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

24 March 2011

Help Wanted: Leader for Libya


[For comment on Tom Friedman’s recent views, click here.]

Extraordinary position available. No previous experience necessary or possible. Essential qualifications are: (1) not being crazy, (2) preferring deals to slaughter, and (3) knowing that the West intends to pay handsomely for the oil, not steal it.

The successful candidate will be well respected in his locality, his tribe and neighboring tribes. He will understand Libya―all of it―and have a plan for unifying it by spreading oil money around. He will be good at networking, with contacts or spies in all tribes, including Tripoli’s.

The following are desirable but non-essential qualifications: (1) tribal leadership, (2) fluency in a European language, and (3) knowledge of the West. Reluctant candidates will be given equal opportunity and highly prized. Warlords and ex-patriot sycophants need not apply.

Benefits are: (1) interesting work, (2) fabulous opportunities for self and family, and (3) a chance to become an historic figure, the Kemal Atatürk of North Africa. Unfortunately, there will be no vacation for the first two years.

The successful candidate will be expected to remove a strong pretender by waging successful civil war or co-opting the pretender’s allies, in minimum time and with a minimum of civilian casualties. He must work hard and not be intimidated by international politics, major-power bluster or credible threats of assassination. Western nations and a few fellow Arabs will provide some help from the air.

The chief interviewer will be the people of Libya. Apply to Washington, Paris or London for access to vetting and aid in communication.

The position is open now. Time is of the essence, so please apply today.

Tom Friedman’s Western Hubris


In apparent recognition of the folly of his despairing column a few days ago, Tom Friedman wrote today that the “lid” of tyranny “may be coming off all 350 million Arab peoples at once.” The recipe for this long-delayed desideratum, he insisted, has three ingredients: (1) citizens who see themselves as part of a unified, modern state, (2) self-determination, and (3) a neutral arbiter, which (in most cases) would be the very forces that installed the tyrannies in the first place.

Tom Friedman gave us the useful concept of a flat world. For that contribution alone, he deserves respect. He also has many years of experience and deep contacts in the Middle East.

But those things are what make his conclusions so puzzling. Despite all his knowledge, he just can’t seem to understand the flat world that he described so well in another context. Nor can he seem to get over his own sense of cultural superiority and give locals their due.

For starters, Friedman forgets history. It was we Westerners who drew lines on maps to create mongrel states out of desert, ignoring ancient tribal boundaries and trade routes alike. We (mostly the British Foreign Office) did so with the explicit goal of “divide and conquer.” Our conquering, of course, used proxy tyrants infused with a single prime directive: make way for western industry, and keep the oil flowing, and you can do whatever else you want. Stability for industrial progress, at the price of tyranny, was our common Western bargain.

So it was Western “neutral arbiters” who midwifed the birth of Arab tyrannies in the first place. And it was we Americans who conveniently maintained them since the decline of the British Empire early in the last century. Until Friedman acknowledges and understands this central historical truth, any prescription he offers for the Middle East will be quack medicine.

More important, the greatest lesson of the Internet age is that all people are essentially alike. That is the true teaching of Friedman’s flat world.

When modern communication gives people a choice, they opt for peaceful commerce and prosperity---for getting along and making money---every time. It doesn’t matter whether they come from an ancient self-superior culture like China’s or from a Nomadic desert culture like Libya’s. It doesn’t matter whether they wear business suits, turbans or kaffiyeh and robes.

All people have the same desires to live in peace and provide for their progeny. Those desires, not our “neutral arbitership,” were what turned Iraq around from the civil war we had inadvertently triggered. The Sunni sheiks’ sons took our money to fight “for” us, but they did so only after rejecting Al Qaeda’s policy of “kill, kill, kill.”

If we are to assist the Great Arab Awakening, we have to get over our cultural ignorance and false sense of cultural superiority. Each Arab “nation” (which in many cases is an artifice of the West) is different. It is true, as Friedman says, that the army in Egypt is playing a positive role. Its professionalism and restraint, enhanced by decades of peace and Western tutelage, is helpful.

