HOW DID I GET IN BED WITH THEM?

By Paul

It is not very often that I find myself amazingly in agreement about anything with the likes of Pope Francis, Ayatollah Khomeini, Vladimir Putin, Rand Paul, and – as they say – the citizens of Teabagistan.  In fact, I must admit that such bedfellows make me extremely uncomfortable, and the very idea of being in any sense in political company with them leads me to question yet again my decision to come out against US military intervention in Syria, as I did on this blog last week.  Normally, my comfort zone is on the side of President Obama, Secretary of State Kerry, Minority Leader Pelosi, Senator Boxer, and many other liberals, who now favor such military strikes.  If I had to put it in terms of friendship, I would say I think of this latter group as my compatriots and fellow countrymen, while the former gaggle would represent to me those who live on a distant and alien planet, far removed from my own.   And yet, here I am in agreement with them on this topic.  How has that come about?

Well, it has not been an easy journey, and I continue to examine myself each day to see if I still feel as though I must hold myself apart from my usual political alliances, my philosophical friends of the heart.  Let me, then, briefly explain how it is I feel I’ve come to where I’m at, and you be the judge as to whether or not my thinking is faulty.  I will not burden any reader with a verbatim reiteration of everything I said in my Aug. 29 “Bombs Away” posting, but for those who may not have read it, the main argument centers around the fact that military action against a country such as Syria can have untold, unforeseen, far-reaching, and frightening consequences, no matter how noble the motivation, and no matter how restricted the intended scope of the action.  That was the heart of the argument.  Tangentially, I also believe that, as heinous and despicable as chemical weapons truly are, in the end, death is death.   You cannot be more dead from a chemical attack than you can be from an artillery attack, or from a mortar shell, or a bullet.  And while at least a thousand people were killed in the chemical weapons attack (the numbers vary, depending on whose statistics you read), including women and children, no one also disagrees that well over one hundred thousand Syrians – one hundred times as many – also including women and children, have died as a result of conventional weapons in this terrible civil war.   Why then is the Obama Administration, and seemingly not many other countries thus far, hell bent on punishing Syria now, when earlier we were content to allow events to unfold with little outside input from us?

The answer seems to be that a “red line” has been crossed, namely, the use of chemical weapons.   And while there is no doubt that this argument carries with it a degree of weight, is it strong enough for us to risk the other consequences that may well result from a military attack on Syria?  These include the possibility of sucking the United States, willy-nilly, into yet another Middle Eastern conflagration, a quagmire out of which we will not know how to extricate ourselves, and even of the widening of the current civil war itself to include other nations of the region and of the globe.  These are not mere fantasies of a frightened mind.  They are very real possibilities, which we must face in any decision-making process.

The other argument for “doing what we said” in regard to the “red line” has to do with the notion of credibility.  Pres. Obama said just a day or two ago in Sweden that his credibility was not on the line, but rather that of the world community.  By this, we must assume that he is saying he’s willing to do what he said he would do, but that others (the US Congress? the signatories of the Chemical Weapons Ban?  any right-thinking person or country?) might not be willing to do so.  The Chemical Weapons Ban itself stipulates that parties pledge to provide “assistance and protection,” and to swiftly dispatch “expertise” when needed, but it does not specify that military action must be taken against any rogue state that makes use of such weapons. Furthermore, speaking of agreements we have signed, the United Nations Charter does demand that no country attack another, for any reason, without the prior agreement of the Security Council.  Additionally, we might recall that Saddam Hussein, our ersatz alley at the time, used chemical weapons against thousands of Kurds, and the US government, for geopolitical reasons of its own, said and did nothing.  So, it would seem that, in the end, red lines come in many different varieties of value and intensity.

Indeed, what the credibility issue may really come down to might only in small part have anything to do with Syria.  Instead, it may have to do with Iran, and whether or not it is working on the creation of a nuclear weapon, and with our pledge to Israel in regard to this particular line in the sand.  The argument in a nutshell goes something like this: if we back down in the face of Syria, a much smaller fish in the region, what will we ever do in regard to Iran, the biggest fish swimming in the Middle Eastern sea?  And, therefore, would we in essence be pre-abandoning Israel, as it were, if we were somehow not to stand up to Syria now?

I am not asserting that these questions ought not to be asked.  I am simply saying, let us be fully upfront about them.  My own take on the answer to the red line question as it pertains to Iran and Israel is that we are comparing giants and midgets.  The overwhelming opinion of the American public, and of French and British public opinion too by the way, is against military action in Syria.  The same, however, is not the case in regard to how we feel about Israel, and its struggle to survive in a region where so many seem to want it to disappear.  In other words, let Iran beware, and be wary.  The Ayatollah should not mistake a robust debate about the wisdom of attacking Syria for the use of chemical weapons, or even – if it were to come to that – a decision not to attack, with an unwillingness to protect America’s long-standing alley and co-democracy partner in the region.  Nor, I think, would the US Congress balk, the way the House of Representatives (if not the Senate) currently seems poised to do concerning Syria, were it to consider a resolution for the defense and protection of Israel.

