Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Iraq: Forget winning. Forget losing. Let's beat the spread.

The Blog | Sen. Harry Reid: The Clock is Ticking, Mr. President | The Huffington Post

From Sen. Harry Reid's Blog:

Frankly, I don't believe that more troops is the answer for Iraq. It's a civil war and America should not be policing a Sunni-Shia conflict. In addition, we don't have the additional forces to put in there. We obviously want to support what commanders in the field say they need, but apparently even the Joint Chiefs do not support increased combat forces for Baghdad.

There's an even simpler reason, Harry. It's wrong. Going in was wrong, the people who planned the war were wrong, the administrators sent there are wrong, the ideas were wrong, the priorities were wrong, the money went to the wrong people; everything about this war was and is comprehensively wrong.

And now, after Cheney gets bitch-slapped by the Saudis, we are supposed to be their proxy army in a religious civil war between Islamist factions? We don't OWN a dog in this hunt, Senator. Not even our Islamic citizens do; as with all religious wars, it has almost nothing at all to do with the religions in question - and looked at it that way, we have neither laudable nor illegitimate reasons for trying to pick a winner.

Senator, I remind you that you represent a state of Casinos, and in the parlance of the casinos, it's not whether you win or lose; it's whether you beat the spread.

The House of Saud has lots of money, let them train and equip their own cannon fodder. Hell, let them hire mercenaries from Blackwater at the going rate.

I see no reason why we should be expending lives and treasure to protect Saudi interests. If Americans must die in this war, at least they should die very far in the black, with robust survivor insurance and pre-paid disability coverage.

We do need to increase recruitment of Regular Forces people so that the Guard and Reserves can go home, to replace casualties and to replace those who leave as soon as stop-loss measures expire. We need money to deal with the long term health care costs of the wounded and and their post-traumatic stress. And we clearly need to have a new generation of general officers, which means there must be larger classes of cadets, at least for the next few years.

Meanwhile, Sir, I suggest that research into more practical crops for bio-fuel generation than corn (ones that will grow as well or better in cornfields) and a much higher priority for both bio-fuel production and nuclear energy. We need a realistic way of dealing with nuclear waste. That's not Yucca Mountain - we need fuel reprocessing, ideally on-site.

We also need to look into sustainable crops for paper and fiber. That would be hemp, and hemp could further reduce our dependency on petrochemicals for fiber. It takes less fuel to harvest and process for paper. It makes better jeans than imported third=world cotton and you can't smoke it, unless you like migraine headaches, so lets get rid of that dumb law. Hemp is a not bad crop for stabilizing a clear-cut, so the timber companies might not scream as much as one might think, especially as the waste foliage and residue from fiber extraction could be feedstock for bio-fuel production. Oh, and giving the Mexican textile industry a huge boost wouldn't hurt our border issues any much.

Here's another suggestion for you; the deregulation of ethanol production for individuals. So long as they are using a properly designed, factory-inspected automated distillation apparatus, they may produce as much as they like for private use or sale.

At one stroke, you've made it possible for many small businesses to turn their waste streams into fuel for their business operations, for households to generate an additional revenue stream in poor areas and all without a single tax dollar being spent. Of course, a fuel still would not make drinkable ethanol from organic kitchen and yard waste with the occasional dog turd thrown into the mix. At best, one could hope for "relatively non-toxic."

But, yes, it is predictable that this will result in a proliferation of private distillation for consumption. Whether this is a problem depends mostly on how we chose to react to that reality. If nothing else, ethanol stills are a lot less toxic than meth labs, and sketchy folk can make money brewing 'shine, maybe they won't blow themselves up or poison their kids with toxic methamphetamine fumes. At the very least, alcohol is somewhat less personally destructive. Certainly it would be possible to create an infrastructure for reliable testing and grading of potable alcohols, and that gives you the ability to place a tax upon it, if you care to. If a tax stamp on a bottle of shine means "assured to be non-lethal," I think that's likely a tax paid for a useful service.

We need to start thinking seriously about simple and incremental means to soften the blow of a fuel crunch in case of a general middle east conflict and we need to free ourselves from being caught up in that dynamic. Driving down the world price of crude oil will definitely suck a lot of energy out of various terrorist campaigns and some very unfriendly regimes. Every barrel conserved or replaced is tiny victory in preventing widespread warfare over dwindling oil supplies as well as a significant boost to our economy and every individual bottom line.

Being addicted to mid-east oil makes it impossible for us to be an honest broker. Furthermore, it's a low cost way of developing a technology that could dissipate the looming Chinese energy crunch, forestalling a nasty resource crisis, and one that cannot be seen by the Chinese as "meddling," which almost any other approach could be. I'd much rather sell them a solution than be on the wrong side of their problem, and I feel I'm on firm Yankee ground when I say that.

Democrats - and indeed, Republicans and every stripe Independents need to start thinking outside of the box. We cannot afford to prop up current energy conglomerates to keep them doing what they are doing. We have already lost six critical years due to the Cheney "energy plan," and clearly sustainability was not part any part of that. It's time to throw wide the doors,and redirect the tax breaks and grants to sustainable energy. Let the market sort things out. After years of windfall profits, they have the resource to do very well by themselves if they choose to do well by us. They DO need to be reminded who is in charge of this nation, every bit as much as every other special interest who has been on the Iraqi Gravy Train to Hell.

Them what caused the mess outta be on the front lines of cleaning up the mess - or paying for it. But it would be wrong to think that the Iraqi clusterfuck was the result of malice. Had it been just that, we would not be in such an intractable mess. No, we have been ill-used and ill-advised by a generation of Neocon idealists, people who wanted to change the world for the better, in the very worst way. And lo, they were half-way successful. They did change the world, and they did it in the worst way.

But the fault was not in their lack of compassion, or of foresight; it certainly was not for a lack of sheer brainpower. It was due to the though that you could actually set off vast changes in how we do everything and predict a particular outcome.

Nope. You can initiate vast changes and influence a positive outcome by spotting and amplifying positive trends while damping negative ones. OR, you can aim toward a particular future with some reliability by focusing very narrowly and influencing change toward that particular end while accepting random fluctuations. You cannot do both at once on a massive scale and get anything you particularly want.

When things go to badly wrong, when the friction and stress levels in a particular area get too bad, you get rising levels of violence and even open warfare. Warfare is a symptom of large, systemic problems, so starting a war as a matter of foreign policy is akin to curing a cold with a syringe full of live rubella. Yes, you can then cure the rubella and when you have done so, if the patient survives, likely the cold will have passed as well. But they weren't cured of one disease; they simply survived two.

Their planning did not account for people who did not use their economic and social models as a basis for their own thoughts. It did not account for people who did not think in classical western terms, or with the biases built into English or the assumptions about the cultural roles of religion Americans take in with the mass-market formula we are given in place of that nasty pornographic breast milk. There was no place in their plans for chaos, for randomness, for sheer human perversity - and that is what you are dealing with in nearly pure form in the theatre of war.

Overwhelming firepower will overcome a large amount of chaos - but only by means of paradoxical destroying the remaining traces of order. And armies just plain suck at creating conditions suited for orderly civilian life; people who understand that don't do well in armies. Hell, that's one of the most persuasive reason we HAVE a large army; expensive as it is, it's both more useful and far cheaper than the prisons it would need to be replaced with.

The problem was not so much that the Bushes hadn't done sufficient planning; oh no. The problem is that they had far too many plans, far too many ideas, far too many people who were sure they knew how to get the job done! Not one of them would stray from their ideological purity to accept the plans or the input of the people who grew up there, knew the culture and had an idea of what would work and what was doomed to failure.

So we have the Neocon pattern of Faith-Based Failure, the folly of creating chaos and then trying to mold that chaotic mess as if it were wet sand at the beach. It's an apt analogy, for even if it had worked, it could only have worked to that extent; a superficial appearance of a vast and intricate order at the mercy of the first wave, rainstorm or passing spaniel.

But we are left with a big pile of chaos, and we must make the best of it. The best thing to do with chaos is to treat it like a big old murky pond filled with old tires, catfish and crawdads. You bait a line, throw it in and let your mind wander to your granny and her famous gumbo.

The worst possible mistake would be to attempt to plan a new energy infrastructure. That could take decades and we certainly do not have twenty or thirty years to piss away on this. The best way is to encourage as many potential solutions as possible so that competition and experience can narrow things down. Arguments over which fuel-stocks congress should support are dumb, just as arguments over whether we should emphasise wind, solar, nuclear or geothermal research and development. In all cases, the answer should be "yes." I'd say the idea would be to think in terms of tax breaks or subsidies contingent on units of energy delivered, with an eye toward making start-ups possible, and real dollars dependant on engineering and production efficiencies.

In other words, make it possible for as many people to try as many different approaches to this problem as possible. Start an energy rush!

This is not cause for panic or despair. Yes, it is the end of an era; we must change the way we do things because we are well past the point of diminishing returns. We certainly must take global warming seriously, and I think it prudent to prepare as well as we can for potential worst cases, not because I think the worst case predictions are that likely to come true, but because we will be prepared for the shocks, disasters and dislocations that we cannot possibly have anticipated.

I absolutely do not think there's any need to consider it as the likely end of civilization. It does mean a change in how we go about obtaining our needs and our comforts, it certainly implies rethinking how we upholster our caves - but a huge amount of the necessary thinking and prototyping has been done, is well understood and is already creeping into use. Some judicious tweaking of building codes could turn that into a wholesale rush.

The great advantage of a combination of passive conservation and diffuse technologies such as ethanol and bio-diesel produced in useful quantities close to or even by the end user is that aside from the obvious advantages, it's another layer of disaster-proofing that requires no central co-ordination or management.

It means that if mass energy distribution is disrupted by some disaster, there is in place a nearby capacity to brew up needed fuel, and a great deal of fuel in individual hands. The sheer advantage, for instance, of a higher percentage of people having a full tank of fuel in a time of evacuation is obvious - as is the advantage of having a large and distributed excess capacity for fuel generation from whatever biomass is at hand.

In national security terms, it means that nobody can hold us hostage - cutting off petrochemical supplies would be an inconvenience, not a disaster.

In cultural terms, it should mean a gradual drift toward sustainable living at or above the level of comfort we have become accustomed to and with the degree of mobility a free people require. I do not see this as an either-or, I see it as a range of choices; there are urban dwellers that wouldn't bother with cars if they had viable alternatives and could rent a car any time they felt the need. Enough people do this now that it's clearly both practical and cost-effective. More urban rapid transit would make this more possible.

But there is no way that people can be forced to change their whole way of life overnight as many radical greens would like. The only way a society changes is because it's to the advantage of individuals to change where they go, what they do and how they go about doing it; what they choose to buy and what they consider valuable to them. From that perspective, there is no single magical solution. There are many millions of tiny improvements that can add up to a magical result, if we go about things intelligently. It's possible, even easy to generate huge multiples of effect by tossing regulatory and incentive snowballs downhill - so long as you don't try to predefine who's yard the huge snowball lands in. Toss enough snowballs, and the "right" people will have more than enough to keep them fat, rich and busy for the next hundred years.

As I said, we need an energy rush. This will inevitably lead to a glut, because all of the parallel efforts to reduce energy dependence. So then you are left with all the things you could do if there were cheap enough energy to throw around... and the really smart folks are thinking about that opportunity already.

A lot of our problems could solve each other if we simply introduced them to one another. You put your hog farm together with a co2 emitting power plant and bio-reactor producing oil rich algae from hog waste and co2-rich stack gas. Suddenly your two waste streams are raw material for a whole new industrial process with nearly zero additional footprint and the operation costs covered by now-absent disposal overhead.

Instead of emissions and waste, you have a new raw product which can be used in the power plant, and the compressed, energy rich residue that can be animal feed. That smells green to me - as in greenbacks.

We have to step away from a culture that spends far too much time and effort trying to keep people from doing things we think they shouldn't outta do and start thinking about how to get folks actively exercising their perversity bumps for profit. The people who are generating the solutions, who are doing the non-linear thinking, the very people who support the progressive politics that swept you into the Majority Leader's suite are the very people the other guys have been pandering to, with their obsessions about social conformity and their willingness to create a living hell on earth for others in the name of forestalling hell for themselves.

Now, I learned in Sunday School that human sacrifice was a bad thing. Is that still taught in Sunday School, Senator? I think it's an important question to ask of your particularly Christian colleagues to your right.

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