But that doesn’t mean that every Arab nation needs the like to escape the darkness of tyranny. The previously nomadic sheiks of Libya traveled, bartered and traded peacefully for centuries before oil and Western war created the caricature of a state we see today.

Was there no justice, mercy, or common sense in any of the old nomadic traders or tribal leaders? Were they all vicious barbarians like Qaddafi, just waiting for modern Western technology and weapons to increase the flow of cash and blood? Package it however you like, Friedman’s insistence on Western arbiters answers those questions “no, there was not,” and “yes, they were all barbarians.”

A more reasoned approach would be to recognize that Nelson Mandela (whose leadership model Friedman lauds) was hardly a product of Western arbitership. He is a creation of Western prisons, where he stewed for 28 years in his own solitude, wisdom and good sense.

There is one other truth that Friedman, of all people, should know well. Tyranny breeds terrorism. Hezbollah is a creature of Syrian tyranny. Hamas in Gaza has three parents: Saudi tyrants, Assad, and the Israeli trade embargo. You have only to compare the Palestinian Authority under Abbas to see the difference.

Or look now at the happy Kurdish trade with and inside Turkey. Now that Saddam’s tyranny is gone, at whatever horrendous cost, the Kurds are too busy making money to fight for “freedom.”

As for Al Qaeda, its central goal is removing the Saudi tyrants. Its jihad against the West is just a means to that end. Free Saudi Arabia, and Al Qaeda will have no reason for being, or at least its many fellow travelers will turn away.

That is another central truth of Friedman’s flat world. Offer people a chance at freedom to live, work and worship in their own way, and they have no interest in alleged foreign “enemies.” Suppress their cultures, languages, religions, and/or desires for simple prosperity and justice, and you must focus their wrath on foreign bogeymen in order to turn it away from you.

Kim Jong Il knows this well, but the principle is as old as Caesar. Somehow, we forget to apply it to men who wear turbans and dress their women in veils.

As the lid of tyranny blows off all over the Arab world (and in Iran!), the “unsolvable” problem of Israel and Palestine will suddenly become tractable. Arabs and Muslims everywhere will focus on improving their own lives, which many now have no power or freedom to do.

To help this happen, we Westerners need to step back from our own hubris and acknowledge others’ humanity. We need to rely more on the commonality of human beings and their innate wisdom, and less on our own alleged cultural superiority. We need to know others’ cultures enough to discover the value and promise in them. And if we can’t do that, we just need to get out of the way.

If we can achieve such a rare state of humility, who knows what miracles we soon may see, not just in Greater Arabia, but around the world?

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21 March 2011

Libya for the Libyans


One thing gets lost in all the lamenting from the left about “another war.” Whatever happens in Libya, Libyans will decide.

The reasons are three. First, there will be no Western ground troops in Libya. That’s not because the UN resolution forbids them, although it does. Nor is it because the President promised, although he did.

No Western nation will put ground troops in Libya because what happened in Iraq is still fresh in memory. We lost over 4,400 troops killed, plus tens of thousands maimed and wounded. We caused hundreds of thousands of Iraqi deaths and made millions of refugees. And we triggered an unholy civil war before finally, by paying the Sunnis and promising to leave, managing to convince a critical mass of Iraqis that we really had no intention of staying forever.

No one―not the President, not Secdef Gates, not any of our generals, and not any of their foreign counterparts―wants to repeat that experience. So the promise not to engage in ground combat in Libya will be enforced not by law or by politics, but by hard experience and practical necessity.

The second reason follows from the first. Without ground troops, we Westerners will simply lack the power to determine who wins. Libyans themselves will have to do that. They will do it by engaging in both war and politics, which, as Von Clausewitz noted some time ago, are two sides to the same coin.

If the rebels are smart, they will (with Western help) make some gains on the ground. Then they will try hard to co-opt Qaddafi’s smarter supporters into joining them. If they are not so smart, they will have to win control of Libya entirely by force of arms.

But whatever happens from now on, the rebels will have to deserve their gains. All the Western air forces appear to have done is give them a chance not to be slaughtered by vastly superior firepower in the hands of a madman.

