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Bomb Iran and Keep Your Government Hands Off My Gas Prices

February 26, 2012

Republicans portray President Obama as an appeaser who is weak in defending America.  That portrayal defies some pretty important facts, not least the killing of Osama bin Laden.  But the argument works for the Republican base, the wingnuts who don’t believe that our President is a loyal American.

Three of the four remaining Republican presidential candidates – all but Ron Paul – have been hacking away at Obama for being insufficiently eager to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities.  This notion also defies some pretty important facts, not least the fact that our own intelligence analysts find no “hard evidence” that Iran has decided to build nuclear bombs.  Of course our intelligence analysts have been wrong about the bomb-building intentions of Middle Eastern dictators before – but their error has been to see bombs where they’re not, rather than not to see bombs where they are.

Similarly, as I recently blogged, some leading Republicans want to arm Syrian rebels.  Current mainstream Republicans are not big on nuance or complexity, and their willingness to stoke a Syrian civil war neglects the complication that a war in Syria could easily become a regional proxy war.  Iran is heavily invested in Syria, and would hardly stand down while Western arms flow to anti-Assad rebels.  Iran and its clients in Lebanon and Hezbollah would intervene.  The Sunni-Shiite divide in Syria is as deep as anywhere, so Iranian intervention would invite a range of Sunni intervention – from relatively benign Saudi-Turkish involvement to considerably less benign al Qaeda involvement.

Fortunately, President Obama is at his best when it comes to nuance and complexity.  His administration has evolved a highly case-specific but intensively fact-driven approach to military interventions that people are starting to refer to as the Obama Doctrine.  Not all foreign interventions are equal.  Obama acts as if he remembers that when the Reagan Administration armed the anti-Soviet rebels in Afghanistan, they handed bin Laden some pretty sophisticated weaponry and taught him how to use it.  When bin Laden was done using our weaponry on the Soviets, he just turned around and started using it on us.  Good move, Mr. Reagan.  Thanks a bunch.

GOP warmongering is bad enough all by itself.  But here’s the icing on the warmongers’ cake:  while the Republicans are pushing to bomb Iran and set fire to Syria, they are also whaling on President Obama about gas prices.  Again Republican mainstream thinking shows its disinterest in complexity – and here the definition of “complexity” sets the bar pretty low.

We need more oil, so Republicans are all, “drill, baby, drill.”  Environmentalists be damned, we don’t give a frack.  Republicans have ideology; they don’t need answers.

And again, by contrast, President Obama shows his facility with nuance, his comfort with complexity.  Oil drilling projects are not all equal – some drilling poses unacceptable risks of oil spills, for instance.  Is it asking too much to expect our leaders to remember the Deepwater Horizon disaster?  It wasn’t even two years ago.  The Obama Administration looks at drilling not ideologically, but in a highly case-specific, intensively fact-driven manner.  There are many considerations that determine whether a particular oil project is good or bad, and President Obama has no problem taking all of them into account.

And while we’ve all been distracted by the drill babies, President Obama’s “all of the above” strategy has been inching us forward.  We turned around a couple of weeks ago to discover, to our own surprise, that the United States is closer to energy independence now than at any time in the last 20 years.  Domestic sources now provide 81 percent of American energy needs, up from a low of 70 percent during the George W. Bush administration.  American oil production increased to 5.9 million barrels a day at the end of 2011, and is expected to reach 7 million in the next three years – the highest level in 20 years.  The United States is close to becoming a net exporter of refined oil products for the first time since 1949.  Natural gas production is up so much that prices have dropped 80 percent since 2008 and we will become a net exporter of natural gas in the next ten years.  Overall, the United States is on a path to overtake Russia as the world’s largest energy producer by 2020.

We will then see with 2020 hindsight that Obama’s nuanced and complex approach to energy production was right.  Reduced energy importation decreases our trade deficit and strengthens the dollar.  Increased domestic production creates jobs and boosts the economy.  All good, but there is one problem:  decreased energy importation reduces the pressure to develop alternative, clean energy sources like solar, wind and geothermal, and reduces the competitiveness of energy from those sources.

Now this is no big deal to President Obama.  The long-term answer for the country, and for the world, is and has to be the gradual but steady replacement of fossil fuel energy with environmentally sustainable energy.  So if government policy succeeds in increasing the supply of fossil fuel-based energy, and that success reduces the market incentives for the development of renewable energy sources, then government policy has to create its own incentives.

To the current Republican mainstream, this is socialism, or Europeanism, or some other epithet.  Here is an example of business interests that traditionally lean heavily Republican splitting off from other Republicans.  Bloomberg News, for instance, recently editorialized in favor of renewed federal commitment to clean energy:  “fixing the roof is best done when the sun is shining,” says Bloomberg.  (I’m guessing that is especially true when fixing the roof involves installing solar panels.)

Bloomberg editors, unlike mainstream Republicans, are worried about global warming.  Bloomberg editors, unlike mainstream Republicans, are comfortable with the fact that federal subsidies for clean energy start-ups will occasionally result in Solyndra-like failures.

Meanwhile, people who want to bomb Iran or arm Syrian rebels ought to have the intellectual integrity to shut up about gas prices.  And people who beef about gas prices ought to shut up about Syria and Iran.

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