The Latest Cost of Islamophobia

Paul Pillar

Richard Cheney spoke to Republican Congressmen at the Capitol Hill Club the other day, giving them a sort of pep talk on the importance of maintaining a Cheneyite view of the world and not letting the guy in the White House be seen as taking the lead in confronting ISIS, the feared terrorist group of the moment. Mr. Cheney's remarks were not publicly reported but according to one of the Congressmen in attendance the former vice president “basically said that President Obama has actually done things that have supported the Muslim Brotherhood. But on the other hand the Muslim Brotherhood is really the beginnings of all the Islamist groups that we’re now dealing with; Hamas, ISIS – all of those groups.”

Leave aside for now the absence of any reason for anyone to listen to advice on such matters from one of the chief promoters of the war of choice that directly spawned ISIS. Leave aside also whether the description of the Obama administration's posture toward the Muslim Brotherhood resembles its actual policy. The administration has done little more than wrist-slapping in response to the Egyptian military regime's overthrow of a democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood president and its subsequent brutal suppression of the group.

Focus instead on the lumping together into one undifferentiated stew of “all the Islamist groups.” Sadly, that primitive way of categorizing political actors in the Middle East is not limited to Mr. Cheney. Former presidential candidate Mitt Romney did much the same thing. Partly this practice reflects the usual politically motivated games of association. When something as fearsome and salient as ISIS appears on the scene, expect that game to be played. Thus Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in his government's efforts to justify the recent turkey shoot in the Gaza Strip, has been fervently trying to equate Hamas with ISIS. Similarly, those endlessly waving the bloody shirt of Benghazi are making sure we hear Benghazi and ISIS in the same sentence. But there is ignorance, and probably prejudice, that runs more deeply than such political tactics.

Political Islam is not an ideology. It is more a sort of vocabulary that has been adopted by a very wide range of groups, parties, and movements, ranging from the most moderate and democratic to the most violent and extreme. It is a vocabulary that embraces a very large part of the political discourse in the Middle East, a fact that reflects the belief of adherents to one of the world's major monotheistic religions that their religion provides meaning and guidance for most human affairs, public as well as private. That vocabulary will not go away, and there will always be a plethora of diverse groups that define themselves in terms of that vocabulary.

Failure to understand all that means a failure to understand much of what is going on in the Muslim world and especially in the Middle East, from politics in Egypt to internal conflict in Iraq. With ISIS rearing its ugly head, one particular consequence of this failure deserves to be highlighted: bashing and rejecting “all the Islamist groups”no matter how peaceful and moderate—and lumping them indiscriminately with the most horrid and extreme groups—aids the cause of the violent and extreme groups. Without accepted peaceful channels for anyone with a grievance and an Islamic bent to pursue his objectives, the violent channels appear more attractive. The bashing and rejection also lend credence directly to the extremists' message that violence is the only way in which Islamic values will ever be incorporated into public life.

Egypt is an ongoing demonstration of this reality. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood was for many years remarkable in its forbearance in the face of being legally banned, rejecting the violent methods of radical Islamist groups such as the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and al-Gama'at al-Islamiyya. When it was finally given the chance to compete fully and openly, as well as peacefully, for political power, it did so. Now the al-Sisi regime's bludgeoning of the group has stimulated an upsurge in terrorist violence in Egypt, and most recently inroads in the country by ISIS.

The ISIS leadership no doubt welcomes the indiscriminate lumping of itself with everything Islamist, with the likes of the Muslim Brotherhood being taken down in the process, as the al-Sisi regime is doing in Egypt and as Mr. Cheney was doing on Capitol Hill. The lumping reduces the competition ISIS would otherwise be getting from more moderate groups appealing to an Islamist clientele which would have good reason to be appalled by the methods of ISIS. The lumping also helps ISIS to pose as the energetic champion of all Muslims against the depredations of a supposedly anti-Muslim United States.

Crude, primitive rejection of everything Islamist has many unfortunate effects. Helping ISIS is one of the effects we ought to worry about at the moment.                          

TopicsTerrorism Egypt RegionsMiddle East

America's Secret Weapon: Liberalizing U.S. Oil Exports?