The third reason why Libyans will decide their own future is that we in the West just don’t have a clue. I flattered Secretary Clinton and our State Department by characterizing them as getting to know the rebels. But, in barely a week, they didn’t have time to do that.

The trio of Clinton, Rice and Powers apparently prevailed in our executive councils on humanitarian and practical ground alone. If we hadn’t helped the rebels immediately and massively, they would be corpses or refugees now, Qaddafi’s rule would be engraved in stone until his natural death, and no one in the Middle East would henceforth pay any attention to our prattle about building democracy by toppling dictators. So we apparently made a decision to intervene on the spur of the moment―nearly too late―without having more than the faintest idea who the rebels are.

So everything now depends on them. Qaddafi condemned himself. He had a chance to act with some semblance of justice and political skill. But instead he spewed lies, threats and venom. He slaughtered as many of his countrymen as possible who would not submit to his absolute rule. All the rebels have to do is come up with leaders having the barest minimum of administrative skill and some rude conception of the practical advantages of justice and mercy. Then Libya will have far better leaders than Qaddafi.

In the end, that fact probably mattered to the West as much as the oil. With oil prices rising and going nowhere but up for the foreseeable future, it doesn’t take an Einstein to realize that Libya should have enough money to build a much better nation for all concerned. All the rebels need do is pick a leader who understands that, and who is broad-minded enough not to keep all the gains for himself and his tribe. Then they will have a political winner. If I were in our State Department, I would help the rebels start their search by vetting the two rival sheiks who reportedly allied their tribes despite Qaddafi’s attempt to divide them with both threats and blandishments.

Our and our allies’ military forces appear to have done a superb job in unwinding a conquest that was nearly a fait accompli. And they appear to have done so with an absolute minimum of civilian casualties, thanks in part to improvements in smart weapons, targeting and command and control since the Iraq War. They deserve enormous credit for their quickness, agility and professionalism.

But now, under their ever-vigilant umbrella, the ball must roll back to the diplomats’ court. We have to push, goad, cajole and help the rebels to pick one or several good leaders, begin unifying the tribes of the east, and then begin the delicate task of undermining Qaddafi’s support with promises of a better day ahead. I remain convinced that the most important weapon in that battle will be the telephone (or comparable electronic communicator), aided by local and foreign intelligence and local contacts that only Libyans can have and use.

We made an unholy mess of Iraq for several years. We triggered a civil war that nearly destroyed the country. We got out of that mess by the skin of our teeth, plus Al Qaeda’s strategic blunders and its lack of any policy other than kill, kill, kill.

Now we have a chance to show how to do it right. We have overwhelming military force, which appears to have stopped a slaughter and given the rebels a chance. Now we must nurture them and let them find their own way, however slow, awkward and frustrating doing so may be.

No more Chalabis. No more Karzais. No more leaders anointed by the West. If we help Libyans find the best within them, we may yet be proud of the result of this very risky enterprise.

But to do that, we have to find the wisdom in our hearts to understand that tribal Arab Muslims can be good people, too, even if they don’t speak English. Job one now is to find, nurture and support the best among them, with money, arms and international diplomacy as necessary.

In that job, the trio of Clinton, Rice and Powers will be instrumental. For they have already demonstrated an understanding of justice and mercy and the personal toughness to apply them.

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19 March 2011

Is Libya Lost?


Has the mad dog out-foxed the West again? Recent reports from Libya suggest that possibility.

There appears to be fighting in Benghazi, and the rebels already may have pulled back to a small enclave along the coast. If these reports are true, Qaddafi may already have won.

The reason is simple. Defending the rebels from the air always depended on them occupying a distinct territory of their own that they could defend. Unlike Afghanistan, Libya is a desert. Its terrain facilitates taking out any armored advance, or even air attacks, from one separate territory to another.

But if Qaddafi’s troops are indeed inside Benghazi, that’s a whole different story. Bombing or strafing them would risk killing the rebels with “friendly fire,” not to mention innocent civilians. And wiping out Qaddafi’s equipment and troops in other areas when they have already won would seem a mere spiteful act―the type of thing that Qaddafi himself would do and that Saddam actually did.