Thus, credibility, like a red line, must be viewed in its proper context.  In the end, I fear I remain still in the same unlikely and very uncomfortable bed I found myself in at the beginning.  I’ll say it again:  I don’t like it, but here I am.  So it goes with politics sometimes, and with world affairs.  You’ve got to follow your heart, and afterwards, if you’re lucky, maybe you’ll work out in your head some reasons as to why you also think this should be the case.  So, move over Mr. Putin, your Holiness, and Mr. Paul.  I’m here, it would seem, with you this time.  Just, please, don’t get used to it. And don’t worry, either.  I fully expect this to be the first, and surely the last, time you will ever see me ensconced in this horribly cramped, unbearably uncomfortable, and highly disagreeable bed with you.

CAUGHT IN THE TAR SANDS QUAGMIRE

By Paul

I’m not claiming to be highly schooled in such things, but doesn’t it seem maybe a little too obvious that Pres. Obama was photographed not just once, but repeatedly, in front of stacks of ground-ready oil pipes in Cushing, Oklahoma  this past week?  The message was clear, even before he said his first word:  we are with you in your need and your desire for oil.  Oh, and of course let’s not forget that we’ve got to have people to lay those pipes too, which translates into jobs, jobs, jobs! 

 I kept wondering what the president could have been thinking as he stood  there talking about ordering the expedited construction of the southern portion of the XL pipeline down to the Gulf.  I hate to say this because I’m a great fan of Pres. Obama, but my fear is that he was thinking: how many votes will this get me come the fall?  

To be fair, let’s posit that the trip to Cushing was not about grandstanding, or at least not solely, and instead that it was part of the president’s “all of the above” strategy, which is itself inherently flawed.  In case you’re unfamiliar with that strategy, what it references is the notion that we need to use all possible energy sources, clean or not, in order to power our country. 

I suppose that for many people this approach has a certain immediate, almost intuitive appeal to it.  I mean, what’s wrong with saying that we cannot expect to power our houses or our factories, to say nothing of our cars, solely by clean energy in anything like the immediate future, and so in the meantime we’ve got to use all sources of fuel at our disposal, or risk ruining our country economically and falling farther behind competitors like China and India?   

But I believe that this is a false dichotomy; it’s not an either-or proposition.  Of course there is no doubt that we will continue to rely on oil for the foreseeable future.  We may not like it; I may not like it, but it’s the case.  However, it doesn’t follow from this that we have to continue on with a proposition like the XL pipeline, or with drilling in the tar sands of northern Canada.

Claiming that the oil that comes from these tar sands would remain in the US, or that the price of gasoline in the country would come down as a result of drilling in Canada, are both inaccurate and misleading statements.  The selling of oil takes place on the world market, and the price reflects that market.  No amount of drilling in Canada is going to substantially change either its availability to US buyers, or lower its cost to them. 

If we take a closer look at how the price of world oil is set, we see that it reflects and is ultimately determined by its perceived future availability.  That availability in turn fluctuates wildly due to political circumstances.  Markets are notoriously spooked first and foremost by anything that can be conceived of as instability.  Will Israel attack Iran?  Will Iran retaliate? Will Iran attempt to close the Straits of Hormuz?  If so, what will the US do? What will happen in Syria?  Will its current unrest and the atrocities inflicted upon its population by the Assad regime turn into a full-blown civil war, and will the chaos that ensues then spill over into the rest of the Middle East?  All this, along with the other side of the equation, namely demand, are the things that are making a difference in the price of gasoline at the pump, not whether or not Pres. Obama gives the green light to the expedited construction of a pipeline from Cushing, Oklahoma to the Gulf of Mexico. 

The Republican candidates all know this.  And if they do not, they ought to get out of the race immediately, as they pose an even graver danger to the political and economic well-being of the United States than I currently dare believe.  But it’s politically expedient for them to blame Pres. Obama for “the rise in the cost of oil,” even when they fully understand that he has virtually no control over either its cost or its availability.  Just as none of them would, if they were to become president.  And on top of that, the healthier the US economy gets, the greater the demand for oil. 

But even in discussing these details, I have to think I’m wandering too far from the main point that I began with.  It might even appear that I am buying into the hype that more and more gasoline is needed.  No! What is needed is an energy policy that phases out gasoline, and indeed all bio-fuels, as quickly as possible.  We currently give enormous tax breaks to huge multinational oil companies, which already make profits that register in the billions of dollars every quarter, but by comparison almost nothing is given to those companies, few as they may be, that labor to bring about clean energy usage.  Does that make good sense – or, dare I say, good policy – at a time when the results of global climate change are becoming more and more obvious, and more ominous, every day? 

So, I get it that Pres. Obama has to work in order to be reelected.  And that’s a good thing.  God help us if he is not!  But I have to really hope that, given a second term, he will redouble and even triple his efforts to decrease our dependence on bio-fuels of all kinds.  It’s not just about saving the incalculable beauty of the northern Canadian landscape from the predations of dirty oil drilling in the tar sands there, although that itself is a laudable goal.  But what is much more vital – and I don’t believe this to be too overblown a statement to make – is that we need an energy policy that will ultimately save the planet.  Or to put it another way, as the planet will no doubt go on one way or another in spite of all that humans can do to ruin it, in the end we need a policy that will save the life forms on the planet.  This includes you and me, and your daughters and your sons. 

President Obama’s words last week notwithstanding, producing more oil and gas won’t help with this.  What will help is a plan that gets us off a dependency on oil and gas, and gets us onto a track that promotes a healthy and sustainable future for all of us.