We are often told that Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are deeply worried about Iran, and eager for the United States to take care of the problem. This is usually framed as a reflection of the Sunni-Shiite divide, and linked to concerns about Iranian subversion, the role of Hezbollah, and of course the omnipresent fretting about Iran's nuclear energy program.
I have heard senior Saudi officials voice such worries on more than one occasion, and I don't doubt that their fears are sincere. But there may be another motive at work here, and Americans would do well to keep that possibility in mind.
That motive is the Gulf states' interest in keeping oil prices high enough to balance their own budgets, in a period where heightened social spending and other measures are being used to insulate these regimes from the impact of the Arab Spring. According to the IMF, these states need crude prices to remain upwards of $80 a barrel in order to keep their fiscal house in order.
Which in turn means that Saudi Arabia et al also have an interest in keeping Iran in the doghouse, so that Iran can't attract foreign companies to refurbish and expand its oil and gas fields and so that it has even more trouble marketing its petroleum on global markets. If UN and other sanctions were lifted and energy companies could operate freely in Iran, its oil and gas production would boom, overall supplies would increase, and the global price would drop.
Not only might this new wealth make Iran a more formidable power in the Gulf region--as it was under the Shah -- but lower oil and gas prices would make it much harder for Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states to stave off demands for political reform through social spending. Saudi Arabia could cut production to try to keep prices up, but that would still mean lower overall revenues and a budget shortfall.
So when you hear people telling you how worried the Gulf states are about Iran, and how they support our efforts to keep tightening the screws, remember that it's not just about geopolitics, or the historical divide between Sunnis and Shiites or between Arabs and Persians. It's also about enabling certain ruling families to keep writing checks. Keep that in mind the next time you fill your gas tank or pay your home heating bill, or the next time somebody tells you the United States ought to think seriously about a preemptive war.
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I'm in Dubai for meetings of the World Economic Forum's Global Agenda Councils, which provide some of the background information and agenda setting for Davos and other WEF activities. I've been assigned to the group assessing "geopolitical risks" for 2013, so I'll be spending the next two days trying to figure out where dire things might happen in the next year (and where they won't).
Dubai itself is sort of like Disneyland-on-steroids, and I won't try to embellish on all the other descriptions of the place. But as I rode in my taxi to the hotel last night, I was also struck by the thought that the UAE (of which Dubai is a part) and other states like Qatar and Brunei, might be something of a realist anomaly. The puzzle is this: How is it possible for very small, very rich, yet militarily weak countries to retain their independence? Why haven't rapacious great powers or greedy neighbors gobbled these countries up long ago, and seized all that valuable oil and gas for themselves? If the world is as dog-eat-dog as realists depict, why are these states still in business?
There are several possible explanations. The most obvious is that these states have enjoyed great power protection for a long time, originally from Great Britain and subsequently from the United States. Their rulers have accommodated their protectors in most ways, in exchange for implicit or explicit security guarantees. In short, realism does explain a lot of why these states have survived: It was in the interests of some powerful countries to keep them safe and secure.
But why didn't Britain or the United States take these places over and keep all that oil wealth for themselves? Simple. It turned out to be easier to let local elites run these societies, instead of turning them into sullen and resentful colonies. In the British case, moreover, the emergence of the Gulf as a major oil-producing center coincided with Britain's imperial decline, signified by the Suez debacle in 1956 and the decision to withdraw military forces east of Suez in 1967. So Britain was in no position to take these places over anyway.
The United States has never been a very enthusiastic colonial power, and U.S. leaders wisely preferred to exercise influence indirectly and keep U.S. ground forces out of the region. As the experiments with "dual containment" in the 1990s (which helped fuel the rise of al Qaeda) and the invasion of Iraq in 2003 showed, getting too heavily engaged trying to run the region directly is not something the United States is very good at. Nor was it necessary.
