May 20, 2006

An Old-fashioned Blockade Better Than Bombs?

It is no secret that I'm against letting the current Iranian government get their hands on nuclear weapons. As far as I'm concerned, Iran has been at war with the US since the Teheran embassy invasion back in 1979. We've just been ignoring it, including their role in the Beirut Marine barracks bombing in 1983, in the Khobar Towers bombing in 1996, the Revolutionary Guard's attacks on US flagged shipping in the Arabian Gulf in 1987, and their support for terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. But ignoring a nuclear armed Iran in the hopes that they can be deterred would be, in my view at least, foolhardy.

So far there has been a lot of speculation about the "Begin Option" -- a preemptive strike against Iranian nuclear assets like Israel's 1981 destruction of Saddam Hussein's Osiraq reacter. However, there are a number of significant drawbacks to this approach:

  1. We don't know where all of Iran's nuclear facilities are located.

  2. Successful raids against hardened underground targets would require a large number of aircraft sorties and necessitate preemptive attacks to destroy Iran's air force and air defense capabilities, which are widely dispersed.

  3. Destruction of nuclear facilities in or near populated areas would likely produce (possibly significant) civilian casualties and release radioactive materials into the environment.

  4. Any military action against Iran might rally nationalistic elements behind the (generally unpopular) mullah regime.

Of course, the best solution would be for the UNSC to impose tough economic sanctions against Iran. However, this is unlikely, since Russia has important trade ties with Iran and China needs access to Iranian crude. But there still may be another way to impose sanctions on Iran.

Naval Blockade

Maybe I've been reading too many Aubrey/Maturin books, but an old-fashioned naval blockade might be an effective alternative to bombing. (The last US naval blockade was against Cuba during JFK's presidency, and there is some controversy about how good an idea that was.) This blockade could be used to both block oil exports and interdict all imports (possibly other than food and medicines). Stopping Iran's oil exports would cut off the major source of the mullah's revenues, and put great pressure on their already weak economy. (According to the US Energy Information Administration, oil accounts for "around 80-90 percent of total export earnings and 40-50 percent of the government budget.") In addition, preventing imports of machinery and industrial materials would slow development of their nuclear weapons infrastruction. (Iran, oddly enough, imports $4 billion per year in gasoline and other refined products because of a shortage of domestic refinery capacity.)

Blockading Iranian oil exports would, of course, have significant economic impacts throughout the world. Iran currently exports 2.7 million barrels of oil per day (mbd), or approximately 3.2% of world production and consumption. The leading buyers of Iranian crude are Japan, China, South Korea, Taiwan, Italy and France, who collectively account for more than 80% of Iran's oil sales. But they would not be the only ones affected: cutting off Iranian oil could potentially drive the world market price of crude oil to $100 per barrel or more, at least in the short term.

To lessen the international political backlash against these higher prices, the US administration could offer to, say, voluntarily reduce US oil imports by half of the world shortfall, or 1.35 mbd. The US currently imports about 12.4 mbd, so this would be equal to a nearly 11% reduction in US oil imports or a little more than a 6% reduction in US oil demand of nearly 21 mbd. According to the DOE's latest estimate of US energy price short-term elasticities, US oil prices would have to increase by more than 60% to result in a 6% reduction in US oil demand. Alternatively, the US could release oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which currently holds 689 million barrels of crude. This could replace 50% of total Iranian exports for more than 16 months without requiring any increase in domestic prices or decreases in demand. Obviously, smaller oil releases from the SPR could be combined with higher crude prices to allow the US to offset the loss of Iranian exports on world markets for a longer period of time.

The real challenge to imposing a blockade of Iran would be the risk of confronting third party vessels who wanted to challenge the blockade. For example, how would the Chinese government react if US Marines were to board a Chinese flagged tanker to prevent it from entering Iranian waters? Would Russia or China try to challenge the blockade with their Navies? Would the US be willing to risk war with one of these great powers to maintain the pressure on Iran?

