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

27 November 2011

Common Sense about Pakistan

[For a brief update on electric cars and the risk of crash-induced fires in the Chevy Volt’s batteries, click here. I apologize to readers for being slow to moderate comments. I'll be back on that job December 2.]

Cyberspace is all agog over yesterday’s apparent killing of 25 Pakistani troops by American air strikes. As usual, we Yanks are aghast at a wholly predictable development.

This tragedy may not have been predictable in precise detail. But in general outline such events were not only predictable, but predicted. Nearly six months ago, I predicted a dark and prickly turn to the US/Pakistan relationship. The reason was an obvious divergence of interests.

That divergence becomes more evident every day. Our primary interest in the area is simple and limited: preventing the Af-Pak border area from becoming a launching pad for terrorist attacks against us.

Pakistan has much more complex and less limited interests. Among other things, it is caught up in a regional power struggle with some very strong neighbors, including India. It is also finding its place among the other “Stans,” including those that used to be part of the Soviet Union.

Part of its struggle (particularly regarding Kashmir) has religious roots. The British split Pakistan from India in 1947 because its Muslims did not want to live in a Hindu-majority nation. The Muslims who fled India to the new state―sometimes driven by pogroms and often bearing unspeakable hardship―were either more fearful or more committed to Islam than those who (in much larger numbers) remained in India.

This history gives Pakistan some of the tarnish of a religious state. But lest that fact evoke even more needless Islamophobia than we Yanks already suffer, I rush to qualify it.

Pakistan’s religious aspects are important but limited. They derive primarily from its origins as a state and the relatively primitive education of much of its people, especially in the tribal borderlands (inluding Baluchistan). They also derive from the extremist madrassas that the Saudi Princes have financed throughout the region. (This is by far the worst consequence of the Saudis’ Faustian bargain with extremism, which some day will destroy their own rule and perhaps take much else with it.)

But Pakistan also enjoys an overlay of modern bureaucracy, a strong but still nascent democracy, and a now-dominant professional military and intelligence culture―all derived (and well learned!) from British colonials. It is self-evidently not a theocratic state.

In these respects Pakistan in not dissimilar from Israel, although less advanced. Its modern democracy and relatively efficient military sit atop a population that, under the wrong circumstances, might support a theocratic state.

Let me remind readers than I am Jewish. As an American Jew, I have an absolute conviction that my own country handles religion the right way: no official or “established” religion, and complete freedom for every citizen to believe and worship as he or she chooses.

Our First Amendment has the best answer for a modern, pluralistic, connected world. And every successful empire in human history observed the same principles, especially the largest ones. The ancient Roman empire did. So did the Mongol Empire. China’s empires, including Mao’s, were all based on secular power and civil governance, not religion. At its height, the Islamic empire tolerated Christian and Jewish worship widely, although Islam was as much a part of the ruling class in it as Catholicism was in the Holy Roman Empire. (The Islamic empire, however, never had anything remotely resembling the Christian Inquisition. More medieval Jews were forced to recant their religion, flee or die from Christian lands than ever under the Caliphs.)

Today secular government and religious tolerance are the norms worldwide. To varying degrees they prevail in China, Europe, India, Russia and the United States. They even prevail (in somewhat diluted from) in majority-Muslim nations like Indonesia, Malaysia and Turkey.

So in this respect Israel and Pakistan are both a bit retrograde. And both have nuclear weapons. Every human on this planet has a strong interest in making sure those weapons never get used to advance religion, or because some “prophet” believes that God commands it.

I make these points simply because I have never seen them made anywhere else. But it’s important not to overemphasize them, especially in Pakistan. Pakistan’s current leaders are about as far from religious fanatics as it is possible to be. Like other leaders worldwide, they have exclusively secular goals, such as regional influence, social stability, economic advancement and national sovereignty (a key concern of any nation as young as Pakistan).