It is possible that Qaddafi knows this. Maybe his fighters inside Benghazi are a mere fifth column, instructed to make a lot of noise with few forces and little equipment, so as to give the impression that Benghazi is up for grabs. In that case, a no-fly zone and limited air-to-ground attacks might still work, if begun within twenty-four hours.

But if Benghazi really is up for grabs, the civil war may be over for all practical purposes. Then our only remaining task would be one of moral obligation: smuggling as many rebels as possible out of Libya before Qaddafi can massacre them.

What went wrong? Mostly, the US dithered too long. We also may have sought authorization from the wrong place. Why ask the UN Security Council for permission to intervene in a local dispute? The Saudis didn’t ask it to approve their intervention in Bahrain. Maybe after the Arab League requested a no-fly zone, we should have pressed it harder to set up one of its own, immediately, with our help.

But maybe everyone was just bluffing. I would hate to think that, and so would the Arab street, which probably still hasn’t forgotten Western betrayal of the Marsh Arabs and their slaughter by Saddam.

If our attempt to intervene in Libya is indeed a debacle, only one American will have come out of it smelling like a rose. That’s Susan Rice, our UN Ambassador. As it turns out, it was she, not Secretary Clinton, who got the UN resolution in record time. Why? She had a draft resolution ready, in advance, before anyone asked for one, and she pressed her diplomatic advantage to get the toughest wording possible.

That sort of ever-prepared competence used to characterize Americans generally. Now it is notable enough to merit special commendation.

Rice is indeed a special case. From Rwanda to Darfur, she has always worked tirelessly to protect innocents from needless slaughter. And in all things she has been polite but hard as nails, just as she was in wringing an extraordinarily tough authorization for intervention from a divided Security Council.

I would put her right after Secdef Gates in terms of sheer competence. Her values are old-fashioned American: her toughness sits on the side of justice and mercy. She is one of the best we’ve got. When Secretary Clinton leaves, Rice should be on the short list to replace her.

But apart from Rice’s role in it, the story of Qaddafi’s win will be another dismal chapter in Libya’s history and our own. We will have abandoned and betrayed rebels who relied on our help, squandered a golden opportunity to strengthen cooperation with France and the Arab League, given a vicious tyrant even more reason to plot against us, and embarrassed ourselves as indecisive and inept before the entire world.

Maybe this is why China, pleading respect for national sovereignty, has a firm policy against intervening in other states’ affairs. It’s not that intervening is never warranted. It’s just that doing it effectively is too hard. But whatever lessons we learn, if Qaddafi wins simply by pressing his timing advantage, our desultory attempts to influence Libya’s future will not have marked our finest hour.

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18 March 2011

Vive Hillary and Vive La France!


Dismal news continues to emanate from Japan. Apparently Tepco, which is after all a power company, still has not managed to connect Japan’s power grid to the Fukushima plants so that power can flow in. One hopes that it will succeed soon.

One hope also that every nation, including ours, can learn from Tepco’s mistakes. Any nation still running these obsolete GE Mark I nuclear power plants should now put in place connectors and switches able to divert power to them from national and regional grids immediately after any shutdown due to natural or other disasters. The idea of relying on diesel backup generators, which may stay idle for years, to provide cooling vital to preventing meltdown, when the plant is inherently connected to a regional or national power grid (which may still be fully operational) is one of the dumbest engineering blunders I have ever seen. Apart from downed power lines, cooling power should have been available at Fukushima, and should be available at every similarly obsolete plant throughout the world, at the flick of a switch.

Power lines are not unidirectional. And as the sorry current history shows, it’s far easier to repair downed power lines than resurrect a complex of nuclear power plants undergoing serial meltdown. One hopes the national review of nuclear plants that the President has just ordered will accomplish at least this.

With such dismal news coming from Japan, it is well that happier news is coming from Libya. Secretary Clinton has done her job well and deserves kudos. She delivered a UN authorization for military intervention without a single dissent, and in record time. And she has apparently decided that the Libyan rebels can be trusted, or at least that they are sufficiently trustworthy as compared to Qaddafi not to let that mad dog annihilate them. This is a good first step.

