June 29, 2004

Iraqi grab bag

Hearty congratulations to the new government of Iraq, and to the Coalition for their creativity in executing a speedy transition ahead of schedule. I had thought all along that announcing the precise moment that power would be transferred, months in advance, presented too big and too obvious a target for the jihadifascists to pass up making some sort of vile demonstration. From this moment onwards, they are fighting the UN-recognized officially sovereign government of Iraq, and will be less able to earn a pass from ambivanlent Iraqis by virtue of fighting the occupying power. Callers to an Iraqi news radio station today gushed over the reestablishment of their sovereignty, and issue a warning of their own to the foreign terrorists that their continuing presence and activities are regarded as murder. Foxnews quotes one caller, identified only as Ali in Baghdad, as saying "I send all the Iraqi people my blessings. But I warn these terrorists, all the Iraqis will rise up and strike them with steel." Kudos, and kudos again.

This recent business of beheadings of Nick Berg, and Dennis Johnson, and Kim Il-Sun, and the claimed recent execution of fellow Ohioan, Army Spc Matt Maupin, is beginning to make me really angry, however. As is the threat to behead a US Marine, and three Turkish civilians. I don't mean this in a "why do they hate us" or "let's bring our soldiers home right now" sort of pusillanimy. I mean it by asking whether we may be dealing too gently with a bunch of 12th century bloodthirsty barbarians, making perhaps the same mistake that Rome made when its eastern fronteirs began to be overrun.

It may be time to start regarding the foreign terrorists in Iraq as less a combat enemy, and more a wasp nest lurking under the back porch which needs to be cleaned out. Such activities do not involve discussion, negotiation, or the nicer distinctions among parties who are specifically guilty and those who may be only guilty by association. Exterminating a wasp nest requires lots and lots of wasp killer, applied severely and with extreme prejudice. The kidnapped Marine in particular is an Arab Muslim, so it seems spurious to consider these animals to be religiously motivated in anything like what we understand the phrase to mean. If the bloodthirsty animals actually follow through with their threat--and I pray they don't, or are prevented--neither the US public nor the US military will be inclined to be gentle with the perpetrators of such an atrocity against a uniformed Marine.

To that end, I was pleased to note that we have resumed using our heavy weaponry in Fallujah. Last Saturday, US strike fighters dropped precision bombs on a terrorist safehouse in Fallujah, and the extent of the secondary explosions--lasting for twenty minutes--testifies to the huge cache of illegal weapons and explosives which were consumed along with 18 terrorists. Another terrorist safehouse was destroyed Tuesday with precision bombs, and a third strike on Friday evidently hit a safehouse just as al-Zaquari was pulling up to the door--but he escaped unhurt. The same cannot be said of the 20-25 terrorists holed up inside plotting their next atroctity, who have now been themselves exterminated.

This points both to a renewed willingness to break some things and kill large numbers of bad men, now that the Sadr uprising has been quelled, and to our ability to develop quality intelligence even inside Fallujah. Coupled with the smooth transfer of power, I am more optimistic now than I have been for months that this thing can be brought finally under control.

Posted by JKS at 06:40 AM | Comments (0)

June 19, 2004

Timeline of 9/11

The Sep 11 Commission has released its staff report on its factual findings of certain events on the bright blue morning in question lo these several years ago. It makes for some fascinating reading and I highly recommend you check it out.

This particular statement, Staff Report 17, is titled Improvising a Homeland Defense. It details what the various agencies: the FAA, NORAD, DoD in general, and the White House all did to try to improvise a defense to tactics never seriously contemplated. This particular report is entirely event-based, contains to allocation of political blame, and in fact praises those involved for their attempts to innovate a homeland defense on the fly, and it really is worth reading all of it.

In its analysis, several interesting facts come to light.

First, I recall vividly that morning (among other things) brief rumors cited by the newsmen on the scene that, after the hits upon the two towers and the Pentagon, that another plane was inbound to Washington DC and was about 20 minutes away. I was flabbergasted that with a twenty-minute warning, we seemed to have such difficulty establishing a Combat Air Patrol over our own capital city. For a multibillion-dollar military, it seemed impossible that defending our own capital could take so long. Where the F*$% are my fighter jets? I remember saying, repeatedly, and with increasing agitation.

Turns out that, with the virtual elimination of the threat of incoming strategic bombers, we have also eliminated nearly all of our Early Alert Sites which were littered across the country, ready to scramble interceptors at a moments' notice. Only seven sites remain, each with a pair of fighters on alert. And the only reason NORAD knew anything was afoot at all was because the FAA called them on the telephone, and NORAD was utterly unable to locate any of the target planes, and didn't know Flight 93 had crashed until some time after the civilians reported it to them. For a military which is proud that it can project power anywhere in the world in 24 hours, I was surprised to learn that they couldn't project power onto a slowmoving unarmed plane travelling over Pennsylvania just like (snaps fingers) that.

The biggest technological change which is an obvious and salutary response to 9/11, in my opinion, is to adopt some form of satellite air traffic control system. Presently, aircraft are tracked by controllers primarily by a transponder on each aircraft, an active transmitter which gives the plane's identity and location. If that malfunctions (or as happened on 9/11) is turned off, the only thing left for controllers to use is ground-based radar to try to pick up a moving blip which is otherwise unidentified. There is nothing like 100% radar coverage of the US from ground-based radar stations (it's probably more like 10%), leaving huge holes where a hijacked plane can hide and no one can see it.

In one of those incidents which appear sort of poignant and ironic after the fact, in June 2001 Boeing made a sales pitch to the FAA to develop and deploy just such a satellite air traffic control system. Since the FAA can only actively "see" planes when they are near a ground-based radar site (primarily located at airports), a flight from Detroit to Chicago will likely be routed with a flight plan through Toledo first--not taking a crow's flight straight path. This (a) needlessly adds miles and time to the flight; and (b) needlessly adds traffic to the intervening cities' airspace, congesting and slowing down traffic taking off and landing at that airport. Boeing proposed a system which would all but obviate ground based radar in air traffic control, decreasing congestion at busy city airspaces and generally speeding air travel. Such a system, if its output were available to NORAD, would have reduced the confusion that morning and would enable future such incidents to be actively interdicted before impacting on major cities--if the president deems it appropriate and gives such orders.

The plan was generally panned as being too expensive and unnecessary besides. Needless to say, had Boeing's plan been approved and ordered deployed in June 2001, it would not have been operating in time to be of use on 9/11.

Second, while it demonstrated personal courage and tremendous dedication to the safety of his staff, Donald Rumsfeld had no business assisting with the rescue effort in the first moments after the attack on the Pentagon. He should have, like President Bush did, get himself to safety so that continuity of government and the chain of command could have persisted. The pilots of the Combat Air Patrol over Washington DC did not have clear orders to shoot down incoming aircraft for some 30 minutes after Vice President Cheney (authorized by President Bush) first told a military aide in the shelter that the shoot down was authorized.

This military aide instructed the National Military Command Center of the Vice President's order. NMCC informed the central command at NORAD in Colorado, which (supposedly) transmitted the order to the Continental Region of NORAD, which was supposed to thereafter the NEADS commanders. This chain was interrupted between central and regional NORAD, and the NEADS commanders learned of it only over a chat log. The order was so exceptional, and its mode of transmittal so unusual, that the NEADS commanders didn't actually inform the pilots at all. The first actual shootdown order which reached a pilot came in a manner which would have been comical if it weren't so tragic: Cheney repeated the order to a Secret Service agent at the White House, who called on the telephone another Secret Service agent at the FAA, who (holding a telephone to each ear to act as a relay) repeated the order to the commander of the 113th Air Wing of the National Guard, who finally ordered his departing pilots that they were "weapons free," meaning to shoot anything that wouldn't divert.

