Monday, August 31, 2009

Don’t Listen to George Will

George Will writes in tomorrow’s Washington Post:

Genius, said de Gaulle, recalling Bismarck's decision to halt German forces
short of Paris in 1870, sometimes consists of knowing when to stop. Genius is
not required to recognize that in Afghanistan, when means now, before more
American valor, such as Allen's, is squandered.
And what would Will have us leave in our wake? He does not say. Abandoning Afghanistan as it stands would do nothing for Allen’s valor nor for the valor of the 1352 American and NATO forces killed in Afghanistan since our invasion nearly eight years ago.

The fact is, Afghanistan is a hash. The best opportunity the United States and NATO had for transforming that failed-state came in the immediate aftermath of the invasion. But instead of deploying the necessary troops, technicians, and funds to rebuild and reconstitute a functioning Afghan state, the Bush administration balked, distracted by a head-long drive to war with Iraq and fool hardy notions of transformed conflict.

Now, in the wake of at best irregular elections, the West is fighting from a position of weakness. We have managed to aggravate the famed Pashtu mistrust of outsiders by propping up a corrupt and ineffectual government. Our mismanagement of Afghanistan is grotesque: we’ve lost control of our (corrupt) man in Kabul; our meager deployment of resources under the Bush administration has convinced the populace that the Taliban are a better bet because they’re not going anywhere; and our reliance on artillery, air strikes, drones, and a ham-handed anti-narcotic campaign has driven rural Afghans into the Taliban’s ranks.

All is not lost, though. The Obama administration is clearly focused on Afghanistan. In marked contrast to the previous administration, President Obama appears not to be driven by ideological notions of victory without application of sufficient resources. And, as bloody as August was and 2009 has been, Afghanistan pales in comparison to Iraq at its bloodiest.

The Obama administration would do well to listen to Anthony Cordesman – the key in Afghanistan is, as it has always been, as it always is with counterinsurgency, to deploy not only sufficient troops to establish and maintain security, but to deploy enough civilians to rebuild the country and undercut the insurgents.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Letting the Perfect be the Enemy of the Good

In a New York Times article today, a number of prominent Catholic Bishops came out against President Obama’s healthcare reform. The objections varied, from the seemingly Cold War minded Bishop R. Walker Nickless insisting, “The Catholic Church does not teach that government should directly provide health care. Any legislation that undermines the vitality of the private sector is suspect,” to the more conventional objections that in a federal plan, federal money would be used for abortions, ostensibly indicating a government endorsement of the procedure. Some bishops, like Bishop Nickless, believe “No health care reform is better than the wrong sort of health care reform.” My goal with this post is two fold. First, let’s take the abortion issue head on. I was raised Catholic and spend fourteen years in the Catholic education system, I’m going to tell you what I think and it’s a position, I believe, shared by many Americans. Second, let’s talk about the opposition of some bishops, but also the support from others.

I am opposed to people getting an abortion. I believe personal responsibility begins before conception and those unwilling or unable to handle the responsibility of having a child need to be mindful of the decisions that make prior to conception. That said, I consider myself pro-choice. I am pro-choice not because I am pro-abortion, but because we step on to treacherous ground when our government outlaws medical procedures primarily because of religious beliefs. I don’t think I’m in the minority of people when I say I don’t want people to have abortions, but I also don’t want to criminalize it. I don’t want to see federal money used on abortions, because I respect that a good portion of the society objects to it and there are ways to work around it. I would support legislation that makes this possible, but I won’t demand some bold-faced clause that says “Federal funds will never be used for an abortion.” It seems so simple, but that’s not how good laws get written. There are simply too many unanticipated scenarios in the real world that don’t allow for that kind of simplicity. So I'd rather people not have abortions, but I am not self-righteous enough to believe my beliefs are the only right beliefs, and I’m not so simple-minded to demand a simpleton clause that could expose thousands of well meaning doctors, nurses, and administrators to prosecution for doing their job and making the tough choices.

