Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Solving the Problem of Mutually-Exclusive Overlap in Iraq

Lots of news about Iraq lately. Too bad we haven't heard much about the recent approval of the Kurdish constitution.

Over a year ago, I discussed the problem of mutually exclusive minimum demands between the various parties within Iraq (1 2 3). I've also articulated this mutually-exclusive overlap as a catalyst of conflict in general. Specifically, the problem here is that the Kurds demand control over northern Iraqi oil resources, but the Sunni Arab population will never accept a federal structure where the Kurds get the northern oil, the Shi'a get the southern oil, and they get none.

It's easy to read about how the central government in Iraq plans to gather oil revenues centrally and then distribute it evenly through the country. What we're not hearing is that the recently approved constitution for the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) isn't playing that game. The KRG constitution explicitly states that Kurdish law trumps Federal (Iraqi) law. It also says that the KRG will retain its Peshmerga militia. Oh, and that if things don't work out, they retain the right to "go their own course." As in become independent. Turkey is, literally, up in arms about this. The US isn't quite so sure how to respond--a strong and independent Kurdistan doesn't exactly help the (potentially unattainable) goal of a stable, multi-ethnic Iraq. But it also accentuates the ethnic divisions within Iran--specifically their large and sometimes restive Kurdish minority.

Mutually-exclusive overlap. The Iraq project WILL FAIL if this issue cannot be addressed. So how do you address mutually-exclusive overlap? That isn't so easy. The first step is recognizing that there is a time element to the creation of mutually exclusive overlap: The artificial divisions created under the Sykes-Picot Accord almost 100 years ago brought this process into high gear. And there will be a time component in any solution. If people think it can be fixed in 5 years, they should hit the history books. In some ways, the recent situation in the former Yugoslavia is informative, but in that situation there was not this highly concentrated and incridibly important feature: oil.

There are other problems with trying to translate the very limited success of erasing mutually-exclusive overlap in the former Yugoslavia to Iraq. But perhaps the one most worth mentioning is that much of the former Yugolsavia is locally self-sufficient. The Serbs and Slovenes and Croats generally have their own localized industry. Their own localized agriculture. Their own localized tourist revenue. They, for the most part, don't rely on the dole. They are a geography of small cities, local markets, domestic production, and localized agriculture. Iraq is not. Iraqi population has exploded over the past decades on their oil wealth. They are fundamentally reliant on it. They are not agriculturally self-sufficient. They have virtually no export product beyond oil. So whatever region does not receive the share of oil revenue that they have come to rely on (and the Sunni Arab regions have traditionally received the vast majority), they no longer have the surplus necessary to maintain the standards that they expect. That they demand. This is why, without an even distribution of oil wealth, there cannot be peace in Iraq--it is the classic problem of the "Arab Street." Many young men on the dole who have no legitimate prospects to support themselves or their families. But with the lengthy history of oppression of the Kurds and Shi'a, these newly empowered groups will not accept their traditional, disproportionately small share of oil revenues. This is one source--probably the key source--of mutually-exclusive overlap in Iraq. And the Balkan model does not provide a solution here. This problem is only solved by moving the Iraqi economy away from its dependence on oil.

Can this be done? I think that it can, and I think that it is informative to look at why the former Yugoslavia was more successful in erasing mutually-exclusive overlap: its higher degree of localized self reliance. If Iraq is to ever erase this mutually-exclusive overlap, it will require a focus on creating localized self-reliance, not on some dream of establishing Iraq as a tourist center or manufacturing center--the solution must be possible within the zero-security environment that currently exists. Anything that depends on first solving that security problem is getting the cart before the horse. Localized self-reliance--the ability to create a quality life on your own--is something that CAN be done in the current environment, and that CAN then pave the way to remove the reliance on oil and reduce the criticality of the existing oil-based mutually exclusive overlap. I have only seen one example of this actually taking place: Geoff Lawton's excellent, Middle East permaculture initiatives. With his wife Nadia he has worked to create local self-reliance in Jordan. And he has worked to create a self-dependent, permaculture orriented village in Iraq. This is far too little, but it is creating a model for how this CAN be accomplished--something that, if seized upon by other NGOs or governments, could, one day, actually solve this problem.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006


Regardless of its relative success or failure, the recent nuclear test by North Korea resulted in calls from all sides for that country to cease its nuclear armament program. The foundation for all of these calls is the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The NPT, which is binding in international law on all nations, not just its signatories (see 1996 ICJ advisory opinion), requires that non-nuclear states not pursue the development of nuclear weapons. So, clearly, North Korea had no right to develop a bomb, let alone test one. It says so clearly in the NPT, which is binding, and must be respected...

Of course, what we aren't hearing are the cries that the NPT also says that the nuclear powers must disarm. That isn't very convenient, especially with the US Department of Energy working on developing a new generation of smaller and "more useable" nuclear weapons. Yes, the second pillar (article VI) of the NPT, right after non-proliferation, is disarmament. And the 1996 Internatinal Court of Justice advisory opinion also made it clear that this obligation to disarm--to conclude and enact agreements resulting in actual disarmament, not just to enter negotiations--is equally binding on all nations under international law.

