Share good ideas and conversation.   Login, Join Us, or Take a Tour!
comment by ghostoffuffle

I think the problem is more that ISIS is an existential threat to the US definition of the region. Right now, we're kind of reliant on the western-defined state of Iraq as a vital balance of power in a region where there are otherwise vanishingly few stopgaps between US allies and... everybody else. Without a clearly-bordered, stably-governed Iraq, US interests are in big trouble. And it looks like that's kind of where things are headed without any further US intervention of some sort. Maliki is a bastard, but he's a convenient bastard, or was before he demonstrated a complete ineptitude for either fair governance or effective autocracy. But he looked so good on paper! Strong academic background, good wartime stats and a history of fighting our enemies while at the same time staying reasonably detached from anti-American actors, and his Shia pedigree gave him both a legit distance from the old Iraqi governing forces and a diplomatic line to Iran.

Without Maliki or somebody like him (and past star searches have proven a marked lack of those), and without the Iraq as we've come to understand it on a geographic level, US regional interests will fall into deeper trouble. And in that respect, ISIS is every bit as dangerous as people have been crowing about.

I like this article a lot, but I'm not sure I understand the basic premise- "ISIS isn't as bad as everybody is saying, they're just really good at de-legitimizing weak governments through show of force!" That's, like, exactly as bad as it gets for all intents and purposes. A government is only as strong as its monopoly on power- or at very least the illusion of a monopoly on power. If ISIS continues to dominate the Sunni-heavy regions of Iraq with impunity- and all things being equal there's no reason to think that they won't- then the Maliki government will crumble. At which point, the state of Iraq either falls back into the hands of those with markedly less interest in the comfort of US regional allies, or else the whole region falls back into an official state of fractious tribalism. Either way, bad news for American interests.

FWIW, I think there's close to no chance that we'll actually waltz into Iraq for round three. Domestic appetite for war is too depressed, our military forces are already stretched too thin in a time that we're supposed to be "pivoting" towards Asia, our budget is too strained to support the cost of another ground war, and Obama's official doctrine has been clearly painted as one of less direct intervention. Drones and air support, sure. Money poured into the Maliki pit, wouldn't be surprised. But Iraq III? Unlikely.




user-inactivated  ·  1709 days ago  ·  link  ·  

    I like this article a lot, but I'm not sure I understand the basic premise- "ISIS isn't as bad as everybody is saying, they're just really good at de-legitimizing weak governments through show of force!" That's, like, exactly as bad as it gets for all intents and purposes.

Perhaps that's as bad as it gets for weak governments in the region, but he's criticizing the comparison to Al-Quaeda in the context of domestic American politics. ISIS has no intentions of carrying out attacks in the continental US, they're a religious nationalist movement focused on creating a Sunni state. If anything, erasing colonial borders should stabilize the region and reduce anticolonial resentment of America in the long run.

Hollowing out weak states is good for that purpose, and nonthreatening to America outside of the potential loss of puppet dictators, which decent people don't give a fuck about anyway.

ghostoffuffle  ·  1709 days ago  ·  link  ·  

If international policy were dictated by decency rather than calculated self-interest, there'd be no need for a state department, or a defense department for that matter.

I agree with you insofar as leaving well enough alone and allowing the region to revert to tribally-defined borders would ultimately be good for people living in the immediate region. Maybe. Once the mass killings subside a bit. It's a little bit mass-killy over there right now for a lot of residents' tastes, I should think. But as far as your other assertion goes- that it would have no repercussions for America- I'm not convinced of that at all. Oh, it's clear that ISIS isn't in the business of farming out overseas attacks a la AQ. But terrorism isn't really the only shark swimming in the sea, is it?

I won't pretend to understand all of our motivations for keeping the Middle East relatively stable on our terms. I don't think it's as simple as oil, oil, oil, though. I suspect it has just as much to do with the number of barely stable states within the region whose access to things that go boom is either well-established or burgeoning. Pakistan and Iran come clearly to mind, but Egypt, Iran, Libya and Syria enjoy either confirmed or suspected CW stockpiles; all of the aforementioned states make some pretty neat missiles in general.

The US might want Iraq stable as much to stave off the messages its collapse would send as much for the benefits it awards us by its continued existence. There's the "US is a paper tiger incapable of supporting the states it builds" thing, and then there's the "if this can happen here, why not in every unstable Middle Eastern state" thing- that one has been borne out in part by the whole Arab Spring affair. The other lesson we can draw from the Arab Spring is that while it's easier than we might have once thought to topple a repressive regime, it's a lot harder to pick up the pieces and glue them together into a coherent whole again, even when all of the actors in play are ostensibly interested in doing so.

