Tag: Iran

What’s Wrong with Imported Oil?

In a speech today at Georgetown University, President Obama called for a goal of cutting America’s oil imports by one-third within a decade. Like all efforts to wean Americans from big, bad imports, such a policy will mean we will all pay more than we need to for the energy that helps to power our economy.

I’ll leave it to my able Cato colleagues to dissect the president’s proposal in terms of energy policy, but in terms of trade policy, this is about as bad as it gets.

We Americans benefit tremendously from our relatively free trade in petroleum products. Like all forms of trade, the importation of oil produced abroad allows us to acquire it at a price far lower than we would pay if we had to rely more heavily on domestic oil supplies.

The money we save buying oil more cheaply on global markets allows our whole economy to operate more efficiently. Oil is the ultimate upstream input that virtually all U.S. producers use to make their final products, either in the product itself or for shipping. If U.S. manufacturers and other sectors are forced to pay sharply higher prices for petroleum products because of import restrictions, their final goods will cost more and will be less competitive in global markets. If households are forced to pay more for gasoline and heating oil, consumer will have less to spend on domestic goods and services.

The president talked in the speech about the goal of not being “dependent” on foreign suppliers, but most of our oil imports come from countries that are either friendly or at least not in any way an adversary. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, one third of our oil imports in 2010 came from our two closest neighbors and NAFTA partners, Canada and Mexico. Another third came from the problematic providers in the Arab Middle East and Venezuela (none from Iran, less than one-third of 1 percent from Libya.) The rest came from places such as Nigeria, Angola, Colombia, Brazil, Russia, Ecuador and Great Britain.

Even if, by the force of government, we could reduce our imports by a third, there is no reason to expect that the reduction would be concentrated in the problematic providers. In fact, oil is generally cheaper to extract in the Middle East, so a blanket reduction would probably tilt our imports away from our friends and toward our real and potential adversaries.

In one speech, the president has managed to state a policy goal that is bad trade policy, bad security policy, and bad foreign policy.

Does the Internet Cause Freedom?

That will be the subject of a Cato on Campus session this afternoon entitled: “The Internet and Social Media: Tools of Freedom or Tools of Oppression?” Watch live online at the link starting at 3:30 p.m., or attend in person. A reception follows.

The delight that so many felt to see protesters in Iran using social media has given way to delight about the use of Facebook to organize for freedom in Egypt. But this serial enthusiasm omits that the “Twitter revolution” in Iran did not succeed. The fiercest skeptics even suggest that the tweeting during Iran’s suppressed uprising was mostly Iranian ex-pats goosing excitable westerners and not any organizing force within Iran itself. Coming to terms with the Internet, dictatorships are learning to use it for surveillance and control, possibly with help from American tech companies.

So is the cause of freedom better off with the Internet? Or is social media a shiny bauble that distracts from the long, heavy slog of liberating the people of the world?

Joining the discussion will be Chris Preble, Director of Foreign Policy Studies at Cato; Alex Howard, Government 2.0 Correspondent for O’Reilly Media; and Tim Karr, Campaign Director at Free Press. More info here.

Heightening the Contradictions in Iran

This, it seems to me, is a sign of a brittle, weak government that is fighting time and surviving exclusively on its nationalist credential:

TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iran will not allow its universities to begin teaching certain disciplines it deems too “Western,” and existing courses will be revised, a senior Education Ministry was quoted as saying Sunday.

“Expansion of 12 disciplines in the social sciences like law, women’s studies, human rights, management, sociology, philosophy….psychology and political sciences will be reviewed,” Abolfazl Hassani was quoted as saying in the Arman newspaper.

“These sciences’ contents are based on Western culture. The review will be the intention of making them compatible with Islamic teachings.”

Hassani said Iranian universities will not be allowed to open new departments in these disciplines and the curricula for existing departments would be revised.

Link via John Sides.

Striking Findings from the New Chicago Council Public Opinion Survey

I was privileged last night to get an advance look at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs’ new study on public opinion.  I was struck by several things.

First, the report reflects a strong desire to get our own house in order.  Asked the question whether it “is more important at this time for the United States to fix problems at home or address challenges to the United States from abroad,” a stunning 91 percent selected the former, with only 9 percent pointing to the latter.  (In 2008 the numbers were 82-17.)

That said, there is not as much appetite for cutting the defense budget as I would like to see:

When asked whether defense spending should be expanded, kept about the same, or cut back, 43 percent of Americans prefer to keep spending about the same as it is now, a steady position since 2004, with 30 percent saying expand and 27 percent saying cut back. At the same time, Americans do recognize the need for moderation if federal budget cuts are necessary to reduce the deficit. When asked whether the defense budget should be cut along with other programs in an effort to address the federal budget deficit, a majority (58%) favors at least some cuts—less than other programs (29%), about the same as other programs (20%), and greater than other programs (9%). A substantial number (41%), however, say defense should not be cut at all. Along with the 29% who say it should be cut less than other programs, there is a considerable majority that clearly sees defense spending as a high priority.

