Thursday, October 29, 2009

Curious Swift Boat Article about Cato Economist

If the United States had spent the last thirty years converting to alternative energy and maximizing energy efficiency, we would now be in excellent shape. But a majority of American voters in 1980 decided Ronald Reagan and his emphasis on deregulation and laissez faire economics were the answer to our problems.

Of course there were many contradictions in Reagan's policies. As an example, Reagan pretty much ignored enforcement of antitrust laws, which in turn dampened competition. As a result, we saw a feeding frenzy of mergers and monopolistic behavior in the 1980s. Needless to say, a number of companies "too big to fail" were created (though more of that came later).

Of course Reagan's policies could never change the fundamental fact that America's oil reserves are finite. Despite a boost from Alaska's North Slope, oil production in the United States continued to fall and these days we now pay an onerous premium for foreign oil. Somehow it rarely gets mentioned that 99% of our taxes stay at home but the same can't be said of our payments to foreign oil producers.

Some Republicans who ought to know better suggest we ought to "drill, baby, drill." It's now 2009 and we have considerably less oil than in the early 1970s when our domestic oil output reached its maximum. We can't significantly reduce our payments to foreign oil producers by trying to increase our own oil production. Even if it were technically possible to increase our production significantly, that would simply delay for a few years a dramatic increase in payments to those same foreign oil companies.

The only way we can ensure our future energy security is to launch a massive number of solar and wind projects on a scale somewhat comparable to the number of planes and ships we built during World War II. We can certainly manage in ten to twenty years what we managed during five years of wartime.

It's pathetic that we insist on developing tar sands when most wind turbines now being manufactured provide far more energy on initial energy invested than do tar sands. Not only are Republicans insisting on extending the horse and buggy age, but the horse and buggies they're protecting are expensive. In fact, oil continues to have a double cost: the expensive cost we pay today, and the expensive cost we'll be paying in the years ahead to clean up the mess left behind.

In 2009, conservatism is dead as far as having any significantly useful ideas but Republicans still have a noise machine and there are still millions of Americans with short memories. Swift Boaters like Jerome Corsi take advantage of people who either don't (or can't) do their homework or who want very much to engage in wishful thinking.

On the conservative site, World Net Daily , Corsi has an article about Julian Simon, an economist at Cato (nowadays that's not much of a recommendation). I'm just going to quote two paragraphs which give the gist of what passes for serious thinking:
Oil remains so abundant that it is unlikely the world will ever run out, Jerome Corsi's Red Alert reports.


"Simon's energy resource analysis essentially maintains that we will be running automobiles with nuclear batteries long before we run out of oil," Corsi wrote. "Another point consistent with Simon's analysis is that technologies have been developed permitting the clean burning of coal, while coal resources in the United States yet remain among the most abundant on the earth. In the final analysis, nuclear power is the final inexhaustible energy resource.

Right-wing thinking never takes long to contradict itself. Oil will last forever. Uh, if it doesn't, we'll have nuclear batteries.

Needless to say, we need real energy policies, not fantasies.

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Monday, October 26, 2009

Global Warming, Polls and Know-Nothingism

Poll numbers go up and down. During last year's presidential elections, poll numbers could vary by ten points in the last six weeks before the election. In addition to fluctuations due to sampling size, polls can vary because of what candidates do, events in the world, what methods and questions pollsters are using and sometimes simply because of the contrariness of respondents. But most polls showed that Barack Obama was going to win the presidency. It's not hard to argue that in politics, polls matter.

Admittedly, when it comes to polls about such things as whether or not one believes in global warming, the truth is that the physical world doesn't pay much attention. The ice keeps melting, the average temperatures keep climbing.

Fortunately, although most scientists believe humans are causing global warming, they also have good reason to believe that humans may be able to do something about it. Here, polls matter. A majority of Americans still believe global warming is real. That's a good thing if we are to head off disaster in coming years. If you believe there's a problem, and you discover you have the capacity to deal with the problem, you might be able to stop it or at least slow it down. Of course, the longer we go without doing much, the more difficult it will be to deal with global warming.

