Tag: Energy

Declining is the right answer

The Middle East is one of the few foreign policy areas other than climate change and trade that will get many electrons during the upcoming election year. Discord will dominate the discourse: President Obama is insufficiently resolute, he needs to stand up more against {you fill in the blank}, we should or should not intervene {here} or {there}. We should support our allies {more} or {less}, we {should} or {should not} condition aid on human rights concerns, and we should {defeat}, {deter} or {contain} one terrorist group or another.

You wouldn’t know that there is wide area of agreement among Americans and their political leaders on what US goals in the Middle East should be. Here they are, more or less in order of their salience to national security:

  1. Nuclear non-proliferation: no (more) nuclear weapons states in the greater Middle East (which stretches more or less from Mauritania to Pakistan).
  2. Free flow of energy: oil and gas should flow unimpeded from the Middle East to world markets.
  3. Counterterrorism: extremist groups in the region should not be able to mount a mass casualty attack against the United States or Europe.
  4. Support for allies: America’s regional allies should wield the means necessary to confront internal and external adversaries successfully.
  5. Spreading democratic values: all other things being equal (which they aren’t on most days), Washington prefers to deal with inclusive governments that reflect the will of their people.

If there is agreement on these goals, why so much dissonance on the Middle East?

It comes from two things: different priorities accorded to these generally agreed goals, and differences over the means to achieve them.

Priorities are important. The Obama Administration arguably has prioritized nuclear non-proliferation over support for allies, reaching an agreement with Iran that if implemented fully would prevent it from getting nuclear weapons for a decade or more but giving it relief from sanctions that strengthens Tehran’s position in the region and enables it to confront American allies. Washington would prefer a democratic government in Egypt, but has prioritized support for President Sisi and his fight against what he defines as terrorism. Some argue Washington’s focus on anti-American terrorism  is leading us to over-emphasize security cooperation and under-emphasize political reform.

So too are the means to achieve these goals. President Obama has preferred killing terrorists with drones to risking American lives in efforts to build up states in the region capable of confronting the terrorist threat with law enforcement means. He has also followed a long American tradition of keeping oil flowing through Hormuz principally through military means rather than encouraging oil producers to build pipelines to carry oil around the strait. Some still think threatening the use of force is necessary to ensure compliance with the Iran nuclear deal.

So yes, there is discord, but the discord is about priorities and means, not about goals. Basically, all American politicians are singing the same lyrics, even when they strike up different tunes or use an orchestra instead of a rock band.

The bigger question is whether these goals in the Middle East are increasing or declining in importance. Let’s look at the goals one by one.

With the Iran nuclear deal, we have at least postponed the major non-proliferation issue in the Middle East. There are still others: will Saudi Arabia, Egypt or Turkey now be tempted to at least match Iran in nuclear technology? Will Pakistan deploy battlefield nuclear weapons as a deterrent against India? Will Israel’s nuclear weapons generate increasing concern in the region? But on the whole I think we can say the issues are less urgent and less compelling, now that the Iran question is settled for a decade or more.

The US is now far less dependent on Middle East oil than it has been for decades, but energy experts will quickly counter that oil prices are determined in a global market, so a serious supply disruption would be felt economically in the US even if we imported no oil at all. Still, with prices around $50/barrel and Iran soon to regain and eventually expand its export position, there is little to worry about for the moment. The people who should worry most are in China, Japan and elsewhere in Asia, which is increasingly dependent on Middle East oil and gas exports. They should bear the burden of protecting energy flows.

Little can be said about the terrorist threat. An attack can always sneak through. 9/11 was less a probability than a “black swan”–a rare and unpredictable deviation from the norm. Ever since, the number of Americans killed by international terrorists has been less than the number killed by (non-Muslim) domestic ones (even if we don’t always call them terrorists). With Al Qaeda Central much diminished and the Islamic State preoccupied with taking and defending territory in Syria and Iraq, not to mention heightening of counterterrorist defenses worldwide, it is harder to plan and execute a major terrorist plot than it was 15 years ago.

Support for allies is arguably more important in the aftermath of the Iran nuclear deal, but the means we have chosen to achieve it are such that it involves little in-depth engagement with the Middle East. We ship truly gargantuan quantities of advanced armaments to the Gulf and Israel. We have also supported, despite a lot of doubts, the Saudi war against the Houthis in Yemen. The main purpose of our support for allies is to reduce the need for direct American engagement, not increase it.

