Wednesday, October 04, 2006

GREEN is the new RED, WHITE & BLUE – the 2006 Tom Friedman/Dennis Ross report.

For the last two years, I've enjoyed a new Yom Kippur tradition in the Washington, D.C. area: New York Times columnist/author Tom Friedman, and former Mideast negotiator Amb. Dennis Ross [Bush 41 and Clinton], talk about and answer questions on the Mideast and the world. These two men make their living thinking about the most serious challenges facing America, because they have keen insight into current events. Because they are two of the most serious thinkers on foreign policy in this country today, I thought I’d provide a unique report on their informal seminar.

For Dennis Ross, the situation foremost on his mind seemed to be the Iran crisis. Friedman isn’t too far from that perspective, though he looks more broadly at how our reliance on fossil fuels, in combination with the price of oil is threatening Western civilization, and not only because of global warming. For Friedman, an issue has to be named to be effectively owned. He proposes that concerned progressives need to do a better job of selling an eco-friendly agenda. Friedman says we should be trumpeting the notion that “Green is the new Red, White & Blue.”

Both men understand that energy is the source of all evil. They see no greater threat to our national security than our dependence on foreign oil, which grotesquely distorts our policies, and subjects us to the whims of petty dictators. Friedman is focused on global warming, which he says will be far worse than Al Gore is predicting, when third world nations start requiring the supplies of energy that the Westerners seem to believe is their birthright. Ross is deeply troubled by the Iranian’s conduct in flouting the requirements of the International Atomic Energy Association and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. He has no doubt that Iranian hard-liners are pursuing a nuclear bomb.

The Iranian nuclear program presents two problems. It scares the shit out of Israel, and it scares the shit out of the more moderate, Sunni Arab states. The Arab states have lived with Israel’s nuclear arsenal, and they have not made a big stink, because, as Ross said (maybe it was Friedman) they know that the Jews in Israel aren’t going to use the nukes. They are not nearly so confident in the good behavior of the fundamentalist Shiite crackpots in charge in Iran (Ross didn’t call them crackpots – that’s my term).

Friedman and Ross agree that if Iran gets the bomb, Saudi Arabia will follow – indeed, they may already have an arrangement in place with Pakistan. After the Saudis go nuclear, Egypt would follow. Anyone who thinks this would be a stable situation has more than a few screws loose. Similarly, Ross believes that if North Korea really goes nuclear, then Japan may counter with its own program. Taiwan may also go after nuclear power status. Even the South Koreans may feel they need to counter the North’s capability. This isn’t a scenario that the Chinese powers-that-be would like – the question is can they be persuaded that it is in their own interests to be much more forceful towards North Korea.

Likewise, it would be in everyone’s interest to pressure Iran to abandon its grandiose nuclear ambitions. The Iranians have been offered civilian light-water reactors. They have refused them. Either Iran wants a bomb, or the hard-liners are following Saddam’s strategy in letting everyone believe they are pursuing nuclear weapons. Ross has no doubt they are pursuing a real nuclear weapons capability. It would be in everyone’s interest to prevent realization of that goal, except for one thing: the world-wide thirst for oil.

Iran’s Supreme Leader has said the West would not be willing to suffer through $140 price level for a barrel of oil, so he believes that the West is not serious about sanctions. So long as Iran pays no price for its nuclear program, it has no reason to stop. He knows China is not interested in such a development, and neither are the Europeans. Although Ross did not make this point, it may be that the Russians might actually relish another energy price spike, so they have an entirely different incentive to resist U.N. Security Council sanctions on Iran. To stop Iran, the country’s leaders must be clear there will be a price for thumbing their nose at the international system, but they know that an oil embargo would not only hurt Iran – and they believe the price is not one the West is prepared to bear.

Ross, though, sees an opportunity with the end of the war in Lebanon and the new unease and insecurity in Israel over Iran. Israelis don’t really fear Hezbollah’s currently, so much as they fear a Hezbollah re-armed with much more lethal payloads supplied by Iran. If the Bush Administration were capable of effective statecraft, they could use the new Israeli insecurity to convince the Chinese that the consequences of sanctions on Iran would be a lot more palatable than the consequences of an Israeli attack on Iran.

Friedman looks at the situation differently. He sees Iran as a really bad actor with oil at $50-$70 a barrel, but that Iran would not be this potent malefactor with oil at $30 a barrel. The Iranian economy survives on subsidies that are maintainable only with the high price of oil. The goal of American foreign policy, according to Friedman, should be a $30 price for a barrel of oil. Similarly, we would find Venezuela and Russia to be much more cooperative internationally – and probably much more democratic at home. There is an inescapable correlation between the global price of oil and the authoritarian behavior of regimes in oil-rich countries like Russia, Nigeria, Venezuela and Iran.

As precarious as the global climate situation is right now, we are about to go over a cliff, when the third world modernizes. The U.S. cannot deny these countries the benefits of technology, nor the energy they will need to fuel their technological revolutions. China and India will “go green.” Says Friedman, because they have no choice. They are choking to death. The green economy is the future, and the only question, for Friedman, is to what extent they U.S. will participate in that green energy future.

Good domestic economic policy would foster the technological innovations that will be needed to power the future. Right now, the American auto industry is going right over the cliff because they continue to sell S.U.V.s that will be too expensive for Americans to drive, in the long run. Innovation needs to be forced upon this industry through serious mileage and emissions standards. Similarly, other industries need to be encouraged, by carrot or stick, to drive innovation in the green economy of the future. Otherwise, the U.S. will be left behind, as other countries develop those technologies and market them globally.

Republicans have controlled the ‘green’ narrative – they have sold Americans on the idea that environmentalism is too costly – that it will wipe out jobs – lots of jobs. In right-wing propaganda, environmentalism is the practice of fringe extremists, who are surely unmanly, unpatriotic, anti-American, and “vaguely French.” To combat this narrative, the progressives need a new narrative. They need to convince Americans that “green” policies are the height of patriotism. We need to convey the message that this can be the start of a new industrial revolution in this country (my words) and that “green” policy is a national security imperative.

If we can free ourselves of this addiction to oil, then we could start to improve the situation in the Middle East. No longer would we treat the Middle East potentates as gas station owners – not caring what they do out back so long as they kept the pumps flowing, the price relatively low, and didn’t hassle Israel too much. Right now, we are suffering the consequences of allowing these regimes to do whatever they’d like “out back.” By weeding the world from oil, we will strip the economic engine that drives the corrupt, authoritarian regimes in almost all oil-rich states – and these countries will have to deal with their rapidly-exploding populations with greater fairness.

Worst of all, in the current situation, we are funding both sides in the war on terror. We pay for the American defense budget with our taxes (the bill for Iraq alone has already reached the yearly funding levels we would have without the war), and we fund the other side with our oil consumption. Our national security requires that we stop this mad cycle.

Friedman makes an interesting argument that won’t go over well with Democrats – that oilman Bush is uniquely positioned to do something about our oil addiction. As only Nixon could go to China, Friedman believes that Bush can push policy in a direction that Democrats want, but cannot not accomplish on thier own. Unfortunately, after decrying our oil addiction, Bush has done nothing to affect it. This is like Nixon going to New Mexico instead of China. It might be in the right direction, but it isn’t accomplishing anything, because he hasn’t gone nearly far enough.

I’m not sure I fully buy into that argument, though I believe that most Democrats would find too much political resistance if they tried to force the needed changes. There is one Democrat I think that has the gravitas, and who would have the mandate to do so – Obviously, I mean Al Gore. So, here it is Al – Green is the new Red White & Blue – not just because we need to take drastic action before the world burns itself up – but because the national security and foreign policy situations require a huge change in energy policy.

Besides touching off a global climate crisis, our oil-based economy has sparked a national security emergency. We need to rapidly develop alternatives to fossil fuels and we need a policy that can help drive the needed change. When we stop demanding oil, the price will drop. Suddenly, a lot of our foreign policy problems will seem a lot more manageable. Without our billions funding the terror groups, the war on terror will start to look more like the one-sided affair the Bush Administration promised. And we jsut might save the world, while we're at it.

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