So we ought to be concerned that a recent poll suggests global warming naysayers may be having an effect. Here's the story from The Boston Globe:
The number of Americans who believe there is solid evidence that the earth is warming is at its lowest point in three years, and the number who see the situation as a serious problem has also declined, according to a survey released yesterday.

And the share of people who believe pollution caused by humans is causing temperatures to rise has also taken a dip, even as the United States and world forums gear up for possible action against climate change.

This is important news since it tells us Congress, President Obama, newspapers and various other news outlets need to find better ways to get the message across that global warming is a major threat and that it requires global cooperation and leadership. It is a fact, at least for a few more years, that the only leader out there that can provide world leadership is the United States.

But there's a segment of our population that wants to play ostrich on a wide range of issues, including global warming. Actually, one of the disappointing things about this era are the number of people who offer up trivial arguments or who clearly show they haven't done much homework before issuing an opinion. Here's an example that by the end borders on the silly:
If there is no arctic ice the Northwest Passage opens up for shipping, at least it will be open in the summer if professor Wadhams is to be believed. This will cut from one to two weeks off the travel time for shipments of material goods traveling between Europe and Asia. Rather than having to round the Cape of Good Hope or weather the Magellan Straits, vessels can sail a more direct and shorter route across the north pole.

The author has a point but the point ignores the larger picture. We'll get to that in a moment, but here's something the author said in an earlier article:
The news reports are full of it: arctic temperatures are the highest in the last 2,000 years – big hairy deal, and probably incorrect to boot.

I call this the Fox News style of argument: the news is not important and even if it is, it's probably not accurate. Technically, it's an example of two kinds of denial (with a little attitude thrown in) but mostly it's muddle. There are other kinds of denial and they are found frequently on the far right, and on Fox News.

Let's go back to the author's most recent article:
Oh but the alarmists say that sea levels will rise if the arctic ice disappears. Not really. The arctic sea ice floats on water. Any melting of this ice will have no effect on sea levels. You can check this out in your own kitchen. Put an ice cube in an empty glass and then fill the glass to the brim with water. Wait until the ice cube melts. Did any water spill out of the glass? No, so why should we expect different results from melting the floating sea ice in the arctic?

The problem with this argument is that it pretends to counter an argument that in fact does not exist. No reputable scientist and no one who has bothered to inform themselves on the arctic ice cap and its relationship to global warming say that the melting of the ice cap alone will raise ocean levels. But the melting ice in the ocean is direct evidence of warming, at least as it is measured over a number of years. Obviously, if the Arctic Ocean is warming, so is the atmosphere and the surrounding land.

When scientists speak of the risk for rising sea levels, the immediate focus is on places like Greenland. Three-fourths of Greenland is in the Arctic Circle. And it is generally growing warmer. The ice sheet on Greenland is enormous. If the glaciers melt and all that water ends up in the drink, it will raise the level of the ocean. That's a physical fact you can bank on.

Yes, the melting arctic ice appears to be giving the world a new ocean route, but the price will be extraordinarily disruptive if it also leads to Greenland losing much of its ice. Even if the ocean rises only two or three feet, tens of millions of people around the world will have to move. Trillions of dollars of damage will be done to economies around the world, including the United States.

One of the problem I have with global warming naysayers is that the evidence for global warming in the last three years has grown stronger, not weaker. If the models are correct, the last thing we need to do is throw even more carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. But that's exactly what we're already doing. The world is turning increasingly toward heavily polluting heavy crude, tar sands and coal. We're at a crux and we need more people who can explain what's going on.

Here's an interview with Henry Pollack, a scientist who, along with others, shared the Nobel Prize with Al Gore. I'll end today's post with just one question and answer:
You talk at one point about the argument some have made that CO2 will boost agriculture, make winters shorter, and generally make life better. You call that argument "parochial and simplistic." It seems to me that many of climate contrarians' talking points similarly seize on part of the story to appeal to a kind of know-nothingism. How can complicated data win out over these efforts?