The Buzz

What would allowing U.S. crude oil exports do to the global price of oil? Tom Friedman, in a column Sunday, reflects popular conventional wisdom when he says they’d do a lot:

“The necessary impactful thing that America should do at home now is for the president and Congress to lift our self-imposed ban on U.S. oil exports, which would significantly dent the global high price of crude oil…. If the price of oil plummets to just $75 to $85 a barrel from $100 by lifting the ban… we inevitably weaken Putin and ISIS….”

He’s wrong. Here’s why.

This chart (click here) shows market expectations for Brent and Light Louisiana Sweet (LLS) oil prices. You should think of Brent as a “world” oil price and LLS as a “U.S.” oil price. The market expects Brent prices to be in the neighborhood of a hundred dollars a barrel for quite some time. It also expects LLS prices to be below Brent prices indefinitely. (The discount varies between about six and nine dollars over time.) Part of this – perhaps around three dollars – reflects the cost of transporting oil from the U.S. Gulf Coast (where LLS is priced) to northern Europe (where Brent is priced). A bit reflects the fact that LLS is higher quality than Brent. The rest of it reflects logistical and legal constraints on the ability to export oil from the United States.

Now imagine that those constraints were removed. Friedman says that oil prices could plummet by $15 to $25 dollars. Suppose for a moment that he’s correct. The Brent price would drop to $75 to $85 a barrel. The LLS price would remain a few dollars below that (mostly reflecting transportation costs) at, say, $72 to $82. Now take another look at the chart above: This would mean that U.S. oil prices would drop by between $7 and $22. The most obvious result of this would be to depress U.S. oil production relative to what it otherwise would have been.

But now stop for a moment: We are predicting a world in which oil production is lower and oil prices have also dropped. This makes zero sense: less oil production results in higher prices – not lower ones. Friedman’s claim about oil exports and oil prices quickly leads to a logical impossibility. The only possible conclusion is that Friedman is wrong.

That this is the correct conclusion can be seen by looking at what allowing oil exports would actually do to the global price of oil. As a basic rule, when you connect two markets where a commodity is selling at different prices, the common price that results is somewhere between the two. So further liberalization of oil exports should reduce Brent prices by at most a few dollars a barrel; anything more and Brent (plus transportation costs) would suddenly become cheaper than LLS. In actual practice the impact is likely to be considerably smaller, with most of the adjustment coming from higher U.S. oil prices rather than lower world ones.

There is an important caveat worth throwing in here: forward curves often are bad predictors of the future. It may well be that traders are underestimating how much constraints on U.S. oil exports will drive down LLS prices. But no one has identified plausible ways that the export ban could sustain a whopping $15 to $25 wedge between U.S. and world oil prices. Besides, even if it could, the impact of the ban would need to be entirely on U.S. prices (keeping them depressed), while the impact of lifting it would need to be entirely on world prices (reducing them to U.S. levels). That’s implausible.

Indeed if you look at estimates in a couple recent studies sponsored by the oil industry – which presumably would want to talk up the great benefits of removing the ban – you’ll see smaller numbers than Friedman’s. An ICF study sponsored by the American Petroleum Institute (API) pegs the impact on Brent oil prices at $0.05 to $1.05. An IHS reportsponsored by a group of oil companies claims a larger wedge – but even that stays below about $5 (see page IV-17 of the report for the relevant chart). (The IHS study also finds world oil prices never dropping below $95 even with free trade.) Indeed one prominent study (from a team at Resources for the Future) envisions an increase in world oil prices if oil exports are liberalized, as a more efficient refining complex boosts demand for crude oil.

I don’t know which of these figures is correct. But the one figure we can be confident is incorrect is the one that Friedman puts forward in his op-ed. Liberalizing U.S. oil exports would be a good thing to do for both economic and geopolitical reasons. But it is not a massive weapon that could fundamentally change U.S. prospects in the world – not by a longshot.

This article first appeared on CFR’s Energy, Security and Climate blog here. Levi’s book, The Power Surge, will be released next month in paperback​. 

Image: Wikicommons/Creative Commons License 2.0 

TopicsEnergy RegionsUnited States

The Ukrainian Crisis is at a Point of No Return

The Buzz

Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s embattled president, is looking to make a deal with the enemy. And why wouldn’t he be? In a preemptive move on the eve of the NATO summit in Wales, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, announced a plan for peace talks in Ukraine. Western leaders, breathing a sigh of relief, expressed a “cautious optimism” for the ceasefire. But the West’s quiet acquiescence to the Russian plan has left Ukrainian leaders with few options.

In the weeks leading up to the NATO summit on September 4, Russia escalated its military invasion of Ukraine.

In late August, Russian armored troops and weapons crossed Ukraine’s southeast border in what Ukrainian officials called a “stealth invasion.”  The counteroffensive pushed back the Ukrainian military’s previous gains into separatist controlled territory. Following the offensive, the newly armed and reinforced separatists gained control of a long stretch of Ukraine’s southeast border with Russia, moving the front further south toward the strategic port city of Mariupol. Taking Mariupol would give Russia direct land access to Crimea — the Ukrainian peninsula annexed by Russian forces in March — which Russia has struggled to supply with basic goods and services. NATO estimates that “several thousand” troops and hundreds of combat vehicles are operating in Ukraine. Russia continues to deny involvement.

For their part, Western leaders, including President Barack Obama and the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, have been unwilling to use the “I-word” — invasion — when referring to Russian action in Ukraine. The day before the NATO summit, speaking in Estonia, President Obama made it clear that the United States would not provide military support to Ukraine. Obama’s comments reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to NATO but did little to quell growing fears of Russian aggression among the Baltic States. Formerly Soviet states, the Baltics are now the only EU and NATO members to share long borders with Russia. Estonia and Latvia’s entire eastern border is with Russia. Further south, the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad is strategically wedged between Lithuania and Poland. Seeing a newly awakened Russian bear hungry to restore its former glory, the Baltic States and Poland have not shied away from using the “I-word” to push for a stronger NATO and EU response on Ukraine.

The Baltic States have good reason to fear. Putin’s policy track record in Ukraine is littered with contradictions and broken promises. Putin’s seven point peace plan laid out prior to the NATO summit is no different. But with the West’s unwillingness to change the terms of the game with Russia, Poroshenko has two options: continue a losing military operation that has already claimed over 3,000 lives or negotiate with an untrustworthy enemy.

On Friday, September 5, the Ukrainian president conceded to Putin’s plan and called for a ceasefire of government forces. In a statement, Poroshenko said that his decision to stop the military operation was based on an agreement signed by Russia, separatist leaders, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). By signing the ceasefire agreement with separatist leaders, Poroshenko has opened the door to negotiations with groups that his own government has consistently referred to as terrorists.

Even this concession may not prove to be enough.  As the ceasefire went into effect on Friday morning, Russian troops attacked Ukrainian positions near Mariupol with heavy artillery and missile fire. By Sunday morning, two days after the ceasefire went into effect, the Mariupol city government reported that separatists, backed by Russia, shelled checkpoints near the city in the middle of the night, killing one civilian and injuring three others. This pattern is familiar: in June, Poroshenko ended a ten day ceasefire because separatists had persisted in attacking government troops and civilians.

The West’s “cautious optimism” should have given way to a sobering realism about the ineffectiveness of Western policy toward Russia, but it has not. Rather, EU leaders agreed to institute a fourth round of economic sanctions against Russia. The new measures place modest restrictions on state-owned Russian energy and defense firms and further limit dual-use civilian and military exports but fall short of broader restriction on entire industries or the energy markets. The last and toughest round of sanctions took effect in July. Since then, Russian intervention in Ukraine shifted from a barely covert operation to an overt military campaign with Russian tanks rolling over the Ukrainian border.