Pakistan also lives in a dangerous and still potentially unstable neighborhood. Freed by the collapse of the Soviet Union, the other “Stans,” including Afghanistan, are potential allies, potential rivals, potential trading partners and (by virtual of majority-Muslim similarity) potential partners for social and cultural exchange. Some are still ruled by tyrants and therefore sources of potential instability, including refugees from any violent change.

Pakistan’s neighborhood also has a number of powerful, stable giants (China, India, and Russia) and one not-so-stable Islamic theocracy, namely, Iran. As a young and insecure nation, Pakistan is trying to find its place among the giants, while trying to reconcile its sectarian origins and religious population with the giants’ uniformly secular norms and with Iran’s muscular theocracy.

All these things make dealing with Pakistan a diplomatic and military leader’s nightmare. They also make our stunning success in virtually dismantling Al Qaeda in the region all the more remarkable. But they make utterly quixotic any further (and perhaps more noble) ends, such as building nations or democracies.

This is where the realism comes in. We have nearly achieved our primary goal―taking down the terrorist training camps and killing or co-opting their leaders. There is virtually no chance that we can achieve broader goals at acceptable expense, whatever guilt we may feel for letting Afghanistan decay into a war-torn theocracy after our successful jihad against the Soviet Union.

So the key to wisdom here is hewing to the pragmatic. We are not in the neighborhood. We are half a world away. Very powerful nations situated much nearer―China, India and Russia―have more interest than we do in seeking stability and peaceful economic growth. They have infinitely more interest in avoiding the use of nuclear weapons, since any nuclear blast in the region would undoubtedly affect their territories and peoples directly, through radioactive fallout, refugees and all the other unintended consequences of war.

Like tyrants, great empires get pathetic in their old age. They cannot ken when it’s time to leave things to younger, closer, newer forces. Had they passed on power in their primes, Mao Zedong and Robert Mugabe would have been sung forever as national liberators, unifiers and founders of new nations. But they both nearly destroyed what they had built by holding onto absolute power far too long, far beyond their personal competence.

So it is with empires. Like the Brits before us, we Yanks have had a good run. We helped bring peace in World War I and World War II and bore the brunt of keeping the peace since then. Following the Brits’ lead, we brought the economic benefits of free markets and capitalism to most of the world. We have stood as the world’s prime example of racial equality, religious freedom, freedom of speech and human rights, although now the EU is challenging us (which is why it’s well worth preserving, whatever the Euro’s troubles). Having no colonies (we let Cuba and the Philippines go), we introduced the principles of native sovereignty.

We’ve done much that we can be proud of. But we’ve held on much too long. And in doing so, we’ve let our homeland decline to the point of embarrassment. (On my recent trip to Cataluña, for example, that part of Spain seemed like Beverly Hills compared to our aged and dilapidation Eastern cities. A US-Europe comparison used to be the other way around.)

So it’s time to let go.

Of course we need to maintain enough force in the region to be sure that terrorist camps don’t rise again. But our aerial technologies for doing so are increasing in power and accuracy daily. And this is one area in which Pakistan’s and our interests virtually converge. Might we do better in letting Pakistanis carry most of the burden, even if they don’t act as quickly and as decisively as we would like in every case?

As for the giant neighbors, their interests converge with ours almost precisely. They want what we want even more avidly because they are nearer to the possible epicenters of instability, as well as to the terrorist training camps. And their capabilities are greater because they are nearer and because they (unlike us) are not teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. So why not trust the giant neighbors more, work more closely with them, and build better relationships at the same time? The results might surprise us.

If we continue on our present course, future historians may rank us with Mao and Mugabe as having blown a promising start by holding on too long. There’s a time to build, a time to control, and a time to step back and work with others. We’re at that last stage now.

[Erratum (12/30/11): In an earlier version of this post, the following sentence was garbled by omitting the words in brackets: “At its height, the Islamic empire tolerated Christian and Jewish worship widely, although Islam was as much a part of the ruling class in it {as Catholicism was} in the Holy Roman Empire.” I regret the error.]