Of course the oft derided “Obamacare” would not be the first federally funded healthcare program. Currently for Medicaid, many states do not allow public funds to be used for abortions. This is not sufficient for the protesting bishops. They want a different model and some, like Bishop Nickless, would rather see the whole thing fail than to negotiate.

And that is the problem with so many of the current healthcare reform opponents. They simply oppose reform, but to disguise their intransigence on the issue they pick and choose every little thing they can and say they only oppose this part or that part. What you don’t hear from these protesting bishops or the conservative talking heads are viable alternatives. If this sounds like what I said in my last post on healthcare it’s only because it remains true. The opponents to reform are so intent on preventing reform and so disinterested in solving a tremendous issue, both as an issue of social justice and as an issue of spiraling entitlements, that they simply poo-poo any idea straying from the status quo. When I last posted on healthcare it led to a spirited and largely reasoned debate in the comments section between Colin, Ben, and I. I still disagree strongly with Colin and think he puts too much faith in capitalism. I also think his plan (a plan I have heard from some corners of conservatism recently) creates a wide gulf between the two sides, though perhaps not an insurmountable one. Despite our disagreements, in our discussion there was a point of agreement. Every American has a right to healthcare. I couldn’t wrest from Colin support that it is a moral imperative, but then again talking of moral imperative makes me sound a bit more like a priest…or a bishop….


And that is why I’m encouraged by what I hear from so many other Catholic bishops. They share the concerns of the protesting bishops that federal funds not be used for abortion, but they feel (which is in line with the broader themes of Catholic teaching) that healthcare is a right. They want to come to the table and participate in the shaping of this legislation. They know there will be compromises and they know what they’re sticking points and non-negotiables are. They have stated them plainly, but they still want to work with the president and Democratic lawmakers to find a solution. Access to healthcare is a right, and I don’t believe the quantity or quality of care should be conditional based largely on one’s socio-economic situation. We need change and we need to negotiate. What we don’t need is a cadre of protesting bishops so transfixed on one element of a much broader reform that they would let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The More Things Change...

“Voters expected change. The believed they have voted for change. [Now] they think they got more of the same.”

Steinmo and Watts (1995) draw attention to this quote from analyst Stuart Rothenberg, who, you guessed it, was referring to President B…ill Clinton. Rothenberg was talking about public disappointment with a professed reformer that was unable to effect significant change. Steinmo and Watts use the quote to make the larger point that individual leaders are insignificant in an American institutional system that (both intentionally and unintentionally) fragments power.

I want leave aside the merits of Steinmo and Watts’s argument for a second to highlight their critique of some alternative explanations of health care reform failure, which persist today and inform much of the unsophisticated “analysis” in the media. First, opposition to health care reform is not a function of American political culture. The authors’ critique of cultural explanations for Clinton’s failure holds today. I don’t have the polls on hand, but I would suspect the levels of people that support some kind of reform are similar to 1992- high. More importantly, however, cultural argument lacks comparative perspective. It is unable to explain why, if culture is relatively constant, reformers have been able to pass social welfare policies (education, medicare/medicade/social security) in the past. Demonstrating that the US has become more conservative since 1992 is an uphill climb indeed. Steinmo and Watts also point out that there is little empirical evidence to support the proposition that massive public demand resulted in health insurance reform in Europe. Like Steinmo and Watts, I find it more compelling that institutional change drives shifts in attitudes, rather than the converse.

Second, the authors argue that health insurance reform in 1992 did not fail because of opposition from powerful interest groups. This is the weaker of their two major critiques, especially since they show later how interest groups utilize particular institutional features to achieve their goal. Nonetheless, their critique is compelling. Opposition from entrenched, powerful interest groups is a constant in all reform efforts across time, and in different countries. Thus the strategies of interest groups cannot explain health insurance reform failure, except inasmuch as you are able to specify the unique institutional channels through which they exert influence.