A second reason for the peculiar stability of the Gulf is the absence of a regional great power with the capacity to absorb the others, which in turn makes it possible for balance-of-power politics to work. The Shah of Iran did some minor muscle-flexing and territorial expansion in his day, but he never made a grab for any of his oil-rich neighbors. Saddam Hussein is the exception that proves the rule, and look what happened to him. Moreover, the militarily weak but oil-rich Gulf states all understand that trying to gain more wealth at someone else's expense was both unnecessary and bad for business.
The third reason why these states retain their independence is the norm of sovereignty. It may be an accident of geology that the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, and others ended up with so much wealth underneath their soil, but once a country's government and borders have been recognized by others, the status quo takes on a life of its own and efforts to overturn it face an uphill fight. Saddam Hussein tried to convince the world that Kuwait was Iraq's "19th province" in order to make his invasion seem more legitimate, but nobody bought the argument and his invasion was seen as naked aggression. Because altering borders via force has become less and less legitimate over time, states can be really rich and really vulnerable and still be somewhat protected.
Finally, small countries like Dubai enhance their security by making themselves more valuable to others as independent entities than they would be as colonies. Dubai has established itself is a financial center, entrepot, cultural oasis, and diplomatic hub, which is precisely why the WEF is here this week. It has close ties with the West, but still has formal and informal dealings with others, including states such as Iran. In the broadest sense, the global community is probably better off with a few countries occupying this sort of niche, just as Switzerland did for decades, and that means that most countries would rather have it be independent than out of business.
Which is not to say that security in the Gulf is guaranteed, or that realism can't account for these states' survival (see #s 1 and 2 above). Given the diplomatic stalemate with Iran, in fact, it's easy to imagine scenarios where the present Gulf order would come under significant strain. But I'm betting it won't, if only because hardly anybody really has much interest in that happening. Now if only one could be confident that sensible self-interest would always prevail....
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When asked what sort of thing was most likely to blow governments off course, British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan famously replied, "Events, dear boy, events." I thought of that line as I was reflecting on the series of bad bounces that the Obama administration has experienced in recent weeks, most notably in the case of the BP blow-out and oil leak down in the Gulf of Mexico. I think there's a broader lesson there, however, so permit me to briefly ascend one of my familiar soap-boxes.
One of the many reasons I think the United States should adopt a more restrained grand strategy is the fact that our current level of (over)-commitment leaves us with little latitude for dealing with surprises. Presidents think they can set an ambitious foreign and domestic agenda and then just proceed to implement it. They know they will face various obstacles along the way, but they forget that they will also have to spend enormous amounts of time on problems that just come out of nowhere. But if you're already trying to do too much, then there's no time to handle anything else and either the new problems get bungled or your original goals have to be sacrificed.
Lord knows I have a certain sympathy for the Obama team, insofar as they inherited a very tough situation. But from the start they've acted as if they could do everything at once, didn't need to set priorities, and didn't really need to have a clear and well-articulated strategy for achieving their various lofty goals. As I noted last week, their new National Security Strategy devotes a lot of lip-service to relying more on partnerships, institutions, etc., but it still sees the United States deeply engaged virtually everywhere and it anticipates Washington retaining the lead role on most if not all major issues. It is decidely not a document that anticipates our doing less.
The obvious danger with an overcrowded agenda is that there's no slack in the system when the inevitable surprises occur. Nobody expected an oil well to blow in the Gulf of Mexico, but that unforeseen event is going to consume a lot of Obama's time and energy and limit his ability to act in other areas. (He's already canceled a trip to Indonesia for the second time). Meanwhile, the U.S. military is stretched to the max in Iraq and Afghanistan (in part because Obama foolishly decided to double down in the latter), and Secretary of Defense Gates is now telling the Pentagon to start cutting costs in order to keep those wars going. North Korea has raised the temperature in East Asia, the Prime Minister of Japan has just resigned, relations with Turkey ain't so hot, and the administration's tepid response to the Gaza flotilla debacle is putting the last nail in the coffin of Obama's "New Beginning" with the Arab and Islamic world.
I'm sure the Obama team feels like they can't catch a break right now, but unpleasant surprises happen all the time and they should have planned for that reality even if they didn't know exactly what the nature of the surprise would be. One good reason to plan on doing a bit less is so that we have the capacity to handle the stuff that just happens.