It’s tempting to say that now it’s all up to the military, but that’s not true. Secretary Clinton’s service will continue to be vital in removing Qaddafi with a minimum of turmoil and bloodshed, a minimum of bumbling participation by Westerners and a maximum of effort by Arab neighbors. Achieving that result will still take some diplomatic skill.

No doubt US, French and British planes are ready to scramble at a moment’s notice. No doubt they may need to do so if Qaddafi’s forces continue to advance on Benghazi. But it’s still far preferable that the first strike come, if possible, from fellow Arabs. Secretary Clinton no doubt will continue to work night and day, until the first missiles fly, to achieve that result.

Diplomacy will remain vital even after the police action starts. An iron law of life is that no one loves a mad dog. There are undoubtedly many people in high places in Qaddafi’s forces who would love to see his back (or his corpse) if only they could be assured of their and their family’s safety. Diplomats will have the task, in coordination with the military and intelligence services of participating nations, of securing their timely cooperation as soon as decisive air strikes demonstrate convincingly that Qaddafi, despite his bluster, has no chance of defeating his neighbors, let alone the entire world.

Now, with the UN resolution, the outcome is all but foreordained. Either a partitioned Libya will tilt to the east and Benghazi over months, as refugees and resources drain steadily from Tripoli toward Benghazi, or the turnover will be quick and relatively bloodless as supposed Qaddafi loyalists see the writing on the wall and turn. The skill of Secretary Clinton and her subordinates, their foreign counterparts, and the relevant intelligence services will determine which course Libya takes. The second option would of course be better for all concerned, especially Libyans.

This so far positive story would be remiss without a word about France. France was first to recognize the rebels and appears eager to be the first to strike a military blow for liberty. Many Americans forget that French forces under the Marquis de Lafayette helped us win our War of Independence against Britain. In World War I, when our forces intervened on France’s side, an American colonel recognized the debt by saying “Lafayette, nous voilà!” (“Lafayette, we are here!”). So when That Idiot Rumsfeld, whose appreciation of history was as acute as his military strategy, disparaged France during our War in Iraq, it was a bit like dissing our grandmother.

Now Lafayette is alive and well in North Africa. And we have a golden opportunity to improve cooperation among ourselves, France, and Egypt and their respective militaries. Qaddafi’s military is so puny compared to those of any of the three―let alone the long list of other states lusting for Qaddafi’s scalp―that Libyan liberation will continue to be largely a diplomatic exercise, with military force playing a necessary supporting role. If Western and Arab forces, working together, can pull it off with a minimum of bloodshed, we might begin to see a much brighter future emerge in the Middle East.

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17 March 2011

Japan’s Nuclear Disaster: Reason for Hope


Watching the treble disasters in Japan as they deepen has been heartbreaking. While northeastern Honshu struggles to dig out from the devastation wrought by a record earthquake and tsunami, snow falls on the victims, and several Fukushima nuclear reactors teeter toward meltdown. Bad news has continued to escalate on all fronts.

The nuclear disaster is the most terrifying. Unlike demolished homes, roads, and power lines, radioactivity is invisible. It can proliferate literally at the whim of the wind. But now the authorities seem to have a sensible plan.

All along, the basic problem has been getting cooling fluid into the reactor cores and cement blockhouses that store spent fuel. There is no electric power for that purpose because the nuclear plants successfully shut down, and the tsunami put the backup generators out of commission. So the service pumps that normally circulate cooling water were useless, and workers had to resort to portable generators and applying coolant with portable pumps on fire trucks.

Imagine pumping water into a huge, sealed containment vessel through a safety valve designed only to release high-pressure radioactive hydrogen and steam, and that only sporadically. That’s not an easy task. Then heat from spent fuel in adjacent tanks began to evaporate the water in them, creating an entirely separate risk. In some ways that risk was more ominous, since the spent fuel, unlike the reactor cores, has no containment vessel other than the cement blockhouse that surrounds it.

That’s why Tepco’s reported attempt to get real power to the site from elsewhere makes sense. If power can be restored to the plants, normal circulation of coolant might resume. There is a risk that partial meltdowns and hydrogen/steam explosions may have destroyed or damaged necessary pipes, valves or controls. But the best way to circulate cooling water is through internal systems designed for that purpose, not to force it into a system designed to be impregnable, through orifices never designed for that purpose.

