The Myth of Energy Independence

“We’ll grow our own energy right here in America, and stop sending our money to the Middle East!” This refrain has become very common in the US energy debate going on today. Coal producers are lobbying for increases or extensions to programs that subsidize the cost of turning coal into diesel fuel, and corn growers have successfully lobbied for a 51 cent-per-gallon subsidy on gasoline-ethanol blends (sometimes containing as little as 1% ethanol). Meanwhile, politicians proclaim that our dependence on foreign oil is a threat to national security.

Is the answer to America’s energy needs really to grow or drill it all at home? And would doing so help moderate the rapid rise in gasoline prices, and in energy costs as a whole? These questions deserve further review.
Read the full entry (371 words) …

World View

World View

I haven’t posted in quite a while, but thought I’d restart by posting a photo I took on an S-bahn platform in Berlin (Savigny Platz for those keeping score). Interesting to see what folks in other parts of the world think, isn’t it?

In some ways, quite a positive image – if only our politicians got along that well!

2006 Was a Good Year

Despite the bleak headlines about Iraq, conflict in Lebanon, and nuclear confrontations with both North Korea and Iran, 2006 was a good year globally. GDP growth in developing nations surged forward at a 7% pace, while overall global economic growth remained high at close to 4%. Long term economic growth is the only available means to decrease absolute poverty; in India, growth around 7% per year reduced overall poverty by 10% over the last decade. To be sure, much of developing nations’ current growth is owed to rising commodity prices, but in many nations this influx of revenue is being harnessed more effectively than in the past.
Read the full entry (357 words) …

Conquering Small Countries is Easy

Numerous comparisons have been made between the current Iraq War and the Vietnam War, with some likening the two situations and others decrying the notion of any similarity. Some comparisons, including an analysis by Dr. Atul Gawande in the New England Journal of Medicine, show conclusively that improvements in medical technology have decreased the battlefield death rate significantly. Researching the statistics, Dr. Gawande shows that combat death rates from injury dropped from 30% during World War II to 24% during Vietnam, and to 10% in Iraq and Afghanistan. This decrease in mortality has been used to show that without modern medicine, American fatalities in Iraq would run at close to 2200 per year instead of the current 900 per year. But even at 2200 casualties per year, the Iraq conflict would pale in comparison to Vietnam, where on average 9000 American soldiers were killed each year during America’s heaviest presence (1966-1971).
Read the full entry (441 words) …

Crazy AND Competent

Why aren’t there more terrorist attacks in the United States? Or in other developed countries, for that matter? With the exception of Israel, which is involved in an ongoing conflict and is surrounded by hostile states, terrorism is still relatively rare in the industrialized world. In many developing nations, on the other hand, from Latin America to Africa and Asia, terrorism and irregular conflict are commonplace. Most of these conflicts have a political root, and internal political stability clearly prevents this kind of ongoing insurgency within the United States. There is another safety net protecting the US, however: there simply aren’t that many individuals in the United States that are both crazy enough AND competent enough to execute a real terrorist plot.

The US market economy provides an amazing wealth and diversity of opportunity for a striving individual; one need look no further than the Mexican border to see that millions desire the opportunity to participate in the US employment market. The great majority of individuals competent enough to even contemplate a terrorist plot find themselves engaged in a productive career path from high school onward. The US, like any place on Earth, also has its share of individuals that harbor destructive or anti-social thoughts, and occasionally even plans for terrorism. Most in this group have no capability to execute on their dangerous ideas, and generally have nothing more than hate-filled invective stewing about in their heads.

Who then is left to cause terror in the homeland? There certainly are skilled and competent individuals in the United States who dislike US policy, and who may even harbor destructive plans. Even within this group, only very rarely will an individual choose to sacrifice the good life of America for the risk incumbent in prosecuting an act of terror. In the US, Timothy McVeigh is a rare example of such an individual. Among the millions of annual visitors to the US, the 9/11 hijackers represent a similarly rare breed.

All of this doesn’t mean that the US government can just drop its guard in securing the nation. Rather, it means that an intelligence-based approach is the only viable option for ferreting out the minority of minorities that is intent on causing harm. With the FBI, CIA, and NSA woefully understaffed in areas such as Arabic translation, it looks like we have a long ways still to go in catching that rare and elusive beast: the terrorist.

What to do with North Korea

It’s official: North Korea conducted an underground nuclear test this morning, defying warnings from the UN, US, and its neighbors. North Korea’s tested weapon was small by nuclear weapons standards, and its missile systems are inaccurate, but the test confirms that the world’s most dangerous weapons technology is now in the hands of Kim Jong-Il.  So what can the US and the world do now to prevent tragedy at the hands of a madman? Let’s review the options:

  1. The US could launch a preemptive air strike against North Korea to destroy its nuclear devices. If successful, this would almost certainly result in conventional war with North Korea. If unsuccessful, North Korea could nuke South Korea or Japan, killing millions.
  2. The US could try to cut off all economic support for North Korea. While the US may now be able to convince South Korea and Japan to cut off aid, China fears the collapse of North Korea and the subsequent flood of refugees more than the regime itself, and may agree only to token steps. If North Korea is completely embargoed, Kim Jong-Il might lash out in desperation.
  3. The US could begin a slow and orderly draw down of its troops in South Korea beginning next year, until no meaningful forces remain. This would leave South Korea to defend itself, with the understanding that if North Korea ever chose the nuclear route, the US would retaliate in kind.

Why is the last option most appealing? American forces in South Korea are now short-range targets for a North Korean desperation attack. By withdrawing our forces we would remove them from danger, while the US military would still have the capability to defeat North Korea should the need arise. Removing US forces also denies Kim Jong-Il the bogeyman he needs to justify his evil regime, weakening internal support for his rule.

If the US withdraws from the Korean peninsula, Japan, South Korea, and China will finally have to devise their own strategy for dealing with their bad neighbor. North Korea’s economy is in a death spiral; if these neighbors withdraw life support, the state will likely collapse. As long as the US is responsible for regional security, they have no incentive to make these tough choices. If we withdraw, North Korea’s neighbors may make the tough decisions, and resolve the problem on their own. On the other hand, if the situation destabilizes, we will have removed our soldiers from harm’s way, while placing confidence in our military’s ability to win a war if that becomes inevitable.

Post 9/11 – Are we any safer?

Yes, we are safer in that our sense of vigilance in the US has been heightened, both within the government and within the population as a whole. But in terms of broader American policy since 9/11, has it made us any safer?

We’ve successfully conquered unfriendly regimes in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Numerous unfriendly regimes remain, however, and the population of almost every Muslim nation (and many non-Muslim nations) became vehemently anti-American after the Iraq war. If the US were to conquer Iran and Syria, effectively controlling the entire Middle East, we might gain security against these enemy states. Ah, but enemy states did not attack on 9/11 – stateless terrorists attacked on 9/11. These sorts of terrorists would have thousands of hiding places remaining, and we can never conquer and hold all of them.

Better intelligence and policework have led to the capture of more terrorists than our invasions; it’s time to redirect investment in that direction. At the end of the day, the US will have to come to terms with the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims. We’re spending 10 billion per month and losing a couple of soldiers per day to control one small nation of 25 million – this strategy cannot work on a wider scale. It’s time to invest in intelligence gathering, domestic security, and arms control. These are the realistic anti-terror strategies for the long run.