P.S. I don't have much to add to my earlier comments on the Gaza Flotilla, but I did want to alert readers to a very clear-eyed and unsentimental analysis of the incident by M.J. Rosenberg of Media Matters for America. It's about the most sensible thing I've read yet, and is well worth your attention. Plus, Glenn Beck attacked it on his show last night, which virtually guarantees that M.J. is right.
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The New York Times and other news agencies are now reporting that China is preparing to get behind the U.S.-led effort to toughen economic sanctions on Iran. The Times's headline (in the print version) reads "China Supports Iran Sanctions," but the actual story tells a rather different tale. It says that President Hu Jintao agreed yesterday to "join negotiations" for a new sanctions package, but reminds readers that China has a well-established pattern of using negotiations to delay and deflect stiffer measures. In particular, the article reports that former President George W. Bush tried three times to "corral Chinese support " for tougher penalties on Iran, only to have China use its participation to "water down" the resulting resolutions.
This pattern should not surprise us, because China has every reason to drag its feet on meaningful economic sanctions. To begin with, China wants to safeguard its access to Iranian oil and gas and protect its ability to invest in Iran. Iran is now China's second largest source of oil and gas (providing about 15 percen of its consumption), and China is Iran's second largest customer. China has also become a substantial investor in Iran's economy. With demand for oil likely to grow in the future, this is not a relationship Beijing is likely to jeopardize.
Second, China is sanguine about the prospects of an Iranian bomb because it has a more realistic view of what that development would mean. China's leaders know that they didn't gain a lot of geopolitical clout when they tested their own nuclear weapon in 1964, and being a nuclear power didn't enable them to dictate or blackmail Taiwan, Vietnam, the Koreas, or anyone else. China's rise to great power status was driven by its economic development, not its modest nuclear arsenal, and Bejing knows that same would be true for a nuclear Iran. While China would probably prefer that Iran not develop nuclear weapons, it hasn't succumbed to worst-case paranoia and isn't willing to pay a large price to prevent that from happening.
Furthermore, keeping the U.S.-Iranian pot simmering (but not boiling) is in Bejing's long-term interest. America's ham-handed involvement in the Persian Gulf and Central Asia has been a tremendous strategic boon for Beijing, and they undoubtedly feel a profound schadenfreude as they watch the Uncle Sam expend trillions of dollars in Iraq and Afghanistan while simultaneously maintaining an icy confrontation with Iran. After all, the more time, money, attention and political capital we devote to Iran, the less we can focus on China's long-term efforts to build influence in Asia and eventually supplant the U.S. role there. Plus, bad relations between Washington and Teheran creates diplomatic and investment opportunities for China. The last thing Bejing wants is a prompt resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue, because it might pave the way for a more substantial détente between Washington and Teheran, thereby diminishing Beijing's value and allowing U.S. strategists to shift their attention elsewhere.
At the same time, China doesn't want a war to break out in the Gulf, which could send oil prices soaring (at least temporarily), put the world economy back in recession, and lead to other unpredictable consequences. So it would like the United States and its allies to keep confronting Iran via economic sanctions, but slowly, so that the dispute with Iran never goes away and the use of force stays off the table.
For China, therefore, the optimal strategy is to drag its heels and play for time. This approach means never quite refusing to go along with stiffer sanctions but never saying "yes" either. They'll probably agree to some additional penalties eventually (maybe after a desperate United States agrees to guarantee China's oil supplies against an Iranian cutoff!), but they won't back anything severe enough to convince Iran to forego nuclear enrichment altogether. The dispute will continue, U.S. leaders will devote lots of time and attention to it, and China's long-term interests will be advanced.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is Realism 101. Too bad that Washington seems to have forgotten how to play it.
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In the run-up to the war in Iraq, a critical moment came when moderates and liberals joined forces with the neoconservatives who had been pushing for war since the late 1990s. The poster child for this process was Kenneth Pollack, whose pro-war book The Threatening Storm (written under the auspices of the Council on Foreign Relations) gave reluctant hawks a respectable fig-leaf for backing the invasion.
