An Idiot Abroad

Greater Middle East
Image via Wikipedia

“It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” Winston Churchill

My father recently sent me an on-line geographic quiz that required that I assign the names of countries to over 30 nations that make up the strategic region we broadly refer to as The Middle East.  The area remains a radioactive Jenga stack of oil rich nations stretching from arid Northern Africa, through the Southern and Northern Gulf States into a creche of red-headed newborns known as the ”Stans”.  Despite my time working and travelling across this area, I was surprised how confused I was over where everybody actually lives.

As a young adult, I suffered from the normal provincialism that afflicts many West Coast Americans.  I was disinterested in Europe’s Rubik’s Cube of nations that seemed like aging actresses – temperamental and well past their prime. My orientation to the shifting sands of Middle Eastern geo-politics was ancient maps of Mesopotamia, odd and even days for sitting in line for gasoline during the 70’s oil embargo and a strange production monopoly called OPEC which sounded like CHAOS, the evil organization bent on world anarchy in the TV show, “Get Smart”.  To me, everything beyond North America was a wasteland of sand, bananas and crumbling infrastructure.

The US seemed mired in perpetual Middle Eastern Peace Talks. When the Iran and the Shah fell, I asked my father why we had such a keen interest in what happened to this regime.  It was in our national interests, my father explained, to always have a hand in the Middle East. When my militant older brother scoffed at the notion that US had a right to interfere with the politics of another sovereign nation simply because it coveted its natural resources, my father quickly put him in his place. “Would you rather have the Russians or the Chinese calling the shots?  You’ll be paying $3 for a gallon of gas before you know it, mister.”

It was a time of Cold War, cartels and counter-espionage. The battle for the soul of the modern world was distilled to a point where one could either sip from the West’s grail shining with its thousand points of light or toss back a shot from the community based cup of socialism.

It all seemed so clear.  There were good guys and bad guys. The West extended invitations to enjoy liberty while Communism took away your right to decide. The world was not a colorful mural of elementary school book cultures and happy independent countries but a canvas to be fought over – – and ultimately covered by the brush stokes of red or white ideologies.

In college, I read Hayek’s The Road To Serfdom, published in 1944, which reinforced the notion that any society that mistakenly yields to a vision of collectivism eventually degrades into totalitarianism.  Hayek’s thesis contended that any “vanguard“ form of socialistic or fascist government is eventually corrupted by its own power and never fully yields to society the self-governance it has promised to transition.  When there is a void of social and political power, it is not filled by utopian democracy but instead by absolute control. Hayek warned that citizens willing to cede personal liberties or greater dependence on entitlements provided by a larger, more prescriptive government led to the same end – serfdom.  Democracy was the fragile middle ground between bankrupt liberalism and suffocating fascism.

The danger of equipping an 18 year-old with Hayek is you create a libertarian with anarchist tendencies. In the mid eighties, it was a time of conservatism and I became an opinionated critic of our foreign policy in Central America and Monroe Doctrine unilateralism.  I was armed with a powerful arsenal of convenient academic views that I had gathered in earnest in class rooms, lectures and in left-wing coffee houses.

Years later, while living and working in Europe, I realized that I had become, what comedian Ricky Gervais coined, “an idiot abroad.”  My apologist views were simple on issues that remained highly complex.  I had never visited many of the nations of whom I had such devout opinions.  As I travelled the Middle East, I came to view these nations as ancient ceramics broken by two World Wars – – only to be haphazardly reconstructed across deep tribal fissures and religious fault lines.

In England, I met a post-colonial empire with a richer past than future. British history in the Middle East was embodied in the tumultuous 1800’s when colonialism sewed the seeds for WWI.  A great global land rush began for control of resource rich, weaker nations in strategic locations across the globe.  Britain, Spain, Russia, England, Japan, Austria-Hungary, Germany, Belgium, France and the US, all rationalized that these underdeveloped countries would benefit profoundly from Western culture, infrastructure and oversight.  In 1918, while the Ottoman Empire was receding from Europe, leaving pools of ethnic conflict and seeds of internecine war, the Austro-Hungarian Empire ceased to exist, and an impoverished Germany would witness the slow strangulation of the Weimar Republic and the rise of the national socialist party.

Most historians contend that while the Treaty of Versailles marked the end of the fighting of WWI, it only served as the mid-way point in a political and ideological war that dates back to the Crusades. The ideological war between Islam and the West inflamed with the birth of Israel and was fanned as communism and democracy waged a dozen proxy wars across the globe.  Many still argue that WWII did not really end until the fall of the Berlin Wall.

In time, colonialism revealed its ugly underbelly.  In “King Leopold’s Ghost”, the world read about the crushing repression of Belgian colonialism as the tiny European nation raped the Congo of its rubber and respect, plunging the African nation into a darkness from which has still to recover. Many world powers ultimately fashioned the snare that would entrap their own feet. The French were bloodied in Tunisia and Algeria.  The British were driven from India and Palestine.  Russia became ensnared in Afghanistan and across the Balkans.  The US left 55,000 dead in Vietnam.  Western interests in the Middle East, Africa, Central America, South America and the Pacific Rim began to unravel as smaller protectorates sought self governance and strived to drive out their protectors.

As we watch the wild-fire of social protest sweep through the Middle East and North Africa, many of us are filled with a mixture of dread, elation and anticipation.  As each nation’s army serves either as a vanguard for a transitional government or a hammer to shatter rising resistance, many are uncertain how to distinguish between protecting our interests and indulging the drum beat for democracy.

As protesters rush head long into the center of Manama, Bahrain, there is a growing angst building across a world that runs on fossil fuel and has keen interest in a region that has delivered as much stability as the San Andreas Fault. Each day is now filled with inspired Berlin Wall moments and at the same time, trepidation as firebrand clerics and moderates compete for the hearts and minds of a population where 50% are under 20-years-old.

2011 is the year of living dangerously and we are not sure what to make of it. Some credit former President George W Bush with threading the first fragile filament of democracy through Iraq so that it might illuminate a region shadowed by the permanent twilight of autocratic and fundamentalist regimes. Detractors of the war in Iraq draw no comparisons and feel these protests are a natural result of human social evolution.  They argue that any sustainable change – whether personal or collective – arises from within and does not normally come about as a result of outside influences attempting to be a catalyst for change.  Still others argue that certain regions will always need despots ‘lest they fracture into sectarian violence and civil war.  So, how can one tell a good despot from a bad one? Is it the shoes?

Broken nations, like the proverbial fish, rot first from the head. Broken nations begin with broken governments. Most of the world’s 6.9B people want the same thing – peace, economic opportunity, freedom and legal certainty.  For this idiot – now at home, I am uncertain whether one can achieve the underpinnings to support a free society without some form of democratic government.  However, in the process of allowing for majority rule, one must always be prepared for alternative forms of government – coalitions, theocracies and even forms of socialism. The strictly American part of my brain wants the best of all scenarios – democratic allies whose economic and global aspirations mute their more fundamentalist minorities. The social activist part of my brain wants to support the process however it plays out.

Some find it hard to condemn Yemen, Libya and Iran’s violent reactions to protesters while condoning Qatar’s, Bahrain’s and possibly Jordan, Syria and Saudi Arabia’s future hard-line responses to those who seek to end decades of autocracy, oligopoly, monarchy or theocracy. Does the preservation of national interests afford a nation the justification for interfering with the politics of another nation? Is nation-building only work when the nation is constructed in your own image? Do some of us just need to grow up and face the facts that the oil-addicted West must always have a hand in this part of the world?

After all these years, I remain, faithfully, an idiot.  I am always left with more questions.  While some have come to see the world through a black and white lens,  my sunglasses only see shades of  gray. One can only imagine what it must be like to be our President.  All eyes are watching and the answers are about as clear as a viscous pool of oil.

Do We Have The Energy?

Oil Refinery 01
Image by Wyatt Wellman via Flickr

“I fought fire with oil.” – Dalton Trumbo

As oil approaches $ 100 a barrel and we begin to flirt with pump prices typically reserved for high consumption tax Europe,  I wonder if we understand where this is all heading.  I have read enough to know that as the price of oil increases, so do the number of human rights violations in certain countries whose primary export is oil.  In times when the price of oil did not wildly exceed the cost of refining and transporting the black gold, countries such as Russia, Venezuela, Iran, and other petroleum rich nations were much better behaved world citizens and more likely to seek common ground and foreign investment than seek to destabilize it.

Noted author and NY Times foreign policy writer, Tom Friedman refers to these governments as “petro-authoritarians” whose swelling coffers from petroleum sales has afforded them a world stage to spread their own brand of ideological, theological and political mischief.  Consider Hugo Chavez or the increasingly brash Vladmir Putin.  Our largely inflexible foreign policy and feckless dependence on oil seems to have emboldened these governments to condemn and vilify America.  Every time I fill my car with gasoline, I wonder if I am purchasing an RPG for an insurgent, helping pollute another country’s opinion of us or undermining an ally.


For the first time in recent memory, we seem to be financing both sides of our current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan — physical, geo political and ideological wars with America trapped in their vortex.  During the cold war, if a region became destabilized, countries like the US and the USSR would opportunistically seek to penetrate the destabilized nation, supporting factions whose ideologies best aligned with our political and economic interests.  Our classified involvement in the shifting landscapes of Africa, The Middle East and Central America all helped contour the puzzles pieces we now seek today to sort. With the fall of the Soviet Union, and the rise of globalization, nations in crisis suddenly went from being viewed as “bulwarks against communism” to “bad neighborhoods.”  It was no longer in our national interest to intervene.

These countries in crisis became the burden of their closest industrialized neighbor, which in turn, suddenly had to cope with massive immigration of economic and political refugees.  The world was witnessing age old ethnic and political fault lines giving rise to crimes against humanity and civil war in places like Kosovo, Rwanda, Somalia, the Sudan and Darfur.  The US was unable to live up to the implicit role it assumed with the fall of the USSR – – the world’s policeman.  Yet, amidst this march of folly, there was hope arising out of the belief that the “flattening” of the world, facilitated by technology and shifting global demographics, could create a less polarized world community.

In his book, The World is Flat, A Brief History of the 21st Century, Friedman talks optimistically of how technology, education and the velocity of capital are transforming emerging economies and equalizing the fields of international competition. A flat world means millions of knowledge workers entering the global workforce without ever leaving their country.   It also creates the potential for more harmonized cooperation among countries.  A benefit of economic homogenization is the taming of extremist governments and the pressure to reform or risk being passed over by those seeking to make investments in a more global economy.

Years before his book, Friedman asserted in his tongue and cheek “Golden Arches” theory of foreign policy that McDonalds has never invested in two countries who have fought one another.  Corporately, McDonalds, located in Oakbrook, Illinois, scrupulously evaluates the socioeconomic and political climates of potential areas of investment to ensure a stable foundation for its business.  Countries with unstable  political and economic practices feel increasing pressure to moderate or be left behind in the competition for foreign investment.  Friedman did caution that globalization could also inadvertently homogenize the national identities of nations and in some cases, foment political unrest in those left behind by the economic boom.  Disenfranchised nations can easily become fertile ground for extreme ideologists who would argue convincingly that globalization is nothing more than a Trojan Horse cloaking multi-national colonialism.

Friedman’s infectious optimism attempts to allay fears arguing that the winds of an economic renaissance would not fan fundamentalism but extinguish it through improving the world’s standard of living and furthering democratic equality.  His blueprint seemed to be playing out according to plan until the war in Iraq and the spiking price of oil shifted the trade winds. It seems the USA, representing 4% of the world’s population but driving 25% of its goods, services and greenhouse gases, was exposed for its deep dependence on foreign oil and its lack of a cogent energy policy.  The prospect of tough public policy decisions have most politicians diving under the table.  Most voters are unfamiliar with the tangled web of interests that result in massive subsidies granted the US agricultural industry, the surreal politics of petroleum and the double standard of protectionism and trade.

The good news is innovation and green practices are taking hold and our political and environmental IQs are rising with the earth’s temperature.  However, people’s fear is increasing as well.  We have candidates who focus primarily on the events of 9/11 and not enough, as Freidman contends, with a post 9/11 world – – the “world of 9/12”.  We have a finite amount of time to deliberate over the overwhelming facts that face us.  We are caught in the snare of Middle Eastern petro-politics and engaged in a war of religious and political ideologies.  It is hard to wrestle with these demons while so addicted to fossil fuels.

The NY Times recently offered an editorial observation that $ 100 a barrel oil affords us a window to encourage innovative development in alternative energies that would have been impractical or unprofitable when oil was trading at $ 35 a barrel.  Can we change our policies and politicians and in doing so, chart an alternative course for our future?  Are we ready for inconvenience?  Do we understand what kinds of sacrifices are involved and do we have the resolve to endure them? You don’t have to be a Rhodes Scholar to understand how $ 100 a barrel oil is mortgaging our future.

As we watch the Iowa Caucuses and consider each presidential candidate’s policies, let’s be sure someone answers our questions about energy.  Will our next President light a way to a new future or protect the status quo and in doing so, inadvertently fulfill a highly cynical view that our insatiable demand will be our undoing.  Karl Marx remarked that  “when we hang the last capitalist, the damn fool will probably sells us the rope”.

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result.  It’s time for a fossil fuel intervention ? Do we have the energy?