I don't have answers to any of these questions, but if the alternatives to a blockade are either accepting an islamic republic armed with nuclear weapons or embarking upon a bloody air war with Iran to destroy their nuclear facilities, I think the idea merits further exploration.

May 20, 2006 at 05:19 PM | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

February 05, 2006

A Democracy Tariff?

Thinking about the latest Muslim uproar against freedom of expression in the West (the 'toon tantrums) prompted thoughts about energy dependence, oil addiction, and our important security interest in promoting freedom and democracy throughout the world. Wouldn't it be nice if we could use our economic influence to promote democracy and tolerance, as well as discourage our reliance on energy supplies from unstable parts of the world? Well, here is one idea how we might actually do this: renounce our membership in the World Trade Organization (which negotiates "most favored nation" agreements among participants) and institute a tariff regime that allows free trade with democratic nations and taxes imports from less free states.

How Might It Work?

We could establish a list of semi-objective characteristics that would define a democratic government. For example, countries might be required to have each of the following features:

  • Free and fair elections with universal suffrage,

  • A press free of government pressure and control, and

  • A legal system that ensured due process and protected the rights of religious and ethnic minorities.

Countries meeting these standards would be allowed free access to US markets, with no import duties on their goods. Countries that did not meet these standards could also export to the US, but their products would be subject to a "Democracy Duty" of, say, 30%. This would provide powerful economic incentives for governments to implement pro-democracy policies, and would also create disincentives for American firms to establishing economic ties with undemocratic regimes.

Who Would Be Affected?

During the first 11 months of 2005, the fifteen largest exporters to the US accounted for 75.8% of all goods imported. (These figures exclude imports of services.) Of these countries, all except China (#2 supplier of imports) and Saudi Arabia (#14) would be considered democracies based on the criterion above, with the possible exception of Venezuela (#9).

Graph of Top 15 Source of US Imports

What Would Be The Economic Impact?

For the US, this policy would certainly increase the domestic price of petroleum products and create incentives for refiners to switch to democratic suppliers (Britain, Canada, Iraq, Mexico, etc.), domestic production and alternative energy sources. The prices realized on world markets for non-democratic oil exporters would probably also decline somewhat, but to the extent oil supplies are fungible (and they are not entirely so because downstream infrastructure (mainly refineries) are optimized for certain types of crude and cannot quickly and efficiently switch to other grades and types of crude), this effect would be modest as other consumers switched to these undemocratic suppliers.

A bigger impact would be felt by China, as American buyers shifted purchases to other low wage economies like Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, and India. Prices of US manufactured imports would also rise, at least in the short term, which would also be popular with labor unions and domestic manufacturers.

What About The Domestic Politics of This Policy?

Interestingly, a Democracy Duty might appeal to groups across the ideological spectrum. On the left, labor unions and environmentalist would like the restrictions it would place on Chinese imports and the increased cost of imported oil. On the right, the notion of using our economic power to promote and reward democrat regimes throughout the world would also be appealing.

Of course, successful American export industries like aerospace and intellectual property might be hurt, because the US would be unilaterally renouncing the use of its own trade policy to advance the interests of its own export industries. Similarly, the State Department and multilateral bureacracies that are heavily invested the WTO and the endless rounds of GATT negotiations, would be mortified.

*                 *                 *

I'm sure that I have only scratched the surface in terms of the implications of this sort of trade policy, but it is an interesting idea. Comments, anyone?

February 5, 2006 at 02:22 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

November 21, 2005

Blog Mitosis Predicted

One of the issues I have struggled with as a blogger is the tension between two different styles of blog posting: "linking" versus "thinking." A linking blog, as the name implies, is primarily composed of short posts linking to interesting articles elsewhere on the 'net. Glenn Reynolds (aka Instapundit) is perhaps the best practitioner of this art. A thinking blog, on the other hand, is comprised of original, often quite long essays, where links are only used to document sources or provide further information. My favorite example of the thinking style blog was Steven Den Beste's blog USS Clueless. (Unfortunately, Steven appears to have retired from "serious" blogging.)

