Some smart guys disagreed with my post of yesterday, where I rolled my eyes at candidates’ pledges to pursue “energy independence.”
Many point out that the United States would be in a stronger position if we didn’t have to buy oil from Middle Eastern regimes. Right now they have leverage over us, and that leaves us with fewer options. And that’s a strong point.
Other readers said that most Middle Eastern countries need to diversify their economy, and our reduction in oil purchases would push them in that long overdue direction. Again, a good point.
Many readers wrote in to explain in detail how much they loathe the House of Saud. I don’t necessarily like the House of Saud either, but I don’t believe that the situation on the Arabian peninsula “cannot possibly get any worse,” as one reader put it. As it is, the official position of the Saudi Kingdom is one of friendship, they send their children to our universities, they cooperate on intelligence matters (or so we’re told) and they imprison or kill al-Qaeda within their own borders. Yes, there are some princes who are likely bad guys, and most likely plenty of aspiring jihadists within the country. But any regime that replaced the Saudi Royal Family in a coup could very well not cooperate in the current manners, and/or use their position as the ruler of the territory that includes Mecca and Medina to more explicitly endorse the jihadist message.
The same goes for Kuwait, the Gulf states, etc. Our purchase of their oil helps keep their economies going; the economic growth keeps their government in power, and keeping those governments in power ensures we have local allies in the war on terror.
I cannot help but suspect that when pollsters ask about “energy independence” in focus groups, the average Joes and Janes in those groups say something in the vein of, “I can’t wait for the day we can tell them all to go to hell and we don’t have to deal with the Middle East anymore.” (P.J. O’Rourke said something like, ‘Americans hate dealing with foreign policy because it’s full of foreigners.’) We know many people in our country don’t want to deal with the aggravation, irrationality, violence and incomprehensible ancient furies with the Sunni and the Shia and the Persians and the Turks and the Wahhabists and the Palestinians and all of that. They want it off of their television screens, off the front page. I feel this way all the time.
But “energy independence” won’t bring about that Isolationist Utopia. Instead of blaming the United States for stealing oil, or buying it at unfair prices, the locals will be angry at us for not buying their oil. It might force these countries to diversify their economies… or they may sit around and blame someone else for their problems, and listen to the radical guy who’s pledging to make it all better.
My sense is, we ought to be nudging them to diversify their economy (and they ought to want to do it for their own sake), but it’s not going to happen overnight. King Abdullah of Jordan, whose country doesn’t have much oil or many other natural resources, is actually putting considerable efforts into making his country the education and entrepreneurial center of the region. Dubai and the UAE aim to become a global trade center.
The real problem isn’t the economic dependence; the real problem is the radicalism, the ideology. Reducing our dependence on their oil may make sense for us, and it may give us greater leverage against radicalism. But it’s not the solution, and right now, ‘energy independence’ is the closest thing the Democrats have to a strategy against radical jihadism. The problem is, we’re never really going to succeed in “walling off” the problems of the region, and their problems sooner or later will end up being our problems.
So when candidates pledge to establish American energy independence, my reaction is, “Great, I’ll believe it when I see it. In the meantime, what else have you got?”