Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Security through energy independence: A bipartisan critique

One thing that both Obama and McCain expressly agree upon is the need for America to be independent of foreign (read Arab) oil. This seems to me one of the great unchallenged assumptions of the American political scene. I would like to explore the notion that we must be energy independent.

We live in an increasingly complex and interdependent world. Everything we need to sustain a Western way of life is in some way dependent upon the global economy. Think of food, computers, medicine, raw materials, mechanical parts, labor, and the list goes on. This raises the question, why should we categorically reject this increasing global economic interdependence when it comes to oil and gas?

First, I am not talking about the general move toward sustainable energy. I am all for wind farms, solar, hydroelectric, biofuels, and most other clean and green technologies for both environmental and economic reasons. However, this does not seem to be at the crux of the argument made by both the Democrats and Republicans. The primary rationale behind the energy independence agenda, as expressed during the presidential debates, is the idea that depending on foreign (Middle Eastern) oil and gas is a basic security threat to America. This is where I disagree.

Dependence on other countries for natural resources does not necessarily make a country less secure.
Countries like Japan and Germany are almost entirely dependent on foreign oil and or natural gas and have not experienced security problems because of it. We seem to fear the idea that the Saudis (or other Middle Eastern countries) could hold us hostage because we are dependent on them for oil, but this misses the point. Sure we depend on them for oil, but they depend on the rest of the world to buy that oil; we are interdependent and interlocked economies. If the regime was using the money to spread a movement of destruction, economic turmoil, or global terror, they would lose their buyers and thus their funding.

Further, energy independence would not necessarily make us more secure. As we learned on September 11th, our largest security threat comes from terrorists, not state actors. We could be entirely energy independent and face no less of a threat from terrorists and extremists around the world. Even if we can suppose that radical terrorists get funding from oil sales, the increasing global appetite for oil on behalf of China, Russia, India, and Brazil would maintain a high enough demand for oil that prices wouldn’t crash.

The idea that our security depends on our ability to wean ourselves from foreign energy is wrongheaded. In fact, isn’t it feasible that a decrease in the global demand for oil could even increase regional instability in the Middle East because it would cause their undiversified economies (and population) severe distress? We live in an interdependent world and should not fear global trade as a point of American weakness. Furthermore, it seems that people believe that we are captive to the Middle East for their oil, but we have, on average, imported about the same amount of oil from Africa as we did from the Middle East during this past year. We also get vast amounts of oil from Canada and South America. The fear that Middle Eastern oil producers could sabotage the West by jacking up the price of oil doesn't hold given our diversified energy portfolio. They too must compete for our consumption.

In short, I believe that home-grown, green, and sustainable energy solutions are great opportunities to create American jobs and protect our environment. However, telling Americans that our “addiction to foreign oil” is a grave security threat is based on an outdated worldview. We are not an island; global economic interdependence strengthens, not threatens, our collective security.

What do you think? Do we need to rid ourselves of foreign oil to become more secure?


AC said...

To answer your question directly, no. Independent access to desired commodities will not ensure increased security. Period.

Allow me to be more controversial, though. I think this whole "security via oil" story is a cover for a less PC issue: Christian US v. Muslim Middle East, and who has more money, and therefore more leverage (including militarily, but not limited to it) with the globe.

The reason the topic itself is so hot amongst politicians, I think, is because of its religion undertone. Politicians + media sense that most citizens are white Christians and proud Americans, and they're pandering to those sentiments through their rhetoric on what will make the US more secure to gain votes/viewers.

*shakes head* Lame. Sauce.

Adam said...

Isn't it valid to claim that by trading with countries who are known to harbor terrorists, we are both legitimizing those countries' governments and indirectly supporting terrorism?

Also, by ending dependence on Middle Eastern oil, we are far less likely to be drawn into future conflicts within the region. Perhaps it would not lessen the threat of a direct attack on US soil, but it certainly alters our definition of "necessary conflict". There has been an oil component, if you will, to each of the conflicts we've been involved in within the Middle East in the last 50 years.