Apart from guys like me and my friends in the thinktank community who make a living (or not) thinking and writing about the Middle East, there is little support left in the US for spreading democratic values in the region. The positive results of the Arab uprisings are so paltry–a fragile transition in Tunisia and some reforms in Morocco and Jordan–that most Americans (and certainly the presidential candidates) wouldn’t want to waste much taxpayer money or electoral breath on what they regard as a quixotic pursuit.

So declining is the right answer, even without considering the rising threats to the US from China in the Pacific and from Russia in Europe. Those of us who still worry about the Middle East need to figure out more economical and effective ways to achieve the goals that Americans agree on. More about that in future posts.

Tags : , , , , , ,

Peace picks April 12-17

  1. Iraq Under Abadi: Bridging Sectarian Divides in the Face of ISIS | Monday, April 13th | 9:00- 10:15 AM | American Enterprise Institute | REGISTER TO ATTEND | At the request of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, US warplanes began airstrikes against ISIS positions in Tikrit on March 25. But ISIS isn’t the only challenge standing in the way of a stable, unified, democratic Iraq. How should the United States approach Iranian influence in Iraq? Can Iraq ever achieve a true power-sharing democracy in spite of the sectarian divides between Kurds, Sunnis, and Shi’ites? A day before Abadi meets with President Obama in Washington, join a panel discussion on the future of America’s strategic partnership in Iraq. Speakers include: Brian Katulis, Center for American Progress, Denise Natali, National Defense University and Douglas Ollivant, New America Foundation and Mantid International.
  2. The Iran Nuclear Deal | Monday, April 13th 2015 | 11:00-1:30 PM | Carnegie Endowment for International Peace | REGISTER TO ATTEND| What are the short and long-term obstacles to finalizing and sustaining a nuclear deal with Iran, and how would a U.S.-Iran nuclear detente impact ongoing conflicts and long-standing alliances in the Middle East? The two panels will focus on the future of the deal, and the regional implications of the deal. Speakers include: Jessica Tuchman Mathews, George Perkovich, Karim Sadjadpour, Yezid Sayigh, Frederic Wehrey, Ali Vaez, and David Sanger
  3. ISIS: The State of Terror| Tuesday, April 14th| 12:00-1:15 PM| New America | REGISTER TO ATTEND | In 2014, ISIS shocked the world with their brutality and the speed with which they took a large swath of Iraqi and Syrian territory. One year later, most countries, including the United States, are still trying to figure out what is driving this group and how best they can be defeated. J.M. Berger, an investigative journalist and non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, brings a uniquely qualified perspective to the analysis of the challenges posed by ISIS’s rise. In ISIS: State of Terror, Berger and Jessica Stern, a lecturer on terrorism at Harvard University, draw upon intelligence sources, law enforcement officials, and their own groundbreaking research to explain the genesis, evolution, and implications of the Islamic State—and how we can fight it. The authors analyze the tools ISIS fighters use both to frighten innocent citizens and lure new soldiers—including the “ghoulish pornography” of their pro-jihadi videos, the seductive appeal of “jihadic chic,” and its startlingly effective social media expertise.
  4. Setting the Stage for Peace in Syria | Tuesday, April 14th | 12:00-1:30 PM | The Atlantic Council | REGISTER TO ATTEND | After four years of conflict, the prospect of a stable Syria continues to be bleak, with a diplomatic solution nowhere in sight and military steps lacking in international support. In their report titled, Setting the Stage for Peace in Syria: The Case for a Syrian National Stabilization Force, authors Hof, Kodmani, and White present a new way forward – one that takes President Obama’s train and equip program to the next level forging a Syrian ground force which could constitute the core of the future Syrian Army.. How can this force change the dynamics of the conflict on the ground and how can the international community help build it? What other elements need to be in place to make this force an effective part of a broader resolution of the conflict? Speakers include: Ambassador Frederic C. Hof Senior Fellow, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, Atlantic Council, Bassma Kodmani Executive Director The Arab Reform Initiative, and Jeffrey White Defense Fellow The Washington Institute
  5. The Iran Nuclear Negotiations: Critical Issues | Thursday, April 16 | 12:00-1:00 PM |The Heritage Foundation | REGISTER TO ATTEND | The nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5 plus 1 have entered a crucial phase ahead of the March 30 deadline for a framework agreement. examine some of the key issues involved in the negotiations and assess some of the pitfalls that must be avoided if an acceptable agreement is to be reached by the June 30th deadline for a final agreement. Speakers include, Fred Fleitz Senior Vice President for Policy and Programs, Center for Security Policy, Greg Jones Senior Researcher, Nonproliferation Policy Education Center and Henry Sokolski. Executive Director, Nonproliferation Policy Education Center.
  6. Geopolitics of Energy Security in the Eastern Mediterranean | Wednesday, April 15 | 12:00-5:oo PM| American Security Project | REGISTER TO ATTEND| A half day conference examining the energy security challenges faced in the Eastern Mediterranean. Over the course of three panel discussions, the event will first examine the geopolitical importance of the region, focusing on the recent discovery of major natural gas fields in Israel.The next panel will look at the challenges of promoting energy cooperation throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, and will attempt to offer prescriptions for increasing energy security. The final panel will discuss the potential role that the US can play in the region in terms of investment opportunities and regional cooperation.
  7. Assessing U.S. Sanctions: Impact, Effectiveness, Consequences | Thursday, April 16 | 8:45- 3:30 PM |Woodrow Wilson Center | REGISTER TO ATTEND | The unfolding crisis in Ukraine has the United States and its European allies struggling to find a way to respond to Russia’s actions and continuing violation of Ukrainian sovereignty. To date, that response is centered on calibrated but escalating sanctions against Russia. Once again, American reliance on sanctions as an essential foreign policy tool is on display. Past and current examples of sanctions, including Iran, South Africa, Cuba and others will provide important context for understanding the role that sanctions play in American statecraft.
  8. Honeypots and Sticky Fingers: The Electronic Trap to Reveal Iran’s Illicit Cyber Network | Friday, April 17 | 2:00-5:00 PM | American Enterprise Institute | REGISTER TO ATTEND | The West has severely underestimated Iran’s cyberwarfare capabilities. Despite sanctions, the Islamic Republic has managed to build a sophisticated information technology (IT) infrastructure, and new intelligence indicates that the Iranian regime may be maintaining front companies in the West to obtain cyber technology. How can the United States and its allies enhance their security and combat Iran in cyberspace?. General Keith Alexander, former commander of US Cyber Command and former director of the National Security Agency, will deliver a keynote address.
Tags : , , , , , , ,

