Pulling Out: Debating Middle East Disengagement (Neg. Cross)
Question 1: What evidence do you have that reducing our “footprint” and “fingerprint” will result in a reduction of radicalism in the Middle East?
BERNARD FINEL: Obviously, it is impossible to prove a hypothetical, so there is no direct evidence to support my contention that reducing our visibility will reduce radicalism. Indeed, I don’t think it is likely to reduce radicalism at all—what I believe is that it will reduce anti-American radicalism, which is a slightly different argument. I also want to point out that we need to think through carefully the evidentiary requirements of the case for a policy change. If our current policies were working well, then there would be a strong argument for the presumption against a major departure, and hence a high-standard of proof would be required. In the current case, where our Middle Eastern policy is, I think, self-evidently unsatisfactory, the standard of proof for change is lower. That said, I agree with the implicit assumption behind these questions, which is that the first principle ought to be to first do no harm to American interests.
As to the evidence. I come to my conclusion on the basis of both an analysis of public opinion data and by comparison to other countries. First, opinion data: There is deep, deep skepticism of American motives. According to a survey done by Shibley Telhami of opinion in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, 83% of respondents held an unfavorable view of the United States in 2008. Of that 64% held a “very unfavorable” view. The fundamental reason for this unfavorable opinion is skepticism of American motives. When asked whether the U.S. goal was to “weaken and divide Islam” a worldpublicopinion.org poll in 2007 showed 78% of Moroccan believed that was the U.S. goal, as did 92% of Egyptians and 73% of Pakistanis. This is a common belief in the Middle East. Indeed, it is one of the few obvious sources of anti-American sentiment, along with support for Israel and the Iraq war. On the whole, the public in the Middle East responds positively to American “values”—such as democracy, freedom, and so on. And on the whole, these same publics reject terrorism. So, I think we can infer, from this, that it is the American role in the region that prompts anger and resentment.
Second, do a comparison with other countries. If the issue if “who we are” rather than “what we are (perceived as) doing,” then why are we more unpopular than our European allies who share most of our values. There is no correlate between level of democracy and unpopularity. There is no correlation between percentage of Christians and unpopularity. Muslims in the United States are, on the whole, better integrated into American society than are Muslims in Europe, and yet in the Middle East that is not reflected in a different in public opinion.
If you can explain 83% unfavorable ratings—in countries that are largely American allies—with some other data point, I’m open to reconsidering my argument. But I just think the data leads one to the conclusion that it is American involvement that is generating a backlash.
Now, as a policy matter, does that imply that reducing our footprint would ease this challenge. I really don’t know. I can’t see how it could hurt. But I am also not sure it will help. Just as anti-Semitism often exists even in the absence of Jews, it is possible that anti-Americanism has become so ingrained in modes of political analysis that even if we reduce our presence, we will still be blamed for negative developments in the bizarre conspiracy theories that seem to dominate political analysis in the Middle East. I think reducing our footprint and fingerprints is the best option, but I would not bet the mortgage on it.
Question 2: what evidence do you have that reducing our “footprint” and “fingerprint” will result in enhanced security for Israel or a greater likelihood of the Israelis and Palestinians reaching a mutually agreeable settlement of their differences?
BERNARD FINEL: Actually, I don’t think it will do either of those things, and I apologize if I gave that impression. About Israeli security — my view is that the Israelis can take care of themselves. They are a nuclear armed state with the best conventional military in the region. Deterrence should hold against state actors. In terms of non-state actors, I think the answer lies in multilateral non-proliferation initiatives — fissile material cut-offs, international nuclear fuel banks, and so on. Unilaterally whacking countries that might someday become a threat to Israel seems to me an inefficient approach, and one that will make the U.S. and Israel increasingly unpopular thus feeding the problem we seek to resolve.
About the Israeli-Palestinian dispute… actually, I don’t think there is a negotiated solution available, and I just think that it is mistake to be so involved that we get blamed when no agreement arises. I also think it is a mistake to raise false hopes. My view here is that we should acknowledge we have no power over the situation, offer our assistance if requested, but otherwise try to break the notion that the road to peace in the Middle East somehow runs through Washington.
Question 3: what evidence do you have that pursuing “alternative energy, oil exploration at home, better fuel efficiency from cars” will result in a substantial reduction in oil use in the near term in the United States let alone in the long term? How large a reduction and in what time frame?
BERNARD FINEL: My argument is a long-term one actually. I come at the issue from the reverse perspective. Is there any reason why, even given today’s technology, we “need” to use oil? No. Replacing the roughly 9% of electricity generated by oil-fired power plants is within easy reach by a combination of coal, nuclear, solar, and wind. The bigger issue is the use of oil in the transportation sector. Here there are again plenty of existing solutions — plug-in electric, hydrogen-powered, natural gas, etc. The big challenge in making a switch is primarily infrastructure. The cost of building out this infrastructure is massive… but so is the cost of fighting wars in the Middle East and maintaining power-projection capabilities for regional contingencies there.
According to Energy Independence Now, converting all of California’s gas stations to carry hydrogen would cost roughly $5 billion. Extrapolate that to the rest of the country and we are looking at maybe a $50 billion price tag. Add in investments in generation capacity—maybe twice that again, so another $100 billion. We spend roughly $150 billion in purchasing foreign oil every year (the figure varies with prices, of course). For the money we spend in a single year on foreign oil, we could make a major dent in a hydrogen infrastructure. Hydrogen is still more costly than oil if you don’t take into account the political and military costs associated with oil dependency. If you do, the gap closes. But you don’t need to replace all oil. Just reduce our use and exposure to the point that we don’t feel compelled to be a regional policeman.
Just a caveat—the numbers on energy independence are all over the map. It depends on how quickly you do it, which technologies, assumptions about economies of scale, etc. My point is, we spend $150 billion on foreign oil, we spend perhaps another $100 billion annually in supporting military capacity and political engagements to reduce risk in access to that oil, and we spend tens of billions more a year in mitigating the consequence of this dependence. There is a massive amount of resources locked up in the status quo. Oil dependence is not cheap.