Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Foreign Oil = Problems, but That's Not the Whole Story

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that many of our country’s security and foreign policy problems are tied to our dependence on foreign oil. Our close relationship with Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s greatest sources of Islamofacism, is brought to you courtesy of foreign oil dependence.

I wrote here about the debacle of Iran’s mullah-puppet-president Ahmadinejad and Venezuela’s Thug-In-Chief Chavez doing their anti-American floor show at the UN last month. I’m not the first one to conclude that this was only possible due to foreign oil addiction. Neither Iran nor Venezuela would have any clout on the world stage whatsoever were it not for oil.

But it’s not just our foreign oil addiction that is the problem. Iraq was a problem for years before we went to war there in 2003. How much Iraqi oil did we buy in the 12 years prior to 2003? How much Iranian oil have we bought in the last 27 years? If we weren’t buying it, then why have these countries been able to cause us problems? The obvious answer is that other countries are addicted to foreign oil as well.

Yes, we support Islamofacism by buying Saudi oil, and we support Venezuela’s Communist strong man by buying Venezuelan oil. Republicans say that the answer is for us to exploit more of our own petroleum resources to cut our dependency on foreign oil. Democrats discredit this approach as environmentally disastrous, and claim that only environmentally friendly alternative fuels are the answer.

Actually, neither of these solutions, nor both of them together will remove the problems caused by oil addiction. I explored the viability of various alternative fuels in this May 2006 post. The sad fact is that there isn’t currently any viable alternative fuel that will meet our energy needs. Unless and until some major discovery, we don’t have anything that could feasibly, environmentally responsibly, and cost effectively replace oil, even with $3/gallon gasoline. However, we should keep working on it.

Even if we exploit all of our domestic oil resources, including ANWR, offshore drilling, and tar sands, we still won’t come close to overcoming our usage of foreign oil. And while some claim that we have enough oil shale to fuel our nation for the next three centuries, it’s still way too expensive to pursue it. Some say that with $70/barrel oil, we’re approaching the point where it might be economically feasible. Actually, it might become economically feasible when we approach $700/barrel oil. And even then it might not be technologically feasible, since the best process we know of uses almost as much energy as it produces.

But, for argument’s sake, let’s say that the magic fairy granted our wish and suddenly we had no dependence on foreign oil. We would be free of all of our foreign problems, right? We could turn a blind eye to the Middle East and let all of the jihadists there fight it out among themselves, right? We could tell Hugo Chavez to take a hike and not give a care about what is going on in South America, right? Wrong!

When it comes to energy resources, countries will seek out the least expensive and most reliable sources. If the US was removed from the picture, China, India, and other large markets would still demand foreign oil. Money, and therefore power, would continue to flow to the likes of Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela. But, wouldn’t these countries be less of a threat to us than they are today? Wouldn’t they become something like the Sudan where we don’t do anything about the atrocities because we don’t get our oil from them? No.

The oil-rich countries that cause us problems now would still cause us problems if we bought no oil from them. As I noted above, we haven’t bought any oil from Iran for almost three decades, and yet Iran has been a constant thorn in our side during that time. Now they threaten to join North Korea in going nuclear, even though we don’t rely on their oil. Even if we bought no oil from Venezuela or Saudi Arabia, there would be plenty of other countries willing to buy from them. Not buying from these countries would not render them harmless to us.

Does that mean that we shouldn’t try to reduce our dependency on foreign oil? Of course not. But we need to go about it in an enlightened fashion. Our buyer relationship with oil-producing countries actually gives us a certain amount of clout with them that we otherwise would not have.

We have little influence over North Korea because they do not rely on us economically. Instead, they rely on China, a country that does not have much of a history of acting in our best interests. But as China’s markets open up and become more dependent on the consumerism of the US, even China is behaving more positively toward us than any time in the past. Indeed, some argue that the quickest way to improve China’s human rights record is to strengthen our trading ties with them, thereby, strengthening our influence with them.

This principle shows why sanctions usually fail to achieve their desired goals. 12 years of sanctions in Iraq caused poverty and hurt the people, but did not do much to harm Saddam and his despotic government. 45 years of sanctions against Cuba have caused poverty and strengthened the country’s ties with other despotic regimes. How different might it have been had we instead willingly traded with Cuba for the past four and a half decades? Would Fidel and his brother even be in power today? If so, would they be able to rule in the same hard-line fashion as they do now? Saudi Arabia is problematic, but would it be less so if we were out of the picture and China and India became their biggest trading partners?

Of course, there is the matter of moral principle. The theory here is that trade with despotic nations supports evil regimes and in a way expresses approval of their tactics. We can stand on our moral high ground and feel good about ourselves. It allows us to sleep peacefully at night. Never mind the fact that doing so perpetuates the despots, strengthens their ties with other bad guys, and condemns millions of their pawns to lives of poverty under the iron fists of their dictators.

Yet another principle is that our trade with other countries changes us, just as it changes them. While we have increasing influence in China, China also has increasing influence with us. Since they now own a fair portion of our national debt, their monetary decisions affect the value of the Dollar, thereby, affecting our ability to purchase foreign products. So, as we trade with other countries, we need to do it with both eyes open, as it is a double-edge sword.

We should strive to free ourselves from foreign oil, but as we do so we must keep in mind that we still have to live with the countries from which we are weaning ourselves. As a matter of self interest, we need to be concerned about their welfare and trade habits. We cannot afford a to-heck-with-them attitude. I’m not saying there is never a situation where a country should be excluded as a trading partner, but we need to approach such matters with a sense of enlightened self interest.

No comments: