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Finally, Wisdom in Washington On Our Oil Future

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During this holiday season, I bring you tidings of great joy: Finally, an organization in Washington comprised of Americans of standing and competence that is speaking the truth about our precarious supply of oil and what we should do to meet proliferating threats around the world. The only real and lasting solution to energy security, these wise men proclaim, is to change consumption patterns here at home.

While Dick Cheney scurries off to Saudi Arabia to pay homage to the king (see "Vice President Cheney Visits Saudiland and is Taken Over a Barrel" 11/29/06), and Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal threatens retaliation if the United States doesn't toe the Saudi line in Iraq ("Saudi Realpolitik: Political Blackmail, Oil Price Extortion" 12/17/06), retired Air Force General Charles F. Wald member of the Energy Security Leadership Council of SAFE (Securing America's Energy Future) has returned to Washington with a mission, broadcasting his organization's warning that there's no way America can live up to its promises under the Carter Doctrine -- even if we had the troop strength, which we don't. The 1980 Carter Doctrine outlined our intention to secure Persian Gulf oil from a belligerent and communist Soviet Union -- protecting our own interests, of course, but also those of other oil consumers around the world. Ronald Reagan followed up by creating a U.S. military presence in the Gulf and sending the Navy in to ride shotgun for Kuwaiti tankers during the Iran-Iraq war. We are still riding shotgun at the cost of some $80 million a day and only today the United States and Great Britain announced beefing up their Persian Gulf presence as a signal to Iran. (Wouldn't it be nice to know if the oil rich nations of Bahrain, Dubai, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia are paying part of the costs that the American, British and other allied taxpayers are shouldering in their defense.)

Wald now finds the Carter Doctrine is obsolete, and thinks the Pentagon needs to devise a more centralized plan for energy security that incorporates all military branches. He is hopeful that new Secretary of Defense Robert Gates will give the issue more attention than Donald Rumsfeld did. But even so, Wald is convinced -- and I share this concern though he knows far better I do-- that no combination of guns and diplomacy can secure the global fuel supply. The threats are simply too diverse, and the will of everyone involved too weak, to keep the danger constantly at bay.

Wald, a veteran of Vietnam, the Balkans, and Afghanistan, spent his final tour of duty as the deputy chief of the U.S. European Command, which also oversees Africa and parts of Central Asia. It's a massive territory that straddles potentially enormous supplies of petroleum, and it didn't take the general long, as Wall Street Journal reporter Chip Cummins wrote this week, to recognize the vulnerabilities for the oil-rich Caspian Sea and West Africa, two of his areas of responsibility. The latter is a rebel-infested area plagued by crime and poverty, while the Caspian region lives in the shadow of an increasingly provocative Russian government not shy about energy saber-rattling. And in reality, of course, the threat of terrorism is virtually omnipresent, existing wherever oil flows.

Wald carried out his last military mission with the aim of protecting the energy supplies under his purview. Believing that the United States shouldn't always try to go it alone, he lobbied oil industry executives to strengthen the security of their facilities, and he pushed for a "Caspian Guard" that would use forces from Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan to beef up maritime security. He also cultivated allies in Sao Tome and Principe, the tiny West African islands in the Gulf of Guinea where significant oil discoveries have been made. But all to no avail. Contrived conspiracy theories about American intentions, untrained and ill-equipped local talent, and lukewarm support from Washington scuttled Wald's project.

Wald's organization, SAFE, would have our policy makers clearly understand that in this century the global oil market is far removed from what we hold to be a free and unfettered market. That we must recognize that between 75% and by some estimates 90% of all oil and gas reserves are held by national oil companies, partially or fully controlled by their governments. That in essence oil markets have become largely politicized and that market forces alone will not solve the problems of oil supply and security. Therefore a new definition of energy security is needed, one that relies not on tough military and foreign policy, but on a strategy that emphasizes reduced consumption of oil. It further needs to take into account how global warming might impact U.S. energy and environmental security in the future. Think rising sea levels and a military stretched thin trying to deal with multiple Hurricane Katrina-like disasters. Who would guard even our domestic infrastructure, let alone global facilities? And of course much tougher fuel-efficiency standards and expanded production of ethanol and biofuels in the United States are called for. Further, our foreign policy must be focused on persuading our allies to assume their rightful share of the energy security burden.

Energy self reliance is becoming essential not only to our future but to our independence, (witness Britain's surrendering its integrity before Saudi threats- see "Saudi Realpolitik...." referenced above) as I have pleaded on these posts as have those by others in their articles and op-eds. We must hope General Wald's and SAFE's assessments rivets the attention of Washington policy makers. Much of what they propose are the beginnings of a remedy to much that ails us both at the domestic pump and the killing fields of the Middle East.