Yellow Journalism and Electric Cars

God, how I wish the news media would hire some reporters with engineering backgrounds. Even one or two would make the so-called “news” much better.

Today Bloomberg.com, my now-favorite source of business news, reported on a minor setback in GM’s Chevy Volt production with all the sensationalism of Hearst or Fox at their worst. “GM’s Volt Battery Fires Threaten ‘Moon Shot,’” the headline screamed.

What malarkey! The headline is absolute nonsense in two respects. First, it implies that the battery fires are regular or random occurrences. Not so. As the story itself reveals, three fires have occurred in the Volt’s lithium batteries days or hours after they were subjected to crash tests, i.e., simulated crashes. Second, referring to a remark of GM’s Volt “champion,” Bob Lutz, the headline implied that making lithium batteries work is as difficult as sending men to the Moon.

Anyone with the slightest knowledge of engineering can only shake his head. Lithium batteries aren’t rocket science. They aren’t even close. They’re matters of pedestrian engineering. They work right now, today, by the millions, in every cell phone, laptop, tablet, Prius, and other hybrid running down the road. Problems with fires after radical deceleration in crash tests (or possibly actual crashes) mean that the batteries’ interior structure and cell separation need to be more robust. Or the batteries need to be (better?) shock-mounted. Duh!

GM’s problem is purely economic. It has to fix the batteries (and possibly replace existing ones) quickly enough to avoid consumer anxiety. It needs to do so at a reasonable price, which may not be easy. And, above all, it needs to avoid a repeat of the Ford Pinto, whose rare but fatal gas-tank explosions tarnished the car’s and Ford’s public image for decades.

Can GM do this? Almost certainly, if it acts quickly and puts the right people on the job. Will it be as hard as putting men on the Moon, or getting the ill-fated Apollo 13 crew back safely? Not even remotely in the same league. GM could solve the problem right away, at least temporarily, by promising to tow any car involved in a crash and replace the battery pack free of charge.

GM’s reported solution―offering Volt owners replacement gas-driven loaner cars―is retrograde. It implies that electric cars are not a viable technology, and that GM lacks corporate commitment to them. Replacing the battery packs after crashes, however minor, would be a better solution. Likely it would be less expensive. Crashes don’t happen very often, and probably even less often to Volts. People driving a brand new, relatively expensive car with new technology tend to drive carefully.

For me, the big news in Bloomberg.com’s yellow story is that GM is now marketing the Volt in all 50 states.

So I should be able to test-drive one this year. I also plan to test-drive a Leaf if I can find one in my area. If I like one or the other, I’ll probably buy it. I’ve lusted for an electric car for most of my life, and I’m not getting any younger. I’ll worry about battery fires if I have a crash, which I don’t plan to do; then I’ll take the car in for testing. (My wife and I do plan to keep at least one of our two gas-driven Hyundais for longer trips.)

The big thing for me is not battery fires, but the Volt’s range in cold weather and the stories I’ve read that you can’t really force it to run on electricity alone, at least not when the battery is partially discharged or when accelerating on the freeway. If I can get to town and back on the battery alone, I may be satisfied.

I still want to reward stodgy old GM for being the first mover that forced all the “me, toos” (including Ford) to get off their duffs. So I’ll probably buy the Volt if I like the way it runs, even if the Leaf is fully electric, and without waiting for Ford’s all-electric Focus, which will probably debut late next year.

But GM better produce enough Volts to keep its dealers from price-gouging based on scarcity. According to the Bloomberg.com report, it plans to produce 60,000 next year. If it wants to stick to that schedule and retain the lead, it had better solve the battery-cell-matrix problem quickly. Competent engineers surely could.

[Note to readers: the shock-mounting alternative and the paragraph criticizing gas-driven loaner cars as a temporary solution were not in the original version of this post.]

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