Nitrogen, war, food

Beer with model

In 1918 the Nobel Prize for Chemistry was given to Fritz Haber: he invented a method for synthesizing ammonia - that is, nitrogen 'fixed' with hydrogen - a chemical vital for organic life. The process was used during the First World War to make munitions: the allies got theirs from South American mines. Without industrial-scale production of ammonia, the war would have been considerably shorter. Verdun, for example - where a service took place today on WWI's 90th annivesary - was bombarded with a hundred thousand shells an hour - an hour! - at the start of the battle. (As well as a hundred thousand gas shells a day: Haber was instrumental in the development of gas warfare. Randomly, I now realise he was the subject of a brilliant Radio 4 play I caught the second half of. His scientist wife committed suicide. If the play is to be believed, this was to shock him into realising the monster he'd become. I buy that: radio 4 fiction will do for me as a factual source.)

Iraq: conspiracies are dead; now we just lie openly

Dear Mr. President: we are writing you because we are convinced that current American policy toward Iraq is not succeeding, and that we may soon face a threat in the Middle East more serious than any we have known since the end of the Cold War. In your upcoming State of the Union Address, you have an opportunity to chart a clear and determined course for meeting this threat. We urge you to seize that opportunity, and to enunciate a new strategy that would secure the interests of the U.S. and our friends and allies around the world. That strategy should aim, above all, at the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime from power.

So begins a letter from Project for a New American Century to Bill Clinton, dated January 1998. It's worth going back to this now we're into year six of the Iraq war. The one lesson I learned from the whole saga was this: there's no need for conspiracies. You can publish your intentions on a website, say the opposite in public, and no-one will care. Truth won't out.

In the run-up to the war, Blair and Bush repeatedly claimed that regime change was not the aim, and that - even right up until the last moment - Hussein had it within his power to stop the war. That's what I found most terrifying - listening to Blair parrot Bush, when I could go to a public website and read, plain as day, the neocons' policy for regime change and the reasons for it. Written by the neocons themselves. They haven't even got the shame to take it down.

The true cost of the Iraq war

The Guardian reported yesterday on Joe Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes upcoming book, The Three Trillion Dollar War. In it, they attempt to audit the whole Iraq war effort. The article is terrifying; I thought I'd pull out some bullet points. The first one is obviously in the title - their estimate of the true cost - and this is just for the US (compared to an official estimate of £500 billion.) Other bullet points lifted from the article:

  • The rest of the world, including Britain, will probably account for about the same amount again.
  • America is spending $16bn a month on running costs alone (ie on top of the regular expenses of the Department of Defence) in Iraq and Afghanistan; that is the entire annual budget of the UN.
  • 1 trillion dollars = any one of the following: 8 million housing units, 15 million public school teachers, healthcare for 530 million children for a year, scholarships to university for 43 million students (note: most of these would count as investment as well - you'd get a return on it. The opposite is true for war-spending.)
  • America is currently spending $5bn a year in Africa, equivalent to 10 days fighting
  • Wage for contractor working as a security guard: $400,000; US soldier: $40,000
  • A soldier injured in the first month has to pay back their sign-up bonus
  • Soldiers have to pay for a lot of their own equipment: if they lose their helmet (even through being blown up) they'll be billed
  • It wasn't until 2006 that that the DOD agreed to replace Humvees with mine-resistant ambush-protected (MRAP) armoured vehicles
  • Halliburton received at least $19.3bn in single-source contracts (i.e. bidding was limited... to Halliburton. Free market, huh?)
  • Often, when contracts went to US firms rather than local ones, those firms would then bring in labour from e.g. Nepal because it was cheaper - even though one in two iraqi men were out of work
  • The war has been paid for through borrowing (and taxes have been cut): the interest alone is 'a couple of hundred billion a year' - another trillion by 2017 and a little present for the next president
  • Stiglitz also argues that the Federal Reserve kept interest rates low and 'looked the other way as lending standards were lowered' as a result of US government loan-seeking and pressure to keep their interest lower; he connects this to the subsequent sub-prime crisis
  • Much of the war fund now comes from China; Stiglitz notes it was China that bailed out Merrill Lynch and Citibank recently because America simply doesn't have the money
  • From studying futures markets, Stiglitz concludes that 'a significant proportion' of the rise in oil prices is due to instability post-Iraq; oil has gone up from $25 to $100 a barrell in five years
  • Projecting to 2015, this will be an extra £1.6 trillion on oil in the US
  • Direct quote: to developing countries it has been devastating - they note a study by the International Energy Agency that looked at a sample of 13 African countries and found that rising oil prices have "had the effect of lowering the average income by 3% - more than offsetting all of the increase in foreign aid that they had received in recent years, and setting the stage for another crisis in these countries"

In summary, they fucked things up right and proper. Stiglitz again: 'that's part of being in a global economy. You make a mistake of this order, and it affects people all over the world.' You'd really, really want to think a car-crash of this magnitude would require the incompetents and ideologues who led us there to be held accountable.

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