Tuesday, January 31, 2006

"Addicted to Oil"

These words were spoken by President Bush in his State of Union address earlier this evening. He said, "Keeping America competitive requires affordable energy. And here we have a serious problem. America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world."

Several points that Dan Caldwell and I make in Seeking Security in an Insecure World support the concern expressed by President Bush:

  • "The extent of American dependence on oil can best be captured in two key numbers. Petroleum accounts for 40 percent of the energy consumed in the United States; in the transportation sector, the figure is 97 percent." (p. 160)
  • "Questions surrounding the dependability of oil-exporting countries (that is, the combination of their internal stability and their willingness to supply particular customers, including the United States, Japan, and the European Union) take on considerable urgency when one looks at who the leading oil exporters are. The top ten net petroleum exporters are Saudi Arabia, Russia, Norway, Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Venezuela, Kuwait, Nigeria, Mexico, and Algeria. Only Norway and Mexico are considered 'free,' according to the annual assessment of political liberties and civil rights conducted by Freedom House. Saudi Arabia's monarchy, in contrast, is considered one of the world's most repressive regimes. Several countries on the list are also among the world's most corrupt business environments." (p. 161)
  • "The dilemmas associated with petroleum politics are becoming more, not less, difficult to address, because oil consumption continues to increase worldwide. The U.S. Department of Energy projects global oil consumption to grow an average of 1.9 percent per year between 2003 and 2025. For its part, the United States, which used 19.71 million barrels of oil per day in 2001, will be consuming 28.30 million barrels per day by 2025. The annual rate of growth in petroleum consumption in the United States from 2003 to 2025 is projected to be almost double what it was from 1980 to 2003. Meanwhile, domestic production peaked in 1970 at 9.6 million barrels per day and has been slowly declining ever since." (pp. 161-62)

This last point describes the problem that President Bush seeks to address through his proposals for new fuel technologies designed to reduce American dependence on imported oil. His prescription is good--as far as it goes.

If only he could have also brought himself to mention conservation--the one solution that doesn't require years of research and development.

Tonight's SOTU

According to the Borowitz Report, the White House has decided to simulcast tonight's State of the Union address in English in an effort to boost President Bush's sagging approval ratings.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Are We at War?

James Carroll asks an important question in his column in today's Boston Globe: "Is America actually at war?"

Certainly there is a war ongoing in Iraq, but Carroll suggests that we have no enemy there: the insurgents who almost daily attack American troops merely want the invader and occupier to leave. With respect to the broader "war on terror," Carroll notes that the United States is not actually engaging its real enemy "because Al Qaeda is a free floating nihilism, not a nation, or even a network."

The nature of the insurgency in Iraq is more complicated than Carroll suggests, but it's hard not to be struck by the fact that the most serious part of the conflict there began only after President Bush proclaimed "Mission Accomplished" almost three years ago. It's equally difficult to ignore the fact that Osama bin Laden and his associates continue to taunt the United States via videotape over four years after the 9/11 attacks prompted Bush to proclaim a "war on terror."

Declaring a "war on terror" was a mistake in part for what it has done for bin Laden. Carroll makes the point well:

Bin Laden was a self-mythologized figure of no historic standing until George W. Bush designated him America's equal by defining 9/11 as an act of war to be met with war, instead of a crime to be met with criminal justice. But this over-reaction, so satisfying at the time to the wounded American psyche, turned into the war for which the other party simply did not show up.

Saddam Hussein is on trial, but what no doubt amazes observers in the Muslim world is that Osama bin Laden is not.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Holocaust Memorial Day

Today is Holocaust Memorial Day--the Day of Remembrance. It commemorates the victims of the Holocaust on the anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz on January 27, 1945.

For more on the anniversary, and for a moving poem by Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi, go here.

HRW World Report 2006

Human Rights Watch released its annual report on human rights last week. The United States comes in for significant criticism. The press release accompanying the report's publication states,

New evidence demonstrated in 2005 that torture and mistreatment have been a deliberate part of the Bush administration’s counterterrorism strategy, undermining the global defense of human rights, Human Rights Watch said today in releasing its World Report 2006.