Peace picks February 9-13

  1. A Visit to Tehran: former Congressman shares his outlook for U.S.-Iran Relations | Monday February 9 | 2:00 – 3:00 | Atlantic Council | REGISTER TO ATTEND | As nuclear talks between Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) enter what could be their final stage, former Rep. Jim Slattery will provide insights about the attitudes in Iran toward an agreement and the obstacles a deal may face both in Tehran and in the U.S. Congress. Slattery, who made his first visit to Iran in December, will also discuss his extensive experience promoting interfaith dialogue with Iran as part of an effort coordinated by the Peace Research Institute of Oslo, Norway and the Catholic University of America. The event will also feature Bharath Gopalaswamy, Acting Director, South Asia Center, Atlantic Council and Jim Moody, Associate Director-Investments, Oppenheimer Company and will be moderated by Barbara Slavin, Senior Fellow, South Asia Center, Atlantic Council.
  2. Leaderless Revolutions and their Challengers with Srdja Popovic | Tuesday February 10 | 10-11:30 am | Rome building of SAIS | RSVP to itlong@sais.edu | Blueprint for Revolution is not only a spirited guide to changing the world but a breakthrough in the annals of advice for those who seek justice and democracy. It asks (and not heavy-handedly): “As long as you want to change the world, why not do it joyfully? It’s not just funny. It’s seriously funny. No joke.” – Todd Gitlin, author of The Sixties and Occupy Nation
  3. Egyptian Women: Small Steps Ahead on a Very Long Journey | Tuesday February 10 | 12:00-1:00 | Woodrow Wilson Center | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Women were pivotal cogs in the wheel of Egypt’s political development over the past four years. Whether it was the popular uprisings against former President Hosni Mubarak or Islamic rule, or referenda or elections, women were called upon at times of the country’s greatest need and never failed to heed the call. Now that the country is gearing up for parliamentary elections, will women’s efforts finally be recognized with appropriate political representation and will their voices be heard? The Wilson Center invites to a discussion with Moushira Khattab, Chair of Women in Foreign Policy Group, Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs; former Public Policy Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center; former Minister of Family and Population, Egypt; and former Egyptian Ambassador to South Africa and to the Czech and Slovak Republics.
  4. Making Sense of Yemen’s Power Crisis | Tuesday February 10 | 12:00 – 1:30 | Carnegie Endowment for International Peace | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Houthi advances in Yemen’s capital city of Sana’a and the subsequent resignation of the president and his cabinet have thrown the country into chaos in recent weeks. In this new reality, will Yemen be able to find a balance of power, or will it descend into greater violence and instability? This event will explore the factors driving the Houthis, the current government, the former regime, the Islamist Islah party, and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and address how these forces will shape Yemen’s domestic political map going forward. Carnegie invites to a discussion on Yemen’s political players and the outlook for the country’s future. The discussion features Nasser Arrabyee, a Yemeni journalist based in Sana’a and founder and president of Yemen Alaan, a media production company, Nadwa Aldawsari, co-founder and executive director of the Sheba Center for International Development and Laura Kasinof, freelance journalist and author of ‘Don’t Be Afraid of the Bullets: An Accidental War Correspondent in Yemen’. Carnegie’s Intissar Fakir will moderate.
  5. The State of Islamism: The New Generation | Wednesday February 11 | 9:30 – 11:00 | Woodrow Wilson Center | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Over the past year, Islamists have triggered tectonic shake-ups across the Middle East. Borders have been redefined. Tactics have turned bloodier. States are unraveling under the pressure. Moderate Islamists are being sidelined as militants alter the region more than any trend since modern states became independent. Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, and Egypt’s Sinai are flashpoints, but no country is exempt. The impact has rippled worldwide, evident in the Charlie Hebdo attack. The Woodrow Wilson Center, in cooperation with the U.S. Institute of Peace, is hosting a debate on the state of Islamism, with Robin Wright, USIP-Wilson Center Distinguished Scholar, Nathan Brown, Professor of Political Science and International Affairs, Elliott School of International Affairs, The George Washington University, David Ottaway, Senior Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center and Les Campbell, Senior associate and regional director, Middle East and North Africa, National Democratic Institute. Opening remarks will be made by Jane Harman, Director, President, and CEO, Woodrow Wilson Center.
