Monday, May 2, 2011

Is Now the Time to Leave Afghanistan?

Osama bin Laden is dead. Is now the right time to leave Afghanistan?

I ask because I think the decision to keep troops in Afghanistan has been agonizing for many Canadians and Americans. I have argued with people in both of my homes about whether our troops should still be there, almost ten years after invading.

The reasons to leave are powerful. The human cost of the mission is terribly high, both in terms of Western troops/aid workers and Afghan victims of the war. The financial and political costs are high, too. And it's debatable how much good we're doing in terms of 'nation building' or even preventing future terrorist attacks.

But I have usually argued that, on balance, there were still sufficiently good reasons to stay. Simply put, the job wasn't finished: Osama bin Laden was still at large, the Taliban were still awful, and running away would have given the jihadis greater scope to commit evil.

Does bin Laden's death change that equation? I'm not sure, but it's certainly possible. Until now, one of the real costs of leaving was the image of NATO cutting and running when the going got tough. With Osama dead, there is now a window of time open in which NATO could leave Afghanistan with its head held high. It would still be a mistake to say 'mission accomplished', given all the wreckage of Afghanistan and the turmoil that is likely to accompany NATO's departure, but Osama's death is a tangible victory to show for NATO's efforts.

Of course, Osama bin Laden's death is probably more symbolic than a real blow to al Qaeda's operations. I don't want to equate Osama's death with victory over terrorism. Still, it's a major milestone.

And I emphasize that it is really a window of time. If NATO continues major combat operations in Afghanistan for a significant period of time even after Osama is dead, the window will close.

Now is the time to think hard about the rationale for the operation. I'd love to hear what others think. Is now the time to leave Afghanistan?

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Really bad ideas on energy

One thing that you can always count on about the US political process is that it will generate a few good ideas and a great many bad ones. Energy policy is a perennial source of the bad ones, and right now is no exception. Let's pick one from both the Democrats and the Republicans.

First, some of the Dems seem to think that the US should tap the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) because the current troubles in the Middle East are driving up gasoline prices here in the US. This is a ridiculously dumb idea.

The whole point of having an emergency reserve like the SPR is for ... uh, emergencies. An extra thirty-five cents per gallon at the pump is emphatically not an emergency. In fact, for anyone who cares about providing economic incentives for the development of renewable energy sources and new cars, high oil prices are actually a very important market signal. The US government absolutely should not blunt that signal by tapping the SPR.

Just as importantly, the SPR should be preserved for a true emergency, such as the kind of major oil disruption that could occur if Saudi Arabia experienced something like the conflict we're seeing in Libya. Given that there is a reasonable probability that we haven't seen the last of the revolutions in the Middle East, now is precisely the time when we should be extra careful with oil reserves.

Ok, what about the Republicans? Well, some of them seem to be seriously considering Newt Gingrich as a presidential candidate. Even if we were to look past the raging hypocrisy that Mr. Gingrich displayed when he tried to impeach Clinton for having an affair even as he was having one himself -- and I can't imagine why we would look past it -- I'd still have a dim view of Gingrich's candidacy because of his ideas for energy policy.

Gingrich is the author of a 2008 book entitled, "Drill Here, Drill Now, Pay Less." He is, in short, the "intellectual" force behind the chants of 'drill, baby, drill' that we heard in the 2008 campaign. The idea of America obtaining "energy independence" by replacing foreign oil imports with US oil production is profoundly unrealistic. At least within the foreseeable future, the US is completely incapable of self-sufficiency in oil.

Moreover, policies that try to rapidly expand US oil production are much more likely to do harm than good. Too much haste in developing offshore resources, for instance, could lead to another spill akin to the BP disaster in 2010. Even if we get lucky and avoid an accident, what exactly would the US gain by depleting its own geological reserves at a rate far faster than the rest of the world?

So here's my recommendation: let's bundle up Gingrich and the geniuses who want to tap the SPR, and see if we can trade them to Qadhafi for a little peace in the Middle East.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Libya unfolding

For over 40 years, Muammar Qadhafi has had a way of surprising the world. This time, the surprise is on him. His people are rising against him.