The evidence showed that abusive interrogation cannot be reduced to the misdeeds of a few low-ranking soldiers, but was a conscious policy choice by senior U.S. government officials. The policy has hampered Washington’s ability to cajole or pressure other states into respecting international law, said the 532-page volume’s introductory essay.

For an overview of the report's conclusions regarding human rights practices in the U.S., go here. To order the report or download the PDF version, go here.

[UPDATE: Today the International Herald Tribune discusses the Human Rights Watch World Report 2006 in an editorial entitled "An Indictment of America." It begins:

When Human Rights Watch, a respected organization that has been monitoring the world's behavior since 1978, focuses its annual review on America's use of torture and inhumane treatment, every American should feel a sense of shame. And everyone who has believed in the United States as the staunchest protector of human rights in history should be worried.

Many nations--Belarus, Uzbekistan, Zimbabwe, Myanmar, Cuba, Sudan and China to name only some of the worst--routinely trample on human rights in a way that neither the United States nor any of its allies would ever countenance. But the United States wrote the book on human rights; it defined the alternative to tyranny and injustice. So when the vice president of the United States actually lobbies against a bill that bans "cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment," Human Rights Watch is justified in delivering harsh criticism.

The entire editorial is available here.]

Monday, January 23, 2006

Is Bush a Wilsonian?

George W. Bush has spoken grandiloquently about the need to spread democracy throughout the Middle East. He has been pilloried by realists for failing to assess and employ American power effectively. Could it be that he is, in fact, a Wilsonian?

G. John Ikenberry takes up the question in this interesting essay.

"Vast, Lawless Areas"

The lines on a map tell us which state is legally entitled to exercise sovereignty over a particular territory, but they say nothing about whether that authority translates into effective control.

The Rio Grande, from El Paso to the Gulf of Mexico, become the southern boundary of the United States in 1845 when Texas was admitted to the Union as the 28th state. Almost forty years later, the absence of effective control over vast stretches of West Texas was acknowledged when the county commissioners of Pecos County appointed a notorious drunk and small-time thief to be justice of the peace. Thus Judge Roy Bean came to be the "Law West of the Pecos," dispensing beer and frontier justice from the porch of a saloon called the Jersey Lilly.

Developing states, like the United States in the nineteenth century, often include what are effectively ungoverned territories in which lawlessness (or its alternative, frontier justice) is the norm. The same is true of states in the middle of a war.

A story in yesterday's New York Times reminds us that Pakistan is a state lacking effective control over parts of its territory. Carlotta Gall and Mohammad Khan write,

Two years after the Pakistani Army began operations in border tribal areas to root out members of Al Qaeda and other foreign militants, Pakistani officials who know the area say the military campaign is bogged down, the local political administration is powerless and the militants are stronger than ever.

Both Osama bin Laden, who released a new audiotape of threats against the United States this week, and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, are believed to be living somewhere in the seven districts that make up these tribal areas, which run for more than 500 miles along the rugged Afghan border and have been hit by several American missile strikes in recent weeks.

The officials said they had been joined by possibly hundreds of foreign militants from Arab countries, Central Asia and the Caucasus, who present a continuing threat to the authorities within the region.

The tribal areas are off limits to foreign journalists, but the Pakistani officials, and former residents who did not want to be identified for fear of retribution, said the militants--who call themselves Taliban--now dispensed their own justice, ran their own jails, robbed banks, shelled military and civilian government compounds and attacked convoys at will. They are recruiting men from the local tribes and have gained a hold over the population through a mix of fear and religion, the officials and former residents said.

