March 22, 2004
by Irwin Stelzer
Madrid reminded investors of something they had chosen to forget—that there is risk out there that is unlike any other. It is possible to make an informed guess as to where the dollar is headed, or the price of oil, or the demand by China for the various commodities it is gobbling up at a furious rate. But those guesses are based on the implicit assumption that another terrorist attack won’t disrupt commercial life in America, or oil production in Saudi Arabia, or force Britain to imitate Spain, and pull out of Iraq.
We now know that such an attack is more than likely, somewhere, sometime. Here is a guess as to the time of maximum danger.
On July 1 America will be engaged in the largest troop deployment ever undertaken, exposing incoming and outgoing troops to attack, and replacing seasoned troops with a greener variety. The military says that the move will be complicated by the failure of Halliburton to have the new camps ready. Risk number 1: Vulnerable Americans, and troops unfamiliar with the territory, with the result of large casualties.
On July 1 Spain will be withdrawing its 1,300 man contingent from Iraq, making it more difficult for the Anglo-American-Aussie team to persuade its allies to stick with them. Poland’s leaders have already said that Spain’s decision to cut and run is making life more difficult for them, and the Dutch prime minister did not use the occasion of his visit to the White House to reassure President Bush that his contingent will stay in place after July 1. America’s staunchest ally, Australia, may well be in the midst of a general election. Risk number 2: Madrid-style attacks to force a further attrition in the ranks of the coalition.
On July 1 the coalition will be handing over sovereignty to the Iraqis—but to a group with no democratic legitimacy. Shi’a leaders have already announced that they don’t feel bound by the document that is intended to order political affairs in Iraq until elections can be held. Risk number 3: Absence of any accepted political authority for a period of at least six months.
On July 1 it will be very hot in Baghdad. No surprise. But barring some miracle, there will only be adequate electricity for 3-4 hours every day. Tempers are more than likely to flair, and not only in Baghdad. The authorities say that there is a more-or-less adequate supply of power being generated in the Basra area, but that they will institute rationing there in order to increase the flow of electricity to Baghdad. Observers recently returned from Basra tell me that the people of Basra have no intention of sweating in the dark so that their countrymen in Baghdad can get some minimal relief from the heat. Risk number 4: Riots by hot, irritated, restless Iraqis as the temperatures soar, and the “we were better off under Saddam” crowd begins to make its voices heard.
By July 1 the U.S. presidential campaign, already underway, will be in full swing. Senator John Kerry is blaming the loss of American jobs on the nation’s appetite for goods made in China and elsewhere, and on the outsourcing of jobs to India and other countries. Businessmen who open factories overseas are traitors, to be reviled and taxed. Risk number 5: A swing towards protectionism by president Bush as he fights for votes in Ohio, Illinois, Michigan and other key states. Congress is ready for just such a move, and wants to prevent government contractors from sending work overseas.
Will any or all of these risks materialize precisely on July 1? Probably not. But the risk of a major disruption is certainly mounting as we approach the summer. Those geopolitical risks might well coincide with a few unpleasant economic developments in the United States.
The last of the tax-cut stimulus will have been received and spent long before the summer. At that point, consumers won’t be able to look to tax refunds to fuel continued spending. Moreover, OPEC’s decision to cut oil production in the face of rising demand will drive up crude oil and gasoline prices to levels that force consumers to cut back spending on almost everything else. Unless business investment continues to improve, the economy might just slow down again. Meanwhile, with the federal deficit running at around 5 percent of GDP, the dollar weakening, and commodity prices rising under the pressure of booming Chinese demand for almost everything, inflation might saunter back onto the stage.
That, of course, would force the Fed to raise interest rates. The result might well be a fall in share prices, an end to the low interest rates that have enabled consumers to refinance their mortgages and use the withdrawn equity to fund shopping sprees, and a drag on business investment.
Put all of this together, and you have the possibility of a long, hot summer in America. President Bush’s plan for a pacified Middle East would be in tatters, the American economy would be on the brink of the dreaded double dip, and America’s sneezing would undoubtedly give the rest of the world a cold.
My own view is that we will escape this disaster. Forewarned is forearmed, and Pentagon planners are now more knowledgeable than they were in the immediate aftermath of the war, with one result being that the replacement troops are better trained than the original contingent. Also, as Iraq gets closer to self-rule, it becomes increasingly in the interest of the Shi’a majority to restrain its impulse to respond to attacks, and win power via the ballot box. Finally, the huge fiscal stimulus resulting from a deficit that is running at 5 percent of GDP should keep the economy moving ahead, and Fed chairman Alan Greenspan has promised to be “patient,” meaning he will hold off on raising interest rates until the job market is firmly on the upswing.
This article appeared in London’s Sunday Times on March 21, 2004.
Irwin Stelzer is a Senior Fellow and Director of Economic Policy Studies for the Hudson Institute. He is also the U.S. economist and political columnist for The Sunday Times (London) and The Courier Mail (Australia), a columnist for The New York Post, and an honorary fellow of the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies for Wolfson College at Oxford University. He is the founder and former president of National Economic Research Associates and a consultant to several U.S. and United Kingdom industries on a variety of commercial and policy issues. He has a doctorate in economics from Cornell University and has taught at institutions such as Cornell, the University of Connecticut, New York University, and Nuffield College, Oxford.
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