Is a similar process occurring today with respect to Iran? A possible sign of slippage is a recent Foreign Affairs article (and accompanying Washington Post op-ed) by James Lindsay and Ray Takeyh (also of the CFR). Lindsay and Takeyh are well-known centrists who now seem at least partly infected by some of the alarmism about Iran that the neoconservatives have been trumpeting for years. Although their two articles sound a somewhat skeptical note about preventive war-they admit that "a preventive attack might not end Iran's nuclear ambitions"-they recommend keeping all options "on the table" and in general depict the Islamic Republic as a looming threat to all that is Right and Proper. Their central lesson: the United States had better get serious about preparing for a military response to a wide array of possible Iranian actions.
Lindsay and Takeyh reach this conclusion by incorporating a series of worst-case assumptions and by employing the familiar alarmist rhetoric that has been a staple of hawkish commentary for decades. Despite some significant qualifications (some of which contradict their central point), the overall impression is ominous, and likely to strengthen the hand of those who are in favor of an ever-tougher approach to Tehran.
For starters, the very first line of their WaPo op-ed describes Iran as "relentlessly moving toward acquiring a nuclear weapons capability." They offer no concrete evidence that this is the case, however, and it is worth remembering that the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate which concluded Iran had no active nuclear weapons program has yet to be rescinded. Iran may be trying to build a working nuclear weapon, but there is as yet no clear sign that a definitive decision to go nuclear has been made. Of course, so long as Iran has the capacity to enrich uranium, it is by definition "moving toward" having the potential to build a weapon at some point in the future. Insofar as its nuclear program goes back decades, however, it doesn't seem to be moving very fast. Unfortunately, using words like "relentlessly" and portraying the decision to get a bomb as a done deal makes Tehran sound especially dangerous and further devalues any possibility of a diplomatic deal that might head off weaponization.
Next, they argue that Iran "views nuclear weapons as the means to regional preeminence" and warn that a nuclear shield "would give Iran freedom to project its power in the Middle East." They believe Iran "would not be subtle about brandishing the nuclear card" and predict it "would probably test U.S. resolve early." Indeed, they think America will face a "momentous credibility crisis" if it fails to stop Iran from getting the bomb, warning that "even close US allies would doubt Washington's security guarantees."
Are you scared yet? All these ominous claims might be true, but neither the Foreign Affairs article or the WaPo op-ed contain any evidence to back them up. But Lindsay and Takeyh are just getting started. They also think Iran might increase its support for Hezbollah and Hamas, do more to subvert the Gulf sheikhdoms, demand that these states evict U.S. troops, and maybe even give nuclear technology to other countries. And if that isn't enough, they invoke the old nightmare that Iran might "give fissile material to a terrorist group."
Of course, alert readers with good memories will notice that these are the same arguments that pro-war hawks made about Iraq. And though each of the warnings is hedged in various ways-i.e., they don't say Iran will do these things, only that it might-the cumulative effect of all these scary scenarios is to suggest that an Iranian bomb would be major turning point in world history (and not in a good way).
So what should the U.S. do in response? According to Lindsay and Takeyh, the United States needs to draw several lines in the sand: 1) no initiation of conventional warfare, 2) no use or transfer of nuclear weapons, material, or technologies, and 3) no stepped-up support for terrorist or subversive activities. If Iran does any of these things, the United States should be ready to respond "by any and all means necessary." If we aren't ready to retaliate, they write, "the damage created by Iran's going nuclear could become catastrophic.
Time to chill, guys. Iran is an important security issue, and the United States should take appropriate steps to maintain a balance of power in the region. Unfortunately, the drum-beat of alarmism that pervades their article-and even more in the op-ed version-is both misleading and possibly counterproductive.
