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Saturday, December 5, 2009




Some Notes on Thomas Friedman's "This I Believe"

In his last article on Obama's decision to send thousands of marines to Afghanistan Thomas Friedman says that for him the point of going to Iraq was never about WMD, but to check if it's possible to bring change to the Arab world from within. Given the geographical centrality of Iraq in this part of the Middle East and its status of one of the cultural centers of the Arab world, a success in Iraq could have triggered a domino effect in neighboring countries and beyond. Says TF:

Iraq was about “the war on terrorism.” The Afghanistan invasion, for me, was about the “war on terrorists.” To me, it was about getting bin Laden and depriving Al Qaeda of a sanctuary — period. I never thought we could make Afghanistan into Norway — and even if we did, it would not resonate beyond its borders the way Iraq might.

Let me put it bluntly. Afghanistan is one of those hopeless countries whose geography, topography, ethnic composition... in short, just about everything militates against any possibility of this country growing into something better. To be fair to Afghanistan, in some aspects this country does resonates very well beyond its borders. It resonates well in the neighboring Pakistan drowning in a sea of suicide bombers and the last time Afghanistan was resonating in a big Western city, two skyscrapers went down in New York in the most spectacular manner. But this is just about it. In all other respects, TF is right, this is a very marginal and insignificant country. And in terms of nation building prospects, it's a waste of time and resources.

Compared to Afghanistan, Iraq may well be worth the effort. With all the bad blood between the Sunnis and Shias in Iraq, both sides still remain committed to some kind of Iraqi unity. If the USA can sort out the Arab Kurdish mess (Convincing both sides to split is also a reasonable solution), the things may start looking much better. Iraq is relatively well developed, the country is floating on a sea of oil. In short, this is probably the Arab country most suited for this kind of nation building, both because it's relatively easy to fix and because any democratic and social advances in Iraq immediately start trickling into at least a dozen of countries around. The Green Revolution in Iran may well have been influenced by the situation in Iraq.

Forget Iraq and Afghanistan, there is an even better way to fight both terrorism and terrorists. Says TF:

4. One of the main reasons the Arab-Muslim world has been so resistant to internally driven political reform is because vast oil reserves allow its regimes to become permanently ensconced in power, by just capturing the oil tap, and then using the money to fund vast security and intelligence networks that quash any popular movement. Look at Iran.

Hence, post-9/11 I advocated that our politicians find sufficient courage to hike gasoline taxes and seriously commit ourselves to developing alternatives to oil. Economists agree that this would ultimately bring down the global price, and slowly deprive these regimes of the sole funding source that allows them to maintain their authoritarian societies. People do not change when we tell them they should; they change when their context tells them they must.

Source: The New York Times

At this point it should be very instructive to compare the state of the US debate on gas taxes (this debate is almost non-existent now) with the reform of fuel subsidies championed by Ahmadinejad in Iran. The absence of a massive state tax on imported oil or gasoline in the US constitutes an implicit carbon subsidy for reasons I explained here. Defunding the Arab world through gas taxes in terms of impact would surpass any success in nation building in Iraq by orders of magnitude. However, gas tax seems to be impossible in the US right now, while the proposed cap and trade scheme is already so diluted and degraded under the populist pretext of shielding consumers from the costs of transition to low carbon economy that it should be considered a failure even before it comes into being.

On the other hand, Ahmadinejad's plan seems to have ran into troubles, but at least as originally envisioned the reform is obviously a very determined and well designed attempt to eliminate Iran's explicit carbon subsidy by means of restructuring taxation and allocation of funds. Besides making a lot of economic sense, the reform will have a dramatic impact on the future of the US Iran confrontation. For reasons I explained at the bottom of this post, if properly implemented, the reform may quickly render threats of more sanctions against Iran hollow.

So here you have two adversaries locked in a conflict over Iran's nuclear program and clashing in proxy wars all over the Middle East and beyond. For both the issue of phasing out their explicit (Iran) and implicit (USA) carbon subsidies is very much a matter of "to win it or lose it". In this sense, the determination with which Ahmadinejad is pushing through his very difficult and facing a significant opposition reform contrasts sharply with Obama eventually having lost himself between the cap and trade, Iraq and Afghanistan. Now make your own conclusions.


El Farouki - Futon

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