TCS Daily

An Energetic Future

By James Pinkerton - June 30, 2004 12:00 AM

Is it time for a Plan B for US foreign policy? And so, also, a Plan B for energy policy?

The foreign policy Plan A, of course, is the Bush Doctrine. You know, "moral clarity," backed up the 82nd Airborne, followed by the "liberation" and "democratic transformation" of Iraq and the Muslim world. But today, to put it mildly, there's a fair amount of evidence that Plan A isn't working. For example, consider this front-page headline, "Iraq Occupation Erodes Bush Doctrine", from Monday's Washington Post. Ah, but isn't the Post a bastion of liberal America-bashing bias? Not quite. The editorial page strongly supported the war, and on the same day, Monday, Fred Hiatt, the Post's editorial page editor, wrote yet another piece calling for fortitude and patience in Iraq.

But in the meantime, Americans are reaching a judgment on the Iraq war. According to the latest Gallup Poll, released June 25:

"Fifty-four percent of Americans now say that the United States made a mistake in sending troops to Iraq, marking the first time since the war in that country began that a majority have held this negative view.

"This trend is important because it allows some comparability to the Vietnam War, during which Gallup consistently asked this same "mistake" question. In the early stages of that war, in late August and early September 1965, only 24% said that the United States had made a mistake in sending troops to that country. That percentage slowly rose over the next several years, and by August 1968, the tide turned and 53% said that Vietnam had been a mistake."

In other words, the process of a majority forming against a difficult foreign war, which took almost three years during Vietnam in the '60s, has been accelerated into just 15 months in the '00s. And that shouldn't be a surprise: having seen one quagmire, it's easier to spot another quagmire.

Indeed, George W. Bush's situation is now almost the reverse of George H. W. Bush 41's a dozen years ago. In 1992, Bush 41, had fought a successful low-cost war -- almost entirely financed by its many allies -- and yet found himself on the defensive on the economy, stupid. The elder Bush had broken his famous "read my lips no new taxes pledge," thereby shattering his credibility, demoralizing his base, and opening the door to challengers Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot. And so, of course, his re-election bid was shattered, too. By contrast, Bush 43 has fought a not-so-successful war, financed entirely by American taxpayers, with no end in sight. Yet at the same time, thanks in part to his supply-side tax cuts -- and firm opposition to any tax hikes -- the economy is going strong. The polls reflect this split: a CBS News/New York Times survey, found that Americans approve of Bush's economic policies by 58:41, even as they disapprove of his Iraq policy by 58:36. Which issue will loom larger in the minds of voters: the sagging effort in Iraq or the surging economy? The November election, currently too close to call, hangs on that question.

I realize that most of my brothers and sisters here at TechCentralStation seem to think that the Iraq war is going well enough. Indeed, some seem to believe that George W. Bush is the reincarnation of Winston Churchill and/or Ronald Reagan. And perhaps such a political apotheosis for W. might yet be proven out. But what if it takes a while for Bush's brilliance to become immanent? What if the voters don't see Bush's true genius until after the election -- so that he gets the news about his vindication after he's retired to Crawford?

What if, instead, Bush -- and, more importantly, the United States -- suffer uncertain, even negative, outcomes for the foreseeable future: in Iraq, the Israeli-occupied territories, and Saudi Arabia? After all, even the great Churchill and Reagan didn't win 'em all. And so maybe, in the meantime, we could benefit from a Plan B -- a plan for reducing our dependence on Persian Gulf oil. We needn't violate free market orthodoxy to achieve better energy and national security, but we might need to add in little Hamiltonian -- as in Alexander Hamilton -- horse sense.

Churchill was a military man from the first. He graduated from the Royal Military College at Sandhurst and was commissioned into the cavalry. But even so, he suffered his share of debacles. As First Lord of the Admiralty during World War One, he masterminded the Allied landings at Gallipoli, Turkey, in April 1915. The Turks had opportunistically joined the war on the side of Germany; Churchill hoped that a quick strike against their capital of Constantinople (now Istanbul) might knock the Turks right back out of the war. So nearly half-a-million troops -- mostly British, but also Australian and New Zealander, as anyone who has seen the 1981 Mel Gibson movie "Gallipoli" remembers -- landed 200 miles southwest of Constantinople. But the Allies dithered while the Turks rallied, and the Gallipoli campaign settled into static yet costly trench warfare. After nearly a year of bloody frustration, the Allies withdrew, having suffered more than 250,000 casualties. Churchill was demoted from his post and soon resigned from the government altogether. It would be another quarter-century before his true mettle was revealed.

And of course Reagan suffered a military debacle early in his presidency. In 1982, the Gipper sent the Marines into Lebanon, as part of an ill-thought-through "peacekeeping" mission, in which Americans were inserted not only betwixt warring Lebanese Muslims and Christians, but also, warring Palestinians and Israelis. It was a no-win-only-lose situation. In October 1983 came the terror-bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut; a few months later, Reagan withdrew the last American forces from the area. Some argued that the US should stay and fight it out, but Lebanon was too much of a handful even for the Israelis; they withdrew from almost all of the country the following year, in 1985. It was a small, sad chapter of defeat for the US, but to Reagan's credit, at least it did not become a big, sad chapter of defeat.

