Archive for the ‘Energy Policy’ Category

Kristof on Costa Rica

January 8, 2010

Yesterday, the New York Times published an op-ed piece by Nicholas Kristof in which he discusses the relative “happiness” of countries around the world, focusing primarily on Costa Rica, which ranks number one according to various indeces.  The World Happiness Index ranks the US 20th, with Togo and Tanzania coming in last; another study ranks America 19th and puts Zimbabwe at the bottom of the list.

Mr. Kristof argues that the main reason that Costa Ricans are so happy is that they have low levels of military spending (the country has no armed forces) and they invest a relatively large amount in education per capita, which in turn has led to political stability.  He also credits the nation’s environmental conservation efforts as a contributor to public contentment.  Based on this assumption, he argues that the US should spend less on defense (including foreign military assistance) and more on social programs like education.  He also suggests that America should do more to protect the environment.

I respect Mr. Kristof for his efforts to highlight humanitarian disasters and violations of human rights, particularly in Darfur, but his latest article is highly flawed.  Comparing the US with Costa Rica when it comes to military expenditures is nonsensical.  Costa Rica faces no serious internal or external threats, whereas America is responsible for underwriting international security and protecting the world’s oil supply, on which the global economy is dependent.  Partly as a consequence of America’s foreign policy commitments and interventions, terrorists and insurgents are determined to attack the US and its interests overseas, and policymakers have found it necessary to provide materiel and financial assistance to governments battling anti-American militants in places like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen.  Withholding such aid could have disastrous consequences, and reducing the size and capability of the American military would undermine the liberal international order that Mr. Kristof claims to support.

Another weak point in his argument is his assertion that “happiness” is based on social spending.  He mentions that Mexico and Colombia rank higher than the US on happiness indeces, but both nations spend less on education and medical care than America, and they are also plagued by higher levels of drug-related violence.  He himself acknowledges that a “cultural emphasis on family and friends” might be responsible for the disparity in contentment; although such things are difficult to measure and his claim that Latin Americans value family and friends more than Americans is certainly disputable.  One thing that Mr. Kristof fails to note is that Latin Americans generally work fewer hours per week than Americans do (as do Europeans, who are reportedly “happier” than people in the US), which could be an important factor when it comes to reported personal satisfaction.

I am not suggesting that education and other forms of social spending are not important, or that federal and state governments in the US should not spend more in these areas (I believe they should).  I am merely saying that Mr. Kristof’s prescriptions for increasing “happiness” in America may not have the intended results  in light of geopolitical and social conditions. 

On a separate note, Mr. Kristof’s insistense that the US reduce military spending reinforces public perceptions that liberals are weak on national defense, which inhibits the electoral success of liberal candidates and inhibits their ability to promote the political causes that Mr. Kristof supports.

Advertisements

The Deification of Dead Political Leaders

January 7, 2010

In an op-ed piece published today on nytimes.com titled “Asia’s 70-Percent Gods,” Roger Cohen discusses his recent trip to Asia where he saw the preserved bodies of Ho Chi Minh and Mao Zedong.  He notes that the Communists leaders who control one-party states have deified their predecessors for nationalist purposes while ignoring the socioeconomic ideas that they assiduously promoted at the cost of millions of lives (Stalin is still a revered figure in Russia, although some Russian elites, including President Dmitry Medvedev, have criticized his repressive actions).  The deceased political titans remain symbols of resistance to foreign oppression and the overthrow of corrupt governments, but current Asian powerbrokers are promoting the capitalist-type economic policies that Ho and Mao decried in an effort to stay in power by improving the living standards of their countries’ citizens.

At times other Asian nations have treated their heads of state like gods, including North Korea (which is still a communist dictatorship), and Japan; although the latter no longer considers the emperor a deity.

Contemporary Chinese leaders have so far succeeded in facilitating rapid economic growth and remaining in power while using authoritarian measures like censorship and the banning of alternative politial parties.  However, China is not as stable as many outsiders believe.  There are thousands of riots each year as well as ethnic conflict, and there is a wide and growing wealth inequality between urban dwellers and rural peasants that could eventually lead to class warfare.  And when the living standards of the middle class reach a certain level those in it may focus more on their lack of civil liberties and demand change; such a development would undermine the primary pillar of the Communist Party’s political strategy and threaten its primacy.

Political instability, as well as the aging of the population due to the one-child policy, may put a halt to China’s impressive economic growth in the coming decades.  The threat of this happening is significant but largely ignored in America where many fear that China will overtake the US economically and geopolitically by mid-century.  While some might welcome attempts to liberalize Chinese society and bring down the communists, people should be aware that the consequences of a revolutionary movement could be disastrous in terms of lives lost and the destabilization of the global economy.  If democracy emerges in China or other Asian countries one hopes that it will be the result of a peaceful process much like the velvet revolutions that occured in Eastern Europe at the end of the Cold War rather than a bloodbath.

Iran’s Underground Tunnels

January 6, 2010

Iran has constructed a labyrinth of underground tunnels to shield its nuclear facilities from attack, according to Western and Iranian officials.  The US and Israel have raised the possibility that they will bomb Iran’s atomic sites if the Islamic Republic does not reach a diplomatic agreement with the West that would inhibit the country’s ability to enrich uranium to weapons-grade levels; although Defense Secretary Robert Gates has stated publicly that airstrikes would only set back Iran’s nuclear program one to three years, and it appears that President Obama will not pursue a military solution to the impasse even though he has not ruled it out.  Western officials believe that Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons, a charge that Iranian leaders deny. 

The modern tunnel system has been under construction since the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, and its development has accelerated under the administration of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has extensive experience in tunnel building in and out of government.  Iran’s efforts have been assisted by Western engineering firms, including Terratec and Herrenknecht.

The existence of the tunnel system raises two problems for military planners.  One is that it conceals Iran’s nuclear sites and complicates the efforts of intelligence analysts to locate them for targeting purposes; the late discovery of atomic plants in Natanz and Qum, which were largely found as a result of information provided by the National Council of Resistance on Iran, a group of expatriate opponents of the Iranian regime, demonstrates the limits of US intelligence gathering capabilities and the  IAEA monitoring regime .  A second issue is that it makes it very difficult for air forces to destroy the facilities whose positions are known because bombs would have to penetrate thick layers of rock to destroy their targets. 

Pentagon officials are trying to find a solution to the second problem.  They are developing a new “bunker-buster” bomb, which has been named the Massive Ordnance Penetrator, that is 10 times more powerful than current models.  During the Bush administration there was talk of creating penetration weapons that would be armed with nuclear warheads to increase their destructive power.  It is unlikely that the Obama administration or future Democratic ones will pursue that path, but there is a significant possiblity that Republican administrations, which are generally more hawkish, will try to develop a new generation of nuclear weapons.  Some analysts argue that doing so would encourage further nuclear proliferation and undermine global security, but proponents believe it will have the opposite effect because hostile regimes will conclude that their arsenals could not be protected.

There is also a chance that Israel will develop more sophisticated tunnel-destroying bombs, including nuclear ones.  Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has said that Iran’s underground facilities cannot be destroyed with the conventional weapons that his country possesses.  Israel, which in the past has attacked nuclear reactors in Iraq and Syria, might seek more powerful bombs to enhance its preemptive/preventative strike capabilities.  If Israel choses that option it would increase the likelihood that Israel will take what it considers preventative military measures against Iran, which has expressed a desire to wipe out the Jewish state.

The discussion about bunker-buster bombs and preventative war  raises the issue of deterrence.  Some policymakers believe that the Cold War model of deterrence, the basis of which was the threat of nuclear retaliation if foreign powers used atomic weapons against the US, is outdated in a post-Cold War world filled with hostile regimes who seek nuclear weapons and have ties, or might develop ties, with terrorist groups.  Such thinking is flawed because it would be foolish for a government to give terrorists such powerful weapons that could be traced back to their source and precipitate a nuclear counterattack against the offending state; and foreign leaders, who want to stay in power and stay alive, are aware of this.  There is no reason to believe that classical nuclear deterrence is no longer a valid strategy.

A related controversy is missile defense.  Some officials and analysts claim that missile defense systems are needed to deter other nations from building nuclear-tipped missiles and using them against the US or American interests overseas, and they also say that it would be a critical defense capabily in the event of an attack.  Others point out that such technologies are expensive and unproven and the risk of being attacked is minute.  The necessity of a missile defense system designed to thwart nuclear strikes depends on the effectiveness of classical deterrence and the likelihood of a first strike by an adversary.  The odds of an opponent intentionally starting a nuclear war are incredibly low, as is the possiblity of an accidental missile launch, so the usefulness of a national missile defense system for the US is dubious; although theater missile defenses against conventional warheads, which the Obama administration has embraced, could be useful in future conflicts.

Chinese Influence in Afghanistan

December 30, 2009

Earlier today, the New York Times published a very interesting article by Michael Wines in which he discusses China’s large investment in Afghanistan’s Aynak copper mine, which is located in Logar Province.  He also analyzes China’s commercial strategy, which is part of its overall foreign policy, and its efforts to secure mineral resources abroad.

One aspect of China’s investments in Afghanistan that Mr. Wines largely ignores is the Chinese  government’s attempt to gain political influence in Afghanistan to counter India’s recent development efforts there.  In fact, five countries are jockeying for power in the war-torn nation: China, India, Pakistan, Iran and the US.  China and India have economic motives for their financial investments, but the geopolitical rivals are also trying to limit the reach of their traditional enemies.  India and Pakistan are even greater rivals, and those two states have political motives for their involvement in Afghanistan; in the case of Pakistan, it seeks to maintain ties to the Taliban in case the group regains power in Kabul, and it also wants to check India’s encroachment into a country that Pakistan considers to be of vital interest to its national security.  Iran meddles in Afghanistan, and it is trying to thwart  US efforts to encircle and contain the Islamic Republic.  America’s presence in Afghanistan is primarily for counterterrorism purposes; it wants to prevent the Taliban from retaking control of the country and giving Al Qaeda a safe haven there, and it needs airbases in Afghanistan from which to launch drone strikes into the tribal regions of Pakistan where anti-American militants are based.

The ongoing geopolitical competition in Afghanistan is complex.  How it plays out will largely depend on the government in Kabul and its ability to establish and maintain security with the help of the US.

Sudan Seeks Debt Relief

December 22, 2009

In an article published yesterday on ForeignPolicy.com, Sean Brooks, a policy analyst for the Save Darfur Coalition, argues that the international community should take advantage of Sudan’s need for debt relief to pressure the regime in Khartoum to improve its human rights record.  Sudan has amassed a debt of $23 billion, some of which has been used to purchase advanced military equipment, and Finance Minister Awad al-Jaz is scheduled to travel to Washington next month to discuss a debt relief package.  Mr. Brooks says that the US should rally an international coalition to condition the bailout on peace efforts in Darfur; the full implementation of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement between North and South Sudan; fair elections in April 2010; and political reform that would make the government less oppressive.

Countries are right to criticize Sudan for its appalling human rights violations.  However, it will be difficult to compel Omar al-Bashir and his National Congress Party to change its behavior because Sudan has large oil reserves that many powers want access to, including China, Japan and European states.  The US is the only nation to impose meaningful economic sanctions on the brutal regime, and it is unlikely that others will join America and risk alienating Khartoum.

Furthermore, although al-Bashir seeks economic assistance from his creditors he will not do anything, such as expanding civil liberties or making peace with opposition groups, that could jeopardize his hold on power or undermine what he considers his government’s interests.  Although the price of oil is low right now, it will certainly increase significantly as developing countries continue to consume more and more resources and supply is unable to keep up with demand; so Khartoum is not under as much pressure to gain favors from the rest of the world as some might think.

It would be great for the cause of human rights if the international community were able to force Sudan to make peace and be less authoritarian, but unfortunately the prospects of success are low because of a lack of will in Khartoum and among oil-seeking nations that have the power to exert influence there.  The US should try to use carrots and sticks to affect change, but policymakers analysts and activists should not be overly optimistic that their efforts will bear fruit.