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"Setting America Free?"

Oil and Political Opportunism

by TOM BARRY

Divergent political camps have found common ground in support of "energy security" and "energy independence." As high gas prices and intensifying conflicts in the Middle East focus attention on U.S. dependence on petroleum imports, progressives and conservatives are organizing to reshape U.S. policy based on their own views about what the terms "energy security" and "energy independence" mean.

Although it’s the 21st century’s high prices at the pump and terrorism-related security concerns that have propelled energy security and energy independence as policy goals, this terminology is nothing new: The energy crisis of the late 1970s prompted similar debate.

At the start of his presidency, George W. Bush directed an energy task force, led by Vice President Dick Cheney, to develop a new national energy policy. In its May 2001 report, the National Energy Policy Development Group framed its policy recommendations as a matter of ensuring energy security and reducing energy dependence.

While Cheney’s energy task force recommended increased domestic energy production in order to decrease dependence on imported oil, its main thrust was to call for a foreign and military policy in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East that would secure continued U.S. access to foreign energy sources. In his 2002 book Resource Wars, Michael Klare reported: "One-third of the recommendations in the report are for ways to obtain access to petroleum sources abroad."

In marked contrast to the Cheney report, a new flurry of initiatives by citizen groups and politicians advocate breaking all reliance on foreign energy sources, particularly oil from Mideast countries. They argue that U.S. energy security will come not by looking outward but by looking inward to our own potential for producing, altering, and conserving homeland energy. Whether progressive or conservative, the energy reform initiatives have a populist and a nationalist cast, lambasting giant U.S. oil companies and the Mideast regimes while promoting a new "America First" ethic of self-reliance and energy isolationism.

On the progressive side, the most prominent "energy independence" initiative comes from the Apollo Alliance-a coalition of labor unions, environmental organizations, policy institutes, and businesses-which advocates a comprehensive economic policy that promises to generate 3 million "good jobs" through "clean energy" development. The alliance, which came together in 2003 with support from a large array of left-center foundations (and in anticipation of a Democratic White House after the 2004 elections) calls for a $300 billion public-private program that will "free America from foreign oil dependence in 10 years."

A centerpiece of energy independence for many progressives is increased government support for biofuels-especially for the ethanol industry, based largely in America’s agricultural heartland. In a speech titled "Energy Security is National Security" that he delivered to the Governors’ Ethanol Coalition earlier this year, Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) argued that achieving energy independence should be central to the war on terrorism. He stressed the importance of biofuels like ethanol in the fight to ensure that "oil can never be used as a weapon against us." The Center for American Progress, a think tank close to the Democratic Party, also jumped on the energy security bandwagon this year, releasing its "Energy Security in the 21st Century" report in late July.

Liberals and progressives have long warned against the environmental and economic dangers of fossil fuel dependence. Unlike conservatives, the left-center has also been more apt to define national security in broad terms, asserting that security is about more than military policy and championing what they term "human security," a broad-based concept that takes into account issues of poverty and development. What’s new are recent efforts to link environmentalism, job creation, and economic policy so closely to real or perceived national security threats-in this case the war on terrorism and the related surge of anti-Americanism in the Middle East.

National security hardliners are also attempting to put their own spin on the concepts of energy security and independence. The neoconservative Center for Security Policy (CSP), headed by Frank Gaffney, working closely with the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security (IAGS), is cosponsoring the "Set America Free" coalition, which brings neoconservatives together with liberal groups like the Apollo Alliance and the Natural Resources Defense Council. The coalition’s slogan: "Cut dependence on foreign oil. Secure America."

In addition to Gaffney, other prominent neoconservatives and conservatives in the Set America Free coalition include Gary Bauer of American Values, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), former national security adviser Robert McFarlane, Clifford May of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), Thomas Neumann of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), Daniel Pipes of the Middle East Forum, James Woolsey of the Committee on the Present Danger, and Meyrav Wurmser of the Hudson Institute. Among the advisors to IAGS are Woolsey, McFarlane, and Eliot Cohen.

In its "open letter to the American people," the coalition calls for breaking U.S. dependence on Mideast oil, asserting that "at the strategic level it is dangerous to be buying billions [worth] of oil from nations that are sponsors of or allied with radical Islamists." In ending oil imports from the Middle East, America would "deny adversaries the wherewithal they use to harm us."

By adapting their political agenda to include a focus on energy security, the national security hardliners at CSP, IAGS, and other affiliated groups such as the fervently pro-Israel FDD and JINSA have made common cause with appropriate-technology groups, environmental firms, and nongovernmental organizations-at the very time when public disenchantment with U.S. Mideast policy is deepening. The Set America Free coalition also includes representatives from outfits such as the Coalition Advocating Smart Transportation, the California Cars Initiative, and the American Council on Renewable Energy-groups not normally associated with militarist organizations like CSP and JINSA.

Underlying the right’s energy security initiatives is a strong criticism of the major oil companies for having made common cause with oil-rich Middle Eastern dictatorships-and by extension with Islamic terrorists and their supporters. The Terror-Free Energy Coalition, for example, is dedicated to encouraging Americans to buy gasoline that originates from countries that do not export or finance terrorism. The group says it educates the public "by promoting those companies that acquire their crude oil supply from nations outside the Middle East and by exposing those companies that do not."

The organizers of the Terror-Free Energy Coalition are mostly analysts or business executives professionally involved in terrorism and intelligence issues. Three of the twelve men listed as the coalition’s endorsers are principals in the Intelligence Summit, a pro-Israel intelligence forum, while another endorser is Joe Kauffman, chairman of another pro-Israel group called Americans Against Hate. Coalition members also include representatives from a new breed of private intelligence firms that provide threat-analysis information and services to the government and corporations, including Phoenix Global Intelligence Systems, WorldThreats.com, and WVC3 Group. Another coalition endorser is the terrorism analyst for the Christian Broadcast Network.

For many on the right, the energy crisis is seen as a new opportunity to practice politics as usual. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-TX), one of the most ardent supporters of Bush and Cheney, helped lead the congressional effort to approve all aspects of the Cheney energy policy, including drilling in the Artic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). In her "Energy Security" speech on the Senate floor on April 9, 2002, Hutchinson praised the administration’s bill for opening up new lands and waters to energy exploration, reduced environmental safeguards, and new support for nuclear power plants, declaring: "We are in a war, and when we are in a war, it means we must make sure our underlying strength is everything we can make it. Part of our underlying strength is a ready supply of energy."

Climate change, prices at the pump, blackouts, and threats of oil producers to withhold supplies are among the signs of a brewing energy crisis. But fear and political opportunism cannot be the engines of a sustainable energy policy for our future.

In an increasingly interdependent world, politicking about energy independence and security-especially when explicitly linked to misbegotten foreign and military policies-may not set America free but rather set the stage for dangerous outbursts of nationalism and xenophobia that further isolate the country.

One of the proponents of the Set America Free camp is leading congressional hawk, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-CT). "It is time to set America free," says Lieberman, "Cutting our dependence on oil will strengthen our security, preserve our independence, and energize our economy We must diversify the fuels that power our nation, or risk ceding our nation’s power to rulers separated from us by a world in geography and by centuries in values."

TOM BARRY is policy director of the International Relations Center.