Paul Pillar

Doing Damage While Keeping the Home Folks Content (For Now)

What do a plan by China to construct 50 coal gasification plants, and Israel's pressure on the United States to reverse a security-based ban (since lifted) by the Federal Aviation Administration on commercial flights to Tel Aviv, have in common? They both are examples of governments trying to shield their populations from immediate consequences of the government's own destructive policies, and thus to shield themselves from political pressure to change those policies. While coddled constituencies are spared right now from effects that otherwise might have gotten them riled up, the harm is felt by other populations, by future generations of the same country's population, or by the world at large.

The Chinese gasification project is intended to reduce the air pollution in the biggest Chinese cities, which results in large part from reliance on coal-fired power plants and which has become bad enough to be a major source of discontent among the politically relevant urban middle class. The air in the cities would not be so awful if they were electrified instead with coal-derived gas, but under the plan much pollution would simply be transferred to the less populous remote parts of the country where the gasification plants are being built. Even worse, the gasification process produces huge amounts of carbon dioxide. According to one estimate, the 50 projected plants would release carbon dioxide equal to about one-eighth the amount currently released by all of China, which already is the world's most profligate emitter of greenhouse gases. So global warming is accelerated and the planet, and its inhabitants, suffer accordingly while Chinese city-dwellers are kept sufficiently docile for now.

The FAA safety directive that the Israeli government did not like, and lobbied hard to reverse, was triggered by a Hamas-fired rocket that landed uncomfortably close to Ben Gurion International Airport. The government contended that those doing business with Israel need not worry and should continue to fly in and out of Tel Aviv without concern about their safety. The Israeli government's posture, as Mitchell Plitnick points out, involves a rather blatant contradiction: it is assuring business partners and other wanted visitors that all is safe and sound, while at the same time proclaiming that Hamas's rockets so endanger Israel as to justify the deadly devastation that Israel has been wreaking on the Gaza Strip. This contradiction is only a variation on the two faces of the current Israeli government's posture toward the Palestinians that has prevailed even during what passes for normal times, and not just during upsurges of violence such as Operation Protective Edge. Palestinians live under suffocating, debilitating blockade or occupation as well as regular applications of lethal Israel force, while just a few miles away most Israelis enjoy life in one of the more prosperous societies in the world. Most Israelis simply have not been made uncomfortable enough to press the government to change its policies. The government itself is determined that things stay that way.

China and Israel are not the only countries where governments structure things to keep their immediate constituents sufficiently content while the costs of their policies become externalities felt by others. We have seen something similar in the United States, particularly with costly overseas military expeditions. The all-volunteer military force has made it possible to conduct such expeditions while confining the direct American human costs to the small segment of the population that has worn the uniform. Regarding the fiscal costs, the outstanding example is the launching of an extremely costly war of choice in Iraq while also enacting unaffordable tax cuts, quickly turning what had been a budget surplus into a ballooning deficit (with those who holler most loudly today about deficits evidently not giving a hoot about them back then).

The costs of China's destructive energy policy will be borne by all of us, inhabitants of the planet Earth. The costs of Israel's destructive policies toward the Palestinian territories are borne most directly and heavily, of course, by the Palestinians, but they also will be borne by future Israelis as long as they live in a country that leads itself into isolation and permanent war. The financial costs of mistakes of the United States, and the fiscal carelessness that has accompanied them, will be borne by future generations of Americans.

It is politically difficult to counter these tendencies, because short-sighted shoring up of support in what are considered to be the most immediately relevant constituencies is something politicians everywhere do. No single ameliorative approach fits all situations, because each situation is different. The Chinese environmental problem may be the most difficult one of the examples mentioned above. Besides international shaming of planet-damaging policies, perhaps we need to place hope in the Chinese middle class becoming sophisticated enough to know that the environmental damage to themselves and their children is not limited to the airborne particulates that their eyes can see and their lungs can feel right now.