Finally, although they (rightly) devote little space to it, the authors brush aside the sophomoric explanations that attribute health insurance reform failure to the abilities and strategies of Bill Clinton, his team, or idiosyncrasies of the plan itself. Their analysis traces the historical process by which the American institutional barricade to sweeping reform was constructed, intentionally by the founders, and as the unintentional byproduct of previous unrelated goals. Much is the same with Barack Obama. Steinmo and Watts published this article in 1995, but their descriptions of the reform effort, from the post-election atmosphere, to the effect of the media, to the strategies of the opposition, are uncannily familiar. When health insurance reform fails again in 2009 or 2010, Americans will once again express frustration at their leadership, failing to realize their beef is not with individuals, but with the rules that shape their leaders' options and strategies. Only this time, blame on the President may not be misplaced- for failing to heed Steinmo and Watts’s 1995 advice to change the rules of the political game before you attempt sweeping social reform.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The End of Maliki?

In contrast to the AP’s breathless declaration that the new Iraqi bloc, the National Iraqi Alliance, will increase Iranian influence, Juan Cole crunches the numbers and concludes that Prime Minister Maliki may not earn a second term.

The NIA is basically the old United Iraqi Alliance minus Maliki’s Dawa Party. Prof. Cole writes:

In the provincial elections held last January in Dhi Qar, ISCI, the
Sadrists and the Islamic Virtue Party got altogether about 40 percent of the
vote. The Da'wa got only about 23%. Other provincial tallies are
given here.
In most provinces, with the exception of Baghdad and Basra, the
old United Iraqi Alliance did just about twice as well as Da'wa.

If the NIA does as well in provincial elections as the old UIA did in
provincial elections, it will again be the biggest party/coalition in the
national legislature. By the constitution, it would therefore form the next
government, and al-Maliki may at that point regret not having joined.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Iranian Influence

The AP reports today that a political shakeup in Iraq has brought the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (formerly, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq) and Muqtada al-Sadr’s bloc together but left the Prime Minister Maliki’s Dawa party out in the cold. The AP suggests that a Shiite political bloc that omits Dawa will increase Iranian influence in Iraq. The AP is overreaching.

Iran has been heavily involved with each of the major Iraqi Shiite parties and it is difficult to discern why the AP believes that Iran wields greater influence through SIIC and Sadr than through Dawa. Indeed, Maliki’s recent raid on the MEK base at Camp Ashraf signaled that Iran holds great sway over Prime Minister Maliki and presumably the Dawa Party. Further, Maliki and his Dawa party found refuge in Iran after the Islamic Revolution – though the independent-minded Dawa Party eventually fell out of favor with Iranian Mullahs who preferred their creation, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, over a native-Iraqi Shiite group.

Still, Iran provided safe harbor to Dawa throughout Saddam’s reign and Dawa has apparently been influenced by Iran since the US invasion of Iraq. On the other hand, Muqtada al-Sadr has spoken like and acted like an Iraqi nationalist consistently. Unlike the Hakim family, Muqtada al Sadr did not spend Saddam’s reign in exile in Iran. Sadr has also bucked Shiite norms by establishing himself as an Ayatollah without the experience and study generally necessary to earn that honorarium. His political activism diverges from the quietist philosophy of most Shiite clerics in Iran in particular. Additionally, Sadr has used his influence and forces as a foil against the American occupation of Iraq and in defense of Iraqi sovereignty, apparently without reference to Iranian goals – see, for instance, his solidarity with Iraqi Sunni insurgents in 2004 and 2005.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Undisclosed CIA Program More Operational Than Thought

Last month, the New York Times was the first outlet to report that (previous blogpost here), in the period following September 11, 2001, the CIA had begun a program to capture or kill members of Al Qaeda. At the time the story broke, much ink was spilt discussing how operational the CIA program had been – the extent to which the CIA’s program was operational, it was argued, had a direct bearing on whether the CIA was required by law to inform Congress of its activities. I did not buy the argument that the supposedly nascent CIA program escaped the reporting requirements of the National Security Act at the outset but now it appears the CIA’s program was further along than previously thought.

The New York Times reports today that in 2004 the CIA hired Blackwater, the infamous private security contractor, “as part of a program to locate and assassinate operative of Al Qaeda.” The Times cannot say whether “the CIA planned to use the contractors to actually capture or kill Qaeda operatives, or just to help with training and surveillance in the program.”

Either way, as the Times rightly notes, the CIA’s relationship with a private security force in an operation designed to kill or capture people raises serious concerns.

So, the CIA’s until-recently-undisclosed program to kill or capture member of Al Qaeda is troubling on two fronts. The CIA, supposedly at the behest of the Bush administration, avoided its reporting requirements under the National Security Act of 1947. And the CIA looked to outsource some portion of a lethal program to a private security contractor.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Is it a Republic if the Leader is a Dictator?

The New York Times reports today that an anonymous letter, written by clerics, questioning Ayatollah Khamenei’s authority is circulating in Iran. According to the New York Times, the letter accuses Khamenei of fomenting violence in the wake of the June 12 elections and transforming the IRGC into his personal guard. He is, the authors suggest, a dictator.

The cleric’s letter comes at the same time the Assembly of Experts has scheduled an emergency meeting to consider criticism leveled against Khamenei since June 12. The Assembly of Experts theoretically has the power to remove and replace the Supreme Leader.

Khamenei’s removal remains unlikely. But his influence has waned significantly. Once God’s unquestioned representative to the Iranian people, by condoning (if not coordinating) June 12’s election fraud and subsequently attempting to consolidate power, Khamenei has forfeited his position as senior jurist and in doing so, he has forfeited legitimacy conferred upon him by the people and by many clerics in favor of raw force of arms. The import of Republic in Islamic Republic was too often over looked in the Western press.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Republicans, for Death Panels Before They Were Against Them.

Amy Sullivan does some old fashioned reporting and discovers that the Death Panels – that is, reimbursing Doctors for providing end of life counseling to patients – appeared in the Republican’s 2003 Medicare Prescription Drug Bill. You remember that bill, the one that made it illegal for the federal government to negotiate costs with prescription drug manufacturers.

Sullivan notes that the text of the bill includes this statement:
The covered services are: evaluating the beneficiary's need for pain and symptom
management, including the individual's need for hospice care; counseling the
beneficiary with respect to end-of-life issues and care options, and advising
the beneficiary regarding advanced care planning.
She goes on, “The only difference between the 2003 provision and the infamous Section 1233 . . . is that the first applied only to terminally ill patients. Section 1233 would expand funding so that people could voluntarily receive counseling before they become terminally ill.” (hyperbole omitted).

Incidentally, not only did Sen. Grassley join 41 other Republicans in supporting the bill, he was a cosponsor of the Senate version of the bill, introduced by former Senator and Majority Leader Bill Frist.

Quiet and Persistent

The seeming quiet in Tehran’s street deceives us into believing the uprising has been crushed. Yes, Ahmadinejad has been sworn in as President of the Islamic Republic for a second term, squelching the most obvious near-term goal of the opposition. But his inauguration was marked by both public snubs – in the form of many Majlis deputies and Ayatollah Rafsanjani’s absence – and by demonstrations in the street.

The show trial of dissidents arrested during the unrest following the June 12 election has proven to be a debacle. Accusations of rape have given way to heated rhetoric flying between supporters of the regime and the opposition: Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami (not to be confused with former President Mohammed Khatami) declared such allegations to be a “total slander against the Islamic system.” Calls for the arrest and trial of Karroubi have resumed.

On the other hand, Reformist politicians sent a letter to the Assembly of Experts demanding that the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, be investigated. The Assembly of Experts is the Iranian body that appoints the Supreme Leader – in theory, it also has the power to remove him, though this has never been tested. Ayatollah Rafsanjani is the head of the Assembly of Experts.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The War in Kunduz

While much attention is paid to the US-led offensive in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan, the war remains very much alive, if forgotten, in northern Afghanistan. Yesterday, Taliban militants stormed a police station in Kunduz province, killing the district police chief.

