A Lincoln Brigade for Syria: It is time to say no to more unnecessary wars. If some people can’t wait to start another one, they should be the ones to fight it.
June 17, 2012
The sofa samurai and ivory-tower warriors are in full war cry over Syria. Washington should do something! It’s time to recreate the Lincoln Brigade so they can go to war without dragging America into yet another unnecessary conflict.
When the conventional wisdom takes over in Washington, the crescendo can swell to epic proportions. So it has over Syria.
For instance, the so-called Three Amigos—senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Joseph Lieberman, who have rarely found a country they didn’t want to bomb or invade—naturally wanted war early and often in Syria. Rising Republican star Senator Marco Rubio recently complained that the Obama administration’s demand that Assad go “has not been coupled with action.”
At the other side of the political spectrum, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen fulminated over America’s failure to act. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof expressed shock that a Nobel Peace Prize winner had not involved America in another war. Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution argued that pundits should concentrate on advocating war, not worrying about the details: “I’m pretty sure it’s not the job of civilian think tanks to prepare a full, detailed battle plan for Syria.”
Absent from this advocacy is any belief that practicality matters, that prudence should influence policy, that going to war should be based on something more than feelings. Who cares about the consequences of war? Just do it!
We went through a similar exercise less than a decade ago. In the run-up to the Iraq war, opposition was drowned out with a similar crescendo of outraged claims of imminent threats draped with humanitarian rhetoric. Opponents of war were accused of being pro-Saddam Hussein. Armchair generals promised a “cakewalk” that would drain the swamp, create a model democracy, extend U.S. influence and cause the lion to lie down with the lamb.
When reality intruded after the invasion, the American people felt duped and turned against a campaign they originally supported. In Syria, there is no public support for intervention to start with. Disappointment likely would begin immediately.
War advocates don’t argue that this time would be different. They act as if Iraq didn’t happen. There’s no danger of repeating history because there apparently is no history.
If experience won’t limit their enthusiasm for war, we need another way to channel their enthusiasm. Instead of letting them start another foolish, counterproductive conflict—with a potentially lengthy, costly and counterproductive occupation to follow—we should let them go directly to war themselves. We need a new Lincoln Brigade.
The Lincoln Brigade (actually a battalion) was part of the international forces that fought for the Republican government against Francisco Franco’s Nationalists during the Spanish Civil War. Formed in 1937, the Lincoln Brigade later joined with the Washington Brigade. Some 2,800 Americans served in the two units, seven hundred of whom died either in combat or of disease before the foreign fighters were withdrawn in late 1938.
Members of the Lincoln Brigade viewed themselves as idealistic. Their courage was undeniable, as was their willingness to live what they preached. They believed in foreign intervention and they intervened—personally. No advocating grand crusades, ignoring the necessary planning and leaving the dirty work to others. This was hands-on foreign policy at its finest.
Such an approach would be particularly welcome today since so many zealous enthusiasts for war haven’t served in the active military. Nor have the leaders who took America into war.
President Bill Clinton famously avoided the draft while attempting to preserve his “political viability.” President George W. Bush joined the reserves when it was a favored vehicle for avoiding service in Vietnam. Vice President Richard Cheney famously explained that he had “other priorities” in using five deferments to stay out of the Vietnam War military. President Barack Obama never got close to a military uniform or base until he was president. All have more often deployed the military and started more wars than President Ronald Reagan, who was painted as a rabid cowboy during the 1980 campaign.
If “Lincoln Brigade” seems a bit dated or esoteric for the name, one could call it the “Second Chance Brigade,” for those who just didn’t get around to serving in the military when they were young. Or even the “Cheney Brigade,” for everyone who was just too busy when they were in their twenties.
This doesn’t mean military service should be the primary criterion for election to high political office. America is a republic in which the military serves the civilian society. The highest ideal is peace, not war. And at a time in which only a small percentage of people thankfully need don a uniform, the vast majority of political leaders will not have done so. Nor does this mean that those who have not served should not comment on international affairs. We all have a stake in our nation’s defense, whether we served in the military, were military brats (like me) or had no connection to the armed forces.