  6. Managing Conflict in a World Adrift | Wednesday February 11 | 14:30-17:00 | USIP |REGISTER TO ATTEND |The recent eruptions of violence in the Middle East, parts of Africa and Eastern Europe illustrate the high hurdles of conflict management amid rapidly shifting power dynamics. Rafe Sagarin, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Arizona, will open the event with a keynote address on what we can learn from nature about the important role of institutions in adaptive approaches to conflict management. Pamela Aall, senior fellow at Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) and senior advisor for conflict prevention and management at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), will lead a lively and thought-provoking conversation examining these forces and potential approaches with one of her co-editors and two contributing authors of the new book, Managing Conflict in a World Adrift co-published by USIP and CIGI. The volume is the fourth in a landmark series by Chester A. Crocker, Fen Osler Hampson, and Pamela Aall.
  7. Conflict and Convergence: Toward Common Interests in the Troubled Middle East | Wednesday February 11 | 4:00-5:30 | Atlantic Council | REGISTER TO ATTEND | The Paris attacks earlier last month were the most recent in a spate of violence connected to the proliferation of extremist groups throughout the Middle East. When coupled with trends like rising sectarianism, the dark side of individual empowerment, the diffusion of power, and demographic shifts, the outlook for the region remains murky: ISIS and other terrorist groups are upending regional security; Iran is moving closer to having a nuclear weapons capability; Libya is disintegrating; and the “promise” of the Arab Spring has clearly been unfulfilled. While ISIS’s advances have led to the formation of an international coalition led by the United States to counter this virulent extremist group, some of the underlying causes of ISIS’s rise and growth – state failure, political illegitimacy, and economic underdevelopment – remain unaddressed.  Too often, the West attends to the region in reaction to its ills, with a view to containing them. The Atlantic Council invites to a discussion on the major strategic issues at stake in the Middle East and a long-term assessment of the opportunities and challenges for 2015 and beyond. Panelist are Salam Fayyad, Former Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority, The Hon. Stephen J. Hadley, Former Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs and The Hon. Francis Ricciardone, Vice President and Director, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, Atlantic Council.
  8. 2015 Sheikh Abdullah Saleh Kamel Symposium: An Energy Revolution? The Political Ecologies of Shale Oil in the Middle East, US and China | Wednesday February 11 – Friday February 13 | Georgetown University | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies (CCAS) is hosting its annual Sheikh Abdullah Saleh Kamel Symposium, this year looking at the impact of the shale oil revolution on the Middle East. The symposium will feature panels on environmental, social and political economy implications of shale oil as well as ramifications on foreign policy issues. It also features a wide range of scholars, including Osama Abi-Mershed, Director Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, Georgetown University, Dr. Peter Gleick, President and Co-founder, Pacific Institute, Dr. Jeremy Boak, Director of the Center for Oil Shale Technology and Research at the Colorado School of Mines, Dr. Mark Giordano, Director of the Program in Science, Technology and International Affairs, Georgetown University, Dr. Mohamed Ramady, Visiting Associate Professor of Finance and Economics at King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, Dr. Eckart Woertz, Senior Research Fellow at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs and Mr. Fawzi Aloulou, Energy Economist at the Energy Information Administration, U.S. Department of Energy.
  9. High Stakes: How This Year’s Climate Negotiations Will Impact National Security | Thursday February 12 | 9:00 – 10:30 | Woodrow Wilson Center | REGISTER TO ATTEND | “The Pentagon says that climate change poses immediate risks to our national security. We should act like it,” said President Obama in his recent State of the Union Address. But what does that mean for international climate negotiations? The Wilson Center invites to a discussion with Nick Mabey, chief executive of the environmental NGO E3G, who will present new analysis on the relationship between successful climate diplomacy and national security. Mabey will discuss how critical the next year is in climate diplomacy and how the UNFCCC and Montreal Protocol processes can help improve international risk management. As climate change negotiations accelerate leading up to this fall’s UN climate conference in Paris, it is essential that decision-makers in the executive and legislative branch understand these delicate connections and how their actions may have unintended security consequences.
  10. Nuclear Bargains Reviewed: Washington’s Cold War nuclear deals and what they mean for Iran | Friday February 13 | 1:00 – 2:30 | Woodrow Wilson Center | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Or Rabinowitz, author of ‘Bargaining on Nuclear Tests’, will discuss her research in the context of the looming dead-line for the nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 on the future of Iran’s nuclear program. Bargaining on Nuclear Tests demonstrates that the 1969 bilateral American-Israeli deal on Israel’s nuclear ambiguity was not an exception; it served as the model for two following nuclear bargains with Pakistan and South Africa. Dr. Rabinowitz’s research demonstrates that Washington’s willingness to reach such nuclear bargains is influenced by superior geo-strategic considerations that override non-proliferation policies. The fate of the Pakistani and the South African deals should serve as a stark reminder to Israeli policymakers that understandings can expire when bilateral interests no longer converge.
Tags : , , , , , ,

Who has gas?

President Putin’s cancellation of the South Stream pipeline project leaves parts of the Balkans vulnerable to a supply disruption and without sufficient future gas supplies. This is a rare opportunity for the European Union and the United States. South Stream would have tied Serbia, Bulgaria and others umbilically to a Moscow that is hard to like and unreliable. Sanctions and lower oil and gas prices killed the project. Finance had already killed its Western-backed competitor, Nabucco. Now what is needed is some active diplomacy to ensure that any future projects undermine Russian pretensions in the Balkans.

So where else might the gas come from? The planned TANAP/TAP (Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas/Trans-Adriatic) pipeline will bring gas to the Balkans (Turkey, Greece, Albania and Bulgaria) as well as Italy from Azerbaijan and eventually Turkmenistan. Construction is supposed to begin in 2015. This is a good but partial solution for 2020 and beyond.

There are many additional options, at least in the long term: Croatia and Montenegro have contracted for exploration in the Adriatic, where it is known deposits exist. Libyan gas already enters Europe through the Italian peninsula not far from the Balkans. Eastern Mediterranean gas lies not far away, and Iraqi gas not all that much farther.

Of these options, Libyan gas is in principle the quickest and easiest, not least because it is already flowing close by. Caveat emptor, as always: Libyan gas production has not recovered to prerevolution levels, though ongoing political instability has affected gas supplies less than oil production.  Once Libya achieves a modicum of stability, it might be possible to build a pipeline from Italy to the Balkans that could be fed in the future by Adriatic gas, once that is developed. Israeli/Greek/Cypriot gas is a longer shot, but not impossible if the political knots ever get untied. Iraqi gas, shipped either from Kurdistan or the Sunni-majority provinces of Anbar and Ninewa, would be geopolitically a great way to tie Iraq to Europe, but shipment to Turkey may well prove the more economical proposition.

