One of our favorite stories about predictions concerns a bet made in the seventies between Paul Ehrlich, a famous biologist and environmentalist, and Jules Simon, a libertarian economist. Ehrlich, who believed that population would push the use of natural resources to the breaking point, took a bet on a basket of metals in 1980. The bet was about the price of the metals in 1990. If Ehrlich’s thesis was right, the price of the metals would obviously go up. Simon bet they wouldn’t. Simon won.
This is often interpreted, by libertarians, as proof that environmentalism is all hooey. LI thinks that interpretation is all hooey. Actually, the alarmism of Ehrlich, on one end, and the regulatory momentum that was set in place during the Nixon years, worked to make industry greener – both in the U.S. and abroad. In other words, prediction doesn’t happen in a neutral environment: that a prediction is made in a certain context can have an effect on the outcome. Environmental alarmists have been wrong partly because they have been effective – their alarmism had induced changes in the industrial system such that the supply of copper necessary to sustain the system per person in the global system, for instance, in 1980, was much less in 1990. This is called, by management people, loose coupling.
Keeping this in mind, LI has been thinking about the Bush second term.
The most obvious question is: what will that term mean for Iraq, and the Middle East in general?. We don’t have any predictions per se, but we do think we can spot the components of the possible scenarios.
We think that Bush’s re-election has to be viewed in the larger context of the other Republican victories. As this Post story makes clear, Kerry’s campaign doldrums aren’t just affecting his prospects, but the prospects of the Dems in the house. Essentially, if Bush wins big, the Senate’s minority of Democrats will shrink. This will remove what little restraint the opposition party provided in D.C. The House, of course, is going to become Republican to an almost insurmountable degree. Texas, for instance, is on the verge of putting in place about ten new Republican reps.
Given the vast and almost incomprehensible incompetence of the Bush people in managing the ‘war on terrorism’ so far, in other circumstances this would surely signal an expansion of the war in the Middle East to Syria and Iran. The post Powell State Department would certainly be on-line for that adventure. And it will be vigorously pushed by the Pentagon pump house gang. One of the real winners in the upcoming election will be Cheney, whose side – the President’s base – will be massively owed.
One thing this will certainly mean, given the characteristic bloodthirstiness of this group, is a lot more Iraqi deaths. The Vietnam comparisons are always to the number of Americans killed – not to the number of Iraqis killed. But with the re-installation of an ultra-hawkish wing in D.C. (who will justly take the election as a legitimation of their methods) surely we will see an acceleration of Rumsfeld’s kind of warfare – the terror bombing of Fallujah, the pillage of Najaf, that kind of thing. The Bush people have been pushing a re-definition of the aim in Iraq as ‘working democracy” – which means that they will skew what election process they allow, in January, to put in an American puppet. Allawi is the candidate right now, and he does have one essential quality – he will rubber stamp any terror tactics the U.S. forces take against the Iraqi population. But it is hard to see how an election, no matter how corrupt, could be won by Allawi. Without opposition in Washington, however, there might be no pressure to hold elections at all. Postponing the elections next year would surely be on the Pump house wish list.
What are the constraining factors here? We think the major constraint is the Bush fear of having to resource its war. It has been obvious for some time, in Iraq, that the distance between what Bush says is the goal in Iraq and Iraqi reality could have only been bridged if Iraq were treated as a serious occupation. That would require about two to three times the manpower that is there right now. Instead, this war is being fought like a child playing with the puddles from its bottle of milk on the high chair – American soldiers go into an area, ”pacify” it, then withdraw. Then the insurgents return. Going to war with Iran and/or Syria is going to require a lot more military manpower. We think the fear of that will drive the Bush administration to make threats, and to maybe use its airpower, but not to invade. The worst case scenario would be: seeing that we need a proxy in the Middle East, Wolfowitz et al encourage an Israeli attack on Syria.
The down side of the constraint on Bush’s aggression is that the administration will increasingly use Rumsfeld tactics. That is why we expect a big upsurge in Iraqi deaths – that will be the major characteristic of at least the first year of the Bush administration. At a certain number of deaths, as Saddam Hussein has shown, a country can be pacified. Will the Bush people reach this threshold?
Another component enters the picture, here. That’s the unknown variable of the network that has radiated out from Al Qaeda. Again, the vast, almost incomprehensible incompetence shown by the Bush people in the past, vis a vis Al Qaeda, will no doubt continue. So far, the Bush’s have benefited enormously from their errors – from the attack on the towers itself, from the comedy of the WMD, and from actually colluding in the preservation of a continuing Al Qaeda threat in Peshawar. Each of these were failures that should have brought down the administration. Instead, they renewed the allegiance of the American public to this administration. Will the thinking in the administration change about these things? We’d guess that the answer, for Pavlovian reasons, is no. When the button rings and the animal responds badly, and is rewarded multiply for the bad response, it will keep responding in the same way when the bell rings again. Other terrorist attacks, in Europe, Latin America, or the U.S., will be mishandled in the same way, and surrounded by the same aura of propaganda that will disallow criticism of the performance as a subtle aiding of the perpetrators.
To sum up: four more years of Bush, if these components are near correct, will lead to a multiple of Iraqi deaths, more successful terrorist attacks, and a belligerence towards Iran and Syria that will either encourage a war between Israel and Syria, or will, at the least, lead to some American military action, short of war, targeting one of those countries. Wild cards here are the effectiveness of the Al Qaeda like organizations – will they, for instance, opt for what, to an outside observer, seems like the obvious ploy? Namely, disrupting the flow of oil. Especially Saudi oil. Will the Saudi royals, through its usual combination of mass murder and bribery, be able to tamp down its rebels? And finally, if Israel under Likud has already managed to seize a goodly portion of the West Bank. Will it be satisfied with that amount, or will it try for more?
There is a loose coupling between the economy and foreign policy. We are going to compartmentalize the economy, keeping in mind that the boundary, here, is abstract, and that economic factors – an oil crisis, for instance, or some radical shift in the value of the dollar – can have incalculable effects on the components we’ve outlined above.
PS An excellent preview of coming attractions in the second Bush term is given in today's thuggish Washington Post editorial on Iran. It is extremely useful reading, the real "blood in our mouths" thing: mass murder as foreign policy, from the same people who gave us the invasion last year. No doubt the editorialist will keep his kids well away from any dying -- there's nothing like sending the working class off to kill the working class to make a newspaper feel good about itself.