Yemen again

The news from Yemen is grimly familiar – more protestors shot by President Saleh’s security forces and plainclothes thugs. But now the US government has shifted position, letting it be known in various ways that it’s time for Saleh to go. Their hope now is that a replacement will allow the operations against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to continue as before. A few thoughts about this.

The approach taken by the Administration here has been broadly consistent with that adopted in relation to Mubarak in Egypt. The Administration initially supported Mubarak’s proposal to stay in power and implement reforms, then shifted to the idea of replacing Mubarak with someone like … who could be trusted to pursue the same policies. When that became untenable, the Administration supported a transitional military government with elections to follow, and this outcome looks sustainable at present. However, there’s no guarantee that the government produced by elections will be as pliable as Mubarak’s, particularly in relation to Israel.

These developments don’t fit well with claims about continued US hegemony, at least if hegemony is supposed to entail a capacity to control outcomes. Obviously, the US is not a negligible player, and its change of side will probably hasten Saleh’s departure. On the other hand, the US changed sides only when it became clear it would be on the losing side otherwise. So, its position might affect the timing and consequences of Saleh’s fall, but it wasn’t decisive in bringing it about.

Libya is a more complicated case, but tells much the same story about US capacity to control events. In this case, the US Administration moved earlier to drop its support for (or rather, acceptance of) Gaddafi, but resisted the push for military intervention until the pressure from a variety of sources became irresistible. Calls for action from the rebels and their sympathisers in the Arab world, but the big push came from Sarkozy and the French government.

This push did not, of course, reflect a commitment to humanitarian values, but rather a public reaction against Sarkozy’s initial embrace of Ben Ali in Tunisia, made more influential by his general domestic vulnerability. Still, the fact that, for whatever reason, French pressure could drive the US to support intervention is certainly a further point against the idea of the US as hegemon.

It’s certainly true as Dan Nexon pointed out a few weeks ago, that the Libyan intervention points up the unique military capacities of the US state. As Nexon observes, despite being engaged in two wars, the US was able to allocate a carrier battle group to Libya and send ships to Japan in response to the earthquake. And when the intervention started, it became clear that only the US had the capacity for the kind of precise targeting of air defence systems demanded by the political exigencies of the case, with very low tolerance for civilian casualties directly caused by bombing.

On the other hand, as Nexon observes, it’s not at clear that this is a sensible allocation of resources, particularly given the consistent failure of the US military to deliver promised outcomes. Almost a decade after they began, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are still dragging on. In Libya, the intervention has yet to succeed in its UN-approved mission of protecting civilians who have been under siege in Misrata and elsewhere for weeks, which renders somewhat moot the question of whether the mission should be extended to include Gaddafi’s overthrow. And the Navy ships providing aid to Japan turned around after they detected high levels of radiation.

What does this imply for what’s left of the US support for autocracy in the region, most obviously in Bahrain and Arabia (and for that matter, in Iraq, where Maliki looks a lot more like the rulers who are being overthrown than a model for democratic aspirations)?
First, from the viewpoint of the regimes in question, and particularly the Al Khalifas in Bahrain, US support isn’t worth a hill of beans. Certainly, they aren’t going to get any military help in suppressing domestic opponents – the political cost of sending in the Marines would be prohibitive, particularly after the Libyan intervention in pursuit of diametrically opposed goals. And, while they’ll continue to give verbal and diplomatic support as long as it looks as if opposition can be suppressed without too much overt violence, that won’t last if popular resistance continues.
At some point, the Administration will look for a suitable successor, willing to negotiate continued basing rights for the Fifth Fleet. And, even that isn’t an absolute necessity. US support for Marcos in the Phillipines was cemented by Clark Air Base and Subic Bay Naval base, but both were closed after he fell from power, and the Seventh Fleet moved to Japan. The Fifth Fleet could operate from Diego Garcia if necessary. It’s even possible that the US might rethink the costs and benefits of maintaining a navy far larger than those of the rest of the world put together.
Then there’s the Saudi kingdom in Arabia. There’s no doubt that the US military-industrial establishment sees the maintenance of the Saudi regime as critical, on the basis of a mistaken belief in the crucial economic significance of oil.[1] But even though this belief is widely shared by the US public, the Saudi regime is so toxic, in political terms, that effective intervention to protect it would be a very hard sell.
Now let’s do what game theorists call backward induction. The crisis in the Arab world has shown that, when push comes to shove in the form of a popular revolt, the US state will have no choice but to leave friendly dictators to their fate. But, if that’s the case then a rationally self-interested US state would not commit significant (military, financial or political-credibility) resources to backing those dictators in the first place, since the benefits are likely to prove transitory. So, even if the current wave of revolts peter out leaving some of the autocracies in place, it would make good sense for the US state to disengage from them.

