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View from America: 'Alternatives' to logic won't work

Conflicting impulses complicate the push for energy independence and less foreign oil.

tobin 88 (photo credit:)
tobin 88
(photo credit: )
American politicians are not dumb. They know that most people don't like paying $60 to fill up a gas tank that could have been topped off for about $15 a decade ago. With the cost of gas at the pump over $4 and heading north, they know that Americans want somebody to blame. And so, in recent weeks, we have been treated to congressional hearings in which the ever-unpopular oil company executives, and the more obscure, but equally villainous "oil speculators," were pilloried. Having pontificated at the expense of these supposed malefactors, Congress then adjourned for the Fourth of July holiday without doing anything other than demonstrating the shaky hold many of its members have of the basic principles of economics. Yet for all of the bloviating that was - and will be - done about the cost of oil, this is actually an issue that could use more, and not less, discussion. That is especially true considering that we are in the middle of an election year in which the discussion of the war in Iraq and the threat from Iran, as well as the current economic slowdown, will dominate the discussion. The point is, no matter what the candidates say about the war, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's nuclear ambitions or even the price of food, unless you know what they will or won't do to reduce America's reliance on foreign oil sources, you're throwing your vote away. THAT IS especially true for an American Jewish community that ought to be treating this topic as a truer litmus test of the presidential contenders than rhetoric about Israel, or pandering to our fears about the separation of church and state. To their credit, energy independence is something national Jewish groups have paid attention to in recent years. The Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Congress have all spoken out consistently in favor of measures to promote this cause. But this year, the stakes involved are even higher. And nothing demonstrates the complex nexus between energy and international security better than the question of what to do about Iran. Teheran's determination to move ahead with its nuclear program is a threat the West ignores at its own peril. That's not only because Iran remains committed to destroying Israel. Letting Ahmadinejad and his mullah masters go nuclear raises the specter of another Holocaust. Iran is also the No. 1 state sponsor of terror, and its proxies/allies in Lebanon (Hizbullah) and Gaza (Hamas) have the ability to keep the region inflamed. An Iranian nuclear umbrella for these criminals would be a direct threat to Europe, as well as to every country in the Middle East. In addition to the appeasement reflex that drives the reluctance of many to take direct action to stop this from happening, the increasing dependence of the West on Middle Eastern oil potentially gives Iran the ability to squeeze the supply and raise prices even higher. Indeed, with speculation growing that Israel may attempt to spike the Iranian nuclear program itself, pressure may be placed on the Jewish state to forswear preemptive action, lest the US economy be sent into a tailspin by an Iranian economic retaliation that could cripple production and the supply of petroleum. IRAN ISN'T the only reason why energy independence is important. The enormous financial power of Saudi Arabia - a supposedly "moderate" American ally - is no less dangerous. The Saudis have already spawned terrorists like those of al-Qaida. Just as troubling is their massive campaign funding Islamist mosques and educational institutions around the globe, as well as their infiltration of US college campuses via donations that create institutes supporting their distorted view of the world. In Europe, rising oil prices have funded the revival of Russian authoritarianism by former President Vladimir Putin and his hand-picked successor. In the Western hemisphere, oil bankrolls Venezuela's rogue leader Hugo Chavez, whose support for narco-terrorists like the Columbian FARC (some of whose hostages were rescued last week) and alliances with Islamists is potentially just as dangerous. In short, Western addiction to foreign oil is, along with Islamism, the chief long-term threat to American security. So why hasn't this issue provoked more than an occasional sound-byte? THE ANSWER isn't just the oil companies, though they are far from blameless since they have sought to undermine the very notion of energy independence. Ironically, one of the primary obstacles to tangible progress is an issue that ought to go hand-in-hand with support for alternatives to foreign energy: environmentalism. Going "green" ought to promote energy independence. But the same environmentalist frame of reference that impels Americans to want to do that have also undermined support for measures that could loosen the hold of the oil oligarchs on US economy and foreign policy. Though finding more oil on American territory does not provide a long-term solution to the oil problem, drilling in the vast untapped areas off America's shores, as well as in the tiny part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge that could be set aside for exploration, is a sensible way of increasing supply. But it won't happen because of overheated rhetoric that exaggerates the dangers to wildlife. Similarly, nuclear power, an energy resource that is being used safely and effectively elsewhere in the West, is virtually dead in the US because of the Three Mile Island accident and subsequent hysteria. The high cost of building nuclear plants may be a greater negative than anything else, but this is another example of the lack of clear thinking about an underutilized technology. INCREASED SUPPORT for the development of other technologies like electric cars, and the use of solar and wind power is vital. Unfortunately, the only alternative that has gotten any real help is ethanol, a costly boondoggle that has been a bonanza for farmers while increasing food costs and doing little for independence. For too long, talk about energy independence has been mired in empty recommendations about lowering thermostats in the winter and using less air-conditioning in the summer, reminiscent of the sweater-wearing Jimmy Carter's "malaise" speech during a previous oil crisis. In the same way, the Luddite sensibilities of extreme environmentalists who seem drawn to the dangerous notion that our economy must regress to purify the planet are also no solution. What we need isn't less energy, but energy that doesn't fund terrorism. What America requires this year are direct answers from the candidates to the questions of how to increase the supply of oil and fund realistic alternatives. But to get that, we must resolve some of the inherent contradictions in our thinking about energy. Until we do, all we'll get is more of the sort of empty grandstanding that US politicians perform all too well. The writer is executive editor of the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia jtobin@jewishexponent.com