Middle East

The Price of Energy Security

The Front Page of yesterday’s Wall Street Journal features an excellent article by Guy Chazan entitled “Russia Outflanks EU’s Pipeline Bid.” The article describes Russia’s efforts to dominate European natural gas supply and politics by outmaneuvering American backed European attempts to build a pipeline to make them less reliant on Russian natural gas. The potential for heavy-handed petropolitics, exemplified by Russia’s 2006 shut-off of gas to Ukraine, has American policy makers concerned once more about Russia’s political influence in Europe.

During the Cold War, the balance of power was measured in nuclear warheads. Now a new kind of contest is playing out. The battlefield is Europe's energy market. The objective is pipeline proliferation. And Russia is winning.

Europe is witnessing a race between two mammoth pipeline projects that would bring natural gas to the Continent from the Caspian and beyond. One of the plans -- hatched in Europe, championed by Washington and named for a Verdi opera -- has been hobbled by bureaucracy. The other, backed by the Kremlin, is rolling ahead with a speed and success that has surprised and frustrated the West. The outcome could shape energy supplies, and political influence, in Europe for decades to come.

Europe is not the only place this dynamic is playing out. Chinese influence in oil-rich African nations has been much maligned due to a policy emphasis energy security, even at the expense of human rights. (Sudan is only one, albeit the most publicized, example of Chinese influence on the region.) This political turmoil, as well as high prices domestically, means that energy security has emerged as a hot topic in American media.

Responding to Chazan’s article on the Wall Street Journal’s "Environmental Capital" blog, Keith Johnson argues that:

You can have energy security, you can give consumers a break, or you can do something for the environment. But aiming for all three at once—that is, what passes for energy policy in the U.S. and Europe—appears next to impossible.

Take the U.S. High oil prices have given legs to Big Oil’s demand for more access to federal lands and coastal areas—a bid for energy security–even while many in Congress are still opposed. But environmentalists figure high oil prices will spur alternative energy and help fight climate change. The Liberman-Warner climate bill foundered thanks in part to high energy prices right now. Meanwhile, the consumer gets whacked regardless—with higher gas prices, or higher electricity bills, or both.

As the scramble for energy heats up, it’s useful to remember that the rules of the game aren’t changing—the game itself is. Energy policy isn’t a cardigan moment or a Rose Garden speech—it’s become the currency of international influence. And the countries that ruthlessly focus on one pillar, rather than trying to juggle all three, are more likely to come out ahead.

Johnson is incorrect to argue that this is a new dynamic, however. Energy security has been the backbone of American politics in the Middle East since the Presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, and what has been called a “New Great Game” in Central Asia has been an ongoing chess match over oil and natural gas for decades. Johnson is correct that a ruthless pursuit of energy security is more likely to work than other approaches, but the solution to this energy security issue has little to do with climate or economic security. Rather, Europe needs to employ stronger policies and act in a more hard-nosed fashion against Russian advances, and doing so does not mean subverting goals of handling climate change. This is more a matter of having leadership that knows when the trade-off of playing hardball in favor of political security is well worth it.

Securing Energy and the Economy: Avoiding short-term policy traps

The fundamentally new elements of the energy paradigm are that these resources are no longer available on the cheap in the Western world, in large part due to the rise of the developing world, especially Asia, and the concern about climate change. Johnson seems to argue that pursuing energy and climate security while trying to keep energy costs low is impossible. In the short term, he is probably correct. In the longer term, he couldn’t be more wrong. And, in the short term, there are better ways to protect consumers.

The link between energy and economic security is easy to see. If countries do not pursue energy security, they become unable to feed their economies and maintain economic security – talk about a hit to consumers. In the short term though, pursuing lower energy prices can come at the expensive of both energy and climate security and results in silly ides, like a gas tax holiday or opening up off shore drilling.

Thomas Friedman
, in yesterday’s New York Times, weighed in on the dire policy consequences of Egypt’s attempts to keep energy prices low:

From Shubra we drive into the desert toward Alexandria. The highway is full of cars. How can all these Egyptians afford to be driving, I wonder? Answer: The government will spend almost $11 billion this year to subsidize gasoline and cooking fuel; gas here is only about $1.30 a gallon. Sounds like a good deal for the poor — only the poor have no cars, and the fuel subsidies mean less money for mass transit.

Think about these numbers: This year Egypt will spend $6 billion on education and $3 billion on health care, far less than the subsidies for fuel. This is a terrible trap. The subsidies should have been phased out when food and fuel prices were lower. Now that they have soared, the pain of removing the subsidies would be politically suicidal. So education and health care get killed instead.

America is not currently in the trap Friedman describes, but with the wrong policies, could find itself moving in that direction. Incentives must be designed to stimulate infant technologies and decrease in amount over time as those technologies commercialize and scale, not the other way around.

Securing Energy and Climate: Building the 21st Century Economy

Climate and energy security are also not mutually exclusive. If all the West cared about was energy security, America could just build all the coal plants it wanted. We are, after all, the Saudi Arabia of coal. But that is fundamentally not in our climate or economic security interests.

What America needs is a policy that is focused on energy and climate security, indeed such a policy must see the two as interrelated, and must encourage the scaling of technologies capable of taking the place of fossil fuels. Building a 21st century post-carbon economy will not be simple and will not happen tomorrow, by this November, or by November of 2012, but failing to get on that path will ultimately prove the most difficult available option, as failure means economic surrender. Conventional sources of energy will remain important into the future, but the faster America is able to transition away from a hydrocarbon economy, the better our economic, energy, and climate security will be.

Time to Lead on Energy and Climate

Buried in Wednesday’s NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll was this fact: 18 percent of Americans view energy and the cost of gas as the most important issues for the federal government to address. That number ranked third, behind the economy and the war in Iraq, and ten points ahead of health care. Add that to the 4 percent of Americans who see the environment and global warming and the environment as the number one issue, and 22 percent of Americans see some sort of energy concern as the most important federal issue.

Concern about the fact that only four percent see global warming as the most important issue notwithstanding, this is a welcome shift in political consciousness. The next step is for our leaders to explain why the top two issues, the economy and the war in Iraq, are actually related to energy and the cost of gas, and why confronting global warming relates to all three.

Unfortunately, political rhetoric and action is not yet where it needs to be on these issues. Instead of convincing dialogue about building a clean energy future that enhances energy and climate security, the American people get irresponsible talk from a supposedly pro-climate candidate about a gas tax holiday. The Senate debates cap and trade legislation, but won’t even extend the Solar Investment Tax Credit. Four dollar a gallon gasoline means that it is time to move forward to new sources of energy, not despair about the fact that the old ones aren’t working for us as well as we’d like.

High energy prices are here to stay, and the American people are struggling because of it. For now, it seems that many politicians are unwilling or unable to tell the American people that we have to innovate, not drill, out of this problem, and that there is no short-term solution.

Leadership means connecting the dots, from high energy prices, to climate change, to green collar jobs, to turmoil in the Middle East. It means realizing that four dollar a gallon gasoline is related to the Solar ITC. America is nowhere close to leading on energy, and the consequences will be grim should we take a pass on building the premier 21st century green economy. Thankfully, it seems that the market is taking hold. Companies like GM are starting to get the picture that we need to build plug-in hybrids like the Chevy Volt, and California is primed to install 200-250 Megawatts of solar in 2008 alone. Let’s hope political leadership can create the policy needed to support them.


Old Man McCain

Senator McCain's confusion about Sunni and Shiite, Al Qaeda and Iran, I think is no simple thing to explain away. Our whole adventure in Iraq has been infused by dangerous levels of niavite and ideology, and all too little informed by the facts on the ground or common sense. The very lack of understanding of how hard it would be to bring Sunni and Shiite together - and how an Iraqi Shiite-led government would result in Iran's regional ascension - is the main cause of why Iraq has cost America so much in the lives and limbs of our young, of "our money," and of our standing in the world. That he is confused about something so central to the entire enterprise over there - after having been there for days and been briefed by many parties - is a virtual disqualifier for the highest office in the land.

Rather than suggesting that McCain is recklessly stupid, perhaps his campaign can say his confusion has been brought about by age. That men of his age often get confused, particularly when they travel and are meeting lots of new people. That running for President, to paraphrase our current President, is "hard, hard."