So even the greatest war leaders commit blunders. And today, it's arguable that Operation Iraqi Freedom will be judged harshly. Yes, we removed Saddam Hussein. But no, we have not found those WMD stockpiles. Nor, critically, have we demonstrated that we know how to bring peace and security -- the prerequisites for democracy and capitalism -- to Iraq. Consider this item, posted on The New York Times' website on June 14, describing the aftermath of a carbomb explosion in Baghdad that killed 13, including five Western contractors:

"As more than 50 Iraqi policemen stood by, the mob stomped on the hoods of the crushed vehicles, doused them with kerosene and set them alight, creating a huge fireball in the middle of a crowded neighborhood.

"Even as angry men ran past, hurling bricks at the squad of American soldiers who responded, few of the Iraqi policemen intervened.

"'What are we to do?'" asked a Iraqi police lieutenant who said his name was Wisam Deab. "If we try to stop them, they will think we are helping the Americans. Then they will turn on us.'"

Perhaps this story is just an example of anti-Bush press bias? Without a doubt there are plenty of other stories, sunnier stories, being neglected by the Liberal Media. But at the same time, unless Jayson Blair is back at the Times, this carbombing happened, to the delight of ordinary Iraqis and the disinterest of Iraqi police. Which does not bode well for the American mission in Iraq.

Neither does the way that the recent handoff of "sovereignty" was handled offer much reason for optimism. Ask yourself: what politician ever misses a chance to stage a ceremony, unless he has to? If ex-Coalition Provisional Authority chief Paul Bremer and the Deaverite staging mavens around him had had their druthers, they'd have put on an extravaganza of speeches, parades, and brass bands. Instead, the ceremony was an unceremonious handshake, and then Bremer was on his airplane home, refusing all interviews. That news alone should tell you to short the Baghdad Stock Market -- or the stock of the Bush Doctrine.

As an example of just how badly the Bush Doctrine has boomeranged, consider the rise and rise of Moqtada al-Sadr, the radically -- some say rabidly -- anti-American Shia cleric. In May, a poll conducted by the Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies -- an outfit set up with the help of the former Coalition Authority -- found that 68 percent of Iraqis either "somewhat" or "strongly" support al-Sadr.

To be sure, nobody thinks that al-Sadr is about to take over Iraq. It's possible, of course, that the new government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi will cement itself into power. After all, Allawi is tough enough; he was a good Ba'athist, until he fell out of favor with Saddam over ego-rivalry issues decades ago. Of course, power might ultimately wind up in the hands of the Shia Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who eschews al-Sadr's violence but nonetheless calls upon the new Iraqi government to "erase all traces" of the US occupation. For his part, even Bush seems resigned to a diminished US role in Iraq; speaking of Iraqis, he said on June 1, "They don't like to be occupied. And neither would I. And neither would anybody."

No wonder then, that another poll from the same Iraq Center found that just two percent of Iraqis said that Americans were liberators, while 92 percent said that they were occupiers.

But the rationale for going into Iraq was not based -- or at least is not based any more -- on the argument that Uncle Sam would win a popularity contest over there. Instead, it was based on a series of geopolitical theories, some of which have yet to be proven or disproven. And so, the neoconservatives say, we must not waver in the war on terror, the "central front" of which, according to deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz, is Iraq. In fact, national security adviser Condi Rice speaks of the US having made a "generational commitment" to Iraq and to the transformation of the Middle East; other officials suggest that it might take a century.

If that's the case, if we are in a Hundred Years' War, then perhaps we should rethink some of our assumptions about another aspect of our national security -- energy security. I realize that from a libertarian/free market point of view, there's something almost retro about talking about oil supplies. Isn't such a discussion a throwback to the 70s, when statists such as Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter were running things? Wasn't the energy crisis mostly an artifact of the hideously counterproductive price controls imposed by Nixon in 1971, and left in place for the rest of the decade? Yes, but.

Yes, without a doubt, the 70s were a disaster for energy policy making. In 1973, when Nixon declared a national goal of "energy independence" by 1980, oil imports accounted for 26 percent of US consumption. Yet for the rest of that decade, as Republican and Democratic presidents alike reiterated their commitment to such independence, oil imports continued to rise. The problem was that the tools used by Nixon, Ford, and Carter -- price controls, conservation decrees, Uncle Sam-funded ventures such as the Synthetic Fuels Corporation and, finally, a full-fledged Department of Energy -- had little to do with actually increasing domestic production. And with US oil prices capped, there was no market signal to consumers to constrain consumption. And so the US made negative progress toward Nixon's goal; in 1980, imports had risen by another half, to 38 percent of the national total. In the meantime, the world price of oil soared to nearly $40 a barrel. The 70s were a textbook example of what happens when governments get in the way of the market: pay more, get less.