However, those who believe the military should be a tool of social engineering, that American lives should be risked to conduct foreign crusades without any vital or even merely serious U.S. security interests at stake, have a special responsibility to the country. The warrior wannabes have little credibility if they do not put their principles into action…
June 17, 2012
In Koro, eastern Mali, nerves are raw in this town of 14,000 souls that live on a broad, arid plain near the border with Burkina Faso. A rumor rippled out from Koro’s marketplace early on a hot May afternoon, that rebel fighters from the north — Islamists or Tuareg nationalists, no one knew for sure — would attack the next day, Friday, the Muslim day of prayer. By Thursday night, when I went to interview Koro’s mayor, Soumaila Djinde, at his home, the rumor had become more specific: He told me that two local merchants had come to his office around 6 p.m., worried because they had heard that fighters from the Islamic Tuareg rebel group Ansar Dine — which participated in the fall of Timbuktu on April 1 in the rebellion that has split Mali in two — would visit Koro to show their strength and pray at the town’s large mosque. The mosque — a beautiful building of iron-rich, red-brown mud with high, pointed towers along each wall and thick ornate wooden doorways cut from giant baobab trees — was built hundreds of years ago by Dogon tribesmen from whom Djinde is descended.
Koro had been raided once already, on April 6. No one was hurt, but the incident rattled nerves and people worry about new attacks. “I hear these rumors all the time,” Djinde told me, speaking in French. “Just the same, you should not show yourself in town.” Good advice, given that I am tall, with white hair and white skin that makes me a good kidnapping target for the likes of Ansar Dine or Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, both of which roam the north with impunity. I left Koro the next morning, Friday, and crossed into Burkina Faso. When I called Djinde later that day, he said the raid never came. But that was no comfort to him or the village of Koro. “We live in confusion here,” he said.
People in villages and towns like Koro, across the high cliffs and volcanic bedrock of the ethnic Dogon country, now find themselves on the edge of Mali’s new and toxic northern frontier, face to face with a rogue Tuareg state, the so-called Azawad, and largely without a government to protect them. Add to the mix Islamist groups like Ansar Dine and Al Qaeda, whose motives are different from the Tuareg nationalists, and the confusion is complete. For the Islamists, this is a religious war for the supremacy of Muslim sharia law. For the nationalists — who have banded together under the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, known by its French acronym, MNLA — this is a war for national and ethnic independence. The rebels don’t have the resources to invade and occupy Mali’s more densely populated and verdant south, but they need basic supplies to hold the north and the raids serve that purpose. Towns like Koro are probably not at risk of being taken outright, though they have things the rebels need: food, cars, tires, and spare parts. Koro has not been raided since I left, but there are frequent reports of banditry in villages on both sides of the Mali-Burkina Faso border north of Koro.
Tuaregs are well known for their raiding culture, a reputation that is many hundreds of years old. The history of the Sahara is full of stories of dark, turbaned men on camelback appearing suddenly atop a sandy ridge or out of the dust to attack a trans-Saharan trading caravan, a village, or a European exploring party. The ill-fated Flatters expedition of 1880, which the French commissioned to survey a trans-Saharan railroad, was picked apart by ambush and treachery, reducing a force of 97 men to a dozen stragglers. For all this the Tuaregs have earned the grudging respect and eternal suspicion of the darker skinned peoples of the Sahel. The French writer Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio captures the Tuareg mystique in the opening of his novel, Desert: “They appeared as if in a dream at the top of the dune, half hidden in the cloud of sand rising in their steps…”
But in Koro people feel no such mystique, only fear. Koro is latitudinally in central Mali, in the east of Mopti province, where staples like millet and rice sell for six times what they did a year ago, due to war and little rain last year. Mali, along with the rest of the West African Sahel, from Senegal to Chad, is under the strain of a drought that has put 15 million people at risk of starvation. Now, this conflict has plunged the region into deeper trouble, producing some 320,000 refugees. A third of them are displaced within Mali, while the rest have fled across borders into Algeria, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, and Niger. Among the Dogon people, in village after village across Mopti province, farmers talk of a season of starvation Mali has not experienced in recent memory.
“We don’t have the resources to feed ourselves right now,” Moumouni Damango, the Malian government’s emergency relief coordinator in Mopti city, told me. “And now this war? We don’t have time for this.” In Songho, a village in the Dogon cliff country about 20 miles east of Mopti city, an elder named Malick Yanogue said through an interpreter that last year’s yields of millet, peanuts, sorghum, and corn were nearly zero. The European and American tourists who once liked to explore the famous cliff dwellings and buy Dogon cloth and wood carvings stopped coming a year ago because of the looming threat of war. “Many people in Songho are eating one meal a day,” Yanogue said. “There is not much food to sell, and not many people have the means to buy food.” He and farmers in other villages complained that food availability is even worse because many village markets are empty for fear of rebel raids.
On April 6, the same day as the raid on Koro, the MNLA declared the independence of Azawad, just a week after they and their Islamist allies overran the north of Mali, taking the towns of Kidal, Gao, and Timbuktu one right after the other. They forced the Malian Army back south to the city of Mopti, the provincial capital where the Bani River meets the mighty Niger, 170 miles south of Timbuktu. When Timbuktu fell, gendarmes, bureaucrats, and aid agencies fled many towns and villages in Mopti province, including Koro. Army desertions have also been high, though figures are hard to come by…
June 17, 2012
The United States stands on the cusp of a global strategic advantage of huge significance. It is now within our grasp to cut the Gordian knot of energy policy, transforming our economic prospects in a fairly short period. Seizing this advantage does not require or depend on an esoteric technological breakthrough. It does not require allied assistance. It does not require a great deal of citizen sacrifice, discipline or patience. It does not require new taxes or convoluted cap-and-trade schemes. It merely requires that the Administration and the U.S. Congress get their collective head straight for once about a policy area in which politically ecumenical futility has been the norm for nearly forty years.
It has been an article of faith at least since the Nixon Administration that, in order to strengthen its energy security and, through that, its international position generally, the United States should reduce its dependence on imported oil, particularly from the Middle East. The only significant difference between Republicans and Democrats on this point has been their choice of methods: Republicans have generally preferred supply-side solutions (“Drill, baby, drill!”), while Democrats have generally preferred demand-side responses such as greater conservation and efficiency, and higher energy taxes to encourage both. Withal, imports grew by leaps and bounds both in relative and absolute terms from 36 percent of consumption in 1973 to 60 percent in 2005.
Leaving aside for the moment the actual reasons that successive U.S. Administrations failed to achieve what all professed to be a critical national security goal, the fact of the matter is that the goal of import reduction was misguided. Typical Americans throughout the years have labored under a series of misconceptions about how the international oil business works, the most common of which is that exporters have the ability to fine-tune the destination of their oil exports for political or commercial purposes. This is simply not true. Think of the oil market as a swimming pool: Producers pour oil in, consumers take oil out. The oil itself is totally fungible, and everybody faces essentially the same price. While individual producing countries may have contracts with consuming countries, most oil is purchased on the spot market for an international price. This arrangement is enabled by the fact that the international oil companies determine what happens to the oil once it enters the global market. With rare exceptions, the governments of oil-exporting countries are simply unable to control where their oil goes.
Thus, the Arab oil-producing countries declared an embargo of the United States and certain selected European countries in the context of the October 1973 Middle Eastern war, but whatever modest shortage resulted from these actions was distributed evenly by the companies. There was no special, acute shortage in the United States; the long gas lines and price hikes had much more to do with panicked consumer behavior and the outright bungling of the Federal energy bureaucracy. But to this day most Americans believe otherwise.
