It Fuels a Debate, Too

Kerry's "Energy Independence" is No More Than Romantic Isolationism. Originally published at The Wall Street Journal

William Tucker is a Senior Fellow of Discovery Institute

If there is a true difference of opinion in the current presidential race, it is over whether we can achieve independence from foreign oil, especially Persian Gulf oil. “I want an America that relies on its own ingenuity and innovation — not the Saudi royal family.” So said John Kerry at the Democratic Convention. Such claims are now a staple of his campaign. Meanwhile, President Bush is stuck with Michael Moore’s portrayal of him as a Saudi appeaser who cuddles up to the royal family, thereby (supposedly) endangering America by weakening its fight against Saudi-funded terrorism.

The truth, of course, is far more complex, and so is the falsehood. Three new books get at both in different ways.

Matthew Yeomans’s “Oil: Anatomy of an Industry” is a good place to start. Mr. Yeomans, who has written for Wired, the New York Times and the Village Voice, appears to have no particular expertise in the subject of energy or oil. His research method is to read back issues of The New Yorker and other periodicals and then call environmental groups to ask what’s going on.

His summary judgment: America is guilty. We consume too much oil, despoil the planet, prop up autocratic governments and send troops all over the world to protect our gluttony. “In the eyes of a nation that has always had a suspicion of the outside world and which now realizes its vulnerability to a foreign attack, the SUV offers a sense of security.” The answer, he believes, is for us to switch to alternative fuels, adopt a hydrogen economy (he gives no sense of where this hydrogen might come from) and withdraw from the world.

Michael Klare’s “Blood and Oil” is far better researched but tells the same story. Mr. Klare, a professor of peace and world security at Hampshire College, recounts with weary monotony America’s search for new sources of oil since the beginning of World War II. The highlight occurred in 1943, when President Roosevelt made a side trip during the Tehran Conference to pay homage to an Arabian satrap named King Ibn Saud. Observers were surprised at the time, yet history made the cause plain. American oil companies had just discovered that Saudi Arabia was sitting atop the world’s largest reservoir of oil — still 25% of the world’s known reserves.

Early on, American presidents made friends with the Saudis, promising to keep their oil out of the hands of the Nazis and then the communists. Except for one brief moment in 1973, when conflict over Israel drove the Saudis and the U.S. apart, it has been a fairly harmonious relationship, each side benefiting from the other.

Still, Mr. Klare asserts, oil dependence leaves us vulnerable. Seeking to diversify, we are knee-deep in the Caspian Basin building pipelines and military bases. In the meantime, we must rely on Venezuela (7% of the world’s reserves), which is unstable, Nigeria (2%), which is unpredictable, and Russia (7%), which is a mess.

So what is the solution? Mr. Klare opts for withdrawal, too, through “energy autonomy and integrity.” This doesn’t mean drilling for oil in Alaska or anything like that. It means “reducing our reliance on imported oil” and “preparing the way for the inevitable transition to a postpetroleum economy.”

That postpetroleum economy is mostly wind and sunshine. Mr. Klare asserts that hydrogen “probably holds the most promise for replacing oil with an abundant, affordable, and nonpolluting source of energy,” but this is ridiculous. Like electricity, hydrogen is not a source of energy. It is only a means of transmitting energy from other sources into a useful form. There is no free hydrogen sitting around the world waiting to be exploited.

So it is encouraging to turn to Steve A. Yetiv’s “Crude Awakenings,” a book that is as smart, practical and convincing as the other two are utopian. Mr. Yetiv, a professor of political science at Old Dominion, argues that while trade and “dependency” may put nations into conflict, it also pulls them together. China, for example, may be gutting America’s old manufacturing economy, but its industrial revolution has made it dependent on us for markets. Russia has become much more cooperative since joining the trading world. Saudi Arabia may be able to manipulate oil prices, but it needs to sell oil as much as we need to buy it. (Thus an Arab oil embargo like the one in 1973, which hurt the Saudis as much as us, is unlikely to happen again.)

In such a world, oil dependency is not a form of original sin. It is simply a measure of interdependence. We must deal with the owners of energy just as people in cities must rely on farmers for food. Viewed from this perspective, America’s situation in the Mideast is much improved. In 1980, Iraq and Iran were the giants chafing to assert their hegemony. The U.S. had virtually no means of projecting power into the region, as the Iranian hostage crisis illustrated.

By 2000, Iraq and Iran had exhausted themselves in war and revolutionary fervor. Meanwhile, the Saudis and the Gulf states had emerged both more strong and more stable. The invasion of Iraq may not have been strictly necessary, but the alternative — allowing the Baath regime to continue to putrefy — was worse. Iran’s nuclear ambitions remain unresolved, however, a subject that Mr. Yetiv probably underestimates.

In an interdependent world, Mr. Yetiv notes, it is impossible for the U.S. to withdraw. In fact, the real “nightmare scenario” would be if “modest acts of terrorism were to drive the United States from the Gulf or to scale back its presence.” The power vacuum would be far more dangerous to us and everyone else than our current level of engagement.

Mr. Kerry’s “energy independence,” in short, is a strain of the romantic isolationism that Charles Lindbergh expressed in 1941 when he urged America to stay out of Europe. The way to solve the world’s problems is to keep plowing through them — or drilling down into them. Thoughts of a utopia of windmills and sunshine are useless, even if such a thing were possible, which it isn’t.

Mr. Tucker is author of “Progress and Privilege: America in the Age of Environmentalism,” among other books.