Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

08 March 2011

Hillary Clinton’s First Big Test


[For a short post on a new leader for Libya, click here. For comment on the Great Sendai Earthquake, click here.]

I’ll be frank. I’ve never thought much of Hillary Clinton, and I’ve said so repeatedly on this blog (see 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6). But now history and circumstances have given her a unique chance to prove that she is more than the wife of a glib former president and a political hack in her own right. For all our sakes, I hope she succeeds.

Her big test is Libya. No less an authority than Secdef Gates has said there’s no military solution. And he’s right. Military intervention by us or by NATO would just inflame the Islamic world and make a mess.

For some strange reason I can’t fathom, no one seems to remember Colin Powell’s “Pottery Barn” rule. Before Dubya invaded Iraq, Powell warned him, “If you break it, you own it.”

We’ve owned Iraq for eight years now. Doing so cost us over a trillion dollars, thousands of American lives, tens of thousands wounded and maimed, several hundred thousand dead Iraqis, and millions displaced. We don’t need to suffer a similar experience in Libya, where good diplomacy can achieve our goals quicker, cheaper and with far less bloodshed.

It’s not that Qaddafi is a big military challenge. He’s such a madman that no one has wanted to supply him with much of anything, let alone modern weapons. All he has is less than a dozen old Russian planes and a few dozen old Russian tanks. So Libya’s fate will turn not on modern warfare but on shifting tribal allegiances. In other words, diplomacy will seal Libya’s fate.

All the interests seem to be aligned. Increasingly dependent on a vanishing resource, the entire developed world wants Libya’s oil to flow and its oil fields to be upgraded and expanded. Libyans know their oil is their most precious resource. They want its benefits to flow more broadly, so they can build something resembling a modern society.

Except for Qaddafi’s two sons and his tribe, plus a few others he has cowed or bought off, Libyans want to see his back or his corpse. The multinational businesses that manage the oil fields would like nothing better than a new, more rational government. No one outside Libya, and few inside, are cheering for Qaddafi.

So the diplomatic task might seem easy. But it’s not.

It will involve a lot of organizing, coordinating, and cajoling, plus some intelligence work and educated guessing. Secretary Clinton has to find out what’s really going on in Libya, which rebels forces are effective and reliable, who is likely to succeed in forming a government acceptable to all Libyans, and (if there are still choices) who is likely to manage the oil flow better. Then she has to convince Europe (especially Italy) to see things her way, and Russia and China to help or sit out. Finally, she has to act, using good intelligence and clever diplomacy to cobble together a ruling coalition in Libya and give it international support in word, deed, dollars and maybe arms. She might be able to use some of the oil money or Libya’s frozen assets for that purpose.

To do all this, Clinton has to be smart and exercise good judgment. She has to find out who really knows about Libya. She has to pick the right experts from many contenders and avoid self-interested charlatans like Ahmed Chalabi in Iraq. She has to be smart enough to realize that the best sources of information and help, unlike Chalabi and Karzai, may speak no English. And she has to put it all together while working eighteen hour days, maintaining diplomatic protocol and cordiality, and drawing on all the best resources of the State Department, the Foreign Service, the Pentagon, and CIA.

If she works effectively, she should be able to extract Qaddafi, dead or alive, in weeks, not months, and get the Libyan oil fields and global oil markets back on track. It’s a complex and difficult task, but it’s far from impossible.

Make no mistake. This is her baby. The President can provide leadership and advice, but he’s too busy with the economy, jobs and politics. Secdef Gates has other fish to fry, including the military industrial complex, and anyway he’s on his way out. VP Biden might help, but he has no experience with Libya and is not a particularly polished diplomat.

So all you Hillary lovers out there, this is your moment. If she wins this one, it will be the first real and really important thing she will have done all by herself in her entire career. And I’ll be the first to applaud her. A lot rides on her success, so let’s all wish her well.

Picking a New Leader for Libya

Is there a Lech Walesa, Václav Havel, or Corazon Aquino for Libya? The New York Times thinks not. It suggests that the madman may stay in power by default, because of a vacuum of leadership. To say that would be a shame would be Obamanian understatement.

How can the West help? Four principles should be paramount. First, Libyans have to pick their own leader. Even if the West had any credibility in the isolated, Islamic, Arabic country (which it does not), its record of picking leaders in that part of the world is abysmal.