First, their depiction of a swaggering Iran armed with nuclear weapons grossly overstates Iran's actual capabilities. According to the IISS Military Balance, Iran's military budget in 2008 was around $9.5 billion dollars (less than 2 percent of U.S. defense outlays) and Iran's actual capabilities reflects this paltry investment. It has no conventional power-projection capabilities, outdated air, naval and armored forces, and primitive electronic warfare capabilities. Iran's population and economic potential raise the possibility that it might one day be the dominant power in the Gulf, but it is nowhere near that capacity now. Getting a nuclear weapon won't change that fact, because nuclear weapons are only useful for deterrence and confer little positive leverage over others. (Lindsay and Takeyh acknowledge this latter point in the Foreign Affairs version, but if they genuinely believe this, then many of their other arguments are irrelevant).
Second, Lindsey and Takeyh misunderstand the sources of U.S. credibility. The United States has been actively engaged in Persian Gulf security for decades, because Persian Gulf oil is a vital U.S. national interest. That vital interest won't change no matter what happens in Iran, which is why our local allies can count on us to back them up. The reason is simple: it is in our own self-interest. And the good news is that Iran almost certainly knows this too.
Third, they overstate Iran's capacity to subvert or blackmail its neighbors. Iran's capacity to export its version of Islamic fundamentalism has declined steadily since the 1979 revolution (and it wasn't very great back then), and the regime is a far less attractive model today than it was under the more charismatic Ayatollah Khomeini. The brutal crackdown following the elections last summer has undoubtedly tarnished Tehran's appeal even more. Lindsay and Takeyh acknowledge this point as well in the long version of their article, but they fail to draw the obvious conclusion: if Iran cannot subvert its neighbors, then the danger it poses is modest and their article didn't need to be written.
Furthermore, a nuclear Iran could not blackmail its neighbors (or compel them to expel U.S. forces), because it could not carry out a nuclear threat without facing devastating U.S. or Israeli retaliation. The mighty Soviet Union could not blackmail any US allies during in the Cold War; indeed, it wasn't even able to blackmail weak and neutral countries. American leaders have found it equally difficult to translate our vast nuclear arsenal into meaningful political leverage. Yet Lindsay and Takeyh imply that Iran could perform this miracle today, even though it is far weaker. They never explain why or how, however; it's just another convenient bogeyman.
Fourth, fears that Iran will give weapons or technology to terrorists are even more far-fetched. One cannot rule out the possibility that Iran might share nuclear technology with a few other governments (much as Pakistan did), but there are good reasons to doubt it. Among other things, it is hard to believe that Iran would want to see more countries get nuclear weapons, especially in its own region.
More importantly, Iran is not going to give fissile material to terrorists. Having labored long and hard to acquire an enrichment capability, would any regime just hand weapons-grade uranium over to extremists over whom it had no control? Giving fissile material to terrorists is a potentially suicidal act, and Iran's leaders show every sign of wanting to retain power permanently and to live as long as they can. They could never be sure the hand-off would not be detected and that they would not be blamed (and punished) for whatever the terrorists did. There's no sign that any of Iran's leaders has a death wish, which is why they won't be giving any bombs away.
Fifth, Lindsay and Takeyh's redlines are too vague and elastic. The United States is already committed to opposing conventional aggression in the Gulf region (unless we're the ones doing it, of course), and U.S. leaders have already made it clear that they will respond to blackmail or nuclear use as well. As Lindsay and Takeyh acknowledge, the United State remains a powerful presence in the Gulf region today and will stay there long after the withdrawal from Iraq is completed. In short, the essential ingredients of containment are already in place.
In particular, threatening retaliation against "subversive activities" risks either an unnecessary war or a further challenge to US credibility. For example, many well-informed observers believe Iran has substantial influence in Iraq today, and may be actively trying to affect the outcome of the March 7 elections. Is this the sort of "subversive activity" that should trigger a US response? How about a single shipment of mortars to Hezbollah, or the capture of an Iranian intelligence agent operating in Bahrain or Dubai? In a world where the United States, Israel, and plenty of other states are conducting covert, "subversive" operations in assorted foreign countries-including targeted killings and assassinations-this item hardly seems like a redline we can or should try to enforce.
