By David Dayen, a lapsed blogger, now a freelance writer based in Los Angeles, CA. Follow him on Twitter @ddayen
Sure, this is an economics blog, but the story of the week is unquestionably the imminent Congressional vote on authorization for so-called “limited” military strikes on Syria. And there are a variety of significant economic by-products. So let’s take a look.
Today, Secretary of State Kerry and Defense Secretary Hagel appear at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to make the case for authorization, part of a full-court press on the part of the White House. The Administration held a classified in-person briefing on Sunday, among other unclassified briefings, and the President personally held an audience with Wondertwins John McCain and Lindsey Graham yesterday. McCain, whose initial statement on the authorization vote was skeptical, said after the Obama meeting that “a vote against that resolution by Congress, I think, would be catastrophic because it would undermine the credibility of the United States and of the president.”
Developments like these make me think that I don’t think the Administration will have much of a problem getting authorization, even though members of the House, at least, were adamant that the resolution wouldn’t pass if the vote were held today. First of all, I think the Democratic caucus will largely stand behind Obama. The Keith Ellison endorsement is significant; he’s a co-chair of the Progressive Caucus. Sure, there will be holdouts like Charlie Rangel, who called Obama’s “red line” warning on chemical weapons use embarrassing. But party unity will get the lion’s share to fall in line, and the McCain/neocon faction of Republicans will vote yes as well, though this vote will signify the divide. If you want a more granular whip count, my old pals at Firedoglake have you covered.
Shrewdly, the initial ask from the White House in their authorization for military force asked for the moon, allowing the President “to use any element of the U.S. Armed Forces and any method of force,” and even granting force to be used on places other than Syrian soil, as long as there was a tenuous connection to Syrian WMD. That means the White House could theoretically attack Iran or Hezbollah under this AUMF, as long as they found some connection to Syrian weapons (say, attacking Tehran to stop them from supplying Syria with the means to commit chemical weapons attacks). Ground troops would theoretically be allowed as well. Congressional leaders are already talking about amending the authorization, and that’s where much of the opposition will melt away. By asking for just about everything, the Administration put themselves in the position to “give” something back to Congress and make a deal on those terms; maybe it will prevent ground troops, or something. So all these lawmakers intoning about a “tough sell” will suddenly deem themselves satisfied after their “tireless work” changing the resolution text.
What’s more, the Israel lobby will be in full force; you saw hints of this in how Joe Lieberman got dredged up the other day to lambaste the very idea of a vote. In general, Israel gets anything it wants on Capitol Hill, and since this entire exercise is a stalking horse for a future Iran confrontation, they want an attack. DoD didn’t put the USS Nimitz carrier group into position for no reason. I’d guess at 75 votes-plus in the Senate, and a closer but comfortable margin in the House.
That’s not to say that Congressmembers couldn’t access a number of arguments against military force. The International Crisis Group statement on the situation caused a stir Sunday, mainly for speaking largely untold truths about what, outside of theoretical messages, an attack would accomplish:
Assuming the U.S. Congress authorises them, Washington (together with some allies) soon will launch military strikes against Syrian regime targets. If so, it will have taken such action for reasons largely divorced from the interests of the Syrian people…
Ultimately, the principal question regarding a possible military strike is whether diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict can be reenergized in its aftermath. Smart money says they will not: in the wake of an attack they condemn as illegal and illegitimate, the regime and its allies arguably will not be in a mood to negotiate with the U.S. Carefully calibrating the strike to hurt enough to change their calculations but not enough to prompt retaliation or impede diplomacy is appealing in theory. In practice, it almost certainly is not feasible…
Debate over a possible strike – its wisdom, preferred scope and legitimacy in the absence of UN Security Council approval – has obscured and distracted from what ought to be the overriding international preoccupation: how to revitalise the search for a political settlement. Discussions about its legality aside, any contemplated military action should be judged based on whether it advances that goal or further postpones it.
Even more interesting was the take of old Kennedy State Department hand William R. Polk (a descendant of our 11th President), who wrote a magnum opus on all aspects of the crisis. It’s impossible to properly excerpt (the stuff on Kerry discrediting the UN inspection process, the assessment of the evidence, Assad’s lack of motivation for the attack and the recent US use of chemical weapons are all interesting), but the role of global warming is particularly acute:
Syria has been convulsed by civil war since climate change came to Syria with a vengeance. Drought devastated the country from 2006 to 2011. Rainfall in most of the country fell below eight inches (20 cm) a year, the absolute minimum needed to sustain un-irrigated farming. Desperate for water, farmers began to tap aquifers with tens of thousands of new well. But, as they did, the water table quickly dropped to a level below which their pumps could lift it.
In some areas, all agriculture ceased. In others crop failures reached 75%. And generally as much as 85% of livestock died of thirst or hunger. Hundreds of thousands of Syria’s farmers gave up, abandoned their farms and fled to the cities and towns in search of almost non-existent jobs and severely short food supplies. Outside observers including UN experts estimated that between 2 and 3 million of Syria’s 10 million rural inhabitants were reduced to “extreme poverty.”
The domestic Syrian refugees immediately found that they had to compete not only with one another for scarce food, water and jobs, but also with the already existing foreign refugee population. Syria already was a refuge for quarter of a million Palestinians and about a hundred thousand people who had fled the war and occupation of Iraq. Formerly prosperous farmers were lucky to get jobs as hawkers or street sweepers. And in the desperation of the times, hostilities erupted among groups that were competing just to survive.
USAID did absolutely nothing to help with this when asked, at least partially leading to the chaotic situation we see today. In the end, it’s another resource war, which we threaten to stumble into while acknowledging at the outset that our actions would do nothing. Maybe arresting anthropomorphic climate change is a more urgent national security priority, perhaps?
Meanwhile, to put a small economic gloss on this, the potential for a strike to expand this into a regional conflict should concern anyone looking at the trajectory of the price of oil over the past few weeks. Much of it has nothing to do with Syria, which only produces 350,000 barrels a day normally (that has fallen to 50,000 a day). Oil output in Libya has fallen six-fold in recent weeks, due to strikes and militia activity. While Libyan oil amounts aren’t enormous, the light sweet crude it produces is highly prized. Iraq’s sectarian violence has worsened of late, threatening its productivity as well. Nigerian oil has fallen victim to theft. And of course, with Vladimir Putin feeling international pressure over Syria, and wanting to send a delegation to the US to whip lawmakers before the vote, it’s not inconceivable that a de facto embargo would be one of the sticks he tries to use to stop military action.
All of this points to higher prices in the near future, and we’ve seen the oil price ratchet have a profound effect on hydrocarbon-dependent economies like the U.S. (in fact, the half-decent performance of the first half of the year has to be seen in context of what were falling energy prices.) With trillions spent in Afghanistan and Iraq, the domestic costs of war haven’t seemed to move policymakers in the past. But when faced with the economic consequences of a “message-sending” strike with no real military objective, maybe it will resonate.