Like many bloggers, I tend to do a little of both, which can be problematic. If I focus on doing original writing, it is hard to find the time to read and link to other important developments. If I just link to what I find topical and/or amusing, my blog turns into a not very sucessful imitation of Instapundit. (Echopundit? I wonder if anyone has taken that name...)

In terms of format, this mix of styles can also pose problems. If I spend several days researching and writing a story that I feel pretty good about, I hate to see it slide down the chronological totem pole, slowly buried by subsequent posts (often never to be seen again). But multicolumn or other formats that would isolate "long shelf life" articles are too complicated and require too much messing with HTML and the finer points of web page design.

Well, I think I've found a potential solution. Or, more accurately, I stumbled across someone else who appears to have developed a solution. Tim Langeman's solution is brilliant in its simplicity: have one blog for each style! Even better, have each blog highlight links to recent posts in the other blog in the sidebar.

I have therefore resolved, as soon as I find the time to figure out the implementation, to split Spartacus into two blogs: say, for the time being at least, Spartacus Thinks and Spartacus Links. (Truth in advertising is the last refuge of the unimaginative mind.) We'll see how the experiment works out, but I think this idea has promise

November 21, 2005 at 06:05 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 26, 2005

Time for a US Foreign Legion?

One of the less pleasant realities of the modern world is that the US is -- whether we like it or not -- the world's policeman. From Kosovo to Liberia, from Somalia to the Sudan, if the "international community" (whatever that is), needs to intervene militarily to stop bad people from doing bad things to other people, the US will be required to do the lion's share of the heavy lifting.

The most conspicuous current example of US foreign policing responsibility is, of course, Iraq. Whether or not you agreed with the decision to invade (or liberate) Iraq, most Americans continue to believe in our obligation to support the new democratic government and prevent a bloody civil war. But, as the war's opponents celebrate the macabre milestone of the 2,000th dead US soldier, public support for the war continues to erode. And with the steady drum beat of Democratic calls for a "timetable" for pulling out US troops, how long can the Administration continue to hang tough in support of the Iraqi democratic experiment?

As Vietnam demonstrated, it is very hard for democracies to wage foreign wars. This is particularly true when a large portion of the population does not believe that vital national interests are at stake. Even with an all-volunteer, professional army (as we currently have), the sight of America's sons and daughters dying on television news is extremely unpopular.

Given the public's limited tolerance for US casualties, is it realistic to expect that America can meet it's responsibilities as the world's policeman? (Of course, isolationists and critics on the left would argue that it's not our problem. Instead, the UN or other international organizations should be responsible for maintaining order and protecting basic human rights throughout the world. I don't have time here to explain why this is wishful thinking rather than a realistic alternative, but trust me, it is.)

In Kosovo, Bill Clinton limited US intervention to medium altitude bombing in a (successful) effort to avoid US casualties. But this approach traded off increased civilian casualties to prevent US military deaths, which hardly seems terribly moral.

On the other hand, perhaps we can learn from our friends the French. I refer, of course, to that estimable institution the French Foreign Legion. Don't think Beau Geste. The Legion is still going strong and today consists of 10 battalions of elite infantry (with a strength of 7,700 men), serving in bases in France, Africa and Latin America. Legionnaires enlist for initial terms of five years, which can subsequently extended. After three years of satisfactory service, Legionnaires have the option of applying for French citizenship and residency rights.

A US foreign legion, organized along similar lines, would be a very attractive prospect for thousands of ambitious, aggressive young men seeking US citizenship and residency. In France, 10,000 applicants a year apply to join the Legion. This in spite of the requirement that candidates travel to France at their own expense (including obtaining a visa on their own) before they can apply. If the US accepted applicants at its embassies abroad, the number of potential recruits who would be eager to exchange, say, ten years of paid service for US citizenship would be enormous.

Of course, recruiting a mercenary army largely comprised of foreigners would be a vast departure from American practice and tradition. It would also be a very dangerous tool to give to any government: a politically painless (or less painful) means by which to wage war.