As far as I can tell, we Americans picked Ahmed Chalabi in Iraq and Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan because they spoke good English and told us what we wanted to hear. That’s a recipe for disaster, not success. Libya’s new leader will probably speak English and understand the West about as well as Qaddafi.

Get used to it. Libya’s new leader doesn’t have to understand the West. He has to understand his own country and have a vision for its unification and modernization.

Second and third are the two criteria for leadership. Whoever the new leader is must work, however vaguely, for the good of all Libyans, regardless of tribe, and must understand the importance of oil both to Libyans and the outside world. He must be willing to share the oil money equitably and must say so up front. Two good candidates for meeting these criteria might be the sheiks of the Zuwawa and Mughariba tribes who, according to the Wall Street Journal, allied their tribes despite Qaddafi’s attempts to divide them. That’s a good start.

The final principle is communication. Libyans need at least a week or two to choose their new leader. They can’t do that if they can’t talk to each other, and Qaddafi appears to be making every effort to destroy electronic communication in Libya. Surely this is a problem that the West can solve, perhaps with an air drop of Iridium phones or a program of smuggling them in from Egypt. (Iridium phones are bulky, expensive devices that work directly through satellites. They can communicate between any two points on Earth without infrastructure. Better to drop them than bombs. Much better.)

One other thing. The best leader may not be eager to take the reigns. According to Shakespeare, Caesar thrice refused the “crown” of dictator. In a place where megalomania has ruled for forty years, a reluctant but competent leader might be the best. But Libyans have to choose, perhaps with some Western help. Remember Chalabi and Karzai.

The Good News from Sendai and Tokyo

The Great Sendai Earthquake yesterday was a terrible tragedy. People lost their lives, and many were injured. The world’s second-largest economy stumbled. On-line videos showed the debris-encrusted tsunami eating away at Sendai’s airport, roads and surrounding farmland like some unstoppable hostile alien.

But there is also good news from Sendai and Tokyo. The earthquake yesterday was not just the largest in Japan’s recorded history. It may have been one of the largest in recorded human history. The U.S. Geological Survey reported its magnitude as 8.9. In comparison, the magnitude of the great earthquake that leveled San Francisco in 1906 is retroactively estimated as 7.8.

Yet for such a big earthquake, the loss of life was minimal. Yesterday's initial reports from the New York Times noted 26 deaths, and the Wall Street Journal 40. The hundreds of deaths now reported appear to have come mostly from the tsunami that followed, principally in Sendai.

The Richter scale for earthquakes is a logarithmic scale of measured earthquake shaking amplitude. Each integer increase represents a factor of 10**3/2 = 10**1.5 in energy. Thus the 8.9 magnitude of yesterday’s earthquake in Japan reflects about 10**2.6*1.5 = 10**3.9, or 7,943, times more energy than the magnitude 6.3 earthquake that devastated Christchurch, New Zealand, three weeks ago. Despite this enormous difference in energy, the loss of life in Christchurch was about the same level.

Why a similar human outcome, despite such a gigantic increase in energy? Three factors were important. First, the Christchurch earthquake was much closer to the surface. Second, it was much closer to densely populated areas. In fact, it was right under Christchurch, while the Sendai Earthquake was deeper and offshore, 373 km (231 miles) from Tokyo.

Last but definitely not least, the Japanese, who have lived in a seismic zone for millennia, are masters of earthquake engineering. They build to withstand big earthquakes. So most of the damage arose not from the earthquake itself, but from the tsunami that followed. (Some of the losses may have been due to human ignorance and a failure of civil defense. I was appalled to watch one video showing cars and trucks blithely driving over a bridge that was nearly inundated by the tsunami, while boats and buildings driven by the force of the water passed right under it, knocking off the boats’ masts.)

Thus the good news from Sendai and Tokyo is that earthquake engineering works. It’s expensive. And it’s easy to ignore when the threat it addresses may take a century or longer to materialize. But to avoid the expense and ignore the danger is penny wise and pound foolish. Just ask Christchurch, Chile or Sichuan, let alone Turkey or Pakistan, where quakes much smaller have killed tens of thousands.

This is the message that the world should take from Sendai and Tokyo: if you live in a seismic zone, build right. And don’t forget to retrofit historic structures. Do as the Japanese do. If you don’t, you’ll sacrifice your people and your economy to the whims of nature.

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