National Security

Don't Assume Iran Is the Greatest Threat

Five other dangers that deserve our immediate attention.

"I'd actually like to move to Iran," declared the real winner of last week's vice presidential debate -- moderator Martha Raddatz -- "because there's really no bigger national security [threat] this country is facing." Both candidates quickly agreed, and of course both President Obama and Governor Romney have highlighted the threat Tehran poses to the United States and the world in general. Only slightly obliquely, Obama even warned that the United States would consider military action to prevent Iran from going nuclear, a commitment Governor Romney shares.

Indeed, concern about Iran is held widely on both sides of the aisle and among the political class -- perhaps as close as we come these days to a true bipartisan issue -- and it is likely that any future administration will continue to put massive amounts of time and resources into the problem. Iran, and especially its nuclear program, should remain a concern of any future administration, but it is far from the only serious threat to U.S. national security -- and perhaps not even near the top of the list. Here are some other countries and dangers that voters should think about as the candidates offer their competing visions of the U.S. role in the world:


Pakistan. You name the problem, Pakistan seems to have it: jihadist terrorism, ethnic strife, disputed borders, endemic corruption, and a weak government that seems weaker at every pass. Oh, and it has nuclear weapons, scientists who go on the road to sell them, and a series of governments that openly back the Taliban, among other nasty movements. Under President George W. Bush, and then under Obama, the United States tried to work with Pakistan while at the same time never trusting it -- a policy mirrored by the regime in Islamabad, which believes with good reason that the United States is a fickle ally. This unhappy approach may be the best that can be managed given the lack of strong pro-U.S. voices in Pakistan, but the prospect for even more serious unrest in Pakistan is of grave concern. Even worse, Pakistan has tolerated, or supported depending on your view, terrorist attacks on India, raising the possibility of a war between two nuclear-armed states. Such a war might leave thousands dead or, if it goes nuclear, millions. The environmental costs would be global, stunting agriculture, and posing health problems that would last for generations.


North Korea. Perhaps the only reason we focus less on North Korea than we do Iran is that we know so little about conditions in the hermit kingdom. But we do know that North Korea has nuclear weapons and that it has shared at least some of its technology with anti-U.S. regimes like Bashar al-Assad's Syria. Putting aside the staggering brutality of the North Korean regime -- hard to do for even the most hard-headed realist -- the North Korean regime often creates foreign policy crises, such as testing its missiles or picking a small fight with South Korea, to build up domestic support. Dartmouth's Jennifer Lind and I have argued that the North Korean regime can survive despite the country's poor economy, collapsing legitimacy, and god-awful political system, but the potential for serious instability or even regime collapse remains quite real. While we should worry about Iran's potential nuclear weapons threatening the United States, we should also worry about North Korea's actual nuclear weapons.


China. China is not an enemy of the United States. Nor is China a friend. Analysts often use euphemistic terms like "rival" or "potential challenger" to describe the regime's relationship to the United States, and no label quite captures a country that is the world's most populous, has the a rapidly growing economy that is already the second largest, and an expanding military that is rapidly moving from third-class to first- rate. China's leadership is both nationalistic and cautious, unchallenged yet suffering from declining legitimacy, eager to establish the country's standing in the world yet prickly and at times obstructionist in solving global problems like climate change or regional problems like Syria. No one knows what China will become in the years to come, but historians may look back at the next four years as the period that determined the nature of the relationship between the twenty-first century's two greatest powers. Greatest threat? Maybe not. Greatest challenge? Quite likely.

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Syria and the Arc of Crisis. The civil war in Syria has gone from bad to worse: not only has the pace of the killing accelerated, but jihadists are playing a major role in the anti-regime violence. Perhaps even scarier, Turkey and Syria are exchanging fire across their border, Iran and Hezbollah are sending fighters to aid the regime, Damascus is backing anti-Turkish Kurdish fighters, refugees are pouring into neighboring states by the tens of thousands, and the crisis threatens to radicalize the region. Of Syria's neighbors, Iraq and Lebanon are particularly vulnerable: both have recently suffered communal and sectarian civil wars, both have weak governments, and both have factions within the country that want to help different sides in the conflict. So a horrific war is steadily becoming a regional crisis, with the United States little more than a bystander. Key allies such as Israel and Turkey might be dragged in, while al Qaeda and other terrorists reap the spoils of war.


The United States. Okay, we don't threaten ourselves. But sky-high budget deficits and an unwillingness to raise taxes an iota will inevitably lead to cuts in spending on defense and intelligence (the only question is whether we'll use the sequestration axe or a more sensible scalpel). Perhaps even more important, the American people may be reluctant to make sacrifices to ensure we have a robust foreign policy. Support for foreign aid gets lower and lower, and grinding wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have made Americans wary (often appropriately) about the risks of intervention. We will still have a massive military and international presence, but we will have fewer resources than before and may be less willing to use them. We cannot think about threats abroad without recognizing how our problems at home will shape our response.

Where Iran ranks on this list is an open question. The clerical regime in Tehran is openly hostile to the United States and its regional allies. Yet its leadership seems more rational than what we've seen in North Korea, the country is less chaotic than Pakistan (to say nothing of Syria), and of course its military and economic power are a pale shadow of China's. None of this means Iran can be ignored, but it also means that as we evaluate candidates we need to think beyond the crisis of the moment. We also need to recognize the limits on our power, and any president will have to decide how much to push the American people in pursuit of his foreign policy objectives. Some, perhaps all, of the challenges above have no good solutions (and often we'll only know what was a foolish idea in hindsight), but all of them deserve scrutiny as candidates present their case to the American people that they can best keep our country safe and ensure that the United States remains a world leader.

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What the Frack?!

How the 2012 election could come down to one thing: coal.

Mitt Romney and the U.S. coal industry are engaged in a very public love affair. In August, the Republican candidate stood on a stage in Ohio and condemned Barack Obama's "war on coal," backed by a group of beefy, safety-helmeted men who looked like they just stomped out of a coal mine. Those miners later appeared in one of Romney's two September ads focused on coal, the "way of life" that, in his telling, Obama is ruthlessly attempting to crush.

"By the way," Romney said in his first debate with Obama, lest America miss the point, "I like coal!"

That was Oct. 3. On Oct. 4, coal stocks soared. On Friday, Romney was in Abingdon, Virginia, holding a "Coal Country" rally, proclaiming, "I don't believe in putting our coal under the ground forever." (Was that one of Obama's shovel-ready projects?)

If it feels like he's trying too hard, it's probably because Romney is not a natural fit for the industry's affections. When he was governor of Massachusetts, Romney signed a climate change plan, supported clean-energy startups, and famously went after a coal plant that was shirking pollution controls, saying, "I will not create jobs or hold jobs that kill people. And that plant kills people." (In one of its most cynical maneuvers, the Obama campaign has run ads attacking Romney for making this eminently defensible point.)

Now, however, Romney needs coal's love, and badly. Coal jobs and cheap coal electricity are important to several of the swing states upon which the election hinges, most especially Ohio, which may single-handedly decide the race. It's not enough for coal fans to be upset with Obama; Romney needs them actively working on his behalf.

It doesn't come easy to him -- Romney isn't exactly known for his easy rapport with the working class. Remember those miners on stage in Ohio? It turns out that they were forced to attend the rally, without pay, and aren't very happy about it. And for all that environmental regulations have turned the United Mine Workers of America against Obama this year, they aren't endorsing Romney either. The union is sitting this one out.

Nonetheless, where it counts -- in board rooms and executive suites -- Romney is being richly rewarded for his support. The boss who forced his miners to attend Romney's rally, CEO Robert Murray of Murray Energy, hosted a $1.7 million fundraiser for the candidate in May and has apparently been bullying his employees into contributing to his anti-Obama PAC, prompting a complaint to the SEC.

Coal executives are in need of friends in Washington these days, as they're running out of them in U.S. power markets. In the late 1990s, coal provided half the power used in the United States. By 2011, that figure was down to 42 percent. In April, for the first time since the U.S. Energy Information Administration began collecting data in the 1970s, natural gas generated as much power as coal -- each claimed 32 percent of the total.

That is an extraordinary milestone, and the trend shows no sign of reversing. In a recent report, the Brattle Group research consultancy estimated that between 59 and 77 gigawatts of coal power capacity will retire or announce retirement by 2016 -- between 20 and 25 percent of the entire U.S. coal fleet. And that's without any new restrictions on the carbon emissions that drive climate change.

Republicans are keen to convince the public that the faltering fortunes of coal-fired power are a result of Obama's "war on coal," i.e., new regulations from EPA. But Brattle, most other independent researchers, and, in their confidential moments, utility executives themselves agree that the real culprit is cheap natural gas. Advances in hydraulic fracking technology have produced an enormous glut of gas in the United States, fatally undercutting the economics of coal generation. In February, CEO Nick Akins of American Electric Power, one of America's biggest coal-burning utilities, said, "I can tell you there will not be any new coal plants built, with the current price of gas and the forecast for the future for gas."

Analysts expect natural gas prices to rise from their recent historic lows, but not far or fast enough to prevent a continued decline of coal. Dozens of aging coal plants the United States are reaching the point where they must be upgraded (thus becoming subject to more stringent air pollution rules) or retired. Cheap gas is tilting more and more of these decisions in favor of retirement.

What about the "clean coal" both candidates claim to support? There is some calculated ambiguity around the term these days, as there has always been. The practice among U.S. power executives has been to fight off EPA rules as long as they can, and when they are eventually forced to install pollution controls, claim that whatever results is "clean coal." (It's not a new idea. The term dates back to the early 20th century.) But insofar as it's a term of art in contemporary energy discussions, "clean coal" means coal plants with attached facilities that capture carbon emissions and bury them underground.

Coal with carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) is good PR for the industry and a good way for Obama to be seen to support coal, but in terms of power markets, it is a non-entity. "Clean coal" currently produces zero percent of U.S. electricity. Of the handful of coal plants with CCS that were planned in recent years, most have been canceled or put on hold due to their extraordinary cost. One of the few going forward, the Kemper coal plant in Mississippi, is 25 percent done and has already gone over budget twice. Its tab, which is nearing $2.8 billion, will be paid by Mississippi ratepayers whether or not the plant ever reaches operation.

Absent huge new subsidies or a stiff carbon tax, it's unlikely that CCS will ever evolve into a serious market competitor. So the real question, the practical question, is what to do about dirty coal -- the kind that exists in the real world.

On that matter, there are real differences between the candidates. It's bit of hysterical overstatement to call Obama's EPA rules, which were mandated by courts in accordance with the Clean Air Act, a "war on coal." But he and his administration recognize that it's impossible to reduce air pollution, water pollution, and climate emissions in the United States without reducing the role of coal-fired power plants.

Those power plants are responsible for around 90 percent of the power sector's CO2, along with the vast bulk of its sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, hydrochloric acid, mercury, arsenic, and particulate matter. According to the American Lung Association, these combine to create a stew of some 386,000 tons of hazardous air pollutants per year. A 2009 report from the National Research Council found that the sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides alone impose $62 billion a year in public-health costs. A 2010 report from the Clean Air Task Force estimated coal power was responsible for 13,200 premature deaths, 20,000 heart attacks, and 9,700 additional hospitalizations that year. Needless to say, those costs are not factored into coal's market price.

Obama's campaign slogan on energy is "all of the above," but implicitly, he has acknowledged that coal must be phased out over time if any progress is to be made on climate change. For instance, the Clean Energy Standard he proposed last year would allow utilities to count nuclear, natural gas, and "clean coal" power toward their carbon-reduction goals. It's all of the above ... except dirty coal.

For political reasons, Obama will never say a cross word about coal. It is too popular in too many blue and swing states. He will continue to sing the praises of "clean coal" and maintain the pretense that there is a future for coal in a climate-constrained power system. But he will not do anything to halt coal's inevitable economic decline. He'll enforce existing EPA regulations and give the agency space to issue new ones. He'll back the natural gas industry and the clean-energy industry. And he'll let history take its course.

Romney, taking a page from the playbook of conservative icon William F. Buckley, will stand athwart history, yelling "Stop!" Despite his bluster, he can't just suspend EPA rules. But he can make sure that new rules are lax and existing rules poorly enforced. With a friendly legislature, he can insure that all future EPA rules pass through the congressional meatgrinder, effectively crippling the agency's independent rulemaking ability. But he can't put the natural gas genie back in the bottle. He can't stop the falling costs of solar and wind power. And he can't change the fact that an overwhelming majority of Americans, across regions and demographics, support a transition to modern, cleaner power system.

However much it may be a political football in this year's election, coal power is on the wane in the United States and no politician can do terribly much about it. The only future for U.S. coal companies now is export to burgeoning economies like China and India with weaker air pollution laws and growing demand for power. These exports have doubled since 2009, now representing 12 percent of U.S. production. They also account for the Obama campaign's frequently cited statistic that coal-mining employment hit a 15-year high in 2011. But to fully compensate for the decline of U.S. coal power, coal companies need big new export terminals on America's west coast. The political battles over those terminals could stretch on for decades.

So no matter where American electricity comes from in coming years, coal is likely to be a heated subject for many elections to come. Campaigns, order your prop hard hats now!

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