“Syriana” gets a bad rap

July 28, 2006

The commentary among conservatives about the movie “Syriana” was negative when the movie came out in theaters last year. Some will wonder why I categorized this under “GeoPolitics”, but the movie covers it in a fictional way with regards to oil and the Middle East, and I think the movie has some truth to it.

I did not see the movie when it was in theaters, and I was dissuaded from doing so by the negative reviews I saw, since they portrayed it as accusing the U.S. of being the big bad bully in the world, with no redeeming value, and the Middle East as the victim. I saw it recently on DVD.

In a way it does portray the U.S. as the bully, but it tries to be balanced about it. It also shows a bit of why this is the case. We need the oil. There are no two ways about it. We are so dependent on it, that if it were cut off tomorrow it would be disastrous for us, not to mention a lot of the world. It tries to portray the problem as circumstantial. We don’t do what we do just to put Arabs under our thumb. We do it because we need what they have, at least for the time being. At least we’re willing to do it with a modicum of fairness. We trade for it, rather than just taking it. We also recognize it as necessary for political and military power. This movie illustrates that a bit.

It attempts to dramatize some of the things that are going on in the world and why they’re happening. It shows a decrepid and demoralized, but still functioning CIA. It shows oil companies that are in a power struggle with each other for maximum profits, getting the oil from wherever they can, however they can. And it shows the lives of Arabs, their hopes and ambitions, but without the power to reach them, and so their ambitions are foiled or misdirected to serve the goals of others. In one case, they’re misdirected by an Islamic school which takes some former oil workers, inculcates them into an extreme theological/political movement, and ultimately uses them to carry out a terrorist attack.

It also shows an American family that is caught up in what’s going on. The husband in the family is ambitious. He understands some of what’s going on, but not totally. He falls in with an Arab political leader he believes can make him money with some innovative ideas, ideas which come in conflict with American strategic interests, unbeknownst to him. 

I think the story in this movie represents how things once were between the U.S. and the Middle East, but it’s kind of out of date now. The policy used to be to prop up authoritarian regimes in the region. This was probably done because they were a strong bullwark against the Soviet Union in the region. This structure no longer serves any positive purpose. So we’ve embarked on a democratic program for the Middle East to address the new enemy that has attacked us, the emergence over decades of a fascistic movement in the Muslim culture.

The movie reminded me of a non-fiction book I’ve read called, “Confessions of an Economic Hit Man,” by John Perkins. In it he describes how, working as an economist for a private firm that works for the CIA, he had worked in tandem with oil companies, and by association the World Bank and the IMF to gain entry for oil companies in Third World countries. The movie doesn’t talk about this, but typically the countries were burdened with astronomical debts they could never pay, on purpose. He said the private firm he worked for, and the CIA, worked to corrupt the governments of “target” countries, and if they didn’t turn in our favor, their leaders were assassinated and/or we invaded to topple the government and replace it with a puppet regime. This is dramatized in “Syriana”, but it doesn’t go into explaining the machinations of why they do it. The elites in these countries lived the high life. They got bribes and kickbacks, and were generally treated well, but their populations lived in abject poverty. The program served two purposes: It helped our economy by gaining more oil, and the countries served as a “coalition of the coerced and the bribed” as John Kerry would have put it, against communist expansion. This served a strategic purpose in containing Soviet expansion.

In the Middle East he said we did things differently. With Saudi Arabia, instead of burdening it with debt, since they had a poor banking infrastructure, we offered to manage their money for them. We worked out a special deal: They sold us cheap oil, we promised to provide them with military security. They would take a portion of their oil profits and invest it in our Treasury bonds, and a portion of the proceeds from them would be used to fund modernization projects in their countries, with the monies going exclusively to a select group of companies: Halliburton, Brown & Root, and a few others. This tightly tied our two countries together economically.

From looking at the commentary on the DVD for “Syriana” it looks like the producers of the movie understand that the relationships are not merely a “I scratch your back, you scratch mine” situation. We need what they produce. The producers of the movie showed a desire to motivate people to take the initiative and try to take steps that will begin the process of getting us off our addiction to oil. Fine with me.

However, I’ve recently learned that there are other forms of oil that are now being produced, due to the higher price for it on the world market. There’s lots of “oil sands” in Canada. In fact of what they’ve measured, there’s more oil in Canada than all of the Middle East now! There’s enough reserves for all of our oil needs for the next 100 years. The oil sands are more expensive to process than just getting the crude out of the ground in the Middle East, but world demand for oil has raised the price of crude, which makes the oil sands price-competitive. I’m hopeful that ethanol will turn out to be a viable option, but if it doesn’t I think we ought to shift towards getting oil from friendly nations. Ideally it would be best if we had a diversity of fuels to choose from. This would lead to competition among the energy commodities. If petroleum gets too high, people can shift to ethanol. And likewise, if ethanol gets too high.

Of all the oil producing nations, I don’t think you’d get an argument from anybody that Canada is the friendliest. I’d feel just fine paying a higher price for gas, or using ethanol, if I was doing it with the knowledge that my money wasn’t somewhere along the way going to fund Islamic extremism.


Why do we insist on revealing secrets?

July 24, 2006

I read this on Slapstick Politics today: “National Security Failure–Air Marshals Compromised”. It describes how air marshals are required to identify themselves in public on 3 different occasions as they enter an airport and board a plane. The air marshals are very upset about this, because they say their anonymity is all they have. “Without anonymity, we might as well wear our guns on the outside of our shirts and announce where we’re sitting,” quoting from the news story about this from the local Denver affiliate of ABC, Channel 7. They contend that with the way things are, any trained terrorist would easily be able to pick out the air marshals on a plane. “Children can identify us,” one said. I heard a news story similar to this several months ago, where air marshals said they were required to wear formal dress–suit and tie. They were not allowed to dress so as to blend in with the passengers. It’s troubling. With what’s going on, air marshals might as well be considered window dressing. They, along with the pilots, will be a terrorist cell’s first targets for elimination if and when they decide to hijack another plane. It doesn’t matter that cockpit doors are reinforced. That’s just an “arms race”, so to speak. Terrorists could still find a way to force the door open.

We’re growing complacent and soft. Would we as Americans allow this to go on without a public outcry just after 9/11? I hate to say this. I really do. We’re going to get hit in our own country by Al Qaeda again. It’s quite apparent that we’re letting down our guard. Be prepared. I’m about to let loose on several related issues. 😐

With the various national security agencies, like the NSA, and the CIA of all places, leaking information about our methods of gathering intelligence and detaining terrorist suspects, this can only help Al Qaeda in its attempts to strike at America again. They ought to be ashamed of themselves. The CIA is a joke. They did a good job in Afghanistan, and with their success I’m surprised we didn’t use the same “team” going into Iraq, but I have nothing good to say about their campaign to oust their boss–the President. There are some there who are just sissies. They think they’re being marginalized unjustifiably, so they’re trying to raise their profile, and that of the CIA, by making Bush look bad. In my opinion they’re digging the CIA’s grave and they’re helping the enemy in the process. The CIA of 40 years ago would’ve cast out these jokers with the threat of being charged with treason and executed, at the first hint that they were going to reveal secrets.

“Aren’t you concerned about abuses of power,” one might ask? I am more concerned about Al Qaeda striking again, and killing several thousand American civilians, and this time actually succeeding in disabling part of our defense apparatus, than I am about our government abusing its powers. If I had to make a choice (be warned that I am presenting an extreme case here to draw a contrast) I’d rather be at the tender mercies of my own government, than those of the Islamist fanatics. Seeing the people of the burning World Trade Center in New York City leaping from the Twin Towers to their deaths, hearing stories of people who were burned alive by the explosive jet fuel, and then seeing certain people of Middle Eastern origin celebrating this tragedy; and the beheadings of captured Americans in Saudi Arabia and Iraq, does not give me reason to equivocate on this. In America, even with the changes that have been made that liberals and some conservatives are so alarmed about, I am more likely to receive justice, or at least be treated humanely, should I be caught in a case of mistaken identity by the government, for example, than I would with the Islamists. That should be as plain as the nose on your face. We as Americans have to make this choice: Do we want to give the government the benefit of the doubt in the interest of protecting us from those who would dearly like to kill us, or are we willing to risk it with the knowledge that Al Qaeda will succeed in some cases in killing more Americans, in the interest of easing any fears that our own government will violate our civil liberties? They’ll just be violated by Al Qaeda instead.

Shortly after 9/11, after the “mourning period” was over, I remember on several occasions hearing liberal talk show hosts speak very passionately about not “giving an inch” on civil liberties to fight the War on Terror. Reggie Rivers, who at the time was a Denver talk radio host, said, probably on more than one occasion, that he’d rather cede American territory to Al Qaeda than give up any civil liberties. He said he was willing to die for liberty, as a civilian. He felt that all Americans should be willing to do the same, not change the nature of our beloved country in the face of this threat, even a little. Most Americans disagree with notions like this. Some forget that it was Jefferson who wrote, “governments are instituted among men to secure those rights….and that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” (my emphasis) Interesting how “liberty” shows up second. What some are neglecting is that many Americans felt less free after 9/11. They were worried about what terrorist attack would occur next, and whether they’d be the next victims. Due to the safety that our government provides, not only defensively in stopping further attacks, and offensively, disrupting Al Qaeda’s activities and the infrastructure that supported it or could’ve supported it, the fear gradually has worn off. We feel more free. The security measures at the airport are more of an annoyance, sometimes embarrassing, but otherwise we feel alright going out and living our lives. Paradoxically, complacency comes with this, and there’s less outrage when it’s revealed that we’re letting down our guard little by little. In fact it may feel like a relief. We can cast off our fear of terrorism. Once we lose our fear though, we stop looking at terrorism as a threat. And once that occurs, all these security measures and restrictions feel like they’re restricting us, and that the government is spying on us, and not anyone else. So we think, “Let’s take this out of the way.” Once we start doing that, we start opening the door for Al Qaeda to attack us again.

I’ll admit it’s hard for us Americans to trust our government 100% with anything. We’re instinctively suspicious of it, though we have our own policy areas over which we’re willing to let the government have almost total control. After 9/11 I put my trust in my security with the federal government, National Guard, and police. I felt I had no choice but to do so. There’s no way that someone like me is going to be able to stop a terrorist attack before it occurs. The passengers on Flight 93 tried to stop one in progress, and they succeeded, but all of them were killed in the process. I don’t mean to diminish their accomplishment. The terrorist cell in control of the plane might’ve succeeded in ramming it into the Capital building in Washington, D.C. had it not been for these brave people. I’m still waiting for them to be posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. But it’s better to stop the terrorists before they carry out their plot. That’s something that government can do that most people can’t.

The federal government has proven itself effective so far in stopping further Al Qaeda attacks on our soil, and I am very thankful for that. There are some who want to play political games with our national security and it’s disgusting. National security should be off limits to political dirty tricks. We all want our country to come out of this intact, so that people can continue to wage the war of politics without killing each other. If people want to battle in the political arena, please argue defense policy, foreign policy, domestic policy, and if we can muster it please talk about how we can win, rather than how we are losing. Our troops hear this stuff, and their morale is affected. Above all, let’s give the government the benefit of the doubt if information on intelligence activities is classified. I kind of think that should be a no-brainer. There was once a time, during the first half of the 20th century, when intelligence activities were kept secret and it was understood that the national security apparatus served the President as commander in chief, once he had been given the power to go to war. Now, it seems that some in the intelligence and military community don’t take their jobs seriously. In my opinion they can’t be if they’re openly revealing information on covert activities that are related to finding the people trying to kill us. If they want to reveal it in closed session to the Intelligence or Defense committees in congress, or complain to the President in confidential messages, fine. I don’t mind problems being brought up and addressed. The dirty laundry should not be revealed to the public under any circumstances. Personally I don’t want to know about it. I don’t care if some have conspiracy theories running through their heads about the Bush Administration. They should know better than to blab secret information all over the place. The fact that this is occurring at all shows institutional incompetence.