Secretary Rumsfeld should have remained in the chain of command, rather than participating in rescue efforts after the Pentagon attack. It's not clear that this would have prevented the confusion, and it was anyway too late to shoot anything down, as the passengers of Flight 93 had already knocked the plane out of the sky. But his proper function at that time was to maintain his role within the chain of command.

Third, it is a chilling thought to consider that Flight 93 was heading either for the White House or the Capitol. The latter target would have been much more devastating to America. Congress may be populated mostly with ineffective lifer politicos, and one could rather glibly make jokes about getting corruption out of politics and all, but try to imagine the chaos of having one branch of government incapacitated. If the Executive is all that is left standing, a declaration of martial law would not have been truly unexpected. Special elections would have to be held for perhaps 200 senators and/or representatives, assuming we were still following the niceties of the Constitution at all by that point. Liberals may, I suppose, make glib jokes that what we ended up with--the Bush/Ashcroft/Cheney/Rumsfeld reign of terror, as they see it--precisely that. Phoo on them, I say.

We owe a far larger debt of gratitude to the passengers of Flight 93 than we had realized all along.

Fourth, and finally, I would warrant that this entire affair should call into question this liberal notion of some omnipotent and omniscient industromilitaryintelligence complex, or whatever it is they call it these days. Picturing a Secret Service man repeating what he hears from the phone in his left hand, into the phone in his right hand, and this representing the only way to relay presidential orders, should disabuse even the most paranoid of this fairy tale.

There really is lots of work to do to be ready to deal with these fastmoving threats and attacks. I hope we are ready for the next one.

Posted by JKS at 04:10 AM | Comments (0)

June 17, 2004

A few parting thoughts on Ronald Reagan.

I haven't posted anything about Ronald Reagan going to his long-deserved reward because so much has already been said by so many others, most of whom said it better than I could anyhow. All I really can say is that, no matter how long he lived or how expected his death, it makes me sad and the nation is poorer for having lost him.

I became fairly absorbed in the weeklong outpouring of tribute, and a number of notions occurred to me. The first is how much George Bush uses Reagan as his presidential role model, rather than his own father.

The tough and uncompromising tack which Reagan took with the Soviets, back when there were still Soviets, is obviously similar to Bush's rhetoric and actions during the ongoing War on Terror. The Evil Empire speech is referred to so frequently as to sound almost trite now, but--like Meg Ryan's fake-orgasm-in-a-restaurant scene--was utterly shocking and unexpected at the time.

The full context of those remarks contains additionally a striking and slightly overlooked rebuke to moral equivalency, which in my opinion is actually the more important element of this particular speech. It made quite an impression on me the first time I heard it:

So in your discussions of the nuclear freeze proposals, I urge you to beware the temptation of pride--the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.

President Bush has taken a similarly unnuanced stance with his administration's more shadowy nemesis, stating to the nation and the world that the U.S. would "make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them." The current President's moral clarity, which leftists will deride as simplistic as they did with Reagan's, is clearly modelled after the fortieth President.

Likewise his resistance to being governed by opinion polls. President Clinton was unusually guilty of swaying metaphorically in the wind, whichever way it happened to blow; this reduces the benefits we otherwise realize from having a Republic, not a Democracy. But both Bush and Reagan took decisive actions when they were convinced of the correctness of them, even if they were momentarily wildly unpopular decisions. None of us can forget the huge demonstrations in February 2003 on the eve of the war, which included the second largest ever in New York City, and which were uniformly and loudly opposed to the proposed military action. Bush ordered in the tanks anway, because he was convinced it was right, even if it wasn't popular.

The 2003 demonstrations included the second-largest ever in NYC only because they failed to exceed the demonstrations of popular anger over President Reagan's deployment of Pershing missiles in 1982. Any who today would say that decision was wrong can be dismissed as naive partisans or historical revisionists; while the verdict is still out on whether we will be successful in Iraq (thanks in no small part to the uncertainty of the November elections), the decision to disregard what was popular in favor of what was right is very Reaganesque. Bravo to President Bush, and Bravo! again.

Bush 41, contrariwise, had quite a more subtle foreign policy, based on consonance and multilateralism--before this last was adopted by the left as part of their lexicographic code. This naturally was exemplified in giving primacy to the size of the coalition to kick Saddam from Kuwait, not in the correctness or desireability of that enormous coalition's goals, limited as they were to expressly forbid actually deposing him. This is the sharpest example since Neville Chamberlain's Peace in our time speech of trading being effective for being agreeable.

So President Bush models his moral and foreign policy views after Ronald Reagan, not entirely surprisingly. He is, however, deficient in meeting Reagan's overall standard in two primary ways, both of which are understandable. He lacks Ronald Reagan's rhetorical skills--which, in all I've read of American politics and history, were probably only equalled by perhaps ten men in the history of the Republic, all the Founders included. So it's hardly shameful to fall short of that standard, but President Bush's occasionally awkward speaking style has made it difficult to effectively communicate the reasons for the difficult and unpopular decisions. I think I've heard the reasons why a few times, but much of the global vision of a democratic domino effect in the middle east has been fleshed out by subordinates, spokesmen, and outside conservative analysts. This has compromised the effectiveness of the message, and unfortunately is the primary reason why George Bush is in such a hot re-election fight. The success of Iraq is still undecided since we are so perilously close to electing a President who won't make tough decisions based on firm principles, but based on how his focus groups respond to certain proposed policy actions.

I agree entirely with the President's decision to go to war in Iraq, and even agree basically with the conduct of the war's aftermath. It's hard to say how successful or not we presently are being, because this type of war has really never been tried before and we don't have much of a model for what success should look like at this point. Could be better. Could have been much worse, if you recall all the Stalingrad references leading up to the fall of Baghdad. But the overall mission would have been helped if Bush were able to communicate it more clearly.

The other deficiency Bush seems to have is that, while he does not use his father's presidency as a model, he does seem to have been traumatized by watching his father's 82% approval rating dwindle into unelection within nine months in 1992. How else to explain a few of the more shameful policies, such as the steel tariffs and the Medicare prescription drug benefit? I hope we see some return of Reagan's anti-government message and some spending discipline in Bush's second term; if there is no second term, we may well see the same traumatization in Jeb Bush's first term when he's elected President in 2012.

Of all these shortcomings by comparison to Ronald Reagan, I say So what? Reagan is a once-in-a-generation leader. We'll not see his kind from either party any time soon. I still hope Bush wins in November.

The one historical context I'm having a hard time nailing down is just how unusual is this weeklong national mourning: does the nation really love Reagan that much, or is this level of attention afforded to any well-respected former president who dies? Nixon doesn't count. LBJ really wasn't well-liked even by a lot of Democrats, so he doesn't really count either. It seems that the last popular former presidents to pass away, who have earned respect from at least modern members of the opposing party, were Eisenhower in 1969 and Truman in 1972. If any readers with firsthand perspectives on the nation's response to their deaths wish to contribute a few thoughts comparing that response to what we witnessed last week, I would be grateful.


Posted by JKS at 07:26 AM | Comments (0)

June 05, 2004

Another Thursday

So I'm presently suffering through the tail end of another Thursday like the one I described two weeks ago. Apologies in advance if what follows, which is meant to be kind of informal, is also incoherent. I'll probably edit the bejeezus out of this entry tomorrow once I've had some sleep. Check back again during the weekend to see if you can find the changes!

This is meant to be in summary fashion as I've not worked out all the particulars myself, but should prove illustrative of the concepts. I may dredge up some better sources over the weekend but what follows was derived from an off the cuff googling, and as such is easily reproducible by the curious reader.

But. Stephen Den Beste has been posting lately on a subject which interests me considerably, namely energy and energy independence (particularly from Arab sources). Den Beste gives an excellent treatment of some of the problems of scale from the perspective of an engineer today and yesterday, but I think the analysis of a humble accountant economist may be useful in refining his engineering discussion. His basic premise can be summarized:

There is no technology for generation, transmission, conversion or storage of energy which we currently understand or could plausibly develop which would be efficient enough, and which could be deployed soon enough, cheaply enough, and at a scale large enough, to significantly aid us in winning this war. And if it can't do those things, I don't care about it.

What follows is not a rigorous economic analysis and ignores some obvious things like the drop in price of crude oil which may result from, eg, drilling in ANWR; it further ignores that such a drop in price would tend to increase American demand for oil, partially offsetting the new supplies available from ANWR. This effect will mitigate, though not eliminate, the effects described below.

First. Den Beste spends a lot of time talking about the total electricity consumption of the United States, and the sheer staggering scale of it at 3.5 terawatts, and in the current post and several excellent ones he wrote last year, he painstakingly explains why there isn't any alternative fuel which can make much of a difference in this; he is especially dismissive of those (like me) who believe that a systematic reduction in American consumption of Arab oil would be an excellent weapon in the war on terror, reducing the availability of cash for hostile, ambivalent, or greedy Arab governments to fund terrorism. But despite his excellent engineering analysis he misses the point, as he blurs the issue of independence from Arab oil and the issue of electricity production considerably.

For geopolitical purposes, it is not necessary to do anything tremendously significant to alter the sourece of electricity production; Arab oil is used primarily for transportation, not electricity production. Presently about 52% of our electricity production is from coal (mined domestically); about 21% comes from nuclear fission plants; and about 8% from hydroelectric and other sources. Natural gas accounted for 16% of electricity production and petroleum only 3%. So for purposes of considering American independence from Arab oil, its use in electricity production is negligible.

So we can consume all the electricity we want without buying any Arab oil. But we obviously use it for our prime source of transportation fuel.

Den Beste seems to work with an assumption which I don't agree with: he appears to conclude that if we can't entirely stop using Arab oil that reducing our consumption of it won't make any difference (geopolitically), and that besides if we can't eliminate all use of Arab oil by all nations then there's no point in doing anything along these lines at all.

I'm not entirely in agreement with him here.

For scope, let's consider the following:
1. The US uses about 20 million barrels of oil per day, of about 70 million barrels total worldwide daily consumption.
2. Half (10M barrels/day) the oil consumed in the US is domestically produced.
3. So the rest of the world produces about 60M barrels per day, of which 10M collectively are sold to the United States.

So, to work backwards from den Beste's arguments, consider whether eliminating just American purchases of foreign oil would matter much to the Saudis, even though everyone else kept on buying at the normal rate. We (in March 2004) bought some 45M barrels of oil from Saudi Arabia, about 1.5M per day of the 10M we buy worldwide every day. In 2002 the Saudis had total oil exports of some 7M barrels per day. What would happen if they suddenly had exports drop by 1.5M/day (from 7 to 5.5M)?

In Econ 101 terms, this would be a permanent shift of the demand curve to the left. Since our demand for Saudi oil had gone down in this scenario, the price would drop in addition to the quantity output decreasing. In gross terms, as the Saudis have little GDP apart from oil production, this would result in a drop in GDP of about 1.5/7=21.4%. Reducing a nation's GDP by a fifth has some entirely nontrivial effects, none good, on that country.

By way of comparison, during the recent recession, the US economy shrank from a annualized real GDP of $9888B in fourth quarter 2000, to a low of $9835B in third quarter 2001--a decrease of one-half of one percent. Even if we are powerless to stop Saudi Arabia (and, more generally, Arab OPEC countries) from selling oil to other nations, we would put a Great Depression-sized dent in their economy if we were to stop buying foreign oil. It would hurt even if we were the only ones to develop independence from oil.

Now, the remaining question is whether it's possible to achieve this without wrecking our own economy essentially in a fit of pique. Den Beste says no, and he's certainly correct about that as far as it goes. But again it's important to recall that economics is not like engineering. It is not an all-or-nothing question of whether this goal is fully attainable. If it were even one-fourth attainable it would (using our simplified figures above) drop overall OPEC nations' GDP by more than 5% (ten times worse than our own latest recession). So where could any of this savings come from?

ANWR is the obvious place to start if we are to make a serious national attempt at reducing dependence on Arab oil. ANWR, if memory serves, was supposed to be capable of producing 1.5 million barrels per day--the same amount we buy now from Saudi Arabia--should we decide to open the area for oil production. This leaves us, with no hocus-pocus of new technologies, (only the perhaps equally fantastic political will required to affect such a thing as actually harvesting our own domestically-owned natural resources) able to satisfy 11.5 million of our 20 million barrels per day domestically, and we've already completed 15% of our goal. This naturally is in addition to the economic benefits associated with employing all manner of Americans to produce this oil, and the general benefits which the US economy always enjoys when the price of oil drops.

Where else to come up with reduction in foreign oil consumption? A lot of small things can be done for conservation, such as hybrid vehicles. To start out I took a look at Den Beste's 9/24/2002 assessment that conservation isn't going to yield meaningful results.

Den Beste incorrectly states with reference to hybrid vehicles that "The vehicles you describe aren't as much more efficient as you think they are, and they have the problem of requiring that we replace our physical plant." To be fair, this was an old article of his and he may simply not have been that conversant with the latest hybrids. The latest hybrids are pretty good and do not require any changes to systemwide physical plant (I'm not sure they ever did, unlike pure electric vehicles). The Honda Civic hybrid gets 51 MPG on the highway, compared to 38 MPG for the gasoline-only Civic, a 34% improvement. How significant is this likely to be?

The hybrid system used by Honda is somewhat different from that used by Toyota for the Prius. The Honda system achieves its efficiency by using a weak engine, which--even without electric assist--would propel the car slowly along, achieving 51 MPG all by itself. The electric assist is, truly, more a performance improvement than anything. In this respect it is no different from multivalve technology (more than one intake and exhaust valves per each cylinder) or a turbocharger, either of which allow a four-cylinder engine to produce power similar to a V8 engine which does not utilise these technologies.

Turbos, and more especially, multivalve technology have improved to the point that they are effective and fairly cheap. It's nearly impossible to buy any four- or six-cylinder engine which doesn't feature multivalve technology nowadays. There's no reason that with economies of scale hybrid technology couldn't become as pervasive. The tightening of the Corporate Average Fuel Economy loophole which allows trucks to have such preposterously low fuel economies, if tightened, would provide an incentive for investment by all vehicle manufacturers to figure out how to make more hybrid vehicles, and cheaply. A substantial tax credit for the purchase of such a vehicle would encourage drivers to consider them sooner and in greater numbers. It's hard to say what the net impact would be in this, but I don't find it farfetched to estimate a 1% drop in net oil consumption in this country--another 0.2M barrels per day.

So, on no sleep and with little research, I've already suggested means (given some political will) to reduce our consumption of foreign oil by some 17%, 1.7M barrels per day; smart people who analyse this stuff for a living should be able to do better. Knowing the sort of turmoil such an economic event would cause in a country which sells nothing but oil, I find it difficult to conclude that this would somehow not make it harder for, eg, state-sponsored terrorism in the middle east and elaborate nuclear weapons programs. Even if it doesn't solve the problem on its own--which it certainly won't--it still seems to represent a nontrivial disruption of the economic activities of our adversaries.

Someone should point this out to John Kerry and Tom Daschle.

Posted by JKS at 05:55 AM | Comments (0)