You have to create analogies that help people understand better. In the "contra" mentality, they see science as a long chain of evidence and that if they can break one link in the chain, the whole thing is going to collapse.

But it's not a chain with links in it; it's like a web hammock: Even if you snap one strand, the hammock doesn't fall apart, it's still filled when many other strands of evidence.

Some people say, "This must be part of a natural cycle." Well, that's true, there certainly was climate change in before there were people. But that doesn't mean that all climate change today is due to natural causes.

The analogy that I use is to ask the question, Were there ever forest fires before there were people? We know that lightning can cause forest fires, but that does not imply that all forest fires today are caused by lightning. And, just because there are natural causes [for climate change], it does not mean that today those are the only factors that are operating. There are almost 7 billion of us now; collectively, humans are the largest agents of geological and climatological changes. We're moving earth, we're clearing forests, we're changing ocean chemistry, and, incidentally, we're also changing the climate.

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Friday, October 23, 2009

Alternative Energy: Beware the Gee Whiz Factor

There are several areas in the United States that lead in energy research. Three that come to mind are Massachussetts, California and North Carolina (see last post). If we are to deal with the real threats of fossil fuel depletion, increasing pollution and global warming, we not only need useful new ideas and technology, we also need to see those ideas implemented in the real world.

I would like to think President Obama gets it when it comes to the need for alternative energy. Earlier today, he gave a speech on alternative energy at MIT. The Boston Globe has the story:
“Extraordinary energy research is being conducted at this institute,’’ he said, mentioning windows that generate electricity, viruses engineered to build batteries, more efficient lighting systems, and “innovative engineering that will make it possible for offshore wind power plants to deliver electricity even when the air is still.’’


“From China to India, from Japan to Germany, nations everywhere are racing to develop new ways to produce and use energy,’’ he said. “The nation that wins this competition will be the nation that leads the global economy. I am convinced of that. And I want America to be that nation. It’s that simple.’’

Obama has already done far more for alternative energy than his predecessor. Of course that isn't saying much since both the previous president and vice president were oil men with a narrow view of the universe and little interest in science.

But I guess I'm becoming a worrier. The end of the Boston Globe article ended with a paragraph that might be called the gee whiz factor:
Today, the state is on track to have roughly 30 megawatts of wind generating capacity, or enough to power nearly 7,900 homes, and 40 megawatts of solar generating capacity, enough to power from 6,000 to 8,000 homes, installed by the end of Patrick’s term.

Okay, I have to admit I'm a sucker for gee whiz statistics. Nevertheless, a reality check is necessary here and I'll get to it in a moment. I just want to point out that installing wind turbines and solar farms is important whether it's a single homeowner doing it or a major corporation. Every bit helps and I mean that. No matter what happens in the next five, ten, twenty years, every new alternative energy project will add a resilience factor to our nation.

But here's the problem. Let's say Massachusetts manages to go the extra mile and installs enough power for 16,000 homes in four years. That's power for 4,000 homes a year. The population of Massachusetts is about 6.5 million people. Let's fudge and say there's a million homes in the state. At that rate, it's going to take over 200 years to wean the state from fossil fuels to alternative energy. That's way too long.

Our nation needs to get much more ambitious.

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Monday, October 19, 2009

Making Sure Green Technology Is Green

We already know that it's becoming harder and harder to satisfy the world's thirst for oil. In addition, with the rise of China's economy, the world is rapidly becoming aware that resources for all the new technology being developed, including some parts of green technology, may not be adequate to meet demand in the coming years. Today's technology often requires rare earth metals that are not easy to come by. New sources of such metals, at a reasonable cost, are going to be needed. In some cases, old sources need to be revived.