A couple years ago it was revealed that in one of Al Qaeda’s own training manuals it tells recruits to get information on targets using the media and government documents in an open society, because the government reveals all sorts of information in public. They are so right! We even reveal how we are tracking their activities. Aren’t we nice? What a joke! Button it up, guys!

The tragedy in Lebanon

July 15, 2006

This past week I’ve heard about the situation with Lebanon and Israel. Lebanon seemed so promising not long ago. It was asserting its own right of existence again. The Lebanese pushed out the Syrians in their own peaceful “Cedar Rebellion” after it was found out the Syrians had assassinated their president. I managed to watch one news feature story on Lebanon last year, where one of our broadcast networks interviewed one of their leaders. I got a real sense of promise from this man, that Lebanon was going to assert itself and become a peaceful neighbor in the Middle East. It was pointed out that the leadership is always under the threat of assassination, and that the security situation is precarious, but it looked like they had a good security apparatus. I think the person doing the interview even called Lebanon the “Paris of the Middle East”, as a compliment. It was good to see. It may have been too good to be true.

The tragedy is Lebanon has become a pawn in an international game of chess, just as it used to be. The Iranians are behind this violence, even though they’ve apparently not admitted it. Hezbollah started the fighting by copying Hamas and kidnapping two Israeli soldiers, demanding the release of prisoners Israel is holding. Israel responded by moving militarily into Lebanon to get their soldiers back.

Like Hamas in the West Bank, Hezbollah is part of the government in Lebanon. It has been for years, in fact. The problem, as I heard it aptly characterized yesterday on the McLaughlin Group, is that Hezbollah is not fully integrated into the government. It has its own media operation, and it has its own militia. Imagine, if you will, that the Democrats and Republicans owned their own TV networks and had their own militias, separate from the U.S. military. The government apparently has no control over Hezbollah’s militia. This is not healthy, especially for the length of time that Hezbollah has been involved with the Lebanese government.

From what I have heard, the linkage to Iran is that Hezbollah does the bidding of Iran. Technically the group is linked to Syria, but it’s financed by Iran, so they have a say in large part in what the group does. The foreign policy analysts I’ve heard from have said that Hezbollah started the violence on the day that Iran was supposed to say whether or not they would agree to the “no nukes” deal offered by the Europeans, and endorsed by the U.S. I think we have Iran’s answer. Instead of addressing the issue, Iran is trying to change the subject, to avert our attention away from the nuclear issue. True, Israel has played a part in this diversion. You could say that Hamas and Hezbollah picked a fight with Israel, and Israel took the bait. Israel had two choices. They could’ve either agreed to a prisoner swap, which they’ve done in the past, though I think the wisdom of that is dubious, or they could go after these terrorist groups and try to get them themselves. They chose the latter.

The problem is not necessarily that Hezbollah was part of the Lebanese government. The problem was that it was never disarmed. In a rational governmental system, the government must regulate their own military, and any militias, and that authority must be respected. If this is not the case, you get what’s going on now between Hezbollah (not Lebanon), and Israel, though Lebanon and Israel are the ones getting hurt.

As the saying goes, war is politics by other means, and politics is war by other means. What I’ve learned from listening to what’s going on in Iraq is that the different factions and tribes there have had a history of using war as a means of exercising politics. They need to be convinced and taught that they can win their battles and exercise power, at least for a limited time, without killing each other: war by other means. The same lesson could ultimately be applied to Hezbollah, though I doubt this would take place without the threat of overwhelming force against them, demanding they disarm. It could also be applied to Hamas and Fatah in the West Bank. I realize these groups have had a long, terrible history of killing innocent civilians, but in the case of Lebanon and the West Bank, they’re part of the government now, and they are a force to be reckoned with. That’s just the reality.