Quite the sticky wicket. The US is equally in violation of international law by not disarming as North Korea is by creating a bomb and testing it. Funny, then, that we're only talking about enacting sanctions on North Korea. International law is normative, not rule-based. That means that it only has effect by the standards created for nations by the cumulative actions of others. So the UN or the US can say all they want that the North is in violation of international law. This is only true to the extent that such normative law exists, and because all other nuclear powers are flaunting their obligations under the NPT, it's words do not rise to become normative. Therefore there is no norm--and hence no law--for North Korea to violate. All talk to the contrary is just that. Likewise with Iran. I'm sure we will hear people discussing how Iran is violating international law as well. As soon as those same people point out how the US and France and China are similarly violating that law, then we're getting somewhere. Until then, talk talk talk.

What to do? That one is easy in my book. Disarm. Unilaterally. It's not like we can really use those nuclear weapons anyway. Ignoring for the moment the argument that none of our missiles could even get out of their silos without a month's notice, we stand to lose virtually nothing, and we stand to gain so much. Disarm unilaterally, gain the respect of the world, create a true normative environment to bring pressure on what will only then actually be "rogue" states to meet their own obligations. Obligations that in a normative system will only then really exist. Disarm unilaterally and gain the moral high ground. Or, continue with our hypocritical ways and see how far that gets us. For a change, it really is our choice.

Monday, October 09, 2006


North Korea tested a nuclear bomb. Click on that link if you want to read the about the test itself--I'm more interested in the fallout.

Even though the test device was detonated in a 700m deep shaft, radiation will still escape into the atmosphere. And the US Air Force WC-135 Constant Phoenix is surely already busy flying off the coast of North Korea performing their dull but essential particulate analysis mission. This will likely confirm that the fissile material was the product of NK's Youngbyon reactor complex.

Now what? The fears are that this will spark an East Asian arms race. Japan has all the necessary technology and plenty of nuclear facilities to leverage--they could build a nuclear capability very quickly if so inclined. With new PM Shinzo Abe at the helm, and the pacifist voices of Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors growing more quiet by the year, this is a very real concern. With Japanese deployment to Iraq (albeit in a nominally non-combat role) passing without major controversy at home, the groundwork for rearmament is already being laid. Japan's dependence on imported energy sources may prove to be the final straw--will Japan be able to curry favor abroad and continue to win oil concessions through charity, or will they feel the need to back that up with a military stick? While oil is theoretically fungible and traded freely worldwide, there is simply not enough oil within easy reach of hungry East Asian markets--as effective as charity may be, it is not capable of forcing open a choke point such as the Strait of Mollucca.

In addition, one of the long-standing Korea theories holds that the ultimate goal of America is to maintain the status quo--a divided Korea is stabilizing because it prevents either regional unification or conflict. Specifically, a divided Korea keeps a powerful US military force--and just as importantly a viable excuse to maintain that force--in the theater. A divided Korea provides the justification for the US to remain as the military protector of Japan, and thereby prevent their re-armament. So long as a US military force is committed to the region, and opposed to China, Japan does not have a reason to build up its own "Self-Defense Forces" to counter a chinese threat. Or so the theory goes. But with the US bogged down in Iraq, further tied down by the need to deter Iran, the US military presence in East Asia rings hollow. In my opinion, there is no viable military option available to the US. And so far, the Bush version of diplomacy has failed both locally (it didn't prevent this test) and globally (it has shown nations such as Iran that you will be handled more softly if you already have the bomb). Would the Clinton version--direct engagement and talks--be any more successful? I think it would be more effective locally but equally counterproductive globally--it still shows others that you get what you want when you play the nuclear card. Either way, it will be interesting to see what will happen next...

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Oil Prices...Again

Almost a month ago I raised the possibility that the sharp drop in oil prices in the run-up to the November elections may be the result of manipulation. This has been an easy argument to brush aside, as there are also fundamentals behind the recent drop: this hurricane season hasn't lived up to the hype, causing some speculators to bail out of their oil plays. Also, geopolitical tensions impacting oil supplies have been simmering on low (though some of this--especially the easing of pressure on Iran, may not be entirely innocent). Never the less, the potential for price manipulation has received coverage from most of the mainstream media (though mostly as a preface to dismissing the concern). While I think that I presented several very plausible manipulation scenarios, over the past week there has been one theory (not one of mine) that has cearly risen above the rest: a change in the composition of the Goldman Sachs commodity index led to a massive sell-off in oil-complex futures. The Goldman Sachs commodity index is publicly available, and it acts as the benchmark for the composition of over $100 Billion in commodity funds. Suddenly, and without explanation, Goldman Sachs changed the Unleaded Gasoline component of the index from 8.72% to 2.3%, which sparked a lingering sell-off of over $6 billion dollars in oil-complex futures as funds scrambled to bring their portfolios in line. This was in no way a reflection of the fundamental supply and demand picture, just a quirk of the financial markets. With this theory now out in the open, there is speculation that Goldman's close ties to the Bush administration may be involved, but that is a more of a diversion: this is important not because it may or may not suggest political maneuvering, but because it strengthens the argument that the recent drop in oil prices is not based on fundamentals.

As deconsumption recently pointed out, even the NY Times has picked up on this story.