Second, the report does a good job of highlighting the fact that although a historically high number of Americans (49%) agree with the idea that America should “mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own,” this is not, as it is frequently advertised, “isolationism.”  One needs to define what “our own business” is before one can characterize such a belief.

But perhaps the most striking findings, to my mind, pertained to the U.S.-Israel relationship.  On a general question regarding whether various other countries are “very important” to the United States, Israel fell 7 points from the 2008 figure (from 40 percent to 33 percent), but every country except China suffered a decline, except Iraq, South Korea, and Turkey, which stayed the same.  But the report asked a number of specific questions pertaining to Israel–and U.S. policy toward Iran–that produced answers that were surprising to me:

• On the issue of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, Americans are at present reluctant to resort to a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, preferring economic sanctions and diplomacy.  [Only 18 percent support a strike.]

• Very strong majorities do not think it is likely that a military strike would cause Iran to give up trying to have a nuclear program. They also think a strike would likely result in retaliatory attacks against U.S. targets in neighboring states as well as in the United States itself.  [28 percent say it is “not at all likely” and 48 percent say “not very likely” that striking would lead Iran to give up trying to have a nuclear program.]

• If all efforts fail to stop Iran, Americans are about evenly divided on whether to conduct a military strike. [47 percent would favor a strike, 49 percent would oppose.  This surprised me a lot.]

• If Iran were to allow UN inspectors permanent and full access throughout Iran to make sure it is not developing nuclear weapons, a slight majority of Americans believe that Iran should be allowed to produce nuclear fuel for producing electricity. [52 percent would support, 45 percent would oppose, which reflects a slight shift away from allowing Iran enrichment from the findings in 2008.]

But perhaps most striking were these findings, which I would imagine will cause heartburn for Binyamin Netanyahu:

[Americans] also appear to be very wary of being dragged into a conflict prompted by an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. In this survey, conducted in June 2010, a clear majority of Americans (56%) say that if Israel were to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities, Iran were to retaliate against Israel, and the two were to go to war, the United States should not bring its military forces into the war on the side of Israel and against Iran…

[…]

Americans continue to show wariness about defending Israel from an attack by its neighbors. Despite an increase in the percentage of Americans who think military conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors is a critical threat (from 39% in 2008 to 45% today), Americans are divided on using U.S. troops to defend Israel if it were attacked by “its neighbors” (50% opposed, 47% in favor, see Figure 52). This question was also asked with a slightly different wording in surveys from 1990 to 2004 (if Arab forces invaded Israel). In none of these surveys was there majority support for an implicitly unilateral use of U.S. troops.

Food for thought.

Pakistan: Washington’s Blind Spot in Afghanistan

I have a piece in the latest issue of Foreign Service Journal that details the ongoing clash of competing strategic interests among the United States, Pakistan, India, Iran, and other regional powers in Afghanistan . It’s a point I’ve belabored in the past (see here, here, here, and here, for example), yet it remains an understated problem in Washington’s Central and South Asia policy. C’est la vie.

Check it out!

Unleashing an Internet Revolution in Cuba

By now the name of Yoani Sánchez has become common currency for those who follow Cuba. Through the use of New Media (blog, Twitter and YouTube) Yoani has challenged the Castro regime in a way that various U.S. government-sponsored efforts have  failed to do before, earning the respect and tacit admiration of even those who continue to sympathize with the Cuban regime. As my colleague Ian Vásquez put it a few months ago, Yoani keeps speaking truth to power.

Although she’s a remarkable individual, Yoani is not alone in fighting repression with technology. Other bloggers are making their voice heard, and that makes the Castro dictatorship nervous. As Yoani wrote in a paper recently published by Cato, despite the many difficulties and costs that regular Cubans face when trying to access Internet,

… a web of networks has emerged as the only means by which a person on the island can make his opinions known to the rest of the world. Today, this virtual space is like a training camp where Cubans go to relearn forgotten freedoms. The right of association can be found on Facebook, Twitter, and the other social networks, in a sort of compensation for the crime of “unlawful assembly” established by the Cuban penal code.

