Last Monday's Question
“In the style of” Jeopardy, Monday’s entry posed a number of possible answers to a hypothetical question. I had planned to use Wednesday’s entry to provide my choice and rationale, but outside events intervened. As it is, the two days have confirmed a growing sense that a “tipping point” about the war may have slipped past without notice.
The six “possible” answers to the question were: a) when President Bush's plea to the Saudis to increase oil production was rejected and the price per barrel hit and stayed above $100.b) when the Federal Reserve pumped nearly $50 billion into the banking system in November to preclude a tightening of credit, followed in January by an uncharateristic mid-cycle drop of 75 basis points in the federal funds overnight rate. c) when Congress caved in and voted the $70 billion "bridge" war supplemental without conditions, an indication that it will again cave when it considers the rest of the administration's $196 billion this Spring.d) when the avowedly anti-war presidential candidates in both parties were marginaliized or forced from the contest.e) when the pundits and the political spinmeisters assured the public that the soon-to-be 18-month-old change in tactics (the “surge”) has permanently altered the strategic posture (a politically and economically viable Iraq) in the Persian Gulf into one that will be sustainable with a “minimal” permanent presence of U.S. forces.f) all of the above (or perhaps none of the above).
Taking each possible response in turn, consider:
a) January 8-18 saw President Bush on a visit to Israel-Palestine followed by a swing through the Persian Gulf countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, notably Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar. Although planned for some time, the visit happened to coincide with reaching an unhappy benchmark: on January 2, oil prices on the New York Mercantile Exchange hit $100 per barrel for the first time while the next day gold and platinum were at all-time highs.
Remember what then Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz told Congress both right before (February 27, 2003) and right after (March 27, 2003) the invasion of Iraq? “It's got already, I believe, on the order of $15 billion to $20 billion a year in oil exports…” and “The oil revenues of that country could bring between $50 and $100 billion over the course of the next two or three years.…We are dealing with a country that can really finance its own reconstruction and relatively soon.”
There are two truths about Iraqi oil: the country still has not reached the pre-March 2003 production levels, and most of the revenue from oil exports has gone to finance the occupation of the country or to traditional nepotism, cronyism, and corruption.
In Saudi Arabia, Bush asked for the kingdom to open the oil spigots wider – something only the kingdom can do given the still shabby state of oil infrastructure in Iraq and the sanctions the U.S. and – at Washington’s insistence – the UN have imposed on Iran.
The Saudi Oil Minister’s response was not just an emphatic “No!” but “Hell no!” –politely phrased, of course.
That refusal, plus the conspicuous omission of a visit to Iraq by the president while in the region (especially as he stopped at virtually every other country in the Gulf except Iran) sent a signal loud and clear that this administration has effectively given up on Iraq and wishes to open up the maximum psychological and policy distance between Washington and Baghdad.
(b) As 2007 neared its end, the true depth and breadth of the “sub-prime” mortgage debacle finally moved out of the shadows. Major investment houses and transnational financial institutions suffered billions in losses just from the meltdown in the housing market alone – foreclosures, falling new home starts, drooping sales of existing homes. At first, the Federal Reserve Chairman and the administration soft-pedaled the extent of the crisis. The Fed pumped additional funds into the banking system to prevent a credit crunch, but this was not enough. The stock market plunged as the extent of the losses became known in the first half of January, and the contagion spread to markets around the globe.
c) In the initial session of the 110th Congress, the first since 1995 with the Democrats in the majority (although not necessarily in control), every attempt to cut war funding, to mandate cutbacks in troop levels, or to attach political pre-conditions to be met by Baghdad before additional funds could be obligate, was scuttled by congressional Republicans or, in one case, was vetoed by Bush.
The only “success” the Democrats could claim actually rested on a provision of the 2007 Defense Appropriations Act requiring the White House to include in the 2008 budget request for DoD the money intended for Iraq and Afghanistan. However, as a practical matter this provision was irrelevant, for as soon as the appropriators began examining the proposal they separated the war spending from the rest of the bill – only to havie to fold $70 billion back into the $555 billion 2008 Omnibus Appropriations Act. Technically, this means that to date for Fiscal 2008, Congress has not considered a war supplemental. In the meantime, the “burn rate” for Afghanistan, Iraq, and smaller operations that are deemed part of the “Global War on Terror” is up to $13 to $15 billion per month.
d) The turn of the calendar to 2008 saw other “turnings.” The most conspicuous was “turning on” the microphones for an unusually large field of candidates in the two main political parties vying for the right to be their party’s presidential candidate in November. The scramble by a number of states to hold primaries earlier in the year in a bid to be “relevant” in the selection process further turned up the anxiety level and the volume of the speeches and the debates. As of January 25, the two avowed anti-war candidates in the two major parties –Republican Representative Ron Paul (TX) and Democrat Representative Dennis Kucinich (OH) have either been effectively marginalized (Paul) or have formally dropped from the race because the national and state party establishments refused to “make room” for him in the race (Kucinich).
e) Even the pundits and the political spinmeisters seem only to be going through the motions of maintaining the statistics and tweaking their well-worn prognostications about the way ahead: back down to 130,000 U.S. troops (including 15 combat brigades) in Iraq and 45,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The Republicans in particular will seize on any and every morsel of news that suggests the “surge” of troops in 2007 turned the tide so decisively that there will be no turning back, no reverse “turning point,” in Iraq.
f) There will be a four to five month window from the time that U.S. forces in Iraq get down to 15 combat brigades and the date of the U.S. general election. Insurgents and others fighting the occupation may well maintain a “low profile” to create the illusion of “progress” in the expectation that this will hasten the expected departure of the foreign armies.
However, this past week the curtain has been raised on the insurgent and al-Qaeda counter-surge tactics. Sunni self-defense militias increasingly appear to be the primary targets, not U.S. troops. And overall the civilian death toll is up in the new year from the last few months of 2007.
Having over-stretched the armed forces; having spent the U.S. into a fiscal and monetary black hole – the national debt has already nearly doubled under Bush, a trillion dollars has been consumed in Iraq and Afghanistan, oil has hit record prices, the dollar is chronically weak – and having pushed the U.S. economy to the brink of recession, it is little wonder that the public is less than concerned, even less than interested, about an Iraq that for too long has clouded their vision, blackened their horizon, and threatened their entire future and the future of their children’s children..
Oh yes: the question, or one way to ask the question: When did you realize that the “American century” as envisioned by George Bush and proclaimed by the neocons, was never real, was never meant to be real, and could only “be over before it began?”
My answer is: All of the above, any one of which would be enough to scuttle that designation.