fn1. This kind of premodern thinking, in which the appropriation of physical resources is economically crucial, is characteristic of international ‘realism’. US oil imports from OPEC are worth about $180 billion a year, or 1.5 per cent of US national income. The premium paid by the US in additional military expenditure, largely justified by concerns about oil, far exceeds this.

39 thoughts on “Yemen again

  1. @jquiggin

    JQ, on the parameters of debate and argument followed in my post number 20 your post number 25, I consider myself incorrect and yourself correct. I concede the argument on those terms. All of the portion of oil consumption that is, very arguably, a luxury item is thus no different economically speaking from designer clothes.

    However, I am still troubled by your statement about;

    “This kind of premodern thinking, in which the appropriation of physical resources is economically crucial.”

    With my excessive tendency to argue to extremes or reductio ad absurdum (I admit it), I interpreted that as your saying, either that all physical resources are irrelevant, or at least that any specific exhaustible physical resource (even a currently important one) is irrelevant overall for a set of reasons. This set of reasons I assume would usually be (any or all of) that its supply limit is not near, its use is profligate and can be much reduced at necessity, and substitutions can and will be found by the market and growth in knowledge and technology.

    So I am not sure where that leaves me. With my reductio ad absurdum tendencies, I am still inclined to stick rather dogmatically to the basic argument that energy (for useful work) per ser is clearly not substitutable although its sources may be and it may be used more efficiently. This buys time but does not prevent or obviate the end point. The whole argument gets a very different twist I guess from whether one believes (or knows) limits to be near or not near. With my tendency to think to extremes I will always look for and ponder the nature, character and “crisis shape” of the end point of any and all exponential tendencies in a virtually closed system. [1]

    I would be interested in your further thoughts now that I have conceded conditionally on your ground assumption (that limits are not near) but not on my ground assumptions (1. that the limits are still there no matter whether near or not and 2. I think they are near in any case.) I mean if you think it worth elucidating your points further to a somewhat ponderous pedantic reductio ad absurdist dolt (I admit it) like me. 🙂

    FN 1. Remember that the correct definition of a closed system is mass cannot cross the boundary of the sytem but energy can. A system where neither energy nor mass can cross is an isolated system. No system is truly isolated except perhaps the universe itself.

  2. Isn’t the whole point of government stimulus that there is a “multiplier effect”, so it isn’t a 1:1 relationship between what is injected and what is ultimately absorbed?

    Why then would we expect a 1:1 relationship (1.5%) with world oil prices on GDP?

    It’s a basic input into a lot of industrial processes and a large part of millions of peoples’ household budget.

    Just look around, most of the things you can see came in a truck or a ship.

    A model (fwiw):

  3. It’s not the absolute limits of thermodynamics that applies. It’s that the physical world, unlike the financial one, is intricately specialised and interconnected. Things don’t move around that easily, and some bits are more vital than others. A good illustration is the effect of strategic bombing of oil and transport in World War II. The economists of the US Strategic Bombing Survey found, after the war, that German production of military material had climbed despite the bombing. This has ever since been used to claim that the bombing was ineffective. Later, more careful analysis showed that much of the increased production was of stocks of weapons either unusable because lacking some vital part, or inoperable because of lack of oil. And much of the rest was of weapons used to counter the bombing.