As recent events in Iran and elsewhere have shown, once a technology becomes pervasive in a society, it is extremely difficult for a totalitarian regime to control it. A new paper published today by the Cuba Study Group highlights the potential of technology in bringing about democracy and liberty to Cuba. The document entitled “Empowering the Cuban People through Technology: Recommendations for Private and Public Sector Leaders,” also recommends lifting all U.S. restrictions that hinder the opportunities of companies to provide cell phone and Internet service to the island. For example, the paper reviews the current U.S. regulatory framework on technology investment in other repressive regimes such as Iran, Syria, Burma and North Korea, and finds that “the U.S. regulations governing telecommunications-related exports to Cuba are still some of the most restrictive.”

By removing these counterproductive restrictions, Washington could help unleash an Internet revolution in Cuba. More Yoanis will certainly bring about more change in the island than 50 years of failed U.S. trade and travel bans.

Technology vs. Tyranny

The Wall Street Journal reports Saturday that Turkey and Pakistan are blocking, monitoring, and threatening such websites as Google, YouTube, Facebook, Yahoo, and Amazon. At least you’ve got to give them credit for going after the big guys! The Journal notes, “A number of countries in the Islamic world, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, have banned Internet content in the past for being sacrilegious. But those countries have authoritarian governments that closely monitor the Internet and the media.” Of course, it’s not just Islamic countries that try to protect their citizens – or subjects – from dissenting thoughts. China has been involved in well-publicized battles with Google, Rupert Murdoch’s Star TV, and other media companies.

But it’s hard to make your country a part of the world economy and keep it closed to outside thoughts and images. North Korea may be able to do it – though recent stories suggest that even the benighted people of the world’s most closed society know more about the world than we have previously thought. Countries that don’t want to be North Korea have a harder time. The latest example: Thomas Erdbrink reports in the Washington Post that Murdoch’s Farsi1 satellite station is

pulling in Iranian viewers with sizzling soaps and sitcoms but has incensed the Islamic republic’s clerics and state television executives.

Unlike dozens of other foreign-based satellite channels here, Farsi1 broadcasts popular Korean, Colombian and U.S. shows and also dubs them in Iran’s national language, Farsi, rather than using subtitles, making them more broadly accessible. Its popularity has soared since its launch in August….

Satellite receivers are illegal in Iran but widely available. Officials acknowledge that they jam many foreign channels using radio waves, but Farsi1, which operates out of the Hong Kong-based headquarters of Star TV, a subsidiary of Murdoch’s News Corp., is still on the air in Tehran.

Viewers are increasingly deserting the six channels operated by Iranian state television, with its political, ideological and religious constraints, for Farsi1’s more daring fare, including the U.S. series “Prison Break,” “24” and “Dharma and Greg.”

Those who want to build a wall around the minds of the Iranian people denounce Murdoch and his temptations:

Some critics here hold Murdoch responsible for what they see as this new infestation of corrupt Western culture. The prominent hard-line magazine Panjereh, or Window, devoted its most recent issue to Farsi1, featuring on the cover a digitally altered version of an evil-looking Murdoch sporting a button in the channel’s signature pink and white colors. “Murdoch is a secret Jew trying to control the world’s media, and [he] promotes Farsi1,” the magazine declared.

“Farsi1’s shows might be accepted in Western culture … but this is the first time that such things are being shown and offered so directly, completely and with ulterior motives to Iranian society. Does anybody hear alarm bells?” wrote Morteza Najafi, a regular Panjereh contributor.

The Iranian state – Akbar Ganji calls it a “sultanate” in Weberian terms – has tried to block access to Farsi1. It jams foreign channels, it sends police out to confiscate satellite dishes, but it can’t seem to prevent many citizens from tuning in to officially banned broadcasts.

Way back in 1979, David Ramsay Steele of the Libertarian Alliance in Great Britain wrote about the changes beginning in China. He quoted authors in the official Beijing Review who were explaining that China would adopt the good aspects of the West – technology, innovation, entrepreneurship – without adopting its liberal values. “We should do better than the Japanese,” the authors wrote. “They have learnt from the United States not only computer science but also strip-tease. For us it is a matter of acquiring the best of the developed capitalist countries while rejecting their philosophy.” But, Steele replied, countries like China have a choice. “You play the game of catallaxy, or you do not play it. If you do not play it, you remain wretched. But if you play it, you must play it. You want computer science? Then you have to put up with striptease.” 

North Korea and Burma choose to “remain wretched.” That’s not the future Iran’s leaders want. But they too will find it difficult to keep their citizens in an information straitjacket while participating in a global economy. 

Footnote: In all this discussion of how authoritarian governments try to protect their citizens from offensive images, alternative ideas, and what’s going on in the rest of the world, I am for some reason reminded of the “30 Rock” episode in which NBC executive Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) is trying to figure out how to deal with a high-strung performer. Another actress tells him, ”You’ve got to lie to her, coddle her, protect her from the real world.” Jack replies,”I get it – treat her like the New York Times treats its readers.”