I heard Sen. Dick Lugar deliver some insightful remarks this morning on energy, Iraq, and U.S. foreign policy at the 20/20 Vision National Summit on Energy Security. The talk was an acceptance speech for the first ever Energy Security Leadership Award.
A lot of what Lugar has to say on energy is intuitive, but he offered a couple of exceptionally nuanced observations today. Here’s one:
“Although securing oil supplies was not the proximate motivation for the U.S. intervention in Iraq, Persian Gulf oil is highly relevant to the difficulties associated with extricating ourselves from that country. Having set in motion conditions in Iraq that could threaten regional stability, American and, indeed, global analysts rightly are concerned that if instability spreads it could threaten oil flows. Moreover, the supposed American greed for oil is used as an excuse by a myriad of Middle Eastern propagandists. The oil dependence of the United States and the West is a pillar of Iranian foreign policy.”
As I’ve said before, it’s both easy and simplistic to suggest that the invasion of Iraq was motivated by thirst for oil. The actual reality is more complicated than that, and while Lugar is just skimming the surface here, he’s doing it in a very smart, careful, but still bold way.
The other observation Sen. Lugar made is less quotable, but equally important. I’ve noted before both the impossibility and the irrelevance of the goal of “energy independence” or “ending dependence on foreign oil,” or worse, “ending dependence on Middle Eastern oil.” At some point I’ll outline all the details of why these buzz terms are so misleading, but for the time being, it should suffice to say simply that the U.S. can never insulate itself from energy prices on the global energy market and that nothing the U.S. does unilaterally will solve the global climate, development, or security problems caused by the current energy situation.
As far as I can tell, Lugar generally recognizes this principle. The main reason that he suggests we should reduce oil imports is that doing so would lessen the global demand for oil (I’m not totally sold) and pave the way for others to follow (a smart rationale). After all, it’s the global demand for oil that has the greatest effect on U.S. national security interests and needs to be reduced, not U.S. imports specifically. The Energy Diplomacy and Security Act, a bill authored by Lugar and Joe Biden that passed in the Senate last month, rightly takes that approach.
Some commentators, of which Tom Friedman is the most vocal, have basically said we should reduce imports because oil money is going to the “bad guys” in the Middle East. It’s a political winner to demonize Middle Eastern governments, but Friedman and his followers ignore a couple of key facts. First, in the global energy economy, if one oil producer profits, all oil producers profit. And second, any oil we don’t buy will be scooped up by rapidly developing economies at the same or similar prices.
Lugar doesn’t fall into that trap, but he does give two smart reasons to be concerned about Middle Eastern oil imports. One, which I quoted above, is that propogandists will use consumption of Middle Eastern oil to support their claims that the U.S. is after imperial dominance in that region. The second is that transporting Middle Eastern oil puts a huge strain on the U.S. military, upon which energy companies rely to protect their shipments.
Even if the goal of ending our energy relationships with Middle Eastern countries is both unrealistic and distracting from the main energy issues, as I believe it is, Lugar’s concerns are valid.
Senator Lugar is doing something rare in the soundbyte era of politics: he’s speaking to hot-button regional realities, keeping his eye on the main issue, the global oil problem, and elevating the debate above shallow rhetorical devices all at the same time. Presidential candidates need to stop talking down to Americans with energy independence mumbo jumbo and instead follow Lugar’s lead.
— Scott Paul