    I accept JQ’s basic thrust – the US spends too much on the military, and it won’t guarantee oil supplies anyway. But a line like “oil is only 3%” of the US economy misses the point that its the 3% that makes maybe another 30% work.

    In addition the US has spent the last three decades running down the skills needed to transition to a more fuel-efficient economy. It also has an aversion to government spending, and lacks the social solidarity to readily agree a large program of work on the commons. So I’d treat any estimate that said this could be done without too much effort in a decade or so with a large grain of salt.

  4. By my calculations it would take 4 months and three weeks of US annual oil consumption* to convert all their passenger cars over to Prii.

    *energy represented as oil to manufacture said vehicles.

    Also unknown amount of oil within the product it’s self, i.e. plastics etcetera to consider but I’m not going to try to find that out but it would be interesting to know.

    This would halve their passenger fuel use (very liberal with the true savings but considering the size of US passenger cars probably more correct then not.)

    I will add this; you are neglecting an intrinsic part of any human economy, that of sex selection, this being more pronounced with our cousin’s in America I doubt it would be so comparatively easy to transform as these figures where to construct.

  5. @Peter T

    But it isn’t the 3% that makes the other 30% work. The US uses twice as many barrels of oil per capita as other developed countries because they use it very wastefully and as JQ suggests this use is comparable to the ‘need’ for designer clothes. As he also said this could be cut without any real adverse impact. Indeed, if some well known transportation policies which reduce oil use and increase efficiency and productivity were introduced as part of the adjustments, at least that part would not be adverse at all.

  6. I think it can be surmised that it would take 15% of current yearly US energy consumption to convert their passenger car fleet to the fuel efficient Prius.

    By the way, please pardon the grammatical mistake in my previous post.

  7. @Freelander

    As I stated above, I consider I lost the argument with JQ in the narrower context. While and so long as a significant portion of American oil use can be considered patently wasteful then it seems correct to say that the US could cut oil use with no greater effect on the economy than comparable cuts on other luxury items.

    Nevertheless, as I also said above, even wasteful consumption employs people. Thus, such a large cut as a cut in all US oil imports would still result in significant economic disruption. Without a concomittant state effort of New Deal proportions to build renewable energy infrastructure, rapid reduction of even wasted, luxury consumption of oil would result in a significant economic contraction.

    Finally, I do not resile from my basic contention which is that energy (and materials) are fundamentally crucial to the economy. JQ has not directly answered my doubts about his statement;

    “This kind of premodern thinking, in which the appropriation of physical resources is economically crucial.”

    If I invert that statement we get;

    “Appropriation of physical resources is not economically crucial.”

    Physical resources are matter and energy so JQ is saying “matter and energy are not crucial to the economy” which implies we can run an economy without matter and energy. Now admittedly, this is very literal reductio ad adsurdum logic and JQ is permitted to say “I didn’t literally mean that, you dolt!”

    If it is the case that JQ didn’t literally mean that then I need some clarification. The reason I need some clarification is that JQ appears to be treating the importance of all inputs, throughputs and outputs of the economy as solely equatable in monetary terms. This seems to come from the standard circular “perpetual motion machine” model of firms and households from orthodox text book economics; a model that fails to place the economy where it actually exists, namely in the environment and subject to the same biophysical laws as all other systems in the environment.

    Where non-renewable fuels from nature (like fossil fuels) are not properly valued for the full value of their embedded energy, then their costs, being merely recovery and utilisation costs, are artifically low. They subsidise the economy. Withdrawal of the cheap energy subsidy is likely to have economic impacts beyond that which seems to be implied by the market price of this energy. I really don’t think JQ has answered this question properly.

  8. Ikonoklast, I didn’t mean to say that resources are unimportant, rather that the kind of military/geopolitical thinking that regards access to or control of resources as being a critical goal of policy is premodern.