Now in this post I'm pursuing a slightly odd story that requires a little background. Here's a story from last month in The New York Times:
Chinese officials said on Thursday that they would not entirely ban exports of two minerals vital to manufacturing hybrid cars, cellphones, large wind turbines, missiles and computer monitors, although they would tightly regulate production.

China produces more than 99 percent of the world’s supply of dysprosium and terbium, two rare minerals essential to recent breakthroughs in high-technology industries.

Although it's good that China is not going to tighten restrictions as much as originally thought, it should be noted that they are using their hard cash to acquire all kinds of resources throughout the world, including shares in various mines and oil facilities. The United States, Europe and other countries can hardly afford to be caught flat-footed. Fortunately, for the United States, there is an economically viable source for some of the rare minerals that are needed. Here's a story in the Los Angeles Times about a mine in California:
Fear of a shortage of rare-earth metals used in high-tech military and industrial products has spawned global efforts to reopen abandoned mines, including the formidable Mountain Pass Mine in California's Mojave Desert.


...Molycorp Minerals in Colorado, has just begun a two-year effort to restore Mountain Pass to its former role as a leading global producer. Those plans were given a boost recently amid fears that China was poised to ban exports of some of the scarcer rare-earth metals and to sharply limit shipments of others.

Effort to restore? Uh-oh. In such cases, it's best to read the rest of the article. Down further we learn that Mountain Pass Mine was closed in 2002 for environmental reasons. Before we go further, let's stop and think for a moment. If 99% of some of these minerals are mined in China and the price on those minerals is acceptable to various corporations, what are the odds that China's famous mine has environmental problems as well? And what are the odds that at least some companies who buy from the Chinese are aware that the Chinese mine has environmental problems? Ah, but we still, for the most part, live in an era of laissez-faire capitalism. Anything goes.

Fortunately, there are people concerned about the environment in the U.S. (and more so in some states). So what was the problem with Mountain Pass? Here's an informative article from David Danelski in February 2009:
...while the mine was producing vital elements, it also was polluting the soil and groundwater.

Wastewater from processing the rare earths was pumped to unlined evaporation ponds, where nitrates and other salts leached into underground water on both sides of Mountain Pass...


Unocal owned the mine from 1976 to 2005. In the 1980s, the company began piping wastewater as far as 14 miles to evaporation ponds on or near Ivanpah Dry Lake, east of Interstate 15 near Nevada.

The pipeline repeatedly ruptured during cleaning operations to remove mineral deposits called scale. The scale is radioactive because of the presence of thorium and radium, which occur naturally in the rare earth ore.


In all, about 600,000 gallons of radiological and other hazardous waste flowed onto the desert floor, according to federal authorities.

Again, visualize what is probably happening at that mine in China! But, hey, their prices are good. Now it appears that the previous owner Unocal and the new owners of Mountain Pass decided to clean up the mining operation. They have passed environmental inspections. They have made various improvements, etc., etc. This is all to the good. Rare earth metals have a role to play in green technology and it's that much less embarrassment if Mountain Pass is cleaned up.

But I keep thinking of that radioactive pipeline. Obviously it has to be taken apart and disposed of and that apparently is happening. Pipelines interest me because I had a great-uncle who built a natural gas pipeline from Wichita, Kansas to Chicago back some eighty years ago. A lot of Eurasia politics now revolve around pipelines running from Western Europe to Russia and from Russia to China and along many other routes as well. Who cleans those pipelines? Who cleans the spills? Anyone?

If you're still with me, bear with me a little longer. I know, it's an odd subject today! But I also keep thinking of the British Petroleum pipeline in Alaska that became a major polluter along its route because of improper maintenance. At the time, the news was a bit ironic since the then president of British Petroleum, what's his name, had a major reputation for being green. The green tag turned out to be more hype that reality.