Finally, I have drawn the personal conclusion, from reading statements made by Osama Bin Laden, that the less we interfere in the Middle East in general, the more our image will improve. We have fucked with almost every Middle Eastern nation in some way or another, be it the coup in the Iranian Revolution or the more recent "democratization" of Iraq. We have traded weapons with tyrannical rulers and later condemned them for their use. Presently we are building THIRTEEN PERMANENT military bases in the soon to be "free" Iraq.

Decreasing Middle Eastern oil dependence therefore decreases our benefit in controlling the region. The less we engage politically in this region, the less reason there exists to hate us. That makes us safer, if only in theory.

Ron Bengtson said...

I think it would be easier to understand the problem if the question is rephrased.

Consider this question: "Is there a connection between the flow of oil money into the Middle East and the flow of terrorism out of the Middle East?

Ignore the conspiracy theories, if you can, and examine the evidence. If you make an honest inquiry into the evidence that is publically available, you will find that the facts are clear -- terrorism is funded by Middle East oil wealth.

Your argument against energy independence is similar to that given by former Secretary of defense Donald Rumsfield who tried to “outsource” U.S. Military ammunitions manufacture because it would save money.

In your view, is there any point at which over-dependence becomes vulnerability?

The American Energy Independence website has several links to papers and articles that document the evidence.

I recommend “Nexus-Oil and Al Qaeda” by Dr. Frank Denton, who spent 30 years in the Middle East with the U.S. Foreign Service.

Another good article on the subject is “The Saudi Connection: How billions in oil money spawned a global terror network” by David E. Kaplan, a columnist for U.S.News & World Report.

And a recent article in the Los Angelis Times, by columnist Josh Meyer titled, “Saudis remain the world’s prime source of terror financing” — “Saudi Arabia remains the world's leading source of money for Al Qaeda and other extremist networks and has failed to take key steps requested by U.S. officials to stem the flow... the Saudi government has not taken important steps to go after those who finance terrorist organizations or to prevent wealthy donors from bankrolling extremism through charitable contributions, sometimes unwittingly. Saudi Arabia today remains the location where more money is going to terrorism, to Sunni terror groups and to the Taliban than any other place in the world.

Dave said...

I would probably agree that there are some serious anti-Arab undertones surrounding the energy independence conversation. You don’t hear about the need to decrease trade with Canada, after all.


All solid points, as usual. A few things:

First, the countries that are declared to harbor terrorists, Iran, Syria, Libya, Cuba, North Korea, and Sudan, are not our main sources of oil. Yes trading extensively with those countries could be problematic if they sponsor our enemies, but I’m not certain that’s what is going on.

I would agree that by ending dependence on Middle Eastern oil, we may be less likely to be drawn into conflict. However, this makes me think, “Wow, I sort of wish Rwanda had oil…” Our lack of dependence on some countries has allowed us to overlook mass atrocities and human rights violations.

Do we really want to become less embedded and dependent upon one another as countries? This seems to go against the grain of the fact of globalization. I realize that oil has perverted our foreign policy, but I don’t think we need to be less dependent on oil to change our foreign policy in the Middle East. We could just be smarter in the way we engage oil-producing countries…

Also, I think that even if we were energy independent from the Middle East, we would still need to protect Israel and now perhaps Iraq. These are facts of American domestic and foreign policy for the indefinite future, and thus I don’t see oil independence causing American disinterest in the region.

I don’t think that engaging less with the region will help our situation or theirs; we need to engage differently, not necessarily less.

ac said...

I find it troubling that popular media fails to point out that we, the US, contributed to the organization of extremist Muslims throughout the world for our own interests in the Soviet-Afghan war.

To respond to Ron's point -- Middle East money might be funding terrorist operations now, but it's been asserted by political theorists that had the US not worked to organize the extremist Jihad movement, we might not be experiencing what we are today in terms of global (in)security.

Just a thought.

Nathaniel said...

- comparative advantage, why not buy over seas?
- need to protect ourselves from foreign politically motivated pricing. For example, during 73 Israel-Egypt war we were really constrained at the time and hurt economically for the next decade because of it
- Russia: if we reduce energy demands on M.E. Russia will try to price them out of many markets and this will cause lots of violence
- ability to use our trading positions as leverage for security concerns? Yes, an economic stake, especially if not just a demand source but also capital investment, gives us reason to work for internal security against terrorism without looking like zealots.

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