If the purpose of the sanctions was to deter Russian aggression, by that measure, they have failed. If the purpose was to show Russia that there are economic consequences for military invasion, then they have failed by that measure as well. So far, the sanctions have not affected the daily lives of most Russians, and Russian public support for Putin’s policy on Ukraine remains high. There are signs that the Russian economy is weakening: the ruble has lost 10 percent of its value since the beginning of the year and the economy is stagnant. The West hopes that in the long-run, the economic pressure will weaken Putin’s resolve in Ukraine. At best, this hope will be partially fulfilled: economic pressures could still shift domestic politics against Putin. At worst, the West’s Pollyanna worldview will give Putin everything he wants: a frozen conflict in eastern Ukraine and the West’s long-term complicity.

As a long-term strategy, sanctions could eventually constrain Russian action. But the Ukrainian crisis requires short- and medium-term solutions, which the West has been reluctant to explore. NATO’s plan to deploy a 4,000-strong rapid reaction force to the Baltic States is a step in the right direction, but it may come too late to influence Russian policy in Ukraine.

Western leaders squandered a key opportunity to take a strong stance against Russia after the Crimean annexation in March. If the NATO force was deployed six months ago, Putin may have thought twice about invading Ukraine. Putin has exploited this tactical mistake masterfully. As Russia continues to set the agenda on Ukraine and the West continues to implement the same ineffective strategy, Ukrainians feel increasing abandoned. The crisis has reached a point of no return, and Poroshenko is left with no options. 

Alina Polyakova, Ph.D., is a research scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

TopicsSecurity RegionsUkraine

Ukraine: New Online Resources from the Center for the National Interest

The Buzz

Washington, DC – The Center for the National Interest is pleased to announce the launch of Ukraine Watch, a clearinghouse for information, resources, analysis, commentary and reporting concerning the ongoing crisis in Ukraine.  Ukraine Watch is available at

As the situation in Ukraine continues to develop, Ukraine Watch will inform researchers, journalists and the public and present competing views, including official perspectives.  It will also include Ukraine-related commentary from the Center’s award-winning foreign policy website, The National Interest.  “Though the crisis in Ukraine could define core elements of American foreign policy for years to come, there has been little debate in the United States—and even less information.  We hope that Ukraine Watch will contribute to a rich, informed and intellectually rigorous discussion of U.S. policy based on facts and on U.S. national interests,” said Center Executive Director Paul J. Saunders.

About the Center for the National Interest: The Center for the National Interest is a non-partisan public policy institution established by former President Richard Nixon.  Its current programs focus on U.S. relations with China, Japan, and Russia as well as energy security and climate change, non-proliferation and arms control, and resources and conflict.  The Center publishes the bimonthly foreign affairs magazine The National Interest, at  The Center’s supporters include a variety of foundations, corporations and individuals, including Carnegie Corporation of New York. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsUkraine

Could the US Fight ISIS and China with the Same Weapons?

The Buzz

As President Obama struggles to find the right policy prescriptions for dealing with the growing challenge of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), other parts of the world are ripe with challenges calling for Washington's attention. In the economically dynamic Asia-Pacific region, the People's Republic of China, through a variety of tactics, is challenging Washington's military dominance. If America found itself in a conflict with Beijing while attempting to use the same military platforms and strategies to fight a foe like ISIS, it could find it is militarily ill-equipped and unready for the challenge.

At present, Washington is well-suited to the task of taking on ISIS. U.S. airpower aboard aircraft carriers or short-range strike aircraft at present can surge quickly almost unchallenged and strike targets at will throughout Iraq and even in Syria if needed. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) can rapidly move into areas of surveillance interest, gather intelligence, and even strike targets largely without fear of reprisal. Even the most vilified of options, placing large amounts of "boots on the ground," if needed to stop, say, an ISIS march on Baghdad or Erbil, would be operationally possible as ISIS forces would be unable to stop an American or allied build-up. Indeed, one of the greatest military assets the United States has taken for granted since the 1991 Gulf War — being able to surge large amounts of military assets into a theater of combat operations — would be something Washington could very much count on against ISIS if the moment ever came. America could largely use the same types of assets and strategy it has relied on since the end of the Cold War — building forces in mass near a conflict zone, short range airpower, carriers based offshore, long-range strike aircraft (B-52, B-1 and even B-2 bombers) and cruise missiles to strike possible ISIS targets at will.

To read the rest please visit The Hill

Image: U.S. Air Force Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsChina