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

25 January 2009

Iraqi Provincial Elections: A Game Changer

[For comment on California’s request for an EPA waiver and its effect on industrial policy, click here.]

Perhaps because our economy and the Internet have decimated them, our scatterbrained and celebrity-obsessed media are mostly missing one of the stories of the new century. In the long sweep of history, the Iraqi provincial elections scheduled for next week may be the most consequential event to occur in the Middle East since the birth of Israel over sixty years ago.

Those elections are our ticket out of Iraq. Over sixteen months ago, I argued there were only two real benchmarks for success in our misguided enterprise there. The first was a reduction in our troops’ casualty rate, which has already occurred. The second is Iraqi provincial elections, including their results.

That second benchmark is now imminent. We have little influence over the results; any attempt to meddle would be counterproductive. If the Iraqis choose wisely, we can go home sooner. If they choose poorly, President Obama might have to postpone his ambitious plans for a quick withdrawal.

But there is another reason why the elections are even more important. They will make waves far beyond Iraq.

So far rude democracy has taken root in only two Islamic Arabic places: South Lebanon and Gaza. Neither we nor Israel liked the results, although the elections appear to have been generally free and fair. There were obvious reasons why Hezbollah and Hamas won: of all the many “leaders” in their locales, they alone paid attention to their constituents’ human needs.

Unfortunately, both Hezbollah and Hamas are Islamist and prone to terrorism. The winners in Iraq will almost certainly be different. Kurdish democracy, for one, will not change. Local leaders will still be secular, competent, and pro-American.

As a brilliant piece of reporting in the Washington Post suggests, the new Sunni leaders may be similar. Most of them will be secular sheiks exercising newly-found political power after defeating Al Qaeda in Iraq. They are as suspicious of Islamists as they are of the Shiites who now control Iraq, maybe more so. Many are grateful to us for removing the yoke of Saddam’s Stalinism, arming them against Al Qaeda, and keeping the Shiites’ lust for revenge in check.

The only segment of Iraq in which Islamist extremism and terror might take root is the Shiite sector. But that outcome is hardly foreordained. Three powerful factors will work against it.

First, the Shiites have a huge job of rebuilding their country before them, and they know it. They may not like what’s happening in Palestine. But for most of them, what happens there will remain a remote concern for the foreseeable future (the more so if credible peace talks resume).

Second, Iraqi Shiites’ relationship with Iran has always been more nuanced and circumspect than most Americans perceive. For reasons of language, culture and history, Iraqi Shiites don’t want to be ruled from Tehran.

Finally, Iraqi Shiites’ best spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, still lives and still guides them. As I have argued earlier, his form of “quietist” Islam contains the germ of separation of mosque and state, which could turn Shiite Iraq into a real, modern democracy sooner than anyone expects.

Of course things could go wrong. The three factions could resume fighting, not just in Parliament, but in the streets. The Shiites could turn inward and religious, as repressed people have often done. But the facts remain that two of the three Iraqi factions are decidedly secular in orientation, and none has an obsession with Palestine or terror. After what has happened in their country over the last five years, terror is the last thing on their minds.

So Iraq’s provincial elections may let the world see what an Islamic, Arabic democracy not based on grievance and victimhood looks like. That outcome would be of intense interest for the whole world.

How can we help? We Americans can and should do nothing until the Iraqi electorate has spoken. But once it has, we can do three things.

First, we can put that exorbitantly expensive new embassy to good use, with a full-court diplomatic press. Our diplomats and military folk should get to know the new Iraqi leaders as well as they know Chicago pols, which (the Post’s piece suggests) the Iraqis are likely to resemble. They should work to help the new leaders rebuild their communities and their country at the local level, road by road, small business by small business, school by school.

Second, we should adopt and implement a new immigration policy for Iraqi refugees as quickly as possible. Many Iraqis—including some in exile in Jordan, Syria and Egypt—fear returning home and would like to come here. We should let them, with preference for those who helped us, those with skills and an education, and those with credible reasons to fear persecution. Once here, they will form the nucleus of an Iraqi expatriate community that, in a few years, will be sending American money back to Iraq and helping Iraqi business and Iraqi-U.S. trade grow.

Third, as much as we can afford to do so, we should help Iraq rebuild. I have suggested a mini-Marshall plan for Shiite Iraq, financed by passing the hat to regimes in the region, as well as in Europe and East Asia. The whole world has an interest in seeing Iraqi democracy and reconstruction succeed, and our developed trading partners should help finance the effort. We should make sure the money goes to small businesses, run and controlled locally, not corrupt American behemoths like Halliburton.

About 34 years ago, the last American helicopter left Saigon, ending the first losing war in American history. Today, Vietnam is our friend and a valued trading partner. While not yet a democracy, it has a more moderate and commerce-oriented government than any of our domino theorists who pushed the war could have imagined. Americans and Vietnamese who fought there, Vietnamese who came here, and their descendants helped make that happen. The same thing can happen in Iraq.

Tip O’Neill told us that all politics is local. Hezbollah and Hamas proved him right. Now we have a chance to see that principle take root in a country for which we have sacrificed over 4,000 lives and a trillion dollars. We should do everything we can to help the seed of non-Islamist, non-terrorist democracy, which we have planted in the heart of the Middle East, become a mighty tree.

California’s EPA Waiver

President Obama is the iron fist in the velvet glove, a modern Machiavelli. He gets things done without making waves, sometimes without even a ripple. His brilliant handling of Hillary Clinton during the primary campaign—which I and others once took as too “soft”—is just one example of his skill.

If you want more evidence of his talent, consider today’s announcement that the new EPA will look into granting California’s request for a waiver to allow it to regulate greenhouse gases.

As I’ve outlined in multiple posts (1, 2, 3, 4, and 5), we have a crying need for national industrial policy, especially regarding fossil fuels and energy. One aspect of that need is converting our transportation infrastructure to alternative fuels.

There are three ways for government to seek that end. With our native car companies dying, it could simply take them over, as a condition of the continuing bailout they most certainly will need. For example, the government could buy control of GM (at its ridiculously low current market price) and spin off the Chevy Volt to investors who understand the big picture and the unlimited promise of electric cars.

The other two ways to enforce industrial policy are economic: taxation and regulation. We could force a transition to alternative fuels by taxing gasoline heavily, as Tom Friedman has advised. Or we could decrease the use of gasoline by regulation.

What’s the best option among the three—control, taxation, and regulation? Involving government directly in industrial decisions sends shivers up Republican and conservative spines. It would encounter massive political resistance, especially after the first inevitable mistake. With all due respect to Tom Friedman, taxes are not a viable option now, in the midst of an horrific economic downturn. They’re especially not a viable option politically when they would fall most heavily on people least able to afford them: poor folk who depend on old, inefficient cars for transportation. So that leaves regulation.

If you followed the last congressional brouhaha over efficiency standards, you might have noticed that not everyone agrees. Despite all scientific and engineering evidence to the contrary, not to mention Europe and Japan, the bozos who now run our car companies still insist that higher efficiency standards will kill their businesses. The unions line up behind them, believing that poisoning our planet and selling our national patrimony to Chavez and the Saudis will keep their jobs. And John Dingell of Michigan, who at 81 should be required to have a brain transplant as a condition of keeping his House seat, follows blindly.

Enter California and the EPA. As the state with the largest population, the largest number of cars, and the biggest auto-induced smog problem, it has the most experience dealing with alternative fuels and the problems that cars cause. It also has a popular Republican governor, who understands our need for industrial policy on fossil fuels and environmental protection.

Not only that. Thirteen other states have joined California’s request for a waiver. Collectively, they represent about half the nation’s cars and light trucks. The nitwit car CEOs bewail the “patchwork” of regulation they claim is coming. They say they will have to produce different cars for different states. But they are bluffing. If the waivers go through, the CEOs will make the smaller, more efficient cars required and sell them everywhere. Incidentally, those cars will be cheaper, so more people will be able to afford them in this economic downturn.

Next to Tom Friedman’s draconian gas taxes (which current economic conditions render practically and politically infeasible), this is probably the best possible temporary solution. Like a tax, higher efficiency standards don’t pick winners and losers. They don’t tell industry how to do its job. All they do is apply steady pressure to do what’s right. Detroit can emulate Henry Ford and make smaller, lighter cars which more people can afford. Or it can emulate Thomas Edison and make electric cars that needn’t use gasoline at all. It might even get wise to real ethanol use and apply its considerable lobbying power to repealing our counterproductive tariffs on cheap, imported, cane-derived ethanol.

As for politics, the waiver solution is brilliant. A popular Republican governor and our largest industrial states will be leading the charge. There will be no need for the idiots in Congress to take a stand against auto-industry and union demagoguery, no opportunity for Dingell to showcase his consummate stupidity again. Everything will proceed under the radar of our clueless press, in those dull and boring regulatory agencies and the courts. No one will hear the cries of our moronic CEOs.

Will the EPA grant the waiver? Of course it will. It will take some time to marshall the scientific, engineering and industrial evidence, but the result is virtually certain. Practically unnoticed by the press, Lisa Jackson, the new EPA chief, is trained as a scientist/engineer. She earned a masters degree in chemical engineering from Princeton and graduated summa cum laude in that field from Tulane. And if she has any doubt about the science herself, she can pick up the phone and call Steven Chu, our new Secretary of Energy, who has a Nobel Prize in physics and commands the attention of the entire scientific community. No one with a government portfolio in fossil fuels or energy is going to ignore science, engineering or numbers any more.

Comparing Obama with his predecessors is positively exhiliarating. Bill squandered his political honeymoon on gays in the military—a worthy cause but one horrendously mistimed. Dubya spent his sole real election’s meager political capital like a sailor new and port. As a result, he headed right down into the cellar of popularity, where he stayed. On his fourth full business day in office, President Obama sets in motion a new industrial policy with the stroke of a pen, without even breaking a sweat, and without spending a dime of political capital. God bless him.


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