Monday, March 31, 2008

Military Success and Legitimacy

The intense fighting in Basra and Sadr City over the last six days has exposed Iraq Prime Minister Maliki’s military as not well equipped to provide security. Seen by many as a move to consolidate political power in the wake of upcoming elections, Maliki ordered military action against Mokata al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army in Basra, a Shiite stronghold in south-eastern Iraq. The Mahdi Army, expected by the Iraqi government to be easily defeated, provided a “very strong resistance that made us change our plans,” according to Iraq’s defense minister. The battle of Basra offers an illuminating glimpse into a problem plaguing the American and Iraqi militaries in Iraq – the ineffectiveness of illegitimate military force.

Basra should be a stronghold of support for President Maliki. After all, Maliki is a Shiite in a predominantly Sunni country, and Basra is heavily Shiite. Nevertheless, Basra has proven to be a thorn in Maliki’s side, as it harbors the powerful contrarian Mahdi Army. The lack of support for Maliki proves just how unsupportive Iraqi citizens are of American occupiers. A Basra resident sums up the overall sentiment well when he says, “unfortunately with the presence of this new government and this democracy that was brought to us by the invader, it made us kill each other…and the war is now between us.” Maliki’s government, although democratically elected, is seen as propped up by American support and acts in effect, as an American puppet. This close affiliation with the Americans gives no legitimacy to its military efforts in rabidly anti-American cities such as Basra.

This lack of legitimacy has proven itself to be perhaps the most important determinant of military success in Iraq. Vastly better trained, better armed, and better informed military forces of both the Americans and the Iraqi government have failed to defeat loosely organized and poorly equipped insurgent militias. Why? The militias had (more or less) the support of the people, as well as an identifiable enemy around which they could rally support. As the Iraqi government is viewed as largely illegitimate by the Iraqi people, any opposition group is, regardless of their intentions, deemed legitimate. Thus, radical groups with bad intentions can easily gain popular support, simply through demonizing the unpopular group in power. Such examples can be readily seen in recent memory, notably Idi Amin’s use of anti-Milton Obote sentiment in Uganda in 1971 to take power, and Milton Obote’s use of anti-Idi Amin sentiment in 1981 to retake power.

The American presence in Iraq, therefore, faces a dire problem. If the Americans are able to win over popular support in Iraq, the governments that they support and prop up have a chance at success. Such a hope is, however, overly idealistic given the situation in Iraq and the deep-seated hatred most Iraqis hold towards the American “invaders.” More likely a consequence of America’s presence is a country fragmented by ethnic tensions and ruled regionally by radical strong men who claim legitimacy on the back of American illegitimacy.

The third possibility is an American withdrawal. Without an American presence in Iraq, there is no enemy from which radicals such as al-Sadr can garner support. The process will be painful, but Iraqi leaders will ultimately be judged not by their affiliation with Americans, but by their ability to do good by Iraqis. The call for American withdrawal is often framed as a policy that is best for Americans. The huge benefits that Iraq would see from such a withdrawal are unfortunately overlooked, but they are far more dramatic. Without American troops in Iraq, reconciliation and nation-building can truly begin.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Foreign Policy Divide

Ezra Klein sums up the ideological differences in foreign policy approach pretty well:
Neocons envision a near-static population of terrorists, and prescribe an aggressive policy of killing them in order to rid the world of terrorism. Liberals see a dynamic population of terrorists and prescribe broad policies meant to blunt their popular appeal and deprive them of public support. Neocons looks at the liberal prescription and say, essentially, "you're not killing enough of them." And liberals look at the Neocons and, aghast, say, "stop making so many more."
I don't think anyone with even a modicum of intelligence believes the population of terrorists to be static, but the conservative approach towards terrorisism is, as Klein says, one of eradication. The dynamism of the terrorist population, however, prevents a policy of eradication from being viable. I think the key difference between the conservative and liberal approach lies in their respective differences of who (or what) the enemy is. For all the conservative hard-talk about "radical islam," and "islamofascism," conservative policy indicates that conservatives believe the enemy to be individual people, not extremist ideology. Terrorism cannot be eliminated by going after individuals - in fact, it will probably be augmented. Instead, the causes of extremist ideology must be identified and eliminated. As has been proved time and time again, it is not bombs that eliminate extremism, it is tackling what Samantha Power calls "climates of fear." Bombs inspire fear, fear inspires terrorists. This, apparentely, is too complex for conservatives to grasp.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Denmark's Carbon Success

