commission on Human Rights, “Situation of detainees at Guantánamo Bay,”
Future E/CN.4/2006/120, 15 Feb 06 (link at BBC web)


The government’s windfall

This is an interesting fact from today’s Wall Street Journal: “In any case, the biggest "windfall" from high oil prices hasn't gone to the oil companies but to federal, state and local governments. The Tax Foundation reports that the average tax on gasoline is 46 cents a gallon. The average profit that the oil industry earns on that gallon of gas, even at today's high prices, is 18 to 20 cents. The government already grabs $2 for itself for every dollar the energy companies and their investors receive.”

“OPEC Protection Act,” Wall Street Journal, 17 Feb 06


13 February 2006

Energy cold war?

Yuri Ushakov, Russia’s ambassador to the United States, wrote an article in today’s Wall Street Journal to defend his country’s position on the natural gas dispute with the Ukraine. Here is an excerpt:

“Over the last 15 years, the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union were treated differently from other European consumers of our energy: Our pricing policy toward some of them was shaped by our history of interdependence and our hopes for expanded integration with Russia. That policy was inherently transitional -- a temporary step to help former ‘roommates.’ Selling them energy at bargain prices indefinitely does not merely defy common sense, it means subsidizing the entire industries of sovereign countries. It also hurts the interests of our energy companies' shareholders.

Now that the Russian government has switched to a universal pricing formula dictated by the market, as evidenced in a recent, widely debated natural gas deal, Russia is being accused of politicizing the energy issue. The irony is that such accusations are coming from those who had previously lectured us on the need for a speedy transition to market principles. I hope that no sensible observer questions why we are renouncing the policy of subsidizing our neighbors. But we continue to see attempts to look for political undertones in this totally pragmatic approach” (1).

There are too many things to pick apart from this article, not least of which is the reference to Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Republics as “roommates,” a characterization I feel few citizens of those countries would share. What is more interesting to note, I think, is the intra-European politics that are emerging; last week, Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz, Poland’s prime minister, wrote an article in the Financial Times calling for an energy security treaty in Europe:

“It is the right time, in my view, to suggest a common effort to face not only current but also future challenges. That is why I want to propose to our partners from the EU and the Nato alliance a treaty on energy security. It would be an expression of solidarity for all parties, uniting them in the face of any energy threat provoked by either a cut or a diminution of supply sources that may occur because of natural disasters, disruption of wide distribution and supply systems or political decisions by suppliers” (2).

Here is the Polish prime minister urging Western Europe to defend Eastern Europe in an energy dispute; and then the Russian ambassador trying to make the case in America for Russia’s stance. I doubt Mr. Ushakov’s argument will have much appeal—such was the crassness with which Russia acted. Now Eastern Europe is asking for a new guarantee, offering one of the greatest challenges in Europe’s eastward expansion; it is also a test for intra-European politics: will Western Europe care? Here is a growing divide between Eastern Europe and Russia; will Europe step in? Will America?

(1) Yuri Ushakov, “Don’t blame Russia,” Wall Street Journal, 12 Feb 06
(2) Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz, “Europe’s energy musketeers must stand together,” Financial Times, 9 Feb 05

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Cheney hunting

This cartoon from The Economist immediately came to mind when I heard the news that VP Dick Cheney had shot a man during a hunting trip this weekend.

11 February 2006

China’s energy and the US

The Department of Energy just released its report on the implications of China’s energy demand for US foreign policy. The report was prepared in conjunction the CIA, and the Departments of Defense, Treasury, State and Homeland Security; from what I hear it went through a few drafts before the Pentagon felt comfortable with the final product.

Perhaps the most significant contribution of the report is to state that China’s overseas purchases are “economically neutral,” dispelling the silliness that China is “taking oil off the market.” The report also explores the history of China’s energy policy and underlines the ambiguity about its structure and direction: as pundits talk of China’s strategic alliances and its acquisition of oil assets abroad, the report is more cautious and probes the complex dynamics which fuse to form China’s energy policy. Particularly interesting are the sections on the relationship between the Chinese Communist Party and the oil companies (showing how the two are not always in tandem), as well as the section which discusses the linkages between China’s energy and foreign policy.

