US Affairs: Exhaust-pipe dreams

Most observers don't really believe the US could ever be totally self-sufficient regarding oil resources.

Hillary Clinton 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
Hillary Clinton 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
Republicans and Democrats, more accustomed to trading barbs than notes, seem to be taking a page out of the same playbook when it comes to what is fast emerging as a top issue in the 2008 presidential campaign: energy independence. The notion that America must "wean itself off" foreign oil, particularly Middle Eastern oil, has become a standard applause line among top tier candidates of both parties. When Arizona Sen. John McCain, a leading Republican contender, gave three major policy speeches in the days before he announced his candidacy for president, one was devoted to energy. The only two issues highlighted on the campaign Web site of New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, trying to distinguish himself in the Democratic pack, are the Iraq war and energy. Think tanks are holding candidate debates exclusively on energy issues; polls show Americans increasingly prioritizing energy independence when they consider the candidates and issues. But few of the candidates have put their SUVs where their mouths are. They haven't acknowledged that "independence" might be a pipe dream and that tough steps - i.e. raising taxes - are needed to have the limited effect that is actually possible. Which suggests little will change in US policy toward Middle East oil. Or Saudi Arabia. "The top tier candidates are all taking about it [energy] because they know it is a big issue," said Norman Ornstein, an expert on US politics with the American Enterprise Institute. In comparison to previous presidential campaigns, "I see much more talk about it. It's obviously tapping into a sensibility now, and it's not just about gas rates. It's because post-9/11 people realize how important this issue is [in relation to] our enemies." High oil prices, he explained, mean more money in the coffers of unsavory US foes like Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who gives generously to terrorist groups like Hizbullah and Hamas. In addition to the national security connection and increased concern about global warming, environmentalist Angela Anderson points to another reason for the focus: money. "Americans across the board have seen gas prices go up and heating prices go up, and that always gets attention," said the vice president of climate programs for the National Environmental Trust. She said that while energy came up as a campaign issue in 2004, it has elicited far greater concern now. "They didn't focus as much on the details. They didn't have a plan. Now they feel obligated to have a plan," she noted. "That makes a true difference." BUT MAYBE not too much of one. For starters, the concept of energy independence is something of a misnomer, because most observers don't seriously believe that the US, with its tremendous energy demands, could ever be totally self-sufficient when it comes to oil resources. And the forces the decide where that foreign oil comes from are mostly market ones, not something the US could easily curtail. At the very least, if the US government were to bar Americans from making foreign oil purchases, it would spark a major trade war. "It's complete nonsense," said Simon Henderson, director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Program for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "It would work if it were the Soviet Union." For similar reasons, the White House wouldn't be able to prohibit American oil businesses from selling abroad. "It's a world market, not an American market," said Ornstein. So if the US government couldn't end interdependence with foreign - and with it, Middle Eastern - oil interests, it could lessen American engagement by reducing the demand for consumption from abroad. Anderson said the campaigns are mostly focusing on three areas: increasing the use of alternative fuels, limiting industry's carbon emissions and improving automobile fuel efficiency. She noted that these have been the focus of legislative efforts that are currently wending their way through Congress, as sitting officials have also found the energy issue unavoidable in the current political climate. "You need to get those three framework pieces in place," she said. "Those three alone would be a tremendous start." But Henderson says that many of the proposals, which also include, at least on the Republican side, expanded drilling in American territory such as Alaska, would only make a difference "at the margins." One of the details virtually absent in the candidates' plans is the one thing Henderson argued was most important for a real change: a gas tax. "You can appeal to people's goodwill or green habits, but it's not going to work" without taxes, he said. Ornstein concurred. "Every campaign talks about energy independence and weaning ourselves off of foreign oil, especially Middle Eastern oil," he said. "What most campaigns are not talking about is a gasoline tax significant enough to have an impact, because no one wants to take about raising taxes." IF AMERICAN oil policy isn't likely to be significantly revised under the next administration, the grandiose statements about freeing American foreign policy from the clutches of Middle East oil suppliers is unlikely to happen either. As such, the delicate relationship with Saudi Arabia will remain crucial. "Any incoming president is already mindful of the need to have a close relationship with Saudi Arabia," Henderson said. "The world still needs its oil and the United States still needs its support in fighting terrorism. The Saudis could be less helpful to the US in terms of regional and world diplomacy. I know it's easy to say they aren't being very helpful at the moment, but they could be even less helpful. At the [present], they think they are being helpful." Some change in Washington-Riyadh relations is to be expected, given the long, personal relationship the Bush family has had with the house of Saud, something that no newcomer could quite replicate. But then again, Henderson noted, the Bush White House might not be the only leadership in its final days. King Abdullah and Crown Prince Sultan are in their 80s. "Not only are we looking at a new president, but frankly, it's quite possible that we're looking at a new king." And that, at least, might make changes in US policy toward the oil interests in the Middle East more than just a drop in the barrel.