As in Texas west of the Pecos during the 1880s and 1890s, a semblance of government exists in the tribal areas of Pakistan, but it is not an authority that is responsive to Gen. Pervez Musharraf's government in Islamabad and its avowed determination to root out members of Al Qaeda from the border regions. This is why the United States felt compelled to use an unmanned Predator aircraft to attack a suspected Al Qaeda meeting place in Bajaur on January 13. On one level, the attack was a violation of Pakistan's sovereignty (as the anti-American demonstrations that followed pointed out), but on another level complaints about the violation of Pakistani sovereignty are clearly divorced from the reality on the ground.

In what must be considered an early contender for the understatement of the year, an American military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the New York Times, "With vast, lawless areas in which Taliban-style justice holds sway, Pakistan faces serious challenges."

Pakistan's challenges, however, are ones that America and the world also face. In the 1880s, the crime that occurred in ungoverned territories was, for the most part, a local problem. Not any more. Thanks to all those factors that together create what we call globalization, Pakistan's ungoverned tribal regions are right next door to all of us.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

An Event at Dutton's

Dan Caldwell and I will be at Dutton's Brentwood Bookstore tomorrow (Sunday) at 2:00 p.m. discussing Seeking Security in an Insecure World. Please stop by if you're in the area.

Iraq: A New Estimate

In Tuesday's Los Angeles Times (I'm still trying to get caught up), Linda Bilmes and Joseph Stiglitz presented a brief overview of a paper they recently presented at the annual meeting of the American Economic Association (available here). As entertaining as Freakonomics may be and as helpful as it may be to have some numbers available when arguing public policy, I am generally skeptical of the economists' faith in their own ability to assign particular values to almost everything--including human lives. Still, Bilmes--a former assistant secretary of Commerce--and Stiglitz--winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize in economics--make a compelling argument for considering more than just the direct costs of the war, which are currently moving beyond $250 billion.

The argument, reduced to its simplest (i.e., monetary) terms, is this: The final cost to the United States of the war in Iraq is likely to be between $1 trillion and $2 trillion dollars. The wide range of the estimate is primarily due to the war's uncertain duration. The longer the United States is in Iraq, the closer we'll come to the $2 trillion figure.

For those who are inclined to judge the war in Iraq in terms of cost-benefit analysis, having a comprehensive accounting of the costs is an essential starting point.

Friday, January 20, 2006

MLK and Nonviolence

It has been a busy week, so here at the end of it I need to do some catching up.

One thing I failed to post earlier this week was a link to a wonderful essay by Taylor Branch published in the New York Times on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Branch, who has recently published At Canaan's Edge, the third volume in his monumental biography of Dr. King, describes the way that King and the movement he led employed the core values of America and a deep commitment to nonviolence to transform our nation and the world. He laments the fact, however, that we have largely abandoned King's legacy and that we have failed to see the utility of King's methods for our present struggles:

Only hours before his death, Dr. King startled an aide with a balmy aside from his unpopular movement to uplift the poor. "In our next campaign," he remarked, "we have to institutionalize nonviolence and take it international."

The nation would do well to incorporate this goal into our mission abroad, reinforcing the place of nonviolence among the fundamentals of democracy, along with equal citizenship, self-government and accountable public trust. We could also restore Dr. King's role in the continuing story of freedom to its rightful prominence, emphasizing that the best way to safeguard democracy is to practice it. And we must recognize that the accepted tradeoff between freedom and security is misguided, because our values are the essence of our strength. If dungeons, brute force and arbitrary rule were the keys to real power, Saudi Arabia would be a model for the future instead of the past.

Much of this bears repeating, but perhaps no line moreso than this one: "The best way to safeguard democracy is to practice it." The pithy expression is Branch's, but the lesson it conveys is Dr. King's.

It is a lesson that our generation needs to re-learn.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Conference Call

Dan Caldwell and I will be discussing our new book, Seeking Security in an Insecure World, on a conference call tomorrow (Thursday) morning beginning at 9:00 a.m. Pacific Time. The call, sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations, will involve groups from twenty colleges and universities around the country.