Of course those of us who have noticed ads by the oil companies since the first oil shortages of the 70s have always been skeptical of their claims of how green and environmentally concerned they are. Sometimes, there's some truth to their claims, but most times whatever little good oil companies do for the environment has been more than offset by so many other things they do that are not good. The Exxon Valdez obviously comes to mind. Even if global warming were not a concern, pollution by companies dealing with fossil fuels has been a reality long before Rachel Carson's Silent Spring.

The oil companies of course are not alone. Over this past weekend, ads have been appearing for Clean Coal. As it happens, there currently is no such thing as clean coal. If one tweaks definitions and ignores how much cleaner natural gas and even light sweet crude are (not to mention solar and wind energy), there is such a thing as cleaner coal—barely. And there is a potential, at considerable expense, for perhaps sequestering the carbon dioxide and other pollutants put out by coal. But coal is the dirtiest fuel there is. Here's what Greenpeace says:
“Clean coal” is the industry’s attempt to “clean up” its dirty image – the industry’s greenwash buzzword. It is not a new type of coal.

“Clean coal” technology (CCT) refers to technologies intended to reduce pollution. But no coal-fired power plants are truly ‘clean’.

“Clean coal” methods only move pollutants from one waste stream to another which are then still released into the environment. Any time coal is burnt, contaminants are released and they have to go somewhere. They can be released via the fly ash, the gaseous air emissions, water outflow or the ash left at the bottom after burning. Ultimately, they still end up polluting the environment.

The article continues on making other points against clean coal. Ah, yes, Greenpeace is that leftist whale-hugging environmental group. So, what does a moderate-conservative magazine like Time magazine say?
If you paid any attention to last year's Presidential campaign, you'll remember ads touting the benefits of "clean coal" power, sponsored by the industry group American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. (The ads featured lumps of coal plugged into an electrical cord.) Designed in part to respond to the growing green campaign against coal power — which accounts for about 30% of U.S. carbon emissions — the ads promised high-tech and eventually carbon-free power, emphasizing coal's low cost compared to alternatives, its abundance in America and its cleanliness.

The "clean coal" campaign was always more PR than reality — currently there's no economical way to capture and sequester carbon emissions from coal, and many experts doubt there ever will be. But now the idea of clean coal might be truly dead, buried beneath the 1.1 billion gallons of water mixed with toxic coal ash that on Dec. 22 burst through a dike next to the Kingston coal plant in the Tennessee Valley and blanketed several hundred acres of land, destroying nearby houses. The accident — which released 100 times more waste than the Exxon Valdez disaster — has polluted the waterways of Harriman, Tenn., with potentially dangerous levels of toxic metals like arsenic and mercury, and left much of the town uninhabitable.

I guess the coal industry didn't place enough ads in Time. I shouldn't be sarcastic though. Coal has a friend in oil and it might not be much to ask for Exxon or Aramco to buy a major share of Time Warner.

I started this post by mentioning China. When people talk about limiting coal by turning to alternative energy, the cynics point to China. How will China's use of coal be limited? The statistics, in fact, are grim. According to Worldwatch, China's consumption of coal has more than doubled in the last nine years and now exceeds that of the United States.

I suspect, however, that the more the U.S. switches to green technology, the more China and other developing economies will follow. There are signs that this may already be happening. Unlike many members of Congress, the Chinese leadership seems aware that the age of abundant fossil fuels is coming to an end sooner than expected. We will continue to use fossil fuels for some years to come. It's unavoidable because of the time it will take to build an infrastructure based on alternative energies. But, if we're smart, healthy change will come, though not without troubles that we have already set in motion. If we continue to blunder and put off what needs to be done, we will undoubtedly face catastrophes we cannot fully appreciate at this time.

In the end, much will depends on the American people and how much they're truly paying attention. For now, I keep thinking of those pipelines and how much work it takes to keep them functional. I saw a program recently on the Monterey Aquarium in California. The aquarium brings in sea water by pipeline from Monterey Bay. It takes work to keep things from growing at the entrance to the pipeline as well as inside its walls. Is this relevant? It depends. The world's population exceeds 6.6 billion people and water is another resource that is getting scarce as populations increase and as many areas of the world turn into desert from overuse. Where will future water come from? From the sea through desalination?