Update: As our readers may recall, NDN spent a great deal of time last year helping draw attention to Administration's apparent lack of understanding of the Sunni-Shiite dynamic in the Middle East. Visit here to watch a video interview we conducted with Professor Vali Nasr, one of the nation's foremost experts on Islam and the Middle East. His book, the Shia Revival, is one of the best books I've read in recent years and has done more to help me understand the challenge of our current strategy in the Middle East than any other thing I've read.

Perhaps Senator Lieberman should buy his friend Senator McCain a copy of the book.

Update 2: Watch the video here

Report from Israel 2 - The Bush Legacy in the Middle East

As some may recall I just returned from a 10 day foreign trip, including 6 days in Israel. There I spoke at a major policy conference and met with Israeli journalists, policy makers, elected officials, entrepreneurs and other civic leaders. All in all it was a remarkable trip.

I offered up some initial thoughts soon after arriving in Jerusalem. Since I returned I've been thinking a lot about the trip, and have watched as the people of Gaza spilled into Egypt and the Winograd Commission issued its report. I've come away from the trip with a profound sense that the Bush era has made the Middle East more radical, less stable, more anti-American and anti-Israeli. The policies of the Bush Administration have left our ally, Israel, in a much weaker position than they found it.

4 key points:

The Iraq War is directly responsible for the rise of Iran as a regional power. The Iraq War removed Iran's greatest regional rival, placed an Iranian-influenced Shiite-led government in the heart of the region and paved the way for Iran's current regional ascension, which includes much more robust support for Hezbollah and Hamas. The chaos which has ensued in Iraq will also no doubt create an entire new generation of trained radicals who will be haunting the region for years to come. And the failure of our policy in Iraq has made it much more difficult to rally domestic and world opinion against the prospect of a nuclear Iran, a development hat simply must be seen as one of the greatest security threats in the world today and one that is an existential threat to Israel.

As readers of this blog know I have been obsessed for years about what Bush and company believed would happen in the region if America put in charge of Iraq Shia political parties whose leaders left the country during their war with Iran, and lived and sided with Iran in its war against Saddam. Did we not understand the history of the regional Sunni-Shiite struggle? How could democracy flourish there, particularly without any real plan for investing in and nurturing Iraqi civil society? How could the first Shiite-led Arab government in the Middle East become anything but a threat to the region's Sunni populations, Sunni governments and an ally of Iran?

After the initial success of the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2002, George Bush had many choices on how to proceed to bring about a more peaceful and prosperous world, and further riding the world of security threats. At a strategic and operational level, it is now clear, for the interests of both Israel and the United States, that the decision to invade Iraq, the lack of a serious plan to bring about post-invasion regional security, the lack of a serious plan for investment in Iraqi civil society, has been a disaster and left the region much more unstable and dangerous than before.

The epic failure of Bush's democratization agenda as a regional strategy. Prior to going to Israel, I had believed that the President's "democratization" agenda was just a rhetorical facade for Western audiences to put a more pleasant face on his more imperial designs. But in Israel I learned that Bush and his foreign policy team actually believed in this agenda, and worked to carry it out in the region. They met with Arab heads of state, and told them that is was a new day and that they needed to open up their closed societies. They promoted elections in Iraq, which of course elected Shiite parties close to Iran and anathema to the region's Sunnis. And most consequentially, over the objection of the Israeli government, the Bush Administration allowed the participation of the terrorist groups Hamas and Hezbollah in elections in the Palestinian Authority and Lebanon without insisting that they give up their arms, recognize Israel's right to exist or renounce the killing of innocent civilians. Both Hamas and Hezbollah did well in their elections, and have now gained a degree of local, regional and international legitimacy - and political power - long denied them. The immediate impact was to plunge Lebanon into further political chaos, split the government of the PA into two and strengthen Iran's regional influence.

Again, what were they thinking?

As in Iraq, the Bush Administration seemed to believe that democracy itself had magical powers, that it was the act of electing a democratic leader which would bring about peaceful societies. But this idea is an extraordinary misreading of history. Hitler gained power through democratic elections. Chavez and Putin today, two of the world's most powerful autocrats, were elected. Fidel Castro is elected every few years in Cuba, getting, remarkably, all the votes cast. Elections themselves have never been sufficient to create open societies. The American formula, used so effectively to help bring modern and open societies to ever more of the world, was always more complex. It required free markets, personal liberty, the rule of law and yes democratic representation. Applying tried and true formula to the Middle East would have required Hamas and Hezbollah to renounce terror, recognize Israel, and demilitarize as a condition for participation in their elections. There can be no rule of law, no personal freedom if one of the major political parties in a nation keeps a private and well-funded private militia.