If any readers of Swords Into Plowshares have an opportunity to participate in the call, please let us know that you're on. And if you don't have a chance to make your comment or ask your question, feel free to use the comment space here to do so.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Domestic Surveillance and "Necessity"

When legal arguments fail, "necessity" is often the justification of those who are determined to act with or without the law. As Oliver Cromwell put it, "Necessity hath no law." But, as William Pitt (the younger) recognized, because it is unbound by law, necessity is also "the argument of tyrants."

Most of the actions taken by the Bush Administration that have most seriously damaged the reputation of the United States as a nation committed to the defense of human rights and individual freedoms have, at one time or another (and often repeatedly), been presented as being necessary to the defense of Americans. Like all consequentialist claims, these are very difficult claims to assess, particularly when an extraordinary degree of secrecy--extraordinary for a democracy, at least--is also presented as a necessity in the "war on terrorism."

Today's New York Times offers a bit of evidence on which we can begin to assess the argument that the Bush Administration's domestic surveillance program--the one that evades both the Fourth Amendment and FISA--is necessary. Consider this extended excerpt:

In the anxious months after the Sept. 11 attacks, the National Security Agency began sending a steady stream of telephone numbers, e-mail addresses and names to the F.B.I. in search of terrorists. The stream soon became a flood, requiring hundreds of agents to check out thousands of tips a month.

But virtually all of them, current and former officials say, led to dead ends or innocent Americans.

F.B.I. officials repeatedly complained to the spy agency that the unfiltered information was swamping investigators. The spy agency was collecting much of the data by eavesdropping on some Americans' international communications and conducting computer searches of phone and Internet traffic. Some F.B.I. officials and prosecutors also thought the checks, which sometimes involved interviews by agents, were pointless intrusions on Americans' privacy.

As the bureau was running down those leads, its director, Robert S. Mueller III, raised concerns about the legal rationale for a program of eavesdropping without warrants, one government official said. Mr. Mueller asked senior administration officials about "whether the program had a proper legal foundation," but deferred to Justice Department legal opinions, the official said.

President Bush has characterized the eavesdropping program as a "vital tool" against terrorism; Vice President Dick Cheney has said it has saved "thousands of lives."

But the results of the program look very different to some officials charged with tracking terrorism in the United States. More than a dozen current and former law enforcement and counterterrorism officials, including some in the small circle who knew of the secret program and how it played out at the F.B.I., said the torrent of tips led them to few potential terrorists inside the country they did not know of from other sources and diverted agents from counterterrorism work they viewed as more productive.

"We'd chase a number, find it's a schoolteacher with no indication they've ever been involved in international terrorism--case closed," said one former F.B.I. official, who was aware of the program and the data it generated for the bureau. "After you get a thousand numbers and not one is turning up anything, you get some frustration."

Journalists, no matter how resourceful and thorough, will never be able to offer the public a definitive assessment of the efficacy of an operation like this one. What they can do (and, in this case, have done) is to raise questions about the veracity of an important claim being presented to the public. The next step is for Congress to use its oversight function to get to the bottom of the story in a way that journalists, being unable to compel testimony, cannot.

Next month, as the Senate Judiciary Committee takes up the constitutionality of the Bush Administration's domestic surveillance program, Congress also needs to begin asking questions, behind closed doors if necessary, about the claim that the program has saved "thousands of lives."

Monday, January 16, 2006

MLK on Love and Justice

"Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love."

--Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? (1967)

[via Central Dallas Ministries]

Sunday, January 15, 2006

The Imperial Presidency

An editorial in today's New York Times is unusually blunt in its criticisms of President Bush, who, according to the piece, "seems to see no limit to his imperial presidency." This is a point that has been made previously with respect to President Bush by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., the author of the classic work entitled The Imperial Presidency. Schlesinger's original argument, summarized in a more recent book he wrote entitled War and the American Presidency, is this:

Confronted by presidential initiatives in foreign affairs, Congress and the courts, along with the press and the citizenry too, often lack confidence in their own information and judgment and are likely to be intimidated by executive authority. The inclination in foreign policy is to let the president have the responsibility and the power--a renunciation that results from congressional pusillanimity as well as from presidential rapacity.

The imperial presidency is, or ought to be, a matter of concern to both Republicans and Democrats who believe the system of checks and balances on which the Constitution is based is worth preserving. After all, "congressional pusillanimity" at present is Republican pusillanimity. Thus far, however, most Republicans in Congress--with the noteworthy exception of Sen. John McCain--have willingly acquiesced in almost every post-9/11 expansion of presidential authority. Fortunately, Sen. Arlen Specter has promised to hold hearings in the Senate Judiciary Committee on the legality of President Bush's domestic eavesdropping. But whether those hearings will represent a reassertion of legislative authority or merely the appearance of a genuine check on the executive remains to be seen.

Friday, January 13, 2006

The Judgment of Other Nations

In The Federalist No. 63, James Madison wrote,

An attention to the judgment of other nations is important to every government for two reasons. The one is, that, independently of the merits of any particular plan or measure, it is desirable, on various accounts, that it should appear to other nations as the offspring of a wise and honorable policy; the second is, that in doubtful cases, particularly where the national councils may be warped by some strong passion or momentary interest, the presumed or known opinion of the impartial world may be the best guide that can be followed.

At the White House today, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany reiterated her call for the prison at Guantanamo to be closed. President Bush, still convinced that there is some benefit to the United States to having a prison available beyond the jurisdiction of American courts, demurred.

When "the judgment of other nations" calls the United States to be faithful to its own highest values, it would be good to pay attention.

Monday, January 02, 2006


The plot of Syriana brings together a number of touchy issues in American foreign policy--arms transfers, covert operations, and Middle Eastern oil politics, to name but a few. Also included are the income gap in the Middle East, terrorism, torture, and assassination as a tool of state policy. The highly combustible mix has confused some reviewers (those unable to keep up) and offended others (those unable to face reality). Both groups probably need either to grow up or to stick to films from Disney.

Is the plot real? No, not in the sense of being a faithful depiction of historical events. But the significant plot elements all have parallels in the recent history of American foreign policy. The investigation of the U.S. intelligence community conducted by the Church Committee in the 1970s, the congressional investigation of the Iran-Contra affair in the 1980s, and the 9/11 Commission’s investigation of events leading up to the terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001 all could have supplied inspiration for the screenplay (although former CIA agent Robert Baer’s book See No Evil is cited in the film’s credits).

What seems to bother some conservatives most about Syriana is its suggestion that the government of the United States might engage in morally dubious activities for the sake of maintaining American access to Middle Eastern oil. Others seem troubled by the connection drawn in the film between dismal social conditions and the recruitment of suicide bombers. Two very carefully researched books--Michael Klare’s Blood and Oil and Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon’s The Age of Sacred Terror--offer ample evidence to validate both points.

Syriana may lack subtlety and it may have some loose ends in the plot, but its fundamental problem is its message: The United States is heavily dependent on Middle Eastern oil and that dependence necessitates significant compromises with what we proclaim to be our values. Most Americans would rather not be told that.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Coming Attractions

Having given the blog a holiday break, I'm back. This New Year's Day post will, however, be brief--merely a preview of coming attractions. Here are a few of the things I plan to write about in the coming days:

First, two recent movies--Syriana and Munich--are well worth discussing. I plan to look at both from an IR perspective.

Second, I'll be looking back at some of the better books that I read during 2005. Expect a few recommendations.

Third, a play I saw this afternoon at the Mark Taper Forum--Lewis and Clark Reach the Euphrates--suggested some interesting questions about the history of American foreign policy and Thomas Jefferson's notion of an "Empire of Liberty." I hope to look at the historical record and see if we can find some of the roots of what playwright Robert Schenkkan calls "the divided heart of America."

Fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, etc.--there remains much to be said about torture, the Bush Administration's domestic spying, homeland security failures, the disparagement of international law, and the increasingly ambitious attempts by the Bush Administration to revive the "imperial presidency" cut short by the resignation of Richard Nixon in 1974.

The new year may not be pretty, but it will certainly be interesting.