In California, such a desalination facility has opened in Carlsbad, a city a few miles north of San Diego. Such facilities will need pipelines and they too will have to take environmental concerns into consideration if we are to avoid even further problems. Even green technology is going to require careful environmental thinking—but the promise of green technology is real.

And the alternative, as we are finding, has probably already set in motion catastrophes that will take enormous resilience and resourcefulness to overcome. It is only the year 2009 and the tasks for the rest of the 21st century are already difficult. Today, the task immediately at hand is to avoid making the problems insurmountable. A small step in that direction is making sure green technology is green.

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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Thoughts on Pakistan and Foreign Policy

You wouldn't necessarily know it given what passes for journalism on TV and in many of our newspapers, but there's considerable worldwide activity in foreign policy going on these days. Much of that activity is coming from the United States and much of it is happening elsewhere.

It's probably the most foreign policy activity since the Berlin Wall came down. Why is this? I shouldn't have to ask the question but in the absence of news coverage, it may be time to remind people of the obvious: for eight years (but particularly in the first four) George W. Bush did enormous damage to America's foreign policy and enormous damage to the world economy.

Since January of this year, Barack Obama and his advisers have been working to repair the damage. Worldwide, other leaders are readjusting their foreign policy and increasingly, as was happening in the last two or three years of the Bush presidency, pursuing their own agenda.

Here's just one example of foreign policy going on elsewhere:
Russia and China are closing in on a mammoth energy deal which could insure that Beijing has the fuel to run its factories and cities and Moscow has a vast new market for its natural gas empire.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Wednesday wrapped up a three-day visit to the Chinese capital, during which Russia signed dozens of commercial pacts worth $3.5 billion and set the framework for a separate, multibillion-dollar agreement to build two natural gas pipelines to China from gas fields in Russia's Far East.

But the Russians and Americans are also busy at work. Here's a story from a few days ago:
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has invited U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to his private residence in suburban Barvikha for a discussion Tuesday on a broad range of issues in what one senior State Department official called a "relaxed setting."

Issues on the agenda for the two-hour meeting include the next steps on Iran, the Mideast conflict, cooperation on Afghanistan, possible joint work on a missile defense system, Russia's "neighborhood" and climate change.

Talking Points Memo has a set of photos covering Hillary Clinton's trip to Europe and Russia that ought to lay to rest that she's not an active Secretary of State (which was one of those inane stories from a media not paying close attention).

We now live in a turbulent era. In the past, the answer to turbulence was violence. Barack Obama knows this and most foreign leaders know this. No war exemplified such violence more than World War Two. It's not certain that George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney had much clue about the current era. In many ways, as so often happens with conservatives, they were fighting the battles of the past.

It's hard to believe that officials like Cheney were pursuing policies aimed at nothing else but creating some sort of American empire. The idea of preemptive war, unilateralism and even the notion of nuclear bunker busters that Bush proposed in June 2002 still feels alien to me when I come across the terms. In 2003, it sent a chill down my spine when a Bush official cheered the start of the Iraq War and bragged that 'we' had crossed the Rubicon. And yet, as they did with Reagan, there were right-wingers who felt George W. Bush had not gone far enough. One of those was Dick Cheney, particularly after 2004. It takes my breath away when I recall how much American policy went off the tracks during the Bush presidency.

And still there are right wingers who want more of that nonsense. Rush Limbaugh put himself on the side of the Taliban in denouncing Barack Obama's winning of the Nobel Peace Prize. I know for years it has been something of a convention to consider Rush Limbaugh a clown. When he jumps up and down, he certainly looks like one. But he is dangerous. In many ways, most Americans do not share his values, though it should be pointed out that in the early 90s he had a rather large audience. The key to Limbaugh is simple: he is very angry and he wants to dominate. He is a classic example of a very aggressive social dominator.