It is also worth remembering that the U.S. and its allies didn't threaten to retaliate against the USSR for the "subversive activities" that were a central part of Soviet communism's international agenda from 1917 to 1986. The United States and NATO made it clear they'd respond to traditional acts of aggression, but we knew better than to make "subversion" a key "redline" in our overall strategy of containment. The goal was prevent Soviet expansion and to out-perform the USSR over time, so that communist subversion failed to find root in any countries that mattered. As 1989 proved, that strategy was a smashing success.
Sixth, a hair-trigger, forward-leaning approach to containment will give Iran an obvious incentive to acquire a deterrent of its own. No matter how much they hedge, Lindsay and Takeyh are announcing to the world that Iran's acquisition of a small nuclear capability at some point in the future would have significant positive effects on its regional position. I certainly hope Iran isn't listening to them, because it's hard to think of a better way to convince its leaders to go ahead. Moreover, overheated talk about the need for a more robust containment strategy is likely to reinforce Iran's desire for a deterrent shield that can take the threat of regime change (an option Washington has never renounced) "off the table." But if we don't much like the idea of an Iranian bomb (and I don't), shouldn't we doing everything we can to convince Tehran that a bomb would be of little value? Perhaps unintentionally, Lindsay and Takeyh are sending precisely the opposite message.
Seventh, like most Americans writing about Iran these days, Lindsay and Takeyh never consider the one approach that might actually have some small chance of heading off an Iranian bomb. That approach would be to take the threat of regime change and preventive war off the table and accept Iran's enrichment program-on the strict condition that it ratifies and implements all elements of the NPT Additional Protocol. At the same time, the United States would engage in serious and sincere discussions about a range of regional security matters, including a public U.S. guarantee to forego regime change.
This is the sort of "grand bargain" that others have proposed in the past, and there is of course no guarantee that it will work. Moreover, many people would find any dealings with the current regime objectionable, for understandable reasons. But if an Iranian bomb is such a scary prospect, shouldn't we be pulling out all the stops to see if an acceptable diplomatic solution is possible? As near as I can tell, the sort of grand bargain sketched in the previous paragraph has never been tried; instead, we've made rhetorical gestures and incremental take-it-or-leave-it offers-all of which predictably fail-and we falsely conclude from these half-hearted efforts that more ambitious diplomacy is unworkable.
Finally, it's possible that I'm being too hard on Lindsay and Takeyh. Perhaps they are sheep in wolves' clothing, and their article is in fact a plea for a moderate and sensible strategy of containment dressed up in a lot of tough rhetoric intended to make it more convincing. If so, I fear their approach is too clever by half. Despite their apparent rejection of preventive war and assorted other qualifications, the Lindsay/Takeyh articles unintentionally reinforce an alarmist view of Iran that has been the neoconservatives' bread-and-butter for many years.
Don't forget: between 1998 and 2003, the pro-war party took an extreme position on Iraq and stuck to its guns (literally), looking for every opportunity to advance its program. 9/11 opened the door, and they were quick to seize the moment. Over time, both liberals and moderates were dragged rightward, adopting hawkish rhetoric and tortured rationales in order to show how "serious" they were. Former doves jumped on the bandwagon, the center of gravity swung inexorably to the hard-line position, and the results were disastrous. Something similar seems to be happening again; to paraphrase Yeats, "the centre cannot hold."
Why? Yeats also gives us the answer: because "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity."
Regular readers here know that I think a military attack on Iran would be a huge mistake, and I was sharply critical of a recent NYT op-ed by Alan Kuperman that advocated this course. This morning, the Times's pendulum swung nearly as far the other way, offering up an equally unconvincing op-ed suggesting that there might be hidden strategic benefits for the United States if Iran did in fact cross the threshold to a nuclear weapons capability.
To be specific, the author of the piece, a defense analyst named Adam B. Lawther, suggests that Iran's acquisition of a bomb would 1) encourage threatened Arab governments to get serious about the al Qaeda threat, 2) allow the United States to "break OPEC," 3) cause Israelis and Palestinians to get serious about peace and bury the hatchet, 4) boost the U.S. defense industry (thereby enabling us to get ready for a rising China), and 5) enable the U.S. to "stem the flow of dollars" to Arab petro-states, get them to ante up for the war on terror, and allow us to save the money we are now spending on counterinsurgency operations.
Well, gee, if an Iranian bomb would produce all these benefits, maybe we ought to just skip the whole dispute over enrichment and just give them a few warheads from our own arsenal. But the more you look at these arguments, the less convincing they are. Arab governments like Saudi Arabia are already serious about al Qaeda, because it is a direct threat to their rule. Iran's bomb won't help us "break OPEC," because oil exporters need the revenue. It's not going to lead to Israeli-Palestinian peace, both because the Iranian nuclear threat to Israel have been overblown and because the obstacles to a workable piece have little to do with Iran. The U.S. defense budget doesn't need a further boost right now, and we are already spending at least five times more than China anyway. Finally, the way to stem the flow of money to Arab petrostates and to get out of the counterinsurgency business is to consume less oil and gas and wean ourselves from our futile efforts at social engineering in societies we do not understand. The answer is not to encourage an Iranian bomb.
More generally, this piece makes the same sort of error that advocates of preventive war routinely make, but in the opposite direction. In particular, it assumes that acquisition of a nuclear weapon by Iran (or anybody else) will have enormous, far-reaching, and maybe even revolutionary effects on that state's global position and international influence. Hawks claim that an Iranian bomb would lead to all sorts of horrible bad things; now Lawther is suggesting that it will actually produce an equally impressive number of pretty good results.
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From Lara Friedman of Americans for Peace Now (APN) comes the word that the Congress is moving rapidly to advance a new, unilateral sanctions bill directed against Iran. The driving force behind the House version (H.R. 2194) is Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA), and it would impose sanctions against any companies engaged in the "development of petroleum resources of Iran, production of refined petroleum products in Iran, and exportation of refined petroleum products to Iran."
Needless to say, this bill won't damage the Iranian regime very much or cause it to alter its behavior, but is bound to cause a lot of hardship on individual Iranians and will also piss off foreign companies (and governments). It's also a good way to transfer popular discontent from the current government of Iran to the United States. To its credit, APN opposes the legislation. In another worrisome display of bad judgment, J Street has backed the bill while expressing certain reservations.
Friedman notes that the conventional wisdom was that the House version would pass while the Senate version (S.2799) stalled. This straddle would allow supporters to demonstrate their hawkish (and "pro-Israel") credentials without creating any real adverse consequences. But now the Senate leadership has announced it intends to "hotline" the bill, which means bringing it to the floor with no debate, no amendments and no roll call vote. In this procedure, the bill is certain to pass "by unanimous consent."
Friedman also points out that this regrettable outcome can be avoided if a single senator objects, a procedure known as putting a "hold" on the vote. Such a hold can be anonymous, and this anonymity is usually protected.
So I guess we now get to find out if there is at least one U.S. senator with the combination of a triple-digit IQ and the normal number of vertebrae.
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I've been a big fan of Jared Diamond's work ever since Guns, Germs, and Steel, and I enjoyed his op-ed yesterday describing how companies like Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola, and Chevron are "going green." But I thought the real lesson of the article got buried in his glowing depiction of these supposedly enlightened companies. If you read his account carefully, it's clear that these big businesses didn't suddenly acquire an altruistic concern for the good of the planet; they are simply responding to clear market incentives, reinforced in some cases by intelligent regulation. Walmart is working to reduce its energy expenditures because energy (e.g., fuel for delivery trucks) is expensive; Coca-Cola is worried about water supplies because Coke is mostly made of water and its costs will increase as water becomes scarcer; and Chevron now does more to prevent environmental damage because governments now require it to pay clean-up costs and that's more expensive than preventing oil spills and other environmental mishaps in the first place.
The moral is that we aren't going to get a greener planet if we don't make the cost of environment-damaging activities (like burning fossil fuels or wasting water) substantially more expensive, and if we don't make it harder for those who do the most damage to off-load the costs on someone else. Everyone watching the climate change talks in Copenhagen should keep this lesson firmly in mind: A truly effective solution isn't going to be cost-free, especially in the short-term.
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.