The Long View 2002-09-19: Historical Accidents

In general, John was a cautious advocate of George W. Bush, but he wasn't a fool.

The US will probably get its chance to change the regime in Iraq very soon. For myself, I am inclined to think that everyone is making a lot of fuss about a 72-hour raid. However, we might remember that Henry V's campaign in France was tactically brilliant, but a strategic failure.

John also had a better appreciation of economics than most critics of the war in Iraq.

One of the points often made about US Iraqi policy, and about US policy in that part of the world in general, is that it is based on nothing more than US desire for oil. This is true only indirectly. Certainly it is not the case that the US "wants Iraq's oil," as that country's hapless foreign minister recently put it. Actually, I suspect that the domestic oil producers with whom the Bush family is so familiar would like nothing better than that the Iraqi fields be capped and buried under ziggurats; peace and new oil fields could bring back the days of $18 per gallon crude. Nonetheless, it is true that the US is so interested in the Middle East because the world has a petroleum economy. It does not follow, however, that a non-petroleum economy would mean a peaceful world, or even a peaceful Middle East.

The oil boom brought about by fracking is a consequence of $100 a barrel oil. We get oil from Saudi Arabia for the same reason we get electronics from China: the importers save a few cents on each transaction, which adds up in a big country like ours. Nonetheless, what happens in the Middle East influences oil prices, which affect the US economy and US citizens, so US politics pays attention.

Finally, imagine a "Green" world, in which renewable energy is not the unreliable, capital intensive monstrosity that it is in our world, but in which people in developed regions live in "frugal comfort" on sunflower oil and electricity from windmills. That would mean that many regions would be an order of magnitude poorer and more chaotic than they already are. Without petroleum exports, the whole Middle East would be Afghanistan.

With the death of the king of Saudia Arabia, many have wondered whether time has come for the US to cut our ties with the Saudis. If we were able to successfully extricate ourselves from the Middle East, it would require a big change in both US politics and our economy. While difficult, the changes seem plausible. These changes would mean the end of the petrostates all over the world. However, the big question is whether the Middle East would again be a sleepy backwater, or would explode in violence from desparation.

Historical Accidents

 

George Bush is rarely compared to Shakespeare favorably. Still, all through the president's address to the United Nation's General Assembly last week, I could not help thinking of the oration early in Henry V (Part II). That is when the bishop explains that, by any reasonable interpretation of the Salic Law, young King Henry was the rightful king of France. George Bush made an argument of much the same order to the Assembly, using UN resolutions instead of Merovingian constitutional law. The difference between George and Henry is that the people whose cooperation George needs, both foreign and domestic, all seem to have found his argument persuasive. At any rate, they found it politic to say they did. The legal preparations for an Iraqi campaign began in earnest.

The supposed concession by the Iraqi government to unconditional inspections was long predicted and well timed, from their point of view. However, the initiative does nothing to alter the course of events.

They did the same thing just before the allied offensive in 1991, but too late to have any effect: the resolutions from the Security Council and the US Congress were already in place and military action was at the discretion of the executive. By making the ploy now, they have at least the potential to slow down the political process by some weeks. However, it became immediately apparent that unconditional inspections would have conditions. One reports says that only sites designated by the Iraqis as military bases would be open to inspection. Another says that the Iraqi negotiators have already said that Hans Blix, the head of the UN inspectors, is a "spy." Even the UN will not tolerate being made to look so foolish so soon.

The US will probably get its chance to change the regime in Iraq very soon. For myself, I am inclined to think that everyone is making a lot of fuss about a 72-hour raid. However, we might remember that Henry V's campaign in France was tactically brilliant, but a strategic failure.

 

* * *

One of the points often made about US Iraqi policy, and about US policy in that part of the world in general, is that it is based on nothing more than US desire for oil. This is true only indirectly. Certainly it is not the case that the US "wants Iraq's oil," as that country's hapless foreign minister recently put it. Actually, I suspect that the domestic oil producers with whom the Bush family is so familiar would like nothing better than that the Iraqi fields be capped and buried under ziggurats; peace and new oil fields could bring back the days of $18 per gallon crude. Nonetheless, it is true that the US is so interested in the Middle East because the world has a petroleum economy. It does not follow, however, that a non-petroleum economy would mean a peaceful world, or even a peaceful Middle East.

Let's do some alternative history:

 

Imagine we had come to the year 2000 with economic autarky and political isolation as the dominate principles of statecraft. That was, pretty much, what happened in the 1930s. It proved to have certain drawbacks.

Imagine another world, one that embraced nuclear power as soon as it became available. That is, in fact, the only currently feasible alternative to a petroleum economy; the French made just that choice, and it worked very well for them. Such a world, however, would require a shoot-on-sight non-proliferation regime far larger and more rigorous than the one we have now. There would be an Iraq-type crisis every few years.

Finally, imagine a "Green" world, in which renewable energy is not the unreliable, capital intensive monstrosity that it is in our world, but in which people in developed regions live in "frugal comfort" on sunflower oil and electricity from windmills. That would mean that many regions would be an order of magnitude poorer and more chaotic than they already are. Without petroleum exports, the whole Middle East would be Afghanistan.

Oil is only an occasion, not a cause. At this stage of history, global terrorism and wars to contain it are inevitable. Technology has made the world just a day or two across by commercial jet. Resentment, ambition, and need flow with few restrictions over a world that has not yet developed the institutions to manage the situation. The really scary thing is that ours may be the best of all possible worlds.

 

* * *

Cantor Fitzgerald, the bond-trading firm that suffered the worst casualties in the attack on the World Trade Center, has issued a report criticizing the calculations of the Victim's Compensation Board, which is supposed to award settlements in lieu of litigation to the survivors of the victims of 911. (Can we say, "September 11," or has that become confusing now that another September 11 has passed?) The report points out that the fund is operating more like a welfare fund than like an arbitrator in a wrongful death suit. Cantor Fitzgerald's staff was young and very highly paid; the average payouts of one and a half million dollars that the fund anticipates is really just a fraction of what the survivors of such people would receive in the courts. The report says that this is not fair.

Yes, it isn't fair. Murdering all those people certainly was not fair. It also is not fair that there is not enough money in the world pay off all the theoretical claims that could be made for 911 in lower Manhattan. I have seen figures as high as half a trillion dollars. You could rebuild all of Manhattan for that. Awards of that magnitude would wreck the world's insurance system and bankrupt several government entities. As a matter of fact, the victims' survivors have the option of pursuing their claims in court, but it will be intolerable if any large number of them do so.

There is something that the authors of the Cantor Fitzgerald report seem not to understand; neither do many of the other survivors, or even their attorneys. Tort damages are not a civil right. The tort system is a government service, one that is helpful and even necessary for society in normal times. In abnormal times, when there is war or natural disaster, the rules of liability are suspended. This is not a new idea. The law has always worked this way; it has to.

We must ask ourselves: suppose there is a next time, and a time after that?

Copyright © 2002 by John J. Reilly


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