Once electric power to the plant is restored, all or most of the instruments and gauges telling workers what is happening inside the reactors may work again. In addition, workers can attempt to get cooling back on line from inside the control room, which is heavily shielded. There they can work with reduced exposure to radioactivity and hence for longer hours.

Initially, the control room was probably next to useless without electric power for lighting, instruments or controls. One use of the portable generators brought in was no doubt to power the control room to get an idea what was happening inside the reactors. The fact that authorities have now decided to apply full external power suggests that the mobile generators were not robust enough to run all the cooling pumps, but were strong enough to provide encouraging news from the control room.

Finally, the spent-fuel tanks, whose tops have blown off and are open to the air, are amenable to helicopter-drops of water. That approach can proceed separately and independently. As long as the tanks are not burning continuously, the helicopter crews might find ways to reduce their exposure to radioactivity while filling up the tanks. (I presume authorities have made every effort to seal the helicopters and to provide some sort of temporary internal overpressure while they are flying over or through suspected sources of radioactive gas and particles. A few SCUBA tanks with appropriately adjusted regulators might do the job.)

Since the plants were designed to provide their own electric power, there probably were no separate lines bringing external power to them. But power lines designed to draw power out of the plants’ own generators can be used to get power to the control room and normal equipment from other, still functioning remote power plants in Japan. Power can flow either way.

So despite its many setbacks and several adjacent reactors, Fukushima is still far from Chernobyl. There are multiple and escalating risks. But the reactor cores still have heavy steel containment vessels, which didn’t exist at Chernobyl. They seem to be mostly, if not entirely, intact.

So if the pumps, pipes and valves for cooling water still work, this plan has a greater chance of success than anything I’ve seen described in the news so far. For the sake of Japan, its beleaguered people, and an anxious, watching world, I hope the plan works.

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15 March 2011

Learning to Trust Libya’s Rebels


The world stands aghast at the possibility of multiple nuclear meltdowns near the center of its second-largest economy. Nothing much can be said or done until the danger and the radioactivity are contained. The fact that forty million people live in the region potentially affected―many more than the entire population of California―puts the stakes in stark relief. All the world must hold its breath while anonymous, heroic workers battle unknown and terrifying dangers to keep the worst from happening.

In the meantime, another high-stakes drama is playing itself out halfway around the globe. Already Secretary Clinton has met at least once with the Libyan rebels, as she must. Her job is to determine whether we and the West can trust them. France already apparently thinks it can.

If we give the rebels our support, we must rely on them to do several things. First and foremost, they must win. Second, they must treat their Western helpers and their own defeated rivals rationally after they do. That means at least: (1) acting with dispatch and compassion to unify the country; (2) forming a government with widespread popular support; (3) repairing relations with the outside world; and (4) letting the oil flow, for the mutual benefit of those inside and outside.

Secretary Clinton’s job is not easy. Without speaking the language or knowing the culture, and with the help of experts only recently recruited for the task, she must determine whether we can trust the rebels and their current or future leaders to do these things. Others will no doubt assist in the decision, but her judgment will probably control it. That is a heavy responsibility.

If Clinton gives the go-ahead, there is a lot we can do, by ourselves of with others, to help the rebels win. Probably the best option is to encourage the Arab League, which has called for a no-fly zone, to go ahead on its own. Several Arab nations, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, by themselves have air forces that no doubt could pulverize Qaddafi’s tiny one, let alone its runways and infrastructure. Far better that this be done by fellow Arabs than by any force from the West. We can help with advice and real-time electronic intelligence from behind the scenes.

The next best course of action would be to help arm the rebels. A few Stingers (or their modern equivalents, which are probably far more potent) in rebels hands could even the odds in half a day. But we have to be able to trust the rebels not to sell them to terrorists.

Other, less potent arms also could help. For example, the US might even the odds by giving the rebels some of our smaller remotely piloted vehicles, and perhaps even help pilot them. (Who outside will know where the electronic signals running the planes are really coming from?) Tank-busting missiles also would be useful. Presumably our contingency-ready armed forces have already prepositioned such arms, waiting for the executive decision to supply them. One hopes that’s what the ships massing nearby are for.

Finally, the US can supply the rebels with modern electronic communication, including AWACS planes out of range in foreign countries, Iridium telephones for anonymous, direct communication, and other ground equipment. Again, this equipment is probably prepositioned, waiting for the word to send it in.

So to say Qaddafi’s confidence now is braggadocio would be understatement. His forces are doing their best to take advantage of a delay that is unavoidable. We can’t create winners we can’t trust. So we have to get to know the rebels, find out whether we can trust any of them, and then, if so, find out whom best to trust and attempt to insure their leadership. The rebels have to understand that, just as we must expect them to exaggerate their peril to hurry us on.

But we can’t wait too long, both because we don’t know how much they are exaggerating and because timing is vital, if not everything, in war. So the pressure is on Secretary Clinton and her colleagues to make a decision.

But unless and until we signal unequivocally a decision to abandon the rebels for lack of trust, no one should mistake this interlude for a Qaddafi victory. With proper planning, the civil war can reverse its course in days once a decision is made. The world, Qaddafi, and the rebels themselves should know this.

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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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05 March 2011

In Praise of Gates


No, not Bill. Bob.

Republican Robert M. Gates, our Secretary of Defense, is one of a bare handful of supremely competent people in a government run, if not dominated, by idiots and liars. (Lest I be misconstrued, I include the President in that handful.)

Why is Gates so good? Because he thinks, and he tells the truth.

Those are simple virtues. They were things we Americans once took for granted in both political and business leaders. But no more. They are now so rare that they evoke the same astonishment as jewels in sewage.

Gates himself has a refreshing candor that makes him easy to love. Recently he called Washington a city “where so many people are lost in thought because it’s such unfamiliar territory.” How well said, and how depressingly true! Earlier, in rejecting the Rumsfeld-Dubya Maginot Line for Missiles, he described a military mindset “bordering on theology that regards any change of plans or any cancellation of a program as abandonment or even breaking faith.” That mindset has wasted hundreds of billions of taxpayers’ dollars while undermining our national defense.

From his first days in office, Gates displayed a quiet competence that we had not seen in government in a long, long time. How has he improved the nation’s budget and defense? Let me count the ways.

First, he nixed the Maginot Line for Missiles, an immobile, useless, and geopolitically disruptive anti-missile array in Eastern Europe. In the long run, that may have been his most important single act as Secretary of Defense. The program was a complete waste of money, a thumb in the eye of an increasingly rational and friendly Russia, and something that any idiot with long-range missile technology could have circumvented easily. In its place, we will now have a lighter, cheaper, better missile defense, with mobile sensors and interceptors on ships and planes.

Gates’ missile-defense decision made the difference between a useless, static Maginot Line and a twenty-first century panzer division. As a geopolitical by-product of that decision, we now have a second Start treaty with Russia, which puts the Cold War to final rest and lets us concentrate our limited resources and even more limited managerial competence on the twenty-first century’s real military challenges.

Gates second-greatest contribution to our national security was goading our recalcitrant Air Force into producing and using unmanned aerial vehicles. The need for that change was so obvious that even an outsider-blogger like me could see it. But it took someone with Gates’ intelligence, influence and political skill to actually get it done. Against the military’s general inertia and the Air Force’s inveterate Top Gun mentality, it will take continual pressure and strong management to keep the ball rolling.

Gates’ third biggest contribution has been bringing competent management to what may turn out to have been the two most outrageously mismanaged wars in our history. When Gates replaced That Idiot Rumsfeld, Iraq was falling into civil war and the Taliban were reforming and regrouping in both Pakistan and Afghanistan in a way that led to our current difficulties. Gates’ low-key, patient and expert advice turned both situations around, to the point where our efforts in Iraq are already a qualified success and there is a chance of realizing limited political objectives in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan is still a work in progress and a work in doubt. Not even the best military management can assure the survival, let alone the success, of a corrupt incompetent like Hamid Karzai. That was a lesson we should have learned in Vietnam.

But Afghanistan is more complex than Vietnam, and in any event the policy decision to escalate in Afghanistan was the President’s. Gates did a good job of implementing that policy in a time of economic collapse, consequent severe budget constraints, and increasing skepticism of the entire endeavor from both left and right. If Karzai’s fragile government fails and our effort in Afghanistan collapses, it is the President, not Gates, who must take the blame.

Gates also worked tirelessly to slow the mindless momentum of our military-industrial complex (MIC). As Eisenhower famously warned, that part of our society presents the greatest immediate danger to the survival of our democratic culture, exceeded only (perhaps) by unregulated banking.

There are several reasons why our own military-industrial complex is uniquely dangerous to our survival as a free nation. When you add up all our “defense” expenditures, including military procurement, the armed forces, Homeland Security, the Coast Guard, and military retirement and health benefits, the sum is by far the largest single line item in our federal budget. So we will never solve our budget problem unless we get “defense” spending, broadly construed, under control.

But numbers tell only part of the story. Our military-industrial complex has become a self-perpetuating, self-interested organism bent on growing without limit. It grows by sapping our nation’s lifeblood, its limited resources, regardless of any real effect on national security.

Eisenhower knew (and warned of) this. But even Eisenhower could not foresee the explosion of privatization of traditionally governmental military functions. Privatization has caused the MIC to mutate from a slow-growing cancer to a metastatic one, whose primary goal is not national defense, but increasing the wealth, employment and political influence of its members. Privatization has given the tumor the power to grow its own blood supply.

Neither the executives involved in military supply and outsourced military services, nor the members of Congress who give them knee-jerk support, worry much whether “defense” expenditures do the job they are supposed to do. Instead they worry, respectively, about their profits and salaries and employment in their districts. Thus they make the MIC a self-perpetuating parasitic organism.

If this trend continues, the MIC will be one of the principal reasons for our loss of global economic leadership to China. Unlike us, the Chinese recognize that “defense” expenditures are essentially non-productive. They are useful only in the unlikely event of war. So the Chinese limit their military budget to things that might really matter in a plausible twenty-first century conflict: cyberwarfare, space technology, a small nuclear arsenal as a deterrent, and a navy capable of keeping the sea lanes open for oil and other commodities.

In other words, China manages its military by objective. It decides what minimum it needs to do what essential jobs and plans accordingly. In contrast, we “size” our military to provide employment, develop backward areas (mostly in the South), and keep mediocre-to-bad politicians in elected office. It doesn’t take much thought to see which approach promises better long-term success.

Gates understands these points and has been working tirelessly, mostly behind the scenes, to effect needed change. Unfortunately, he has threatened to leave government service this year. One hopes he will become increasingly frank and vocal as his departure approaches and make his thinking more widely known. And one hopes even more fervently that he will continue to sound the alarm as a private citizen.

Last but not least is Gates’ sage advice on the temptation of intervening in Libya. Many cities in the West have a greater population than Libya’s (less than 7 million). Qaddafi’s military resources are a measly half-dozen jets and a few dozen old Russian tanks. So it’s tempting to send in our Air Force or Marines, with far superior training and equipment, and stop the slaughter.

But Gates is right. What is going on in Libya is primarily a political conflict, with military overtones. It’s hard to watch a madman slaughter innocent people, but American or Western military intervention might increase the slaughter, if only accidentally. More important, it is vital that Libyans do the suffering and dying themselves, so they can claim their liberty as their own work product.

A recent Kristof column suggests the right way to make a difference in Libya: peel off Qaddafi’s support general by general and colonel by colonel, until the madman and his sons are fighting alone. That battle will be one of diplomacy, in which the telephone will be the principal weapon. It is one that anyone with influence can wage, especially Italians, who have current personal contacts in the country and the most to lose from chaos there. In recommending against hasty military action, Gates once again demonstrated the sound judgment that Americans have a right to expect from their leaders.

Gates is a good man. In a society increasingly ruled by the likes of John Boehner, who has no clue about anything real, whether economic, military or social, Gates seems like a great man. When the time comes for this badly-needed public servant to leave, the President could do a lot worse than letting him choose his own successor.

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