But if the alternative is failure to protect vital US strategic interests (like defeating radical Islamists in the Mideast) because of a lack of political will, maybe it is time to consider some different approaches.

October 26, 2005 at 07:00 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 17, 2005

An idea who's time has come?

Today's LAT has an OpEd by former Seattle police chief Norm Stamper calling for drug legalization. His rationale? The "war on drugs" is not working, leading to over-crowded prisons, corrupt cops, and devastated communities.

I think this is a good idea. While the human costs of cheap (or cheaper) addictive and life-destroying drugs would be high, the broader community would be spared the crimes against persons and property needed to support a life of serious drug abuse. More importantly, in my view, would be the social effects of eliminating drug dealers as role models for children in poor, urban communities. Ending the ghetto "career path" from entry-level lookout on up the ladder to full-time dealer, would save the lives of hundreds of thousands of young (largely minority) men, who are now seduced by easy money into a life ending in long-term incarceration.

After all, we've been down this road before. Our country outlawed the use of alcohol from 1920-33 in a futile attempt to avoid the social costs of alcohol abuse: the lost jobs, broken families, domestic violence and vagrancy due to alcoholism. Ultimately, the social costs of prohibition -- the rise of organized crime, gang violence, corruption, and disrespect for the law -- were far greater than any benefits from restricting access to legal booze.

Of course, the politics of drug legalization at present are a complete non-starter. But just because it's unpopular doesn't mean that it's not the right thing to do.

October 17, 2005 at 07:03 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 12, 2005

Preparing for the big one

What do Katrina, the Kashmiri earthquake and last year's tsunami have in common? They all would have been great opportunities for a US Reconstruction Corps to have saved lives and enhanced America's prestige in the world.

Author Robert D. Kaplan (Imperial Grunts: The American Military on the Ground), evidently is thinking along the same lines in an OpEd in today's NYT.

October 12, 2005 at 10:25 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 08, 2005

Outsourcing Disaster Relief?

Reading David Leonhardt's piece on the instantly adaptive nature of today's transportation and business systems in today's NYT reminded me of an excellent idea a neighbor suggested for dealing with Katrina-type natural disasters: outsource it to the private sector. He meant, of course, having FEMA contract with large national firms like Walmart, UPS and FedEx to stockpile and distribute relief supplies.

The advantages are obvious. These firms already have the transportation and logistical support assets needed to deliver huge volumes of supplies throughout the US. Even more important, they train and practice using these assets in a timely and cost-effective manner every day of the year. What is more, they already own (at their own expense) substantial inventories of the supplies most likely to be needed during the early phases of mass disaster relief: food, drinking water and first aid supplies.

The major advantage of using the private sector to handle this type of vital humanitarian aid, however, is the effectiveness of their management and control systems. Unlike FEMA, bound by the iron shackles of government bureacracy, private sector managers are daily held accountable for results. Is the inventory there or not? Were the percentage of ontime deliveries above or below target?

There is also precedent for this type of arrangement. For many years, the Air Force's Military Airlift Command has contracted with major airlines to participate in the Civil Reserver Air Fleet (CRAF). This program pays airlines (largely through guaranteed annual volumes of traditional freight and passenger business) to contracturally commit specific aircraft and their crews to the military within 48 hours.

Given the demonstrated lack of proficiency of our governmental systems (at the local, state and federal level), maybe it's time to think outside the box -- particularly when lives are at stake.

October 8, 2005 at 09:35 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 02, 2005

Would a Reconstruction Corps Have Made a Difference in New Orleans?

As many of you know, I have written many posts about the need for a new branch of the military -- a Reconstruction Corps -- that would be designed and trained to perform less than combat military operations. Chief among these would be disaster relief, rebuilding damaged infrastructure and peacekeeping. These forces would be under military discipline, and part of the Department of Defense, but would focus entirely on their mission of humanitarian aid and reconstruction. Unlike nearly all other aid organizations, they would have their own, dedicated (the military term for this is "organic") logistical resources, including airlift, heavy transport equipment that could travel on unimproved (or damaged) roads, and construction equipment.

