Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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December 8, 2003
By: Kevin Drum

FIGHTING TERRORISM....PART 2....Continuing my slow motion dialog on terrorism with Armed Liberal, here's part 2 of his 6-part plan:

Second, we're too dependent on ME oil. We're going to do something about it, both by pushing conservation, expanding alternative energy, and expanding exploration. We're going to build the damn windmills off of Cape Cod;

Now, I basically favor this kind of thing for lots of reasons unrelated to terrorism, but I'll try to ignore that and just focus on the terror-related topics here. AL's expanded post is here not the director's cut, thank goodness, but still pretty meaty so go read it and then I'll make some assorted comments.

Instead of a long essay, I'm just going to present a few bullet points on the specific topics that I think are most important in AL's argument, as well as a couple of things I think he left out:

  • First, I think AL is mistaken to suggest that "our current exposure to Islamist boycott...is not today critical." He does this by noting that less than 10% of America's total energy comes from Middle Eastern oil, which is correct but fundamentally misses the point.

    There are two problems with this. The first is that you can't just talk about energy in bulk. We have lots of things, notably cars, that run on oil and simply can't be realistically switched over to other forms of energy anytime in the near future. You really do have to talk about oil, not just about generic energy, and about 20% of our oil comes from the Middle East.

    An even bigger problem, though, is restricting "us" to the United States. Our vulnerability lies less in our direct requirement for Mideast oil than in the fact that the entire world relies on cheap oil to keep its economy humming and cheap oil comes from the Middle East. As the California energy crisis a few years ago showed, it takes only a small shortfall to produce a big price increase, and the OPEC nations, if they chose to cut off oil supplies, have way more than enough leverage to cause oil prices to double or triple. Kept up for any length of time this would likely cause the worst depression since World War II and this is neither a joke nor silly conspiracy mongering. A major cutoff of Mideast oil would have massive repercussions, and no matter how Green you are I can guarantee that you wouldn't like the results.

    I've read several people recently trying to downplay the importance of Mideast oil, but it's a mug's game. For better or worse, the world runs on cheap oil and any serious energy policy has to address that.

  • Having said all that, it's worth pointing out that times have changed in the past 20 years. Mideast countries today are as addicted to our money as we are to their oil, and it's unlikely that they could sustain a boycott similar to those of 1973 and 1979. A massive terrorist strike that shut down a big part of the Persian Gulf's oil production might be a serious threat I can't say myself whether it is or isn't but I suspect that a boycott isn't.

  • AL's argument about the fragility of our tightly integrated energy network strikes me as only partially convincing. Yes, pipelines are vulnerable to an attack, but so are airports, chemical plants, office buildings, and so forth. I'm not sure that our energy network is any more vulnerable or more centrally controlled than lots of other things.

    Still, that's scant comfort, so while I might not be quite as concerned about this as AL is, we would probably be wise to spend more money and pay more attention to this stuff. Unfortunately, it's a certainty that at least part of the answer would involve considerable government regulation of the affected industries, and war on terror or no, this just doesn't seem to be something that the Bush administration is ideologically willing to do.

  • Although I'm not sure that dispersed generation of energy is really feasible on a large scale, conservation certainly is, and I agree with AL that if we really want to cut down on oil use we should do things like extending CAFE standards to SUVs and taxing gasoline more heavily. And if we were really serious we'd be funding massive technology programs to develop alternate energy sources instead of pouring billions of dollars into ethanol.

    But that's the problem: the Bush administration isn't serious. Contrary to what some lefties think, a secure supply of oil is a perfectly legitimate concern for the U.S. government, but contrary to what Dick Cheney and the warhawks seem to think, so are conservation and development of alternate energy sources.

    If the Bush administration truly believed that 9/11 had changed everything and if they truly believed that energy independence was a critical part of the war on terrorism they'd be willing to embrace some distasteful ideas and jettison some of their old ideologies. After all, in the past we could just say that the free market would take care of this stuff eventually, but if we're really fighting a war then we need to fight a war. Right?

    Instead, what we got two years after 9/11 was an energy bill stuffed with politics-as-usual horsetrading: ethanol credits for farmers, subsidies to oil and gas firms, and tax breaks for everyone under the sun. Effect on national security: approximately zero.

In the end, energy policy is one of the reasons I don't trust Bush on fighting terrorism: he obviously doesn't think national security is more important than paying off corporate donors and playing political games. So here's the litmus test for hawks: if you think that after 9/11 liberals need to accept the need for a more aggressive military posture to fight terrorism, fine. But you need to be more willing to accept things like green energy ideas, serious conservation programs, and gas taxes, even if these are things you'd normally oppose.

If you aren't, then you're not serious.

Kevin Drum 7:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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