The Danish appear to have been remarkably good at reducing emissions while maintaining strong growth. The New York Times reports:
Everyone seems to be talking about a carbon tax. ... The idea is that polluters should pay for the environmental damage they cause. Slap a tax on carbon, the theory goes, and you will get fewer carbon emissions, more revenue for government and energy independence, all at the same time. No wonder people from both sides of the political divide have come out in support of it.

But a carbon tax isn’t a new idea. Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden have had carbon taxes in place since the 1990s, but the tax has not led to large declines in emissions in most of these countries — in the case of Norway, emissions have actually increased by 43 percent per capita. ...

The one country in which carbon taxes have led to a large decrease in emissions is Denmark, whose per capita carbon dioxide emissions were nearly 15 percent lower in 2005 than in 1990. And Denmark accomplished this while posting a remarkably strong economic record and without relying on nuclear power.

What did Denmark do right? There are many elements to its success, but taken together, the insight they provide is that if reducing emissions is the goal, then a carbon tax is a tax you want to impose but never collect.

This is a hard lesson to learn. The very thought of new tax revenue has a way of changing the priorities of the most hard-headed politicians... But if we want lower emissions, the goal of a carbon tax is to prompt producers to change their behavior, not to allow them to continue polluting while handing over cash to the government.

How do you get them to change? First, you prevent policy makers from turning the tax into a cash cow. Carbon tax discussions always seem to devolve into gleeful suggestions for ways to spend the revenue. ...

Denmark avoids the temptation to maximize the tax revenue by giving the proceeds back to industry, earmarking much of it to subsidize environmental innovation. Danish firms are pushed away from carbon and pulled into environmental innovation, and the country’s economy isn’t put at a competitive disadvantage. So this is lesson No. 1 from Denmark.

The second lesson is that the carbon tax worked ... because it was easy for Danish firms to switch to cleaner fuels. Danish policy makers made huge investments in renewable energy and subsidized environmental innovation. ...[T]he tax gave companies a reason to leave coal and the investments in renewable energy gave them an easy way to do so... The key was providing easy substitutes. ...

[A] carbon tax has been promoted almost as a panacea — just pop in the economic incentives and watch them work their magic. But unless steps are taken to lock the tax revenue away from policymakers and invest in substitutes, a carbon tax could lead to more revenue rather than to less pollution.

An increase in gasoline taxes ... would likewise be the wrong policy for the United States. Higher gas taxes would raise revenue but do little to curb pollution.

Instead, if we want to reduce carbon emissions, then we should follow Denmark’s example: tax the industrial emission of carbon and return the revenue to industry through subsidies for research and investment in alternative energy sources, cleaner-burning fuel, carbon-capture technologies and other environmental innovations.

This makes perfect economic sense. At present, income elasticity of demand for oil is relatively inelastic (estimated at 0.3 by some economists), meaning that price increases (a carbon tax) would not be met with a reduction in the quantity of oil consumed. Denmark's policy, however, provides for such inelasticity and works to reduce it - by creating substitutes. Substitutable goods, in this case more renewable forms of energy, make demand more elastic and thus allow taxes to have a greater effect in reducing consumption. Instead of ruminating on all the ways governments can redistribute a carbon tax bonanza, the responsible and indeed only effective approach is to use carbon tax revenue to subsidize renewable energy.

The other, perhaps more popular, policy prescription proposed is the cap-and-trade system, whereby firms are given carbon allowances. Under this system, firms can buy or sell their carbon credits if they wish to pollute more, or if they pollute less than their allowance. Such a system has many problems. As Harvard economist N. Gregory Mankiw writes,
Cap-and-trade systems are also relatively inefficient, for two reasons. First, they encourage utilities to pollute more before the cap-and-trade system is put into effect in order to "earn" pollution rights. Second, they waste the opportunity to use the Pigovian tax revenue.
Under a cap-and-trade system, the government does not raise revenue from carbon emissions as in a carbon tax scheme, and thus would be required to raise other taxes in order to properly subsidize renewable energies. A carbon tax reduces emissions and subsidizes renewable energy in one fell swoop.

As the Danish have proved, economic growth and lower emissions are not mutually exclusive. The world's reliance on oil today is simply a result of it being the most convenient and cheapest form of energy. If government subsidies allowed the cost of other forms of energy to approach that of oil, and if government taxes allowed the price of oil to simulteanously increase so as to approach that of other energy sources, the world's dependence on oil would wither away. It seems paradoxically simple, given the current raging debate on energy, that something as simple as a tax is the solution.

[Addendum (for Carol): Of course, a carbon tax is not all peaches and rainbows. As with any tax, the cost is ultimately born by the consumer, which lowers living standards.

(click on image to enlarge)

As the graph (which I made myself, I proudly add) shows, a carbon tax certainly decreases oil consumption, but at the cost of lower individual utility. After the tax, the consumer moves from indifference curve U2 to indifference curve U1, representing a lower level of utility. The detrimental effects of a carbon tax can be assuaged by providing a rebate, but that would limit the amount of government revenue able to be used to subsidize other forms of energy, and thus limit the efficacy of the tax. Consequently, as with all taxation, a trade-off exists. The present threat to the environment is sufficiently great, however, to warrant a temporarily lower (ceteris paribus, of course) standard of living, at least in countries rich enough to afford it. In my opinion.]

Friday, March 14, 2008

Follow Turkey's Lead

Turkey's military excursions into northern Iraq to eliminate Kurdish terrorist cells have received much attention from the international community. Their recent decision to invest up to $12 billion in the Kurdish southeast region of the country should receive the same. Turkey's recent Kurdish policy is the model Western nations should follow in counteracting terrorism abroad - a combination of specified force and effective prevention. Prevention comes in the form of heart-winning: economic assistance, greater human rights, more education, etc., all things that prevent young individuals from turning to terrorism.

The West should learn from such a strategy. It is not through military force alone that terrorism can be eradicated - indeed, through such a strategy terrorism will only grow in strength, for it gives disaffected individuals in the Middle East even more cause for violent action. If the United States did more to promote its image abroad, or if it appeared to care even one iota what those beyond its borders thought, terrorism would have a hard time attracting so many willing to give their life in the fight against the supposed "evil empire," to use Ahmadinejad buddy Hugo Chavez's words. Even simple superficial measures such as closing down Guatanamo or preventing Abu Ghraib would have tremendous impact on winning over the hearts and minds of would-be terrorists.

There are those who will say that America should not have to appease terrorists, but arguing on principle rather than reality betrays the principles that those forwarding such arguments rely on so heavily. The policies that America pursues in combating terrorism must be those that are most effective, not those that are ideologically convenient. If policy A is best in protecting Americans, the United States government has a moral and constitutional obligation to pursue policy A, regardless of whether or not it appears that big and badass USA is 'conceding' to the terrorists.

To that end, it has been proven that overt and blunt military action is not effective. The Middle East and Southwest Asia today are not more safe than they were before the War on Terror, and neither is America. No, there have not been terrorist attacks on United States soil in the six and a half years since September, 2001, but nor were there in the eight years between the two World Trade Center attacks (besides the Oklahoma City Bombing, but I admit that because it was conducted by an American citizen) - such a period of time is no effective means by which to judge anti-terror policy. Besides, I'd argue that domestic anti-terror measures are the sole reason why such attacks have been prevented - indeed, there have been no shortage of attempts at terrorist attacks on the United States, they have just been foiled by amped-up domestic security. Think of the shoe-bomber, the anthrax scare, the liquid-explosives plot, and the numerous other terrorist conspiracies that have been prevented. Also, Britain and Spain have been victims of catastrophic terrorist attacks as a result of their involvement in America's crusade. Were there ever so many continued threats before America's initiation of the War on Terror? Indeed, it seems as if Bush's foreign policy escapades serve only to give the Department of Homeland Security more work.

So step away from the smart bomb, USA. Embrace reconcilliation, compassion and education. A good repuatation goes much further than does a bullet.