My original thoughts about the need for this new type of military force were prompted by the situation in Iraq, where our military quickly demolished conventional military resistance, but stumbled badly in managing the reconstruction of Iraqi infrastructure and civil society. However, the current disaster in New Orleans illustrates the important role that such a federal agency could play in terms of protecting lives and property here in the US.

The main advantage of a dedicated branch of the armed services devoted to reconstruction and emergency aid is that career officers in this field would continually plan and train for likely crisis situations, either at home or abroad. When an actual disaster occurred, the several days (or weeks) needed to 1) assess the situation, 2) identify assets that are needed (and available) to help, 3) sequence and prioritize transportation of assets and supplies to the effected area, and 4) develop an appropriate command and control structure to coordinate all of the above would be compressed dramatically. Instead, officers would dust off the latest version of the plan for responding to, say, a massive earthquake in a Japanese city, or a hurricane strike on a US city, or a massive terrorist attack using radiological weapons, and then go to work making it happen. In each case, the difficult and time consuming task of figuring out what you need, where to get it, and in what order to send it would have been already accomplished. Even more important, the units and individuals needed to implement this plan would have already practiced their tasks, and identified any potential problems that would be likely to arise.

Sure, FEMA is supposed to be responsible for this type of activity in the US, but they are primarily bureaucrats whose main focus is on sending in teams to fill out forms for federal disaster aid payments after the fact. They don't have their own fleets of vehicles (or a prearranged system for calling on vehicles and equipment belonging to other parts of the federal government or private contractors), and they don't have an experienced staff that is trained and equipped to manage the huge logistical challenge of feeding and caring for hundreds of thousands of people in a disaster area.

Similarly, National Guard units have limited training schedules (because, after all, they are part-time soldiers) and nearly all of this training time is devoted to practicing the roles their units would play if they were mobilized into the active duty military for combat operations. They have vehicles and trained men and women to operate and maintain them, but they lack a dedicated planning function and officer corps tasked with the single mission of coping with natural or man-made disasters. (And as we have seen in New Orleans, planning and speedy execution are critical to saving lives in a major crisis that overwhelms civilian or local resources.)

You can read more details of how a Reconstruction Corps might work in these posts: Nov02, Apr03, Jul03, and May05. Maybe one of the positive legacies of the Katrina disaster may be the development of an organization that can effectively mitigate future catastrophes..

September 2, 2005 at 08:54 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

February 20, 2005

A modest proposal for Social Security reform

I had lunch with an old friend the other day who had an interesting idea about fixing social security. His suggestion was to create a new type of IRA that would be mandatory -- every employee or taxpayer would be required to contribute a certain percentage of their income annually. To protect inexperienced investors from making foolish choices, the range of investment options would be limited and the fees regulated. This new programs would be in addition to the existing Social Security system, which would remain as it is. Perhaps, like Social Security, individuals and their employers would both be required to contribute -- say 1% of wages or income from each, equal to the 2% annual contribution in the President's voluntary individual accounts.

This plan would address several shortcomings of Bush's proposal while retaining many of the benefits:

  • Unlike the President's proposal, which would divert contributions from the SS system to private accounts, these new accounts would increase the overall US savings rate, adding to the flow of capital available for investment.

  • While these new accounts would amount to a new (or increased) payroll tax, it would be an odd sort of tax since the government would not be getting any of the money. Rather it would be forcing individuals to save for their own retirements.

  • Like the President's plan, these new, mandatory investment accounts would promote the values of an "ownership society" and would allow even the poorest workers to accumulate personal wealth that could be left to their families on their death.

  • Like the administration's plan, this new plan would not directly address SS' "solvency issue", but it would increase the overall level of taxes and forced savings available to finance future retiree benefits. And, like the President's plan, this new system would result in personal account balances which would cushion the impact of the inevitable cuts in SS benefits under the existing system. (Or rather the cancellation of at least some of the future benefit increases required under the current SS law.)
All in all, it's an interesting idea, and one I have yet to hear proposed elsewhere.