    On how long it would take the US to cut its oil consumption, as the discussion above indicates, the low-cost way to do it is to replace inefficient cars with efficient ones as they reach the age to be turned to scrap. Behind that is the need to retool factories to produce the right kinds of cars. This kind of process can be done relatively smoothly over 15-20 years (and has already begun following the big price increase of the last decade). If you wanted to do it more quickly, it would be more disruptive, but still nothing compared to the costs of maintaining the US military.

  9. @John Quiggin

    Sorry to be so literal and reductionist which has led to my misinterpreting you.

    I agree 100% that “the kind of military/geopolitical thinking that regards access to or control of resources as being a critical goal of policy is premodern”.

    You still haven’t commented directly on the “energy subsidy thesis” contained in my previous post and whether you think this has any economic implications for the transition to renewables.

    On another point, I am particullarly concerned about the US transition because of my perception (shared by many I think) that the US is not approaching this problem with any wisdom or indeed any semblance of wisdom. The clear proof of this is the vast military over-spend and the lack of major state (or market) action on the necessary energy transition.

    Even if the energy transition to renewables is technically possible can we have any confidence that the US will follow that path in time when its political economy seems so deeply embedded in a different rut; this rut being imperialistic, militaristic, science denying, climate change denying and denying seemingly of any valid state and democratic role for planning but rather giving all this over to the market? The market has failed to initiate any real change so far.

  10. I agree 100% that “the kind of military/geopolitical thinking that regards access to or control of resources as being a critical goal of policy is premodern”.

    What’s “premodern” about it? It’s still a dominant point of view where it matters. Unless you’re saying that it’s “premodern” in the sense that it was valid in the past, but is no longer valid now. So when exactly did it become premodern?

    It seems that if you can’t distinguish between what benefits the narrow set of interests that control foreign policy, and what benefits the population as a whole, you’ll be perpetually baffled at why “states” don’t seem to act “rationally”.

  11. I took JQ’s “premodern” to be a broad perjorative. More precisely, I surmise he meant it was a general view when discourse was less developed but now informed discourse regards it as a “premodern” view whether it is still a general view or not in some quarters. However, I ought to let JQ speak to it.

  12. It’s also worth considering that the importance of oil to the total US economy is less than the importance of oil to the US military. With all these aircraft carriers, fighter jets, armored vehicles, supply chains, it takes a lot of fuel to be able to project power effectively.

    So it’s not just that you need a global military presence to control the world’s oil supply. It’s also that you need control of the world’s oil supply to maintain a global military presence!

  13. On oil use, it might help to note that Europe has smaller cities, higher-density urban areas, a much more dense rail network, well-established intra-city public transport and a lot of high speed rail. It also has a history of urban planning and relatively centralised planning, and tax structures that can capture the diffuse benefits of this kind of investment. The US is well behind in all these areas. Transport is 40% of oil use in the US – the rest is industrial and heating (about 10%, mostly in the north-east). So major change is going to go well beyond replacing cars.

    On whether competition for resources is “pre-modern”, one might consider the Chinese effort of the last few years to tie up oil supplies and agricultural land. Are they pre-modern too? Or have they realised that with oil production flat since 2005, every ton that goes to China is a ton less for someone else?

  14. @Peter T

    Those differences don’t go too far in explaining the far greater consumption per capita of oil. Australia is much more spread out than the US, has proportionately fewer in living high densities and many more living in lower density areas. The Australian economy’s output also requires a lot of oil. Take for example mining. Nevertheless, US oil consumption is more than forty per cent per capita greater than in Australia, and the vociferous thirst in the transport sector is the reason. Military toys (as part of transportation) are also vociferous consumers of oil.

    “The developed economies use oil much more intensively than the developing economies, and Canada and the United States stand almost alone in their consumption of oil per capita (see graph). For instance, oil consumption in the United States and Canada equals almost 3 gallons per day per capita. (The difference is these countries’ transportation sectors, with their dependence on private vehicles to travel relatively long distances.) Oil consumption in the rest of the OECD equals 1.4 gallons per day per capita. Outside of the OECD, oil consumption equals 0.2 gallons per day per capita.”

    In North America a lot of people like driving as a recreation; the taste for driving is not simply confined to serial killers.

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