But at the same time, we might consider current geostrategic trendlines in the Middle East, which is home to about half the world's oil reserves.

Let's start with Saudi Arabia, which owns about half of that half. As everyone knows by now, the Saudis have played a double game: they proclaim themselves to be America's ally while at the same time funding America's enemies. On June 15, David Aufhauser, the former general counsel of the US Department of Treasury, told the Senate Government Affairs Committee that Saudi aid to radical Muslims -- spent for a mix of reasons, some "defensive," as in paying protection, some of it offensive, as in encouraging Wahabi zealotry -- might have totaled $75 billion over the last quarter-century.

Yet in spite of all that money paid out, what odds would you give that the House of Saud will be in power in five years? As a straw in the wind, the US State Department has now been advising Americans -- who until recently numbered about 35,000 -- to leave the country. These days, mortal attacks on US citizens are commonplace. It appears that al-Qaeda, having been somewhat thwarted in its efforts to bring terror to the world, has decided to bring its terror back home. And so Americans hoping to democratize the Middle East might think twice about getting what they wish for -- do we really want to find out who would win a genuine election in the desert kingdom?

Across from Saudi Arabia, on the other side of the Persian Gulf is -- surprise! -- Persia, now called Iran. The Iranians seem eager to develop a nuclear weapon, and they aren't going to let the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) get in their way. The IAEA's chief, Mohamed El Baradei, calls Iran's cooperation with his inspectors "less than satisfactory." El Baradei added, "We still have a central issue, and that is whether Iran has declared all its [uranium] enrichment activities." But Iran is looking beyond inspectors and inspections, to the brave new world of nuclear-power status; on June 12, foreign minister Kamal Kharrazi told the Associated Press that his country "has to be recognized by the international community as a member of the nuclear club. This is an irreversible path." And while it's always possible that the Ayatollahs will be overthrown in Iran -- perhaps the US could give that overthrow a push -- it appears that Iran has, indeed, made a national decision to seek nuclear weapons. And at one level, with dangerous neighbors on all sides, who can blame them? As former US ambassador Dennis Ross said recently on Fox News, "Even the moderates in Iran want nukes."

Meanwhile, many American hawks regard the Bush administration's Iran policy with impatience and exasperation. The Wall Street Journal editorializes that it's only "a mild overstatement" to assert that the Bush administration is treating Iran's nuclear program with "apparent acquiescence." Still, it's hard to see whether or not the Iranians will have a deployable a-bomb any time soon. Why? Because leaving aside the Americans, the Israelis, having pegged Iran as an implacable enemy, will likely seek to pull a pre-emptive "Osirak" on Iranian nuclear facilities.

But of course, any such strike will not alleviate the already-intense dislike for Israel and its patron, the United States, as measured by the Pew Research Center. And eventually, such violent hatred could seriously affect not only the politics of three countries in question -- Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Iran -- but also the flow of oil from the gulf that they dominate. It's one thing to strike offensively at a few targets in Iran. It's another thing to defend a multitude of soft targets in the Persian Gulf.

Routinely now, terrorists can strike at Iraqi oil facilities, and the recent grabbing of eight British Navy men is a reminder that the Iranians, too, are on the prowl. As Michael Ledeen has argued, the Iranians would benefit enormously from a massive -- and massively price-raising -- disruption of oil from the area. To be sure, the Persian Gulf won't necessarily become the North Atlantic, c. 1943, in terms of dangers to civilian shipping -- in the era of cruise missiles and loose nukes, it could be far worse.

Meanwhile, events to date tell us that Bush's Plan A is not sufficient for America. That is, by its own track record of over-promising and under-delivering, the Bush administration -- be it four years or eight -- cannot be said to have an adequate grip on the tricky realities of Middle East geopolitics.

And so, as those oilfields and waterways are in so much more peril, it's only prudent to broaden and diversify our national energy portfolio. Churchillian oratory and Reaganesque optimism can help, but it must be noted that the real secret of Churchill's and Reagan's success was their substantive policies, more than their intangible optimism.

If we face a long twilight struggle against terror, we don't want to fight that war in chilly, energy-scarce darkness here at home. It can't be a good idea for the US, and for the world, to be so dependent on such a risky -- and getting riskier -- part of the world.

So what to do? That's for the next installment.

But in the meantime, we might draw inspiration from the late 40th President, who said in 1992:

"Whatever else history may say about me when I'm gone, I hope it will record that I appealed to your best hopes, not your worst fears; to your confidence rather than your doubts. My dream is that you will travel the road ahead with liberty's lamp guiding your steps and opportunity's arm steadying your way."

Let's hope that America always has the wit and the will to travel that hopeful, confident route. And that we have the freedom and opportunity to keep the lamp lit, literally as well as figuratively. That's a question of physical energy, as well as moral clarity.

Next week: What Alexander Hamilton might do about our current energy-security situation.


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