February 20, 2005 at 02:22 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

May 18, 2004

Revitilizing the United Nations: A Modest Proposal

As the Coalition forces in Iraq await the announcement by UN special advisor Lakhdar Brahmini, on exactly who the Coalition will be turning Iraqi sovereignty over to at the end of June, the time seems right to revisit the question of what is the United Nations and how is it constituted?

How we got to where we are today

When the UN was founded at the end of the Second World War in 1945, it had 51 members.   And they were all real countries.   The smallest UN member, in terms of 1950 population, was Luxemburg with a population of 300,000.   The median UN member had a population in 1950 of 7.6 million.   Not huge, but a real country.   Here is the list of charter members:

Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Bolivia. Brazil, Belarus, Canada, Chile, China, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, Ethiopia, France, Greece, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, India, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Liberia, Luxembourg, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Norway, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Syrian Arab Republic, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, United States of America, Uruguay, Venezuela, Yugoslavia

Over the years, as decolonization progressed, countries split apart, and one thing led to another, the UN grew to its current level of 191 member states.   Today, there are 42 member states of the UN that have total 2002 populations of under one million people: 

Swaziland, Fiji, Cyprus, Timor-Leste, Guyana, Comoros, Bahrain, Djibouti, Qatar, Equatorial Guinea, Solomon Islands, Luxembourg, Cape Verde, Suriname, Malta, Martinique, Brunei Darussalam, Bahamas, Maldives, Iceland, Barbados, Belize, Vanuatu, Samoa, Saint Lucia, Sao Tome and Principe, Saint Vincent/Grenadines, Federated States of Micronesia, Grenada, Tonga, Antigua and Barbuda, Kiribati, Seychelles, Dominica, Andorra, Marshall Islands, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Monaco, San Marino, Palau, Nauru, Tuvalu

In other words, 42 UN members (accounting for 23% of the voting members) have populations smaller than the 50 largest US metropolitan areas.   Put still another way, the 31 most populated members of the UN account for 80% of the world's population and yet have only 16% of the votes at the UN.

Similarly, the UN Security Council was composed of five permanent members, with veto powers, representing the five victorious powers in WWII:  The US, UK, USSR, France, and China.    The UNSC also has ten members elected by the General Assembly for two year terms, those members do not have veto powers.

While this structure may have been appropriate nearly 60 years ago when the UN was founded, it is clearly out of step with the modern world.    For one thing, the General Assembly, which was intended to be the "populist" body in the this global assembly, representing the interests and aspirations of the majority of mankind, is full of what English historians would have called "rotten boroughs".    For example, the government of India, which represents a population estimated at 1.05 billion in 2003 and is a vibrant democracy, has one vote in the General Assembly.    Similarly, Tuvalu, which has a population of 11,305 people, also has one vote.    This is democracy?!

How to fix it

My suggestion is simple: let's change the voting system in the UN General Assembly so that countries' votes are weighted by their populations.   Under this system, the 31 largest countries would comprise more than 80% of the votes in the General Assembly:

Population and voting percentage of the 31 largest countries in the UN

Furthermore, let's overhaul the UN Security Council to reflect the current balance of economic and military power.    I would suggest increasing the number of permanent council members to eight and including five members elected by the General Assembly.    Also, I would eliminate the veto power of the Permanent Members, but allow the General Assembly to overrule the UNSC upon a two thirds majority vote.    Proposed new permanent members of the UNSC:


I would argue that a UN, thus reconstituted, would better reflect both the economic and military realities of the modern world as well as the humanistic goal of representing each country according to its human population.    Furthermore, with serious countries (that is to say countries that have both sizeable populations and significant economies) firmly in control of the UN bureacracy, it might be easier to create both a more responsive, and responsible, global political body.

May 18, 2004 at 01:38 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack