Monday, July 17, 2006

The Middle East and America

I don't fully understand the connection between Israel's war with Hezbollah and the Bush administration's efforts to foster democracy in the region. But a few things concern me.

Sometimes I feel that President Bush believes if he says it, it makes it so. He announced a mission to Mars that was immediately forgotten. He claims America is addicted to oil, and then suggested we would be cured by technology, with no meaningful follow-through. And he has made a centerpiece of his presidency the export of democracy to the Arab middle east -- indeed, to "end tyranny in our time."

The problem with exporting democracy to the Arab middle east is that there are long-standing institutional reasons for our support of Arab dictators -- even those that are our enemies, like the House of Saud. We need oil -- we are addicted to it, apparently -- and so we back regimes that will supply it to us. And even apart from oil, we fear the alternative to the relatively stable, oil-pumping dictators we back: Islamofascists.

The problem is, President Bush seems to have lost sight of these two fundamentals -- we need oil, the elected Arab alternative might be Islamofascism -- in promoting democracy in the region. With Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank, Ahmadinejad in Iran, and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, it's hard to be sanguine about the prospects of further elections in the Arab and Persian middle east.

It seems to me we've changed the policy without changing the fundamentals. This is like trying to move a house without touching the foundation. All you'll get is collapse.

The real choice is to back dictators to the hilt, or get off oil. We can't have it both ways.

I don't know what will be the outcome of Israel's war with Hezbollah. My guess is that it will spread, to include Syria and possibly Iran. The US could be pulled in, too. I would also guess that we'll see disruptions in the supply of oil, which will raise the price, which will encourage us to use less. Which, with some will, imagination, and guts, we could have done through taxes instead of a war.

We're going to get off oil. The only question is how. Will we do it for ourselves, gradually, sensibly, and relatively safely? Or will we wait to have an oil diet imposed on us by war and other outside events?

Door #2, no doubt. How sad to know exactly what to do, and yet lack the will to do it.


Anonymous said...

Nuts, while I taking a long time answering your questions on the gay issue, you were doing this one. Well if anyone is still interested, I posted a reply to all the thoughtful comments.

Anonymous said...

I am afraid you are right Barry. How many presidents now have we seen at the State of the Union address state we have to get over our dependence on foreign oil? We will as our nature wait until there is a real crisis before we are forced to do something. Then we will act surprised that it happened. We will be forced to make a hasty and most likely bad decision rather than doing it while we still have time.

Mindy Tarquini said...

Barry? I'm embarrassed to admit this, but I don't fully understand your post, perhaps because I don't see any substantial connection between the Bush administration's efforts to foster democracy in the region and the war between Israel and the Hezbollah. The only connection I see is that with the current saber rattling over Iran, the Hezbollah may have taken opportunity to push an expansion of hostilities, hoping to force Syria and Iran into action, or spur an American response.

When Israel fights, it does it wholeheartedly. Lebanon will be bombed well into the last hundred years before Israel is done. I don't think the Bush administration will gain any ground as a result of the action. Israel, as always, is sending notice that they aren't going down without a fight.

Re: oil consumption. The cost sucks a bigger and bigger percentage of the average American's budget. People will cut back and get innovative, or they'll have to let other segments of their budgets go.

Anonymous said...

I think there's still a reasonable chance that this war will be squelched and won't spread. I don't think it's in anyone's best interest for the Middle East to go up in flames, and I think all involved recognize that. It seems to me there is a lot of posturing going on, some good cop/bad cop being played. Neither Israel nor Hezbollah can afford to look like they're backing down, though, so it will take the international community to broker a cease-fire.

Sure, we're addicted to oil, but the oil-producing countries are also addicted to us buying their product. Ever since the Palestinians elected Hamas, I've imagined the Bush Administration is rethinking the whole "let's bring democracy to the Middle East" agenda. Maybe not publically, but perhaps it's set them back on their heels a bit in private.

I do think there is now sufficient cost pressure at the pump that we'll start finding energy alternatives, or we'll adjust our lifestyles (which is already occuring). However, I don't think we're going to be off of oil any time in the near future--even if the war spreads. We still have the same problems of transition costs and changing infrastructure to support an alternative fuel. Even if all of the US agreed we wanted off of oil tomorrow, and we all agreed on the alternative, it would take years (decades?) to truly make the switch. Think of how long it took to phase out leaded gasoline, for example.

Of course, if the war does spread and the cost of oil keeps climbing (and does so quickly), at some point, I think it would collapse our economy. But again, I think the rest of the world recognizes it's not in their best interest for that to happen either. I think the international community will do what it takes to stop this. Looks like a zero sum game to me if they don't.

Anonymous said...

Succinct and logical. Bravo.


I. Michael Koontz said...

The question burning in my mind is this one: Exactly what has to happen before we get ourselves off Middle East oil dependence? Is it even possible?