Again, this is straight-up speculation. I dunno, MW. Maybe Iraq falls and nothing happens. But from what we've seen elsewhere in the region, nothing really happens in a vacuum, and up to now we don't have many positive outcomes to place our bets by. At very least, I think it's safe to say Iraq's fall would have destabilizing effects on bordermates Syria and Iran, and those are two states that we want propped up come hell or high water.

flagamuffin  ·  1709 days ago  ·  link  ·  

    Hollowing out weak states is good for that purpose, and nonthreatening to America outside of the potential loss of puppet dictators, which decent people don't give a fuck about anyway.

$114 a barrel and rising

Meriadoc  ·  1709 days ago  ·  link  ·  

wasoxygen, how's the bet looking?

wasoxygen  ·  1709 days ago  ·  link  ·  

Could be better. I don't update the charts as often when things are not going my way.

Based on the trend since 2004, Big Macs should be around $4.95 when the bet matures in December 2015, giving an index price of $95 to compare to an oil barrel. That's a good 12% lower than today's crude price, but there's plenty of volatility to keep my hopes alive.

I just worry about what flagamuffin is cooking up.

b_b  ·  1708 days ago  ·  link  ·  

    Based on the trend since 2004, Big Macs should be around $4.95 when the bet matures in December 2015...

That's assuming that the trend continues. I doubt it will. From everything I remember reading last summer, the price of meat is expected to rise sharply in the near term, due to the epic drought that the West has experienced in recent years. Last summer they had to cull the cattle heard fairly dramatically, which made prices fall last year, due to oversupply, but will likely make them rise this year and next, because the cattle that should have been mature are already dead, creating a lack of supply. The trend does look pretty stable, but with that pressure coupled with more and more fuel efficient cars (especially cool ones that people actually want to drive) coming on the market all the time, I think the BM (pun intended) will carry the day.

wasoxygen  ·  1708 days ago  ·  link  ·  

I am betting against expensive oil, so expensive beef would help me win the wager, though if I win due to cattle scarcity that would not very well serve my larger point that material welfare is getting better for people over time.

The Big Mac index has already risen significantly more sharply than inflation. A spike in prices due to the drought-induced shortage would be a perfectly Simonian trigger to provide incentive for more people to produce beef and beef substitutes, restoring supply and driving prices back down.

As you point out, substitutes for oil seem more likely in the near future. One of Simon's important points is that people do not really want sticky, messy petroleum, they just want their cars to go.

b_b  ·  1708 days ago  ·  link  ·  

    I am betting against expensive oil, so expensive beef would help me win the wager, though if I win due to cattle scarcity that would not very well serve my larger point that material welfare is getting better for people over time.

I'm not sure I would agree that rising meat prices would be antithetical to the idea that material welfare is increasing. Given the myriad externalities that aren't currently priced into meat, rising prices might actually be more reflective of the rising consciousness of a more educated and savvy population. Government regulation has created an artificial price support for meat, and if it were allowed to expire, you would win the bet by 10-fold. Agriculture is a hard one to make a Simonian bet on, given that he tried to (it seems based on my very minimal knowledge of the man) make bets that were freer of government price interference. Oil has some, too, but not anywhere near the level of meat.

wasoxygen  ·  1706 days ago  ·  link  ·  

I agree that the price of crude oil appears to be mostly based on market realities, with government distortion coming later, such as in gasoline tax. And the corn subsidy must have a significant effect on beef prices, though I doubt one pays more than double for a grass-fed steak, assuming that is a less distorted alternative.

But you may be overestimating the amount of beef in Big Macs. It looks like a "10:1 Regular Meat" — the tenth-of-a-pound beef patty, two of which go into a Big Mac — costs about 18 or 21 cents. That's only about 10% of the retail price of the burger.

Simon did try to avoid bets on prices that were distorted by government. His last wager stipulated that "This agreement is null and void if the price of saw timber (in south Alabama) is controlled by the government" after five years. Simon paid out on that bet but cited logging restrictions in the Pacific northwest that influenced prices, invalidating the bet.

b_b  ·  1706 days ago  ·  link  ·  

Yes, I spoke incorrectly (or, rather, incompletely) when I mused about price supports for meat. What I should have said was that the government has huge price supports for fast food, because we're talking beef, wheat, corn and soy all in one package (w.r.t. the Big Mac), not to mention the welfare and food stamps required to supplement the wages of the workers for them to pay rent and sustain themselves. None of these things is a consideration in the price of a barrel of crude.

wasoxygen  ·  1706 days ago  ·  link  ·  

I can think of some government policies that might make fast food less attractive than alternatives, like minimum wage and crazy fees, but I bet you're right, most of the distortion favors McDonald's.

Why on Earth would government promote less healthy food at the expense of healthier alternatives? Oh right, because politicians respond to incentives, like everyone else.

b_b  ·  1706 days ago  ·  link  ·  

Unfortunately for us the incentives to which they're responding often don't align with those of their constituents. Hence the deferred costs of unhealthy food.

user-inactivated  ·  1709 days ago  ·  link  ·  

How crass.

That's happening eventually no matter how many oil rigs we conquer. The sooner the better.