During the Cold War American statesmen and strategists worried that the Soviet Union or its allies might be able to interdict or otherwise disrupt the flow of oil, particularly from the Middle East, to America’s European and Asian allies. They worried that war or revolution in the countries of the region might have a similar effect, as seemed to be borne out in 1978–79, during the throes of the Iranian Revolution. These were not unreasonable concerns at the time. More recently we have worried about the direct and indirect flow of oil revenues to anti-American actors, be they states or non-state actors, and the physical disruption of supply by major attacks on Persian Gulf oil facilities. Again, these are not unreasonable concerns. But what has never made any sense is the argument that reducing oil imports—or even achieving oil self-sufficiency—would have shielded the United States from the consequences of such events. Yet the idea that energy independence is mainly about the security of supply is still the one stuck in the heads of most Americans and even most policymakers. Not to put too fine a point on it, this assumption iscompletely wrong, and our inability to rid ourselves of this generic misunderstanding is still leading us to overlook a readily available remedy for our problems.
The problem we face is not about supply but about price. In recent years America’s volume of imported oil has dropped significantly even as the price we have paid and are still paying for it has sharply increased. It follows, then, that the policy options we ought to consider differ significantly from those of the past half century. Yet there seems to be something seriously the matter with our mental clutch. We’re stuck in the wrong gear, and we’re not getting anywhere. That needs to change, now.
Up to Speed
To understand more fully what the problem is and what we need to do about it, consider that in recent years America’s energy landscape has turned a corner—not thanks to, but largely despite, the actions of the U.S. government. U.S. net imports of petroleum declined from 12.5 million barrels per day (mbd) in 2005 to 8.6 mbd in 2011. U.S. import dependence dropped from its 60 percent peak in 2005 to 46 percent, the level it was back in 1995. This 30 percent reduction in just seven years in the level of imports is equivalent to three times the number of barrels nominally imported from Saudi Arabia.
Some of the reduction is due to a recession-induced drop in consumption; some has to do with increased vehicle fuel efficiency standards; some with a ramp up in ethanol blending; and some with a ramp up in domestic oil production. Since 2008, technologies like deep-water drilling, hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling have increased U.S. crude oil output by 18 percent. In the past year alone, the U.S. onshore rig count has grown by 30 percent. About a million barrels per day emerged from a new source, tight oil, which is extracted from dense rocks. North Dakota, the center of the tight oil transformation, has become the fourth largest oil-producing state behind Texas, Alaska and California. For the first time in decades, the United States is experiencing an oil boom—or at least a boomlet.
But while America’s oil imports dropped, its foreign oil expenditures climbed by almost 50 percent, from $247 billion in 2005 to $367 billion in 2011. The share of oil imports in the overall trade deficit grew from 32 percent in 2005 to 58 percent in 2011. The price of a gallon of regular gasoline nearly doubled. Despite lower demand, U.S. drivers spent more last year on gasoline than in any prior year.
Clearly, and surprisingly to those trapped in old ways of thinking, the volume of U.S. imports and the cost of those imports have moved in opposite directions. While America became more self-sufficient and more fuel-efficient, it became poorer and got deeper in debt. If one accepts the traditional mantra of energy security as “availability of sufficient supply at affordable prices”, then whatever points we gained on the availability front were offset by those lost on the affordability side of the ledger. The latter matters more—especially in a time of economic adversity.
All but two of the post-World War II recessions were preceded by a sharp spike in oil prices; there is no question that the fivefold increase in oil prices since 2003 has contributed to the current economic dislocation. For perspective, forty years ago, at the zenith of the Cold War, the United States spent $4 billion on oil imports, an amount that equaled 1.2 percent of the defense budget. In 2006, the United States paid $296 billion, equal to half of the defense budget. By 2008, U.S. foreign oil expenditures grew so much they almost equaled the entire defense budget.
The energy security paradox of the 21st century, then, is that a country can reduce oil imports but end up paying a much higher oil import bill. What this means is that, given the current state of the global economy, a new oil shock—whether caused by war in the Persian Gulf, instability in North Africa or Nigeria, or even anxious investors rushing to buy oil futures to hedge against falling currencies—would sink Western economies. As it is, the rising cost of oil is hollowing out the U.S. economy, and no fuel economy standards or new oil discovery will stop this tide. What is needed is a new energy paradigm…
June 17, 2012
This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.