A joint German-Afghan offensive aimed at securing Kunduz province ahead of the Afghan presidential elections was launched in July. Reportedly, the German-Afghan operation was designed to disperse IMU militants who fight both in Afghanistan and in neighboring Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Since that operation’s end, militants have moved back into Kunduz province and Taliban activity has trended upwards in recent days. Though Kunduz is in the north of the country, it is still a majority Pashtun province and shares cultural and linguistic links with the Pashtun tribes that harry NATO forces in Helmand and Pakistani forces in Waziristan.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Party of Fear – Healthcare Edition

If you watched CNN this morning you saw, presumably, what I saw. You saw videotape of town halls devolving into shouting matches between people on both sides of the healthcare debate. You probably also saw the signs of protestors. For those in support of healthcare reform you saw signs saying “Obamacare saves $$$” or “Everyone deserves insurance.” I’m paraphrasing slightly, but you saw signs meant to positively advocate for healthcare reform. If you looked at the protestors against healthcare reform you saw signs with a picture of Hitler and the words “Yes we can” underneath it, invoking the catchphrase of Obama’s presidential campaign. You saw signs with the words “Death Panel” partially covered by the ubiquitous and universal sign for no. You saw signs designed to frighten, or assuming a greater nobility, signs expressing the fears of those that wielded them. The debate on healthcare has devolved to a state so devoid of intelligence it is comparable only to the period right after 9/11.

What’s everyone so angry about? Call me too Midwestern, but I was watching people shout at each other in town halls and carrying signs so acidic in their opposition that I couldn’t help but wonder why people are so angry. Rumors have been started by that every elusive “them” that a government-run healthcare option will lead to “death panels” where grandma or grandpa will be denied care because the cost of treating them is greater then their societal worth as determined by a panel-to-be-named-later, though clearly for many “death panel” is the leading contender for the name. It sounds so ridiculous to me that at first I dismissed it, but when it didn’t go away I tried to think backwards. How do we get from a government-run healthcare option to death panels?

When I thought it through, here is the domino effect I presume is the “logic” that led us to death panels: Basically, if a government-run healthcare option is passed, then employers will stop providing a private health insurance option to employees. Why should they if the government going to act as the safety net? And how can they compete against the competitiveness and efficiency of a government-run system? The employer abandonment of private health insurance will drive the health insurance into the ground so that eventually even the companies that didn’t drop their private option will have to because there will be no private option. Presto, change-o we have only a government option for health care. So why does grandma have to die? Well with the exploding cost burden on the system tough choices will have to be made. We’ll need a panel full of mustache twisting, number crunching bureaucrats that will size up grandma and decide if she’s fit to contribute to society or she should be allowed to die.

Now let’s set aside some of the problems of logic here and focus on a few key assumptions on the surface. First, there has been no healthcare reform. There is no government-run option available to people to buy into. Second, the Democratic leadership and President Obama have repeatedly said that the public option is not a sole-provider, Canadian-esque system. Third, no one has talked about a panel that would deny care to the infirmed because they were infirmed. Turning to the logic, we are making some mighty leaps here and presuming an extreme level of nefariousness from our government officials. I mean that members of Congress and the President would push for a system that they fully know and anticipate will require the government to make life and death decisions requires a level of government distrust that is beyond anything I felt during the darkest periods of the Bush administration. If the path I presented above is not within reason, what is?

Okay, so here comes the econ lesson. There are two main drivers to have a government-run healthcare option as part of healthcare reform. First, to serve as a safety net, expanding Medicaid so that people who are currently uninsured can receive preventative healthcare. The thought being if a cough can be suppressed with an antibiotic prescribed from a clinic it will be less expensive then letting that cough worsen, requiring a trip (either planned or unplanned) to the emergency room for more dramatic, invasive, and expensive care. Second, it is to make private insurers compete. I have written on this topic in the past and Paul Krugman of the New York Times writes on this all the time, but basically currently private health insurance providers operate without competition. They only compete to be the health insurance vendor for large organizations. As far as the consumer is concerned, especially if you have employer-based health insurance, you might get a lot of options in the amount of coverage you receive, but it’s all coming from the same company. It’s like going to Baskin Robbins. There are 50 flavors, but it’s all Baskin Robbin’s ice cream.

It is for these two reasons that a government-run option is essential. We need to expand the safety net and introduce competition into the marketplace. Expanding the safety net would seem a moral imperative, but the thought of competition in the marketplace is a major reason for many people government-run becomes death panel. Will some business, especially small businesses, drop private insurance for their employees? Absolutely. Is there a possibility that this government-run system will drive all the private insurers out of business? Yes, but it’s not a probability. And part of the reason it’s not a probability is because the government-run system, presumably, will not run as efficiently as a private insurance option. Opponents of healthcare reform can’t have it both ways. They can’t decry a bureaucrat will sit between you and healthcare (even though one already does) and that this government system will run so well it will destroy the private health insurance industry.

I titled this post The Party of Fear, because as the healthcare debate devolves, the Republican, conservative strategy for defeat reform has become clear. See, first they tried to remind you how bad government is, but that didn’t really take hold. So the tactic has changed. Now they want you to be scared to death of government. They put their arm around grandma and ask if you want her to be put in front of a death panel. Reform and change are things to be feared. The government is rife with evil, dark figures (allusion intended) set on running your life, removing your God-given free will, and, for kicks, killing your grandma. Once again the choice has been made to abandon intellectualism and instead embrace fear.

You know what I haven’t heard from the Republican party? A solution. So much energy has been used. So much money has been spent to tell you all the reasons the reform is bad and when mild, classic reasons didn’t work they turned up the volume. It is far easier to sit in a room and breakdown an idea. It’s far harder come up with an idea, incorporating all the different interests involved. Healthcare reform is THE domestic issue for this generation and most certainly the next.

And so I’ll make a final appeal to those Republicans willing to listen. Stop spreading fear. Come to the table with ideas and an open mind. There will be disagreements, but let them be intelligent disagreements. Something needs done and you can either be a part of the solution, or remain the party of fear. The American people are united in their desire for change, but remain unwedded to a mode. There is an opportunity.

Market Limitations

Kai Ryssdal of NPR reported on the annual Aspen Ideas festival by re-broadcasting a speech delivered by Michael Sandel, professor of government at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Professor Sandel’s speech discussed the limitations of markets and market logic. In particular, he discusses how applying free market logic to some policy problems results in perverse incentives. He also discusses how markets are unable to account for moral qualms with such matters as using market logic to regulate matters like asylum. It’s an interesting listen, check it out here.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Role of Eritrea

Secretary Clinton met this week with Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, President of Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government. After meeting with Mr. Ahmed, Secretary Clinton offered the Transitional Federal Government assurances and rebuked Eritrea for supporting the Shabab Islamists battling the government currently. Secretary Clinton went so far as to warn Eritrea that the US would “take action” if it continued to support the Shabab.

Mr. Ahmed could be forgiven an ironic smile as Secretary Clinton spoke. Three years ago, as head of one of the factions of the Islamic Courts Union, Mr. Ahmed was receiving military aid from Eritrea as he fought first the then Transitional Federal Government and then Ethiopia. Now, Mr. Ahmed finds himself at the head of the Transitional Federal Government, backed by Ethiopia and facing former allies armed by Eritrea.

Secretary Clinton’s comments, and the US policy it represents, may be ill conceived. Eritrea should stop arming the Shabab. Unlike the Islamic Courts Union that preceded the Shabab, the Shabab do not appear to be a force able to unify and govern Somalia. The Shabab do not suffer any of the moderating influences that made the Islamic Courts Union palatable if not ideal. Still, the roles that Ethiopia and Eritrea play in the Horn of Africa are disconcerting. Ethiopia seeks regional hegemony; it would like to dominate Somalia and does not necessarily seek a stable, secure Somalia. Eritrea does not have a particular interest in an Islamists Somalia, but it does seek to confound Ethiopia in anyway possible. Ethiopia and Eritrea have been fighting a proxy war in Somalia for years. Eritrea providing arms to the Shabab, and the Islamic Courts Union before it, is an extension of that proxy war – as was, the Ethiopian invasion to unseat the ICU and to install the Transitional Federal Government.

The best outcome for the United States in Somalia is a cohesive, functioning state. The US should be wary of being captured by either of the two nations engaging in a proxy war inside Somalia. Exerting pressure on Eritrea to force them to stop arming the Shabab is one thing, underwriting Ethiopian irredentism is foolish.

President Ahmadinejad

Yesterday, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was sworn in for his second term as President of Iran before the Majlis. Most of the 70 Reformist Deputies boycotted the ceremony, as Ayatollah Rafsanjani was notably absent from Ahmadinejad’s certification ceremony earlier in the week.

The obvious near-term goal for the opposition in the wake of the June 12 election was preventing Ahmadinejad from becoming the President of Iran for a second time. Time has clearly left that goal behind. But that does not mean the opposition is defunct nor does it remove the opposition’s raison d’etre.

The conflict between the regime and the opposition remains one for the mantle of the 1979 Revolution. Was that a revolution for Republic or Theocracy? Despite the swearing in, Ahmadinejad’s government remains illegitimate. The opposition’s lifeblood is the cleavage between the people of Iran’s view of its system of government and the regime’s view of that government. Khameini has adopted a near caeseropapist idea of governance. Ahmadinejad, I think, is tacking towards an autocracy. The people, however, believe in Republic – Islamic or otherwise.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Bill Clinton Remains a Bad Ass, John Bolton Remains a Tool

Pardon the juvenile title. I could have used softer language. I could have thought of synonyms for “bad ass” and “tool” but irrevocably something would have gotten lost. The title reflects both the respect I have for former president Bill Clinton and the seemingly boundless loathing I have for former ambassador to the UN John Bolton.

Let’s start with President Clinton. You want to talk about bringing the goods. Five hours in country and he’s met with Kim Jong-Il and secured the release of Laura Ling and Euna Lee. Take that Jimmy Carter (not that I have anything again President Carter). This was reportedly a private trip, though it came with tacit approval of the White House and presumably the State Department. Now the interplay between President Obama, Secretary Clinton, and President Clinton leads to all sorts of arm chair psychology (see Maureen Dowd’s driveling column in today’s New York Times for an example) about how much approval there was, who showed up whom, and if the Clintons aren’t just vying against each other for the limelight. That all seems pretty irrelevant to me and more of the horse race garbage that permeates political news these days.

I think it’s also a real safe bet that Ms. Ling’s and Ms. Lee’s families couldn’t care less about what leader gets the credit for their release. All they know is their loved ones are home and safe. I do have questions about what Clinton said, what, if any, concession he made, and how this visit will impact formal nation-to-nation diplomacy between the US and the DPRK. Maybe there were no deals, maybe Bill Clinton shook Kim Jong-Il’s hand, flashed that natural smile and that’s all it took. I kind of hope so, because North Korea has done nothing deserving of a reward. Answers to my questions will come out sooner or later, but for now it’s great news these two women are free and safe and home. It also goes to show how much a little face time can achieve when you send the right face to the right place.

Turning our attention to Mr. Bolton. He wrote a hastily prepared op-ed in the Washington Post yesterday claiming “the Clinton trip is a significant propaganda victory for North Korea” and that a high-profile, private citizen going to DPRK to try and “secure the release of two American reporters, held unjustifiably by North Korea for nearly five months” is in effect negotiating with terrorists. My first beef with Mr. Bolton is his seemingly dutiful effort to avoid naming the “two American reporters” by name. Ms. Ling and Ms. Lee are real people with real families who have been suffering for a long time. That incredibly human element should not pull us into the weeds, but can not justifiably be denied either. I’ll chalk this up to Mr. Bolton’s repeated inability to appreciate the human impact on his numerous “policy prescriptions.”

My second beef is his characterization of this whole experience as negotiating with terrorists. This was a conference with a nation-state, not some non-state actor or insurgency. The US has largely held to the line of not negotiating with terrorists, but the DPRK is not a terrorist organization. Indeed they can not be classified as a state-sponsor of terrorism (as is often reported) and simultaneously be considered a terrorist organization. This might seem like splitting hairs, but clearly Mr. Bolton is trying to frame this issue as an issue of terrorism thus making it easier to decry any private citizen negotiating with them.

My third and greatest beef with the column is really twofold. One, Mr. Bolton and those of his ilk have absolutely zero credibility in the international affairs realm at this point. Nearly every major policy prescription they advanced has been discredited or abandoned on the grounds it was ineffective or just outright destructive to the goal of securing American and advancing our foreign policy goals. Two, Mr. Bolton has taken more column inches then he deserves to criticize President Obama’s foreign policy, but as an indication of how discredited he is he never offers any alternatives. Are we to do nothing Mr. Bolton while two Americans sit in a North Korean jail facing twelve years of hard labor? Do you honestly believe behind the scenes discussions haven’t been going on between the US and DPRK through a third party trying to secure the release of Ms. Ling and Ms. Lee? What would you have us do Mr. Bolton? Because it is irresponsible to do nothing. Of course when the intellectual framework you have stood by becomes discredited, it can be hard to find a new one to add to the discussion without sounding like the old out of touch pol that you are.

A couple final thoughts: First, why is the Washington Post publishing this guy’s work and with such frequency? I have been disappointed by the lack of intellectual honesty The Post has required of its columnists and contributors, and while no voice should be silenced I would hope The Post would hold to a higher standard.

Finally, despite my disdain for Mr. Bolton and his column, this is a very happy day for two families. The denial of freedom is something many of us will never understand. It will remain something we see on the news through impersonal accounts of detainees in Afghanistan, political prisoners in Iran, journalists in North Korea, and “criminals” in the United States. I have never had my freedom so completely taken away from me as Ms. Ling and Ms. Lee have over these past five months. I am happy they’re safe and that they’re home, and even as we debate what course of action is the best we should never forget the human impact of our policies. I fear for too long the US has with dire unintended consequences. Welcome home Laura Ling and Euna Lee. I hope the United States seems better then when you last saw it.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Of Oil Sands and Saudi Bogeymen

Kathleen Parker has a somewhat nonsensical column in today’s Washington Post. As best as I can tell, Ms. Parker believes that Waxman-Markey isn’t going to do anything to lower crude oil imports; by doing nothing (that is leaving the status quo as it is) it makes us less secure; and that any reduction in crude imports will be due to George W. Bush. It is mostly drivel.

Parker does touch on oil sands as an alternative source of oil and seems to suggest that if we erect barriers to oil importation, driving up the domestic price of oil, oil sands would make a good substitute and we could get out from the thumb of those wily Saudis.

The biggest problem with oil sands is their production cost. Whereas the lifting cost for a barrel of oil produced in Canada was about $10.00 in 2007, the cost of extracting a barrel of oil from the oil sand muck is about $28.00. So, when crude futures trade at around $35.00/bbl, as they did a few months ago, oil sand production costs eat up 80% of the value of the barrel. Even when oil is trading near $70/bbl, as it is now, production consume 40% of the value of the barrel. In comparison, at the $35/bbl mark, the production cost for a barrel of Canadian crude accounts for just 28% of the barrel’s value. And $10/bbl lift cost is at the high end of the spectrum for per barrel lift costs.

Finally, estimates produced by CAPP when crude was trading between $70 and $145/bbl pointed to a Canadian oil sands production capacity in 2020 of about 3 million barrels per day. After significant cuts in capital outlays following the late 2008 collapse in world oil prices, these targets are in serious doubt, though the EIA believes that Canada may produce 4 million barrels per day by 2030. By comparison, the United States produced over 5 million barrels per day in 2007 and consumed more than 20 million barrels per day.