In Iraq they’re doing something similar, though it’s my understanding that they’re being selective about which insurgents/militant groups they’re trying to bring in to the government.

The Israeli bombing in Lebanon has struck me as misplaced, though I’ve been gradually understanding the strategy. Hezbollah is primarily based in southern Lebanon. For those not familiar with the geography, Lebanon is situated on the northern border of Israel. Israel bombed the airport in southern Lebanon, because reportedly large airplanes had been coming in delivering munitions to Hezbollah. They’ve also been bombing highways leaving southern Lebanon, because they’re trying to cut off escape routes, where Hezbollah might try to move their hostages. They’ve bombed the headquarters of Hezbollah.

They’ve been bombing electricity stations, fuel depots and gas stations as well. This part is a mystery to me. Perhaps someone could explain. One foreign policy analyst I heard explained that Israel is trying to put a lot of pressure on the Lebanese government to act against Hezbollah, but the government has thrown up its hands, saying they have no control over Hezbollah’s actions. They’ve acted shocked at what the Israelis are doing. My guess is the Israelis are trying to eliminate Hezbollah for them, since the Lebanese have proved powerless of doing it themselves. Israel has a habit of doing this. It’s been eliminating and imprisoning terrorists that the Palestinians have said they’re powerless to control, for years.

All around it’s a tragic situation. I wish the Lebanese and the Israelis well. The Lebanese government has been a noble effort, though I think this conflict proves that they still have their work cut out for them.

Is Boulder finally getting on the ball?

July 10, 2006

I read today in the Daily Camera that the City of Boulder is considering offering incentives to businesses to get them to stay here. The article cited a few businesses that have left town in recent years: Leopard Communications, Noodles & Co., GE Access, etc. Many of these businesses were founded right here in Boulder, but they no longer call it home. It also cites businesses who have moved in to Boulder, or will be in the near future.

This talk of incentives is encouraging. I’m sure there are many in Boulder who don’t like the idea. They want business to “pay its own way”, paying for the external development needs that are needed to support their business, and the community that surrounds them. As much as that would be ideal, the facts are it’s just cheaper to operate elsewhere, and if businesses don’t see that the city is trying to “sweeten the deal”, and they see that other cities will, they’re going to move to the more attractive locale. That’s just reality. It’s not fair, but what is in this world? Fairness is something that we can strive for, but let’s not let some abstract notion of fairness be the enemy of the greater good. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing either, just a compromise. The article is right that there are amenities in Boulder that can’t be found in other parts of the state. It can use that uniqueness to its advantage. Boulder may not feel comfortable offering all the incentives that other cities do (I’m not saying it has to implement them all), but it needs to recognize it needs a good tax base as well in order to fund its operations. If people can live and work here, they’re more likely to shop here–that is, if they can find what they’re shopping for–increasing the city’s sales tax revenue.

Boulder can only do so much, because it has effectively constrained its own growth, due to the green belts that surround the city. Even if it were to offer irresistable incentives, Boulder would not experience the same kind of economic growth that surrounding cities have been experiencing over the past year. There just isn’t enough land for everybody, unless by some miracle Boulder were to suddenly moderate its fear of sprawl. The planned “transit center” may be what’s ultimately needed to really grow the economy here, since it could create a multiplier effect–bringing in more consumers from outside the city.

I look forward to seeing what the City will offer, and see what effect it has on stemming the “exodus” of business.

A point of clarification on Islam

July 10, 2006

As I’ve read over my own posts, I feel the need to clarify some things on Islam. I’ve used terms like “radical Islam” and “Islamofascists”. By using these words I do not mean to paint all Muslims with a wide brush. I value America’s tolerant ethic towards all religions. When I use terms like “Islamofascists” I am not being derogatory towards peaceful, moderate Muslims who just want to worship Allah, raise a family, and live their lives. I am not using the term to refer to them, but rather to terrorist groups like Al Qaeda, who have a very strict ideology that they want to apply to everyone–hence the “fascist” part of the term. There are some who take issue with associating groups like Al Qaeda with Islam, because many Muslims are so reviled by what they are doing they don’t consider them as Muslim. The only reason I use these terms is that despite their own distance from the ideal of Islam, they are still linked to the Islamic culture in some way. There is a wider scope to this than just the Muslim religion. There is also Muslim culture. And within that culture there are many who support Osama bin Laden. They may be ignorant of Islam and the Koran, but still they are a part of the wider Muslim culture, particularly in the Middle East. I don’t say this really to demean the culture, just pointing out a reality.