I've faced this fact: we're not going to, basically, until it utterly runs out. Our desire to bring democracy to these nations would disappear--poof!--if the oil disappeared. If western Africa had most of the world's oil reserves, we'd be THERE right now, and not in Iraq.

That being said, and knowing the institutional reluctance in our nation to become less dependent on oil (reluctance by energy and auto corporations, as long as oil still turns a profit), I've resigned myself to us staying involved in the Middle East as long as the oil is there.

And if we think our society has innate resistance to getting off of oil, it's nothing compared to the resistance of Islamic nations to becoming Democracies, allowing women to vote, allowing freedom of religion and the press, etc.

Still, I suppose one has to try despite the odds. I only wish that what we were trying was to get our cars to run on electricity as opposed to getting Middle Eastern nations to run on Democracy. Because one, I think, is a lot more practical and in our potential control than the other.

Anonymous said...

Just when I thought I was out ... they pull me back in.

I don't fully understand the connection between Israel's war with Hezbollah and the Bush administration's efforts to foster democracy in the region.

Barry, there isn’t any. Hezbollah was permitted (thanks to the U.N.) to do whatever they wanted the last six years (while everyone expected Israel to restrain itself). It had/has nothing to do with democracy(ies). Whether the anti-Israeli governments there are democratically elected or not, the war between Israel and some of its neighbors (and those a few more miles away) won’t be solved in our lifetime and it certainly won’t be solved at peace talks so long as a few of the parties seek Israel’s extinction. It very especially won’t be solved at the U.N. Bush isn’t doing (or claiming to do) anything different than every President since Truman on this. Carter came close to what we all believed was a lasting peace and it didn’t last (in fact, we saw the rise of Islamic Fundamentalism during his best efforts—Iran brought down Carter); Clinton tried his Camp David version of Carter’s peace talks and nothing substantial happened (or lasted) [not to mention that wonderful treaty he signed with North Korea regarding nukes—I mention this because some want us “more involved” with both issues—talking to people who won’t listen]. Carter and Clinton both used the same democratic rhetoric. Reagan didn’t waste as much time (but the Soviet Union came tumbling down for much of his efforts).

Bush is using the rhetoric some in “this country” need to feel better about the war in Iraq. I’m not one of them. I could care less which country turns democratic in the Middle East and which prefers royalty, dictatorship, facism and so on. The bottom line in the Middle East for those pulling Hezbollah’s strings there now is the elimination of the Israeli state. The bottom line for Israel is survival.

I, for one, applaud their so-called overreaction and of course don’t think it’s enough. Should one of those missiles hit Tel Aviv, I suspect (and sure hope) Israel takes the punch the United States (and probably most of the moderate Arab states in the region are hoping they take) … directly at Tehran and with extreme prejudice (for long term survival). Syria will wilt like every tough guy who loses his best bully friend.

Whatever one feels about Bush’s democratic rhetoric regarding the Middle East, there’s no denying some of the verbal support Israel received yesterday from Arab states who preferred it didn’t exist in the Carter-Clinton-Reagan past (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, to name two). That support will no doubt wane as the fighting goes on (and Israel pummels the antagonists), but it was a good signal, I thought, to see how at least a few governments there are getting fed up with terrorism in general upsetting their apple carts (no doubt because it threatens the sweet life they get to live riding in the first class cabin).

Sooner or later Israel will have to take the really big punch to survive and I have no doubt it will happen unless it (or someone) takes out the technological advances rogue states have made in an era of sophisticated weaponry.

Frankly, I think Israel fell asleep the last six years (while Hezbollah planted missiles throughout southern Lebanon, including in residential homes). Hopefully they won’t let it happen again.

Barry Eisler said...

MG, don't ever feel embarrassed for not understanding one of my posts! I probably wasn't clear.

By happy coincidence, yesterday afternoon Slate ran a piece that articulates the connection between the current war and US policy better than I did. Here's the link:

Also ask: from where do groups like Hamas and Hezbollah get their funding? Saudi Arabia and Iran. Where do the Saudis and Iran get the money? From oil. Where does their oil money come from? The west. Therefore, we are indirectly funding the groups we're fighting. First we divert money to our enemies; then we divert money to our military to fight our enemies. Long term, this doesn't seem like a sustainable setup.

Sometimes I feel like we've waded into a swamp where we're trying to fight submerged alligators on their own turf. I'd rather see us drain the swamp -- and that's what depriving Islamofascism of petrodollars would achieve.

Alan D -- for more on a self-imposed energy tax, see:

Charlie, glad to see they pulled you back in. I agree with many of your arguments (which will probably make you want to reexamine them...;-)). I've never been a fan of half measures. Choose your objective, then ruthlessly achieve it. For decades, the west has lived under an implicit bargain with terrorists: you can bleed us a little, and we won't respond too much. Blow up the occasional airplane and we'll round up the usual suspects, no more than that. 9/11 changed the equation somewhat, and we finally went after a state sponsor (the Taliban in Afghanistan) in a meaningful way. But with that one exception, we're reluctant to go after state sponsors today.

Why the reluctance? I would argue oil again. Syria doesn't have any, but Iran has enormous oil and gas reserves and a disruption of shipping routes through the Persian Gulf would cause a significant price hike. In frustration, people sometimes cry, Nuke Tehran! How could we do even that, when Tehran holds our economy hostage?

With Hezbollah's kidnapping of Israeli soldiers and rocket attacks on northern Israel, I think we're seeing the beginning of a changed equation. It's no longer "bleed us a little, we'll round up the usual suspects;" it's "we can't live with what's going on now, so we will have to act in a meaningful way." This is why I expect the war to spread to Syria and possibly Iran. Israel has to crush Hezbollah, but the only way to do this is to cripple Hezbollah's sponsors. Anything less is a PR victory for Hezb and leaves Hezb in position to continue to attack Israel with its rockets.

Sidenote: I'm fascinated by the heavy media coverage of Bush's aside to Blair that "The Syrians need to stop this shit." At first, I thought the attention was ridiculous. Bush thought the mic was off, it was on, he thought this was a private conversation with a friend, sometimes friends say shit, what's the big deal?

Then I thought, the attention probably results from our feeling that every presidential move and word is scripted to death. When we see the president in an unguarded moment, it's refreshing and fascinating.

Then I thought, holy PR opportunities, Batman! Next time the president wants the world to take him seriously, he should pretend to think the mic is off, and add a cuss word to his statement. Such as, "I'll tell you what, bub, if Assad doesn't rein in this Hezb shit right quick, we're going to incinerate Damascus." Just like the "Superman cost $250m to make" campaign, the S word will confer instant credibility.

Just a thought.

Anonymous said...

I've never been a fan of half measures. Choose your objective, then ruthlessly achieve it.

We are in agreement here (big time). Go Roman is my motto ... but imagine the fallout from such a decisive move today ... whether it's right or not doesn't seem to matter.

You don't win wars, whether you should have fought them or not (i.e., Vietnam) dicking around (i.e., Vietnam).

The lesson we don't seem to have learned is the above ... which is why Iraq is taking longer than it should ... and why Israel is having to deal with long range missiles today. I suspect the long range missiles will definitely change the tactics, though. I sure hope so.

Anonymous said...

Islamofascists being the necessary outcome of democracy is a fallacy that the dictators have worked hard to foist on us by eliminating any moderate competition. For example, in the last Egyptian "election", liberal democrats (small l, small d) were prevented from running while the Muslim Brotherhood (under other names) was allowed to get a large enough portion of seats to worry us but not so large as to be disruptive. This strategy - creating a false alternative to dictatorship which results in something worse - was outlined in Red Horizons (by the former intel head for Romania) and also has the advantage of comporting to the facts.

That said, you are right that that is the alternative that is presented to us. The only way to create another alternative is to birth a civil society with the rule of law, with the hope that that will establish a non-dictatorship, non-Islamofascist option. If that is the Bush objective in Iraq, then it prevents another (complementary) way to create a way out of the problem. The problem here is that in our zeal to show that we are open to pluralism, we allow Iran to fund and arm our enemies in Iraq (e.g. the Mahdi army). While it is not practical to take out the regimes of multiple countries at the same time, it would be better to clearly associate their negative actions in Iraq with punishment to get them to stop it and allow the Iraqi experiment a chance. For example, bombing the supply lines in from Syria and Iran (which are well known to our commanders), even into those countries, would be a fair way to express our displeasure.

dkgoodman said...

I don't see any mention here of China, which is using more oil than ever, a trend expected to continue, further stressing the contention for oil. China is experimenting with conservation efforts in the design of new cities, an effort we should emulate more.

History is a bigger factor in the middle east than here. The parties strive to learn from the past. Everything in the middle east is about consequences, and teaching a lesson to the other side. A prisoner swap is a bad idea, because this would reward Hizbollah for its actions and spur them to even more kidnappings. And what is Hizbollah teaching Israel? That efforts toward peace, like pulling out of Arab land, is rewarded by the settlement of terrorists even closer to Israel, with longer range weapons.

It's hard to fight wars against distributed foes. It's harder when they aren't fixed in place, and concentrated in one place. How do you fight terrorists and insurgents when they're so dispersed? They have to be lured to a concentration point, or we have to start distributing sensors in a wireless mesh across the middle east to detect and track the movement of arms and personnel.

Like an alcoholic who doesn't quit until he reaches bottom, we won't make a concerted effort to eschew oil until we've hit bottom... of the well. The strife in the middle east won't end until the moderates reach the bottom of their tolerance and take back their countries from the extremists. I hope it's soon.

Elizabeth Krecker said...

Fascinating stuff. Makes me want to read more. Thanks.