I bring up Limbaugh because he is good at enabling some Americans to forget the disaster of the Bush years. It should not be controversial news that Bush did enormous damage to our nation. It will take years just to repair the economic damage. During the Bush years, crooks had a field day simply because no one was minding the store. But what did more damage was a business as usual approach by Bush that ignored changing conditions in such areas as energy, the climate, an excessive loss of jobs, stagnant wages, and particularly new financial instruments that greatly aggravated the economic downturn.

In foreign policy, Bush was in Afghanistan for more than seven years. And yet some people seem to have forgotten that Bush should have been out of Afghanistan by the 2004 election. But he was more interested in Iraq and put Afghanistan on a back burner. We are still there and we are tangling with problems that affect not only Afghanistan but Pakistan as well. Now I believe we need to get out of Afghanistan as quickly as we can. But there's a problem and I haven't fully sorted it out yet so I'm not comfortable with arguments from those in a hurry to leave. The problem is Pakistan and the fact that it has nuclear weapons. Here's one story from Islamabad that disturbs me:
Pakistan has sought to protect its nuclear weapons from attack by the Taliban or other militants by storing the warheads, detonators and missiles separately in facilities patrolled by elite troops.

Analysts are divided on how secure these weapons are. Some say the weapons are less secure than they were five years ago, and Saturday's attack would show a "worrisome" overconfidence by the Pakistanis.

While complex security is in place, much depends on the Pakistani army and how vulnerable it is to infiltration by extremists, said a Western government official with access to intelligence on Pakistan and its nuclear arsenal, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

Bush and some of his advisers like to point to Pakistan as one of their successes. In reality, they never fully dealt with a wide range of issues. Through incompetence, they nearly encouraged Pakistan to go to war with India back in 2002 (Colin Powell, to his credit, cleaned up the mess).

Of course, stories like this one about the Taliban and al Qaida also concern me:
Pakistan – Teams of gunmen attacked three law enforcement facilities in Pakistan's cultural heart of Lahore on Thursday, killing 18 people in an escalation of audacious terror strikes as the Taliban try to keep the government from waging a planned offensive on the militants.

Pakistan's Interior Minister Rehman Malik vowed not to let the attacks deter the government in its pursuit of Taliban and al Qaida fighters. "The enemy has started a guerrilla war," Malik told a local television station.

Afghanistan is going to require constant reevaluation. Of course, the sooner we can get out the better. But the last thing we need, remote though the chances seemingly are (and are they really that remote?), is to see the Taliban and their friends in al Qaida somehow in control of Pakistan. It's not likely to happen but I for one am cutting Obama some slack until we see a better picture.

In other areas of foreign policy, I see many signs that Obama is moving forward. He is moving away from the unilateralism of Bush and returning to international discussions. We're still the only nation that can truly lead and after eight years of neglect serious and difficult issues are being tackled. Success in many areas are going to be difficult to achieve but that's far better than what we had during the Bush years when so many people in Washington couldn't be bothered to even try.

No one should imagine that Barack Obama can undo all the damage done during the Bush years, but I'm going to make a prediction: when Barack Obama gives his State of the Union in January, many Americans are going to be surprised at the useful things that have been done both domestically and in foreign policy. Of course, we'll still see the same nonsense from the news. One day Obama will be described as all talk and no action. And the next day, pundits will whine that he's doing too much. We're in an era where readers still have to do a certain amount of their own digging.

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Thursday, October 08, 2009

Bunker Buster Bomb Back in the News

In Washington, there is no such thing as putting something quietly into a bill, even if there is little prior discussion of an inserted item. But ABC News may be jumping the gun with a headline that reads: "Is the U.S. Preparing to Bomb Iran?" Here's the ABC News article:
Back in October 2007, ABC News reported that the Pentagon had asked Congress for $88 million in the emergency Iraq/Afghanistan war funding request to develop a gargantuan bunker-busting bomb called the Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP). It's a 30,000-pound bomb designed to hit targets buried 200 feet below ground. ...

Now the Pentagon is shifting spending from other programs to fast forward the development and procurement of the Massive Ordnance Penetrator. The Pentagon comptroller sent a request to shift the funds to the House and Senate Appropriations and Armed Services Committees over the summer.

The first thing to keep in mind is that back in 2002 President Bush advocated building nuclear bunker busters. It was one of the lamest ideas of the Bush Administration since it risked lowering the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons. Since that time the thinking has moved toward the development of a conventional weapons system to penetrate a bunker where the development of nuclear weapons is likely to be taking place. That's what being discussed in the article above. By the way, just to broaden the thinking a bit, bunker busters can be used for other purposes than disrupting a nuclear program. But let's stick to the nuclear angle for now.

The two potential nuclear renegades at the moment are Iran and North Korea. Given the feeble world economy, using a bunker buster on Iran would probably drag us into a war that would put much of the oil in the Persian Gulf at peril and sink what little economic recovery the world is seeing so far (In 2006, the idea pushed by Cheney and others to bomb Iran was a lame idea even then). Perhaps Obama and the Pentagon see the bunker buster mostly in terms of pressure on Iran, though the weapon wouldn't be ready, supposedly, until 2010.

As for North Korea, the issue has always been—and remains—the fact that North Korea has artillery weapons that can do enormous damage to Seoul before an effective response can be mounted. Negotiations and sanctions are still the best way to go with North Korea.

So who does that leave? UPI quotes a Pentagon spokesman:
After winning congressional approval, the Pentagon said this week that it had awarded Boeing's McDonnell Douglas a $51.9 million contract to "enable B-2 aircraft" to carry the bomb.

"The threats have been developing over the years," a Pentagon spokesman was quoted saying to U.S. media. "There are, without getting into any intelligence, there are countries that have used technologies to go further underground and to take those facilities and make them hardened. This is not a new phenomenon, but it is a growing one."

Even under Obama, nothing in Washington is ever straightforward. So, what countries does the anonymous spokesman have in mind? First, it should be noted that the bunker buster proposal was put forward over the summer. In the last six months, we have seen nasty developments in Iran and nasty developments in North Korea. In both cases, the nastiness has seemingly died down. Yes, I realize there is this notion sometimes of needing more options. But sometimes having more options simply complicates rather than simplifies the picture. If nothing else, perhaps the bunker buster is intended as a shot across the bow of Ahmadinejad's ambitions (this includes, of course, Iran's more conservative clergy).

Sooner or later, there will be other nuclear pretenders. And some of those pretenders may succeed in building functional bombs. There are several organizations, including the Arms Control Association, who keep track of who has what and who has ambitions. Syria, for example, is an example of a country that may still have ambitions—or not. Actually I don't mean to single out Syria since there are others to consider. Burma, for example? One of the insanities of our era is that nuclear weapons give status to a country and there are a number of leaders who want that status.

For the moment, the real question is whether conventional bunker busters that can do the job help diplomacy or hinder diplomacy. I don't know the answer. I hope someone in Washington does.

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Monday, October 05, 2009

Conservative Supreme Court Gives Big Oil a Windfall

If there's one thing we can say with certainty is that the 5-4 conservative majority favors business as usual and it favors privilege. Here's a story on how the Supreme Court may have just handed the oil industry $19 billion:
The Supreme Court rejected on Monday an Interior Department appeal of a ruling that the government says will likely cost it at least $19 billion in lost oil royalties from energy companies.

The justices declined to review a ruling by a U.S. appeals court that Anadarko Petroleum Corp (APC.N) did not have to pay about $350 million in royalties for drilling on federal leases in the Gulf of Mexico issued between 1996 and 2000.

Maybe the bankers who received their $10 million bonuses despite the economic meltdown are in the wrong business.

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