Ideally what I’d like to see happen is the Middle Eastern Muslim culture reform itself, so that extremism of the likes of Al Qaeda is shunned and unsupported.

I will continue to use these terms. I just wanted readers to understand how I am using them, and that by no means do I mean it to apply to all Muslims.

The battle for the soul of the Democratic Party gets hotter

July 8, 2006

I found this today on Slapstick Politics: Salazar vows to back Lieberman in November as Democrat OR independent.

Lieberman (D-CT) is hedging his bets because he’s seen the polling and thinks there’s a distinct possibility he will lose the August Democratic primary. And apparently the anti-war left in the Democratic Party sees an opportunity to replace a hawkish member of the Senate with an anti-war member. Ah, how far the Democratic Party has come to driving itself off a cliff. Fourteen years ago the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), which Lieberman helped found, created a center-left coalition of Democrats that held the center of power in the Democratic Party for 8 years, during the presidency of Bill Clinton, who was also a member of the DLC. Not that I particularly liked Clinton’s presidency, but at least it was better than what the anti-war left has to offer. There are some on the left who are charging that Lieberman is really a Republican. If that’s the case then perhaps Bill Clinton was too. He limited welfare benefits, right? What a laugh! If these guys are Republicans, what the hell are Democrats really like?? Are you cringing yet?

The problem is not that Lieberman has moved to the right (I don’t believe he has). The problem is the Democratic Party is moving farther to the left than it used to be. Personally I don’t see this as a good thing. Competition between the parties keeps government functioning as it should–for the people. I am dumbfounded why some Democrats insist on refashioning the party into a bunch of peacenicks, essentially committing suicide, in the midst of a war that really is about our survival as a nation. This isn’t the same as Vietnam. Unfortunately the parallels are more like a war that was fought before many of the people living today were born. There’s little memory left of what WW II was like.

I see this development with Salazar as positive. I consider myself as someone on the center-right of things. I haven’t agreed with Salazar on all things, but Lieberman needs allies right now.

I’ve been pleasantly surprised that Sen. Lieberman has been a stalwart supporter of the effort in Iraq, and the War on Terror. The anti-war left within the Democratic Party has apparently hated him for it. His Democratic opponent, Ned Lamont, a millionaire financing his own campaign, is for pulling the troops out this year. I suppose wanting the troops out is fine, however it needs to be contingent on meeting our goals in Iraq, not merely because we’re tired of the war, or didn’t think it was a good idea in the first place. I’ve read some of the comments online in support of Lamont. They sound strangely like the position that the Boulder City Council has taken: End the war so the federal government can send us more money. I feel like giving them a variation on what Ben Franklin once famously said: “Those who are willing to give up fundamental national security for a little extra money deserve neither!”

As far as I’m concerned the anti-war left’s position on this is irresponsible to this nation, and to the people of Iraq. The anti-war activists desire the realization of a fantasy: that the world will become a more peaceful place if we renounce interventionism, give up our role as a leader in the world, retreat into economic isolationism, but ironically continue multilateral diplomacy. Is it just me, or does this sound like the EU model? In any case, we can see what a resounding success that is. With the screwed up politics going on in this country, President Bush needs every ally he can get as well, and Lieberman has been on this issue.

I tend to vote Republican, and while I can’t vote for Sen. Lieberman, I’m voicing my support for his re-election, no matter how the primary turns out. While I’m not a fan of liberalism as an ideology, I support those who are for a strong defense against the Islamofascists and those who aid them.