Bush's democratization agenda has become a joke in the Middle East. Israelis I spoke to saw it as a wildly naïve, dangerous concept and policy. This simplistic view of what builds complex, functioning, civil societies undermined both realistic planning for the peace in Iraq and the Arab-Israeli peace process. For it is harder to see today how meaningful peace can be brought to Israel and Palestine with he fanatics of the Hamas having control in Gaza and a newfound global legitimacy. Sunni Arabs have not exactly been inspired by the aftermath of our democratizing efforts in Iraq, which among other things strengthened the regional hand of Iran and the Shiites.

And, of course, once Hamas and Hezbollah had strong electoral showings, as many had predicted, the Bush Administration announced they would not work with these newly elected groups, further making the Bush call for democratization a hallow and cyniical one.

So also damaged in the Bush era is the whole idea of free and open societies themselves, as his loony vision of "democratization" has been instrumental in bringing further chaos and instability to an already troubled region. It will be vital that the next President, of whichever Party, restores the tried and true - and hard - vision of what it takes to build pluralistic, democratic and free nations.

The failure to lead the world in lessening its dependence on oil. There can be no doubt that the world's dependence on oil is itself becoming a grave security threat. We know the global environmental challenge a carbon-based economy offers. But we also have to come to terms with oil how many of the oil producing nations themselves - Venezuela, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia - are becoming the main funders and purveyors of regional and global instability. And perversely, as the price of oil rises with the perception of global instability, these nations now have a national interest in maintaining or increasing the instability which fuels their economies and is the source of their regional and global power.

Hamas and Hezbollah are funded with Iranian oil money. Al Qaeda's start up capital came from a wealthy Saudi family, made rich by their relationship with the Saudi Royal family. Oil money funds the Madrassas which are radicalizing young Muslims around the world. Oil money is keeping dictators in power, preventing the modernization of many nations.

It is simply impossible to be for Israel and for a peaceful Middle East without also being for an enormous global effort to wean the world its debilitating addiction to oil. The Bush Administration's lack of leadership on climate change has in of itself strengthened the hand of the world's emerging petro-dictators, and lengthened their time of influence and power.

Bush's actions and rhetoric have made tens of millions of Europeans and Arabs much more anti-US and anti-Israeli. For many, the collective impact of the Axis of Evil war on terror language towards Muslims, the botched Iraq War, the lack of a commitment to lasting Arab-Israeli peace, the closeness of Bush and the Israeli government, and the sheer unpopularity of Bush himself has weakened the Israeli cause across the world, including in the United States. The Israelis are now seen not just aligned with the United States but one of the world's most unpopular and belligerent leaders. The UN may have once equated Zionism with racism, but now the world is essentially equating Zionism with Bushism, something that may be much more damaging for Israel than the infamous UN Resolution.

In my several days in Britain I was able to learn first hand how anti-Israeli many British elites have become. It was something I didn't expect, as it was a Brit almost a century ago who cleared the way for the early Israeli state, and Israel is the only nation in the entire Middle Eastern region which looks anything like a Western pluralistic democracy.

To sum up my trip to Israel left me excited about what a wonderful nation Israel has become, and worried about the worsening political situation around it. I have no doubt from my trip that the people of Israel are ready to accept a free and open Palestinian state, one that accepts Israel's right to exist, and one that does not launch attacks from across what we all hope will be a peaceful border. But years of historic and extraordinary failures of the Bush Administration have made the realization of a peaceful Middle East and a two state solution much more difficult, leading me to conclude that this American Administration has weakened our ally Israel and done damage to the hope of peace in the Middle East.

1st report from Israel

Jerusalem, Sunday, 830am - I arrived in Israel late Friday afternoon a few days before I am slated to speak at the well-regarded Herzliya conference on Monday morning. I have visited Israel just once before, in 1993, for a wonderful trip that lasted 10 days. Some initial impressions:

- Jerusalem and its hills are much more beautiful than I remember. Though a little chilly yesterday, I visited the top of the Mount of Olives in several spots and was able to see both east, towards the West Bank, and West towards the Old City. It was a clear day, allowing views all the way to the Dead Sea and Jordan and well beyond Jerusalem proper. The air was fresh and vital, a wonderful breeze was blowing all day, the sun was warm and inviting. And the views....well let us just say this is a place of unnatural natural beauty.

- The newly erected "Security Fence," separating Israel from the lands of the Palestinian Authority, is very present in and around Jerusalem. There can be little doubt that resolving the final status of Jersusalem will be difficult, and consequential.

- Modern communications is simply a wonder. When I landed in Israel my blackberry and phone worked just like home, keeping me in real time communication with the office, my listserves, my friends and family. I am writing this from my laptop, which has a global wireless connection. After breakfast this morning I came back to my room and scanned over the internet the major American papers and sites like Daily Kos and Talking Points Memo to get caught up on the elections last night.

On the way in from the airport my cab driver, a Palestinian Israeli, had a cell phone mount on his dashboard and what looked like a GPS. He took several calls during the trip into Jerusalem, putting on his wireless ear piece to talk. And of course he played American music for the entire drive.

In recent years most of my travels have been inside the US. With my 3 kids getting old enough to allow me to leave my remarkable wife for some longer trips, I plan on traveling more this year to see how globalization and this communications revolution is changing the world. As someone who did a great deal of traveling as a younger guy, before cell phones and the internet, before cash cards and computers, it is remarkable how different traveling is today. You feel much less "away," much less distant from my American life, as it all comes with you now wherever you go. All of this makes travel, distance somehow much less a hardship. It is a very different way to travel than even when I was here in 1993. Very different.

This new global communications network is creating a truly global web of information, bringing all the worlds people closer together. We are all becoming more mobile, more connected, less distant from one another. Half the world's 6 billion people are now on this global communications grid, something that will without doubt do much to spread ideas, spur the desire for personal freedom and democracy, and increasingly lift isolated and poor communities from poverty and ignorance.

But as I am reminded, here in Jerusalem, even in this modern age, identity, faith and history can be monumental barriers to overcome, no matter how wired and connected we may all be.

The Post reviews US policy towards Pakistan

This morning's Washington Post has a very good piece on the US diplomatic efforts that brought Bhutto back to Pakistan ten weeks ago. It also has a quick look at how Bhutto's death is effecting the Presidential campaigns.

The NYTimes offers up this thoughtful editorial on the future of Pakistan after Bhutto. An excerpt:

Ms. Bhutto’s death leaves the Bush administration with no visible strategy for extricating Pakistan from its crisis or rooting out Al Qaeda and the Taliban, which have made the country their most important rear base.

Betting America’s security (and Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal) on an unaccountable dictator, President Pervez Musharraf, did not work. Betting it on a back-room alliance between that dictator and Ms. Bhutto, who had hoped to win a third try as prime minister next month, is no longer possible.

That leaves Mr. Bush with the principled, if unfamiliar, option of using American prestige and resources to fortify Pakistan’s badly battered democratic institutions. There is no time to waste.

Bush needs to come before Congress and explain

As CNN is now reporting that the Administration is in the process of revising its story about what Bush knew and when he knew it about Iran and its nuclear program, there is really only one responsible way to deal with what has happened here - the President needs to come before Congress and explain.

In 1998 we impeached a President over a lie about an affair. This Administration has serially lied about so many things, including the cause of our war with Iraq; they have almost certainly broken the law in their warentless spying on Americans; they almost certainly broke the law in the way they politicized the Department of Justice to serve their own electoral designs; the entire senior White House team was involved in the treasonous exposure of Valerie Plame; and now this new lie, about Iran and its nuclear program - this lie has significantly harmed our national security and cannot be treated as a "there they go again" moment. The Administration knowingly misled the world about Iran in a way that could have engulfed the region in a major war. The exposure of this lie has caused significant damage - again - to America's credibility around the world, and reinforced our image as a belligerent and out of control imperial power. For the good of the nation we simply must better understand what happened here - so we can prevent it from ever happening again.

Congress cannot compel the President to come before them. But they should ask. Senator Reid and Speaker Pelosi should send a simple and polite letter asking President Bush to come before them, and the American people, in an extraordinary joint session that lasts just an hour. 15 minute opening statement. 4 questions, 2 from each Party. Let's do it in Mid-January, before the State of the Union, before Congress gets back to business, and before the Presidential nominees are picked.

The President will probably refuse. But at least our Congress will have attempted to get the bottom of another terrible moment in this lamentable Presidency.

Update: The New York Times has a major story today on how the conclusions of the NIE were reached. A must read for all following this closely.

Update: Senator Harry Reid just released this statement:

I am growing increasingly concerned about the White House's inconsistent explanations of when the President was told about important new intelligence information regarding Iran's nuclear weapons ambitions.  It appears the President and Vice President were briefed in August on this information, before both the President and Vice President began to ratchet up their increasingly-heated rhetoric on the threat of Iran.

I urge the White House to fully and accurately explain what the President and Vice President knew and when they knew it, and why the Administration's rhetoric was not adjusted when presented with new data this summer.  I find it surprising the Administration did not learn the lessons of Iraq; it was exactly this type of misleading rhetoric that led us into a misguided, unilateral war.

I also again urge the Administration to announce a top-to-bottom review of its Iran policy, including new steps to launch a major diplomatic surge to address the challenge of Iran.

Oh, that Middle East peace conference

I set out this morning to find the exact date of upcoming Peace Conference. Amazingly, this is what I found:

A few days after Thanksgiving, President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice plan to open a meeting in Annapolis to launch the first round of substantive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks during Bush's presidency.

But no conference date has been set. No invitations have been issued. And no one really agrees on what the participants will actually talk about once they arrive at the Naval Academy for the meeting, which is intended to relaunch Bush's stillborn "road map" plan to create a Palestinian state.

The anticipation surrounding the meeting has heightened the stakes for other countries seeking invites. If Turkey comes, Greece wants a seat. So does Brazil, which has more Arabs than the Palestinian territories. Norway hosted an earlier round of peacemaking in Oslo, so it wants a role. Japan wants to do more than write checks for Palestinians.

"No one seems to know what is happening," one senior Arab envoy said last week, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid appearing out of the loop. "I am completely lost."

The envoy recounted the calls he made in recent days to dig up information and said he had reserved rooms for his country's foreign minister and other officials. He added with exasperation: "It is a very peculiar thing."

Even a senior administration official deeply involved in the preparations confided, before speaking off the record about his expectations: "I can't connect the dots myself because it is still a work in progress."

Have we ever had a team like this running the government of the United States?

Sidney Blumenthal on Blackwater

Sidney Blumenthal has a great piece in Salon on the sovereignty issues raised by the presence of Blackwater and other contractors in Iraq.   It begins...

Oct. 04, 2007 | On June 27, 2004, the day before the United States was to grant sovereignty to a new Iraqi government and disband the Coalition Provisional Authority, L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. proconsul, issued a stunning new order. One of the final acts of the CPA, Order 17 declared that foreign contractors within Iraq, including private military firms, would not be subject to any Iraqi laws -- "all International Consultants shall be immune from Iraqi legal process," it read. "Congratulations to the new Iraq!" Bremer said moments before flying out. His memoir, "My Year in Iraq," neglects to mention Order 17.

The author of Order 17 was a CPA official named Lawrence Peter, who oversaw the Iraqi Ministry of Interior. As soon as the CPA was dissolved, the Private Security Company Association of Iraq hired Peter to act as its liaison and lobbyist there. The new Iraq included a revolving door.

Thus, in the process of granting Iraq sovereignty, the Bush administration eviscerated it. Order 17's grant of immunity to contractors guaranteed that more than half of the foreign presence on the ground -- for U.S.-paid contractors outnumber U.S. military personnel -- would operate for all intents and purposes beyond the law. Order 17 also undercut the authority of the U.S. military, frustrating command and control of the battlefield and upsetting sensitive counterinsurgency strategies. Order 17 meant that the monopoly of violence was fractured and outsourced to those not subject to the law. By unilateral fiat Order 17 uniquely created a red zone of impunity covering the entire country...

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