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Monday, May 14, 2007

Americans thinking half thoughts about Iraq

Thomas Friedman is one of the most thoughtful American commentators about the Middle East. This is some of the most thoughtful American commentary on Iraq, but it is not even "halfway there."
Friedman writes:
any U.S. withdrawal from Iraq is likely, in the short run, to be destabilizing.
It is like saying, "having a leg amputated is likely, in the short run, to be painful." For all the countries dependent on the United States in some way, withdrawal from Iraq is going to be very "destabilizing." The short run can be very problematic. In the short run, you can die, and then the long run doesn't really matter, does it?
And here is Friedman's punch line:

You can't be serious about getting out of Iraq if you're not serious about getting off oil.

Americans might not see the big problems with statement. The hidden assumption, which is probably true, is that when the United States withdraws from Iraq, American interests in the Middle East will collapse, and America loses its oil supply. But that entails much more than Friedman seems to think.

At the level of American interest, it must be understood that the effect on America's oil supply would be fairly immediate. Friedman is right, you can't be serious about getting out of Iraq if you're not serious about getting off oil. Only his timing is off. After a precipitate US flight from Iraq, expect that either the Ayatollahs or Al Qaeda or something similar will have their hands on most of the oil spigots within five years, and they will dictate their terms for selling oil to American and European Christian sons of dogs and pigs. It is probably unrealistic to think that they will cut off the supply of oil entirely, because they like money as well as the next guy, even better in fact. Does not the Qur'an devote an entire chapter to loot and how to divvy it up?

There will still be oil. However, the oil will become more expensive, and it will come with conditions... The ultimate goal will be to reduce the economic importance of the United States and Europe. The concept is that at this point, oil is like oxygen for Western economies. Imagine if someone says "you can't be serious about getting out of Iraq if you're not serious about getting off oxygen." Let's face it, the stuff is addictive. Try going off oxygen cold turkey.  

In five years, the US and the Europeans could not sever their dependence on Arabian (or Persian) gulf oil or lessen it materially, even if they started now, though of course you have to start somewhere. The reason is that you must find a cheap alternative fuel, not just economize on fuel. Getting rid of SUVs, as Friedman suggests, is a nice gesture, but until you have a cheap fuel alternative in place. you will still need gasoline and oil and natural gas to fuel  automobiles and airplanes and most electricity generation. Growing corn is not an economically practical alternative it seems, and there are no others available.

Friedman advocates incentive programs that will raise the price of oil artificially. These will provide an incentive to produce an expensive alternative to artificially expensive oil, not a cheap alternative, and it will be many years before this alternative is produced in commercial quantities that can replace oil. There might be a minor inconvenience - a transition period of ten or twenty years without a reasonable energy supply. This will drastically reduce the scope of economic activity.

So Americans who are contemplating the withdrawal from Iraq with equanimity should consider how they are going to cope with perhaps a 1950s or 1930s standard of living. Is it so bad? You will drink iced tea instead of using air conditioning, and there might be a few other changes.

The other problem is one that doesn't seem to bother any Americans. Aside from the inconvenience of giving up SUVs and air-conditioning, there is the minor problem of what happens to the half-billion or so people of the Middle East, could will be consigned to a night of Islamist fanaticism and Arab nationalism that would replicate the chaos of Gaza from Beirut to Tehran and from Basra to Istanbul. Lebanon, Israel, Turkey, Jordan and others will all be swept under in this tide, which might not bother itself with Europe for another fifty or hundred years. So it is no concern of Europeans or Americans, because in the long run we're all dead, right? 

Americans and Europeans tend to picture and conceptualize the Middle East as a very odd sort of geographic entity that looks rather like a big gas station pump.  In addition to oil, there are people here, and even if Americans don't care about us, you will feel the political repercussions of the chaos that is unleashed here if they don't finish what they perhaps should not have started.

Ami Isseroff

The New York Times
May 13, 2007
Op-Ed Columnist
Only Halfway There

I'm glad Democrats are keeping the pressure on President Bush for a withdrawal date from Iraq. It's the only way to keep him and Iraqis focused on the endgame. But if Democrats really want to be taken seriously on foreign affairs, they need to recognize that they have only half a policy on Iraq. And it's the easy half.

You can't be in favor of setting a date to withdraw from Iraq without also being in favor of a serious energy policy to radically reduce our dependence on oil - now. To call for withdrawing from Iraq by a set date, no matter what the situation is on the ground there - without a serious energy plan here - is reckless. All we would be doing is making ourselves more dependent on an even more unstable Middle East, because any U.S. withdrawal from Iraq is likely, in the short run, to be destabilizing.

The Middle East today is deeply troubled. If we determine that our efforts to tilt that region in a different direction - by building a decent Iraq - have failed, then our efforts to minimize our exposure to that region have to begin. But the last thing we can afford to do is walk away from the Middle East militarily while remaining chained to it economically.

More important, if Iraq totally fails, but we still believe it is in our interest to promote reform in the Middle East, a serious U.S. energy policy that permanently brings down the price of oil - by developing scalable alternative energies - is actually the best Plan B there is. You will see reform in the Arab-Muslim world only when regimes there can't survive just by extracting oil, but have to extract the talents of their people by educating, empowering and connecting them.

But to hasten that day, Democrats have to be a lot more serious about energy than they have been up to now. Everyone has an energy plan for 2020. But we need one for 2007 that will start to have an impact by 2008 - and there is only one way to do that: get the price of oil right. Either tax gasoline by another 50 cents to $1 a gallon at the pump, or set a $50 floor price per barrel of oil sold in America. Once energy entrepreneurs know they will never again be undercut by cheap oil, you'll see an explosion of innovation in alternatives.

"Right now we're looking for solutions in all the wrong places," argues the noted oil economist Philip Verleger. "The only way one can effectively address this problem today and get an immediate kick is by raising the price at the pump and keeping it there." Some of the revenue could be used to buy back the most fuel-inefficient vehicles on our roads, he added. "The best monument to 9/11 we could erect would be a mountain of crushed gas guzzlers."

There are some hopeful signs: Chris Dodd has just broken ranks and become the first presidential candidate to issue a serious, comprehensive energy plan that includes the "T word." He has called for a "corporate carbon tax" that would both help fight global warming emissions and raise gasoline prices.

"You say the word 'tax' and people usually head for the hills," Mr. Dodd told me. "But this is one where the American people can handle the truth. Unless you address the issue of price, you're not serious about moving us from Point A to Point B."

Barack Obama also just got right in Detroit's face. He went to Motown, called for much tougher fuel economy standards and bluntly told automakers and autoworkers the truth: "For years, while foreign competitors were investing in more fuel-efficient technology for their vehicles, American automakers were spending their time investing in bigger, faster cars. Whenever an attempt was made to raise our fuel efficiency standards, the auto companies would lobby furiously against it, spending millions to prevent the very reform that could've saved their industry." Those are fightin' words!

Finally, in a move that also merits praise, General Motors announced that it was joining other major U.S. corporations, like General Electric, and signing on to the United States Climate Action Partnership (U.S.C.A.P.), which calls for a cap-and-trade program to control carbon dioxide emissions. G.M. is the first auto company to do so.

None of these go far enough, but they are all new positions and may be harbingers of a new competition in which companies and candidates try to outdo each other in being serious about energy rather than phony. That would be a big deal - and it might give the Democrats a more comprehensive Iraq policy just in the nick of time.

You can't be serious about getting out of Iraq if you're not serious about getting off oil.

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