Monday, September 17, 2007

Shocked by the Elephant in the Room

Alan Greenspan's memoir is being released later this week and it is already making some waves in the news.

The initial news reports revealed content criticizing the Bush Administration and the Republican Congress for its fiscal policies.

But another claim emerged today that is causing even more of a stir. A direct quote from the book has leaked in which Greenspan says the following: (source here)

“I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone
knows: the Iraq War is largely about oil...”

I watched the media on three different channels tonight, including Fox, express shock and/or outrage as if this were some kind of new revelation or offensive claim.

The media's reaction, not Greenspan's statement, is the only thing that should be shocking.

I am not saying we went to Iraq on an imperialist quest to seize the oil fields and steal the Iraqi people's resources - and neither is Greenspan. What I am saying is that maintaining a cheap and steady supply of oil is the reason we have (before the Iraq war) and will continue (long after the Iraq war) to have vast aircraft carrier fleets in the Persian Gulf and numerous airbases with thousands of troops in Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and other neighboring countries.

For any of you that think that the primary reason we are in the region is for any type of humanitarian cause or even a grand agenda to promote democracy to fight terrorism, tell me why we do not have troops in Africa or why we are not investing equally (on a per capita basis) to ensure the establishment and survival of democracy in Afghanistan.

What should shock the American people is not that we are acting militarily to secure these supplies today, but that we are NOT taking aggressive and deliberate action to decrease our need for oil tomorrow.

Our national "debate" on the Middle East confounds me more with each passing day. For all the discussion of military tactics and diplomatic strategies, no one seems genuinely willing to pursue the only thing that could fundamentally change our strategic position in that entire region. Yes, there is and has been the "quest" for "energy independence" - but it has been over three decades since the first American politicians called for it (see Gerald Ford, 1975 State of the Union).

The only people that benefit from the status quo (let's even be generous and go back to the "good" ole 1990s) are the oil companies, defense contractors and to an increasingly lesser extent, the American auto manufacturers.

I'm not claiming a grand conspiracy here, I'm just stating the fact that every single American would be better off in ten years if we didn't need oil anymore - everyone that is, except the oil and auto executives and the people that build the weapon systems that secure that region.

So... why don't we act?

Would a ten year Manhattan Project to get us off oil cripple the economy? Could we not afford it?

We have spent over half a TRILLION dollars on the current war and there is no reason to believe that we will not spend at least several hundred billion more before we are disentangled. Can anyone even begin to estimate what we spent to deter the Soviet Union from the region in the Cold War, to fight and later contain Saddam Hussein in the 1990's, or what we will spend on the next war in the Middle East (and can any one seriously doubt there will be another sooner or later)?

Does anyone want to make the argument that the cost of eliminating oil from our economy would be more expensive than what we have spent and will continue to spend in order to keep it flowing? Let's subsidize the R&D, provide full economic assistance to any workers who lose their jobs for the sake of national welfare and I still have no doubt whatsoever that we still come out saving a fortune - and not only in dollars, but also in lives.

I fully admit that, although this is an important and essential step, taking it would not - now or upon completion - completely eliminate the need for American engagement in the region. The welfare of every nation's economy, including the United States', is increasingly tied to its neighbors and trading partners. Simply put, this means that the price the Chinese pay for oil significantly affects American consumers. Nevertheless, it seems obvious that we would still come out in a dramatically stronger position.

Finally, I want to address another course of action that some may advocate as an alternative: increasing domestic supply. We could develop the ANWR oil reserves in Alaska and other sources but it would not change the fact that oil is a global commodity with a global price. It would probably lower the price in the short term, but as China and India consume more and more, the global price will eventually meet and exceed the current record prices - and this is without factoring in the likely instability in the Middle East (which will certainly possess the bulk of oil reserves until the day we run out). Because oil is a global commodity, and because demand will increasingly outpace supply (afterall oil is a nonrenewable resource), it is painfully clear that as long as we need oil, the Middle East will continue to demand a disproportionate share of our attention.

I truly believe that historians will marvel at our society's unwillingness to break a habit that so obviously harms our economic well-being and our national security (to say nothing of the emerging environmental imperatives).

We can only hope that when action does finally come, it is the result of proactive leadership and not the desperate reaction to another bloody war or economic crisis.

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