In the meanwhile, the Balkans have quite a bit to worry about if Russian gas is constricted or cut off anytime during the rest of this decade. That is unlikely this year because of lower prices, which increase Moscow’s incentive to export in order to maintain revenue (and commitments have already been made). Liquefied natural gas, which might come from Qatar or eventually even the US, may provide some insurance. The EU is backing a terminal in Croatia,but that option is expensive and won’t be built for years.

For the near term, the EU has been encouraging a market-based approach as well as pipeline interconnections and storage, so that gas can be stored and shipped more readily to and around the Union, including to the Balkans, should the need arise. That is the kind of solution that has worked so well in the US, which has built enough interconnections to make the entire country a single gas market:

US gas pipeline network
US gas pipeline network

Europe isn’t so far off from that, but the Balkans clearly need more connectivity:

European gas pipeline network
European gas pipeline network

There is no one solution to the gas problem in the Balkans. Wise heads should be pondering how to make sure that whatever menu of options is chosen is economically viable and has the kinds of geopolitical impact the US and Western Europe will find beneficial. That means diversification and resilience above all, with reduced dependence on Russia. Moscow would make far less trouble in countries like Bulgaria, Bosnia, Serbia and Montenegro if the Balkans had alternative sources of gas.

Tags : , , ,

In the long term…

Proceedings kicked off at Thursday’s Middle East Institute conference with a panel on A Middle East in Flux: Risks and Opportunities. Moderating was peacefare’s Daniel Serwer, presiding over a star-studded panel consisting of Juan Cole, professor at the University of Michigan, Robert Ford, former US ambassador to Algeria and Syria, Paul Salem, vice-president for policy and research at the Middle East Institute, and Randa Slim, director for Track II initiatives at MEI.

The panel focused on long-term forces and factors in the Middle East and North Africa. Cole drew attention to the youth bulge, low investment, lack of jobs, and the effects of climate change on the region. The population is growing as resources are shrinking. Dwindling water supplies will create immense social pressures, and may lead to mass migrations and regional tensions, including over water supplies. Sea level rises will inundate the low-lying plains in southern Iraq, areas of the Nile Delta, and other inhabited areas.

This will happen as hydrocarbon production levels off and even declines, squeezing countries made rich by petrodollars. The region needs sustainable development, Cole underlined, which means a shift towards solar and wind power and a big increase in technological capacity.

Agreeing on the importance of resource and economic constraints, Salem underlined the collapse of already weak and corrupt institutions in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen. With the failure of the Arab uprisings in these countries, the region has lost its sense of direction, as well as any semblance of regional governance. There is no real alternative to accountable, inclusive and ultimately democratic governance, but it is difficult to see how the region will get there from the disorder into which it has fallen. It needs high-value exports that it is unable to produce today.

The currently oil-rich region must adapt now, before it is left without options. Ford predicts that the Middle East will become a major food-importing region. To generate the revenue needed to pay for this food, the region will need to attract investment. Businesses will want to see fair and honest rule of law before sinking money into the region. Failing to develop economies producing more than commodities risks condemning the region to an impoverished and unstable future.

The panel considered the role of religion in the future of the Middle East, but it said notably little about sectarian or ethnic strife, which is more symptom than cause. Ford hopes that Islamists will be pulled towards the center of the political spectrum, as political Islam cannot provide the answers to all the socio-economic problems faced today. But this only applies to those Islamists actively engaging within the political system. There will be no single solution. With the region in such a dramatic state of flux, Salem cautions that there is a developing contest for defining the region’s cultural identity. Sheikhs, militias, and jihadists are competing to define the future of society and culture in the Middle East. The cacophony risks drowning out more moderate reformers and democrats.

Slim underlined the importance of Iran’s trajectory for the region as a whole. Whether a nuclear deal is reached and the choices Tehran makes about support for its allies in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Bahrain and Palestine will affect Iran’s relations with its neighbors in the Gulf and with the West. There is great potential for improvement, but also serious risk of deterioration if those in Tehran who want a nuclear deal have to pay for it by giving others a free rein to do what they want regionally.

The West must engage better in the battle for hearts and minds. For Slim, the key battle ground is online and across smart phones. ISIS releases thousands of propagandistic tweets, videos and online messages every day. Jabhat al-Nusra has a similarly slick media operation. Media literacy in the Arab world is high. The West should not let extremists be the only voice in cyberspace. Twitter and Facebook are theatres in the war against violent doctrines just as much as Kobani.

But the ideological battle cannot be won only through convincing words and media campaigns. Robert Ford recalled the warm reception he had received at a university in Algeria, which had a link with a university in the US. The few graduating from the program had all found employment. The result was goodwill from an much wider section of the local population. Providing quality education, developing human connections , and working to build the skills that  bring employment and prosperity are vital in combating ideologies that preach hatred.

The path to long-term success and stability in a region facing increasing chaos can be summed up by two 1990s political catch phases. Bill Clinton’s “it’s the economy, stupid”, and Tony Blair’s “education, education, education.” Military campaigns against threats such as ISIS may sometimes be necessary, but in the long term the region’s future will be determined by other factors:  demographic  and climate pressures, the search for dignity, institutional strength and economic success or failure. The US and its allies cannot determine the outcome. They can only encourage and support local actors as they seek to achieve stability and prosperity.

Tags : , , , , , , , , , , ,

Geopolitics of lower energy prices

Oil prices are down by about 20% from their recent peak (or 15% from their three-year plateau around $100 per barrel) and likely to stay low for months if not years. Downward pressure will continue unless the Saudis are prepared to rein in their production (no sign of that yet) or prices decline enough (to $70 or less) to turn off the flow of  tight oil and gas in the US, which has become a major factor on world markets.

There is a lot of benefit to be seen from lower oil prices. From the US perspective, cutting revenue flow to the governments of Russia, Iran and Venezuela is a big plus. Putin, who is already feeling substantial pressure from European Union and US sanctions, faces serious financial difficulties. Iran, likewise hurt by sanctions, will find it difficult to generate anything like the revenue it needs to fund economic recovery, even if sanctions are lifted. Venezuela was already headed towards a financial crisis. Its budget is almost entirely dependent on oil revenue.

Major oil and gas producers in the Gulf will be hit as well. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates , Kuwait and Qatar as well as Iraq will feel the pinch. They are far more likely to cut their spending on various international causes than risk austerity at home. That could mean scarcer resources for the restored military autocracy in Egypt, Yemen’s besieged government and Syria’s opposition. It could also mean less revenue for Islamist extremists of various stripes, including the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, for which oil sales are a significant portion of revenue.

Lower oil prices will also give a boost to global economic growth, particularly in the US and Europe but also in China and India. The Economist worries that the lower prices may be due to slack economic growth and that lower prices will do little for consumers, but then it gives ample evidence that the lower prices are in fact due to higher production. If past patterns hold, global economic growth could gain by a significant 1% over current 3.3% predictions for 2015.

What has happened in the past couple of weeks is part of a broader secular trend that will have profound impacts on geopolitics and economics for a long time to come. Production of oil and gas is rising sharply in the Western Hemisphere, especially in the US, Canada and Brazil. Demand is rising principally in the East, where economic growth is strong, the economies are still heavily dependent on energy, and energy resources are scarce. This trend has implications for future security risks and burden sharing:  it will not make much sense for the US to carry most of the burden of ensuring the security of the strait of Hormuz when 90% or more of the oil shipped through this classic “choke point” is going to India, China and other Asian consumers.

Asian consumers should be stocking 90 days of imports, as members of the International Energy Agency are required to do. They should also be providing some of the naval assets to protect the strait of Hormuz. That will require a major rethink on the part of the US, as well as creation of a multinational force that the Asians can feel comfortable joining.

There are calls in Congress to curtail the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which is slated for use in an oil supply disruption. That would be an unwise move, as a major disruption of oil markets anywhere means a hike in prices everywhere. The US may be much less dependent on the Middle East in the future, but it will still be vulnerable to the economic damage of an oil supply interruption.

We have tended to view the rise of Asia as a challenge. But of course it is also an opportunity. The US will soon be the world’s largest oil and gas producer. If the Washington can continue to moderate American demand and in addition decides to allow oil and gas exports, the assumption of its declining influence could soon be proven, once again, a mirage.

Tags : , , , , , , , , ,