It is curious, then, that such a toned-down and sensible report is welcomed by rhetoric at odds with its content. The Chairman of the House Resources Committee, Richard W. Pombo (R-CA), commented on the report: “Without question, this study shows that China is serious about energy … The Chinese have figured out that abundant and affordable supplies of energy – in all its forms - are the key to strong economic growth.  So they are implementing a goliath of a comprehensive energy policy while we take baby steps.  Their incredible growth rate is proof … China is marching forward while we argue inane debates and partisan rhetoric … And China won’t hesitate to march right over us in the upcoming decades if America does not improve its energy policy.  We must take similar and aggressive steps to increase American supplies of renewable, alternative and conventional energy to grow our economy.  I intend to do just that.”

In my mind, there are two points which should have been emphasized more. The first is the current reality in the world oil market; it is easy to accuse China of not trusting the oil market or to blame China for its aggressiveness abroad. But the truth is that the oil market is not that trustworthy: there is little spare capacity in the world and increases in demand have to be met by increases in supply through exploration and development. Much of what Chinese companies are doing is drilling for new oil; and for good reason since the global supply will need to increase to meet global demand. Why is this point important? Because our rhetoric often ascribes to China motives which are malignant; yet any sensible reader of oil statistics knows that the pace of demand growth far outpaces the rate of supply growth. China does not trust the global energy market because it does not seem capable to meet its needs. A different market could potentially reassure China: to say that the Chinese are just vociferous in their appetite for energy distracts from a more serious question of why the Chinese are not comfortable with the current market.

A second issue has to do with China’s sense of insecurity. Whatever the reality, it is a country’s perception of insecurity which motivates its policies; and perception does not have to be strictly connected to reality. In that sense, the report could have done more to analyze the perception of energy insecurity in China: what forms it takes, what motivates it, what policies are suggested to ameliorate it. After all, American diplomacy should be aimed at China’s sense of insecurity as much as on its actual insecurity. I have appended the link to a monograph by Bo Kong, a doctoral student at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (and, I should add as a disclaimer, a friend), which deals with China’s perceptions of energy insecurity (pp 24-29); I have added the link because it’s the best description that I read so far on the issue and because it’s an important topic that did not get discussed in the DOE report.

“Energy Policy Act 2005, Section 1837: National Security Review of International Energy Requirements,” US Department of Energy, Feb 06 (link)
“China Outpacing U.S. in Energy Policy, Now #1 U.S. Competitor in Global Energy Market,” Press release, 8 Feb 06 (link)
Bo Kong, “An Anatomy of China’s Energy Insecurity and its Strategies,” Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Dec 2005 (link)

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09 February 2006

Democracy in the Mid East

Hamas’ victory in the recent Palestinian elections has brought into focus an acute problem: what happens when people vote into office Islamists or other parties whose conception of democracy differs so radically from ours? For an American administration so attached to ideology, the idea that something good (democracy) may lead to something bad (Islamists winning) is uneasy since it does not comfort to the presumed continuity between democracy, liberalism and peace. Yet it is that presumed continuity which threatens democracy promotion; it is a skewed conception of democracy that undermines sensible polities to promote it.

The reactions to Hamas’ victory fell into two broad camps. The first used the opportunity to point out the futility and perils of trying to bring democracy to the Middle East; it perceived Hamas’ victory as an obvious step back that is at odds with what a society should be doing to advance. The second camp maybe sympathized with the first but believed that America should practice what it preaches and that isolating Hamas would betray America’s message of democracy in the region.

Both conceptions shared the view that Hamas’ victory was a problem and a regression from where the region should be headed. In fact, it was no such thing: it was a step forward for the region and for democracy’s role in it. This is an unorthodox view, I admit. But it is our own rhetoric on democracy that has made it so: we speak so much of “winning hearts and minds” that we forget how democracy triumphed in the West. It is easy, in retrospect, to develop theoretical and philosophical justifications which attach permanence and inevitability to a murky historical process, but the reality is more complex.

What I am trying to say is that democracy did not triumph in the West because it was the better idea in an abstract sense; it triumphed because it worked better than all others. Much as Marxism is deplorable, it is not in the maxim “From all according to their abilities, to all according to their needs” that communism can be defeated. In fact, anyone who heard such things often found democracy undesirable. It was not in philosophy but in politics that democracy triumphed.

What does this say for Hamas? Our aversion to its victory underlines our own confusion about the history of democracy: we believe that democracy, as practiced in the West, makes sense and yet we forget the cultural and historical map which leads us to think so. It is only after we tried empire, dictatorship, communism, fascism, and other systems that we landed with democracy. Our faith in democracy came not from our reading of Jean-Jacques Rousseau or John Locke or Baron de Montesquieu but of our practice of democracy.

It is in this sense that Hamas’ triumph has to be thought of: not an unfortunate step back for freedom and democracy but rather as a necessary component of that path to liberalism. It should be easy, for those who profess so much faith in democracy, to accept democracy’s inevitable triumph. Our problem has been to forget the word “inevitable,” which means that other political systems will precede it. Hamas is just that. It should be welcomed not for what it is, but for where it may take us.

08 February 2006

Striking Iran?

Edward Luttwak, a fellow at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, writes in today’s Wall Street Journal: “The bombing of Iran's nuclear installations may still be a bad idea for other reasons, but not because it would require a huge air offensive. On the contrary, it could all be done in a single night. One may hope that Iran's rulers will therefore accept a diplomatic solution rather than gamble all on wildly exaggerated calculations.”

To be honest, I am a bit surprised by the furor that surrounds the idea that America should strike Iran’s nuclear installations. I thought that with the Iraq experience so recent in memory, policy makers would be more humble about the extraordinary power of military solutions. I would also hope that people would recognize that the merits of a military strike depend as much on the day after as they do on its feasibility and elegance.

When Israel attacked the Osirak plant in Iraq in 1981, thereby delaying Saddam Hussein’s nuclear program, Iraq was already engaged in a war with Iran; it was distracted, in other words, by other worries. To strike Iran’s installation would be the culmination of a policy which started in Afghanistan and continued in Iraq: it would be the most obvious step to convince Iran that America’s interests in the region are fundamentally hostile. That it would energize a population and offer Iran diplomatic cover are obvious reasons to pause and think about the military option; but the more important reason to think twice is to wonder whether, on the day after, America will be able to deal with the Iranian response, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, and elsewhere. Iran will fight for its survival, while America will fight for vaguely defined goals of democracy and freedom. It’s not hard to think that with such a limited vision for what happens next, America should seriously rethink the attraction of attacking Iran militarily.

Edward Luttwak, “In a Single Night,” Wall Street Journal, 8 Feb 06


I have avoided comments on the growing hysteria that surrounds that publication of cartoons that depict the Prophet Muhammad, in part because the whole story saddens me and in part because I am just waiting to see how it plays out. But I found this perspective from Anne Applebaum that is rather worthwhile:

“Of course, some good may come out of this story, even in this country. If nothing else, this controversy should bring an end to that naive, charming and sadly incorrect American theory of international relations that ‘the more we all learn about one another, the less we will fight.’ Gradually, the Islamic world is learning that we don't respect religion in the same manner they do. Slowly, we are learning that they feel differently about the printed word, and the printed picture, from us. And somehow, I've got a feeling that this new knowledge will be not the beginning of understanding but the inspiration for more violence.”

Anne Applebaum: “A Cartoon’s Portrait of America,” Washington Post, 8 Feb 06 (link)

05 February 2006

Electronic surveillance & the war on terror

Alberto Gonzalez, the US Attorney General, has an article in today’s Wall Street Journal to defend the president’s authority to monitor communications that occur between terrorist suspects in America and terrorist suspects abroad. Mr. Gonzalez’s justification rests on the Congress’ resolution after September 11, 2001, authorizing the president to “use all necessary and appropriate force” against those “those nations, organizations, or persons he determines” responsible for the attacks.

Leave aside the legal technicalities, and I see two issues that will, sooner or later, have to be confronted: the first is how will free societies balance civil liberties and security? The problem is particularly acute in cases where the curtailing of civil liberties is obscure and when the benefits to security are unspecified. Mr. Gonzalez quotes the president as saying, “the terrorist surveillance program has helped prevent terrorist attacks.” This is may be true, but it avoids the more important question of how much surveillance is needed for how much security. I am not sure there is a clear answer to this question, but it is one we will have to consider at some point.

The second major issue has to do with the nature of the war on terror. That Mr. Gonzalez derives a multiplicity of executive prerogatives from the Congress’ resolution is no surprise. The big lesson of September 11, after all, was that terrorism is not a law-enforcement issue but a political / military problem. There is no doubt that the former conception, where the lawyers were the prime agents, was inadequate. But as this struggle will likely continue going for years, and with little hope for a definitive terror-free conclusion, it may be worth asking at some point whether our view of terror will need to synthesize the two—law enforcement and military—rather than continue to pretend as if this is a never-ending war which requires all sorts of executive privileges to wage it. That the former view of terror is wrong does not necessarily mean that our current view is right. And this is something we should be talking about.

Alberto R. Gonzalez, “America expects surveillance,” Wall Street Journal, 6 Feb 06


Israel in NATO?

The Wall Street Journal writes that to respond to Iran’s belligerence, the West should begin accession talks about bringing Israel into NATO. Here is part of the Journal’s thinking:

“Israel’s NATO membership has been mooted before, but the suggestion is especially compelling as a response to the Iranian nuclear threat. Iran’s apocalyptic President Ahmadinejad has called for Israel to be ‘wiped off the map,’ and influential former President Hashemi Rafsanjani has said an Islamic bomb ‘would not leave anything in Israel but the same thing would just produce damages in the Muslim world.’

Those are unprecedented threats, which are all the more likely to be carried out if the mullahs think that the only retaliation would come from Israel itself. It may be that the mad mullahs aren’t deterrable, since they claim to welcome mass martyrdom. But if Israel were part of NATO, the saner elements in Tehran would at least have to worry about the collective response of the West. Only last week President Bush promised that the U.S. would come to Israel’s defense against Iran, but the NATO proposal has the additional virtue of forcing Europe to take a firmer stand against an Iranian bomb.”

I hate to say this but this is silly. America’s interests in defending Israel remain the same, NATO membership or no NATO membership; as for the Europeans, I would hate for their skepticism and hesitation in defending Israel to have such an obvious manifestation. The willingness to risk war emerges from a country’s conception of its national interest, not from a piece of paper. Who in Europe would risk war to defend the Jewish homeland? I am not sure anyone wants to hear the answer to that question.

“NATO for Israel,” Wall Street Journal, 6 Feb 06

04 February 2006

Welcome the Islamists

The Washington Post writes today: “Democratization in the Middle East will inevitably mean that Islamists and others with anti-Western agendas will have the chance to compete for power -- and occasionally to govern.” Listening to the discussions on Hamas’ victory, my mind goes to Europe: the most ardent socialists in the continent today are those who lived on the Western side of Iron Curtain and were spared of the ills of communism, while the most faithful capitalists are those who revolted against communism in the late 1980s.

This analogy reminds us that big ideas have to be confronted rather than bypassed. A society will move on after it has tried something and has chosen against it—ideas are defeated through experience not theory. Even Europe’s own history with religiosity, and the attempts of the Catholic Church to control life on the continent, ended when struggles and wars reduced the power of the church. Only then did the enlightenment theorize to legitimize the new order.

In the case of Islam and the Middle East, this rite of passage from Islamism may be even more necessary than, say, the experience of communism was in Europe. The reason is that whatever formulae these countries adopt to confront the world, Islam will have to be part of them. To expect any society to move to secularism, and to do so overnight, is ludicrous. Even America and France are still wrestling with the question of how much religion and politics should mix. The answer is not found in textbooks but through experience—much like the answer of how much order is too much is answered by the Chinese through the interaction between civil society and the Chinese Communist Party.

In other words, Islamist rule is not an unfortunate byproduct of George W. Bush’s “democracy agenda,” but a necessary step in the historical cycle that can lead one day to a more liberal order in the region. The suppression of Islamism only serves to insulate a tiny part of the Muslim mind to think that if Islamists were in power, things would be so much better. There is no surgery to remove it—it has to be tossed out by the beholder. And disillusion with the practice, rather than the theory, of Islamism is a big part of that process.

“Democracy’s Consequences,” Washington Post, 4 Feb 06 (link)