As I write, the government is reported to have lost control of Benghazi, Libya's second city, and much of the eastern part of the country along with it. Still, Benghazi has long been a site of anti-Qadhafi protests, so it was even more remarkable that the protests reached the capital, Tripoli, a few days ago.

Qadhafi wasn't the only one surprised. Recently I noted that the oil-rich autocrats in the Middle East had a firm hand on power, even with turmoil in oil-poor states Egypt and Tunisia. But now the protests have spread to Bahrain, Algeria and especially Libya. (Bahrain isn't oil-rich but tends to act like a petrostate because of subsidies from Saudi Arabia.)

I should have noted the fact that petrostates have not one but two characteristics that are relevant for current events. On one hand, oil gives incumbents political power, so incumbent leaders remain in office far longer than in non-petrostates (Africa's longest leader until recently was the president of oil-rich Gabon; when he died in office after 43 years in office, Qadhafi became Africa's longest serving leader). On the other hand, oil tends to weaken political institutions in petrostates (through patronage and corruption), meaning that they also have a higher proclivity towards civil wars than non-petrostates: think Nigeria, Angola, Algeria. This creates an odd paradox: is oil a force for stability or instability? Political scientists are still working that one out -- and clearly the debate is not just theoretical.

For the time being, let me just draw attention to two differences between Libya and Egypt or Tunisia. First, Libya has oil. Second, Libya has Qadhafi. Both of these are going to make the confrontation in Libya a good deal more bloody than its counterparts in Egypt and Tunisia.

Libya's oil money allows Qadhafi to afford an extensive security apparatus, and a patronage network for a hard core of regime supporters. It also allows him to hire foreign mercenaries to fight the protesters, in the event that some or all of the Libyans in his army defect. All of these things make it harder for the protesters, and violence more likely. There is even the possibility that the protesters might be able to get foreign mercenaries of their own, drawn by the promise of oil money once the government has been toppled.

Libya also has Qadhafi, and he is no Mubarak. Mubarak was personally corrupt and clearly enriched himself at the expense of his people. Qadhafi is a megalomaniac. Characteristically, he said yesterday on Libyan television: “Muammar Qaddafi is history, resistance, liberty, glory, revolution.” This is a man for whom being the "Brother Leader" is central to his identity, not just a means to get rich. That makes him even harder to dislodge.

Qadhafi's son, Seif, promised 'rivers of blood' in the event of a civil war. Civil wars are rarely if ever won on the battlefield. It is the loyalty of the armed forces that usually determine the outcome, as it did in Egypt. The loyalty of Libya's armed forces is already showing cracks and strain. Still, it has not yet broken, and even if it does, Qadhafi might have enough mercenaries to make up the difference.

The outcome of the Libyan struggle is far from certain, but I fear the prospect of 'rivers of blood' looms mightily.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Governance in the Middle East

Across the Middle East, common people are standing up to their governments in protest even as I write. This demonstration of resolve for self-governance, in protest of corruption, tyranny, and repression, is nothing short of inspiring.

Of course, the outcome of these protests is still far from clear. Democracy and good governance is far from certain, even if the current autocrats are ousted from power. And even if democracy does emerge, it will need a combination of great leadership and great luck to stabilize and take root.

Still, these protests are an opportunity the likes of which has not been seen in decades.

Being a scholar of global oil politics, I cannot help pointing out which countries are experiencing these opportunities, and which ones are not. Tunisia and Egypt, which have relatively little oil, have had the most significant protests; their oil-rich neighbors Libya and Algeria have not. The leaders in Jordan, Syria, and Yemen have been shaken; the monarchs in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the other Gulf states have not. What's the common denominator? The oil-rich autocrats have a firm hand on power; the states with little or no oil are experiencing popular protests of far greater magnitude.

There are exceptions, of course: the government in oil-rich Iraq has also been shaken by the outbreak of protests. But then, I think it is fair to say that Iraq is exceptional in a lot of ways, and stability was not its strong suit even before the protests in Tunisia.

At the risk of only moderate simplification, the lesson ought to be clear: so long as the global economy remains dependent on oil, it continues to fund autocracy in the Middle East.