Saturday, August 20, 2005

Gaza Gambit

National Review OnLine runs this piece by its editors on the Gaza pullout. No doubt they're largely correct:

The pictures from Gaza are wrenching: children crying and trying to push away the Israeli soldiers - some of them also in tears - who have arrived to chase them from their homes. On the other hand, they are heartening too. This is a civilized, democratic society at work. Prime Minister Sharon's decision to pull out of Gaza represents the lawful will of the Israeli majority, and it will not be frustrated by a minority, no matter how passionate or committed.

Sharon is making a hard-headed calculation that Israel should, absent a reliable negotiating partner on the Palestinian side, unilaterally attempt to establish defensible boundaries for itself. The security fence has been one (successful) element of this strategy, the withdrawal of Israeli settlers who have to be protected with a large military presence in Gaza is another. Israel had little enthusiasm for occupying this hellhole in the first place, but acquired it through the exigencies of the Six Day War. The settlement policy in Gaza - crafted by Sharon himself years ago - has been a fizzle, with only around 9,000 Israelis settling there.

There are, of course, risks to a pullout. Terrorists will claim victory - as some already have. But the move has to be seen in context. This is not Ehud Barak pulling out from Lebanon in 2000 at a time the Israeli government was pathetically desperate to deal with Yasser Arafat and signaling weakness in nearly every way. Sharon has dealt punishing blows to the intifada in recent years. Who can doubt that he will again if necessary? And there are many other ways to signal strength other than preserving settlements in Gaza indefinitely for no very good reason.

The pullout will help focus attention on the chief problem in Israeli-Palestinian relations: the continued inability of the Palestinians to create a decent policy. Mahmoud Abbas now faces an enormous test of his capabilities and intentions, as we will soon learn whether the Palestinian Authority can exert control over Gaza. No one can be very confident that he will pass it, which will be another chapter in the tragedy of the Palestinians. Israel, meanwhile, will be doing what it can to try to move on.

It might also be noted that if Gaza becomes a staging ground for terrorist activity against Israel, and it will, of course, then Israel will be under tremendous pressure to turn it into an uninhabited region by evicting the Palestinians. There's simply no possibility that they will allow terrorists to operate from Gaza with impunity and the only way to stop it, short of a costly and probably futile occupation, will be to make it a depopulated zone. The Palestinians are celebrating now, but if they cannot control the radicals in their midst the sweet taste they're presently rejoicing over will soon enough turn bitter.

UPDATE: Charles Krauthammer has written an essay in which he makes similar point. It can be read here.

The NYT on ID

The New York Times weighs in with the first of two articles on Intelligent Design to appear this weekend. The Times works hard to convince the reader that ID is tainted by its association with political and religious conservatives, but nevertheless there is more straight reporting on ID and the Discovery Institute in this piece than one might have expected from the Times.

The Coming Nightmare

This article by William F. Buckley will put a damper on your normally sunny disposition, but we do need to be aware of what hazards lay ahead:

Raymond J. Learsy has written a book memorable in the special sense that nightmares can be memorable, but also useful. If the nightmare is that you died of an overdose of drugs, and the memory of it causes you when in command to draw back from the marginal dose, then the nightmare has served a purpose. Raymond Learsy writes (his book is called Over a Barrel: Breaking the Middle East Oil Cartel ) about what could happen if we continue to go as we are going. The price of gasoline as I write is 60 percent higher than it was a year ago. Such data require is what we might be facing if oil rose to $100 per barrel.

I paraphrase the author: Commuters suddenly forced to pay double for a gallon of gas begin to brown-bag their lunches, inching away from restaurants and sandwich shops. Americans who can still afford a vacation go on shorter trips, putting a major dent in the tourist industry. Trucking companies hauling everything from wines and spirits to furniture to automobile parts impose a hefty surcharge on shippers, who pass it on to their customers, who then pass it further down the line to the retail buyer if they can.

The crunch forces many truckers to sell their rigs, playing havoc with both cross-country and local shipping. Higher fuel costs send the Postal Service deeper into the red and threaten the survival of rival package shippers FedEx and UPS. With the break-even point for airlines a distant memory at $31 a barrel and carriers already operating with skeleton staffs, sharp fare boosts are the only option. Traffic spirals into a tailspin, and one airline after another declares bankruptcy.

But of course, oil is vital to everything from plastic picnic forks to printer's ink to asphalt. Manufacturers raise prices across the board, and potholes go unfilled in city streets around the nation. At first, municipal and factory employees lose overtime, then they are laid off or fired outright.

Foodstuffs of every kind - from beef in the butcher case to fresh fruits and vegetables in the produce aisle, to milk and cheese in the dairy section - reflect the higher costs incurred by growers and shoppers.

Runaway prices on just about everything take the Federal Reserve Board by surprise. Determined to keep interest rates low and dulled by their own assurances that inflation is somnolent, the Federal Reserve's governors are ill-prepared for the economic crisis. The Fed belatedly boosts interest rates a full 2 percentage points.

The heretofore unheard-of move jams on the economic brakes so swiftly and so sharply that you can almost smell the stink of burning rubber. Higher mortgage rates stop would-be home buyers dead in their tracks and cast a pall over the building industry. The real-estate market crashes almost overnight, wiping out billions of dollars of paper profits and putting holders of adjustable-rate mortgages and home-equity loans in peril. Foreclosures and tax-default auctions become common, consumer spending dries up, and soon the entire world is in a recession.

The rise in oil prices is not a fancy of Ray Learsy, and the unpredictability of that rise manifestly requires self-protection. How? Again, paraphrasing the author:

First, we must cut back energy usage by taking steps to control demand (just as OPEC works to control supply).

Second, we must become energy self-reliant.

We should use the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (700 million barrels) to douse incendiary shoots of inflationary fire. Those uses of national oil would be loans, not grants, repayable in kind when the price of oil has stabilized.

We will need to encourage alternative energy sources while adopting a voucher-based gas-distribution program. For the duration of the emergency, gas users will have access to magnetic debit cards in which are embedded a national quarterly target of per-consumer gasoline. Drivers whose allotted amount of gas doesn't meet their needs can buy part or all of someone else's allotment. For the average driver, this distribution plan would not increase gasoline costs. A consumer would pay the same out-of-pocket cash per gallon, and the government wouldn't get its hands on any more of the taxpayers' dollars. It is a more efficient way of distributing energy because it employs market incentives to allow heavier gasoline users to get what they need without increasing overall consumption of energy.

It was 20 years ago that the Saudis and the United States arrived at a deal. The Saudis would set prices so as to protect the U.S. oil industry. And the U.S. would protect the Saudis' independence. We regret that, and should make the Saudis regret it also.

Actually, it seems that Buckley and Learsy are understating the dimensions of the calamity high oil prices will wreak. If energy prices go ballistic there will be a world-wide economic depression that will almost certainly lead to war, perhaps on a global scale, as nations contest with each other for access to fuel. Such a war will almost certainly wind up going nuclear as one side or the other begins to prevail.

Have a nice day.