The terrorist attacks more than six years ago supposedly “changed everything”. They changed George Bush from someone who spoke forcefully against “nation-building” and foreign intervention into a president enamored with the idea of spreading democracy by force; they led the Administration to violate the Constitution on multiple occasions through warrantless domestic surveillance and the torture of enemy combatants; they provided cover for a far-right domestic agenda that the majority of Americans opposed.
But in one critical area 9/11 changed absolutely nothing: our dependence on Middle Eastern oil and the autocratic, terrorist-sponsoring regimes that benefit from this addiction.
Not only has the Bush Administration done nothing to diminish our reliance on Middle Eastern oil, Vice-President Cheney is on record mocking conservation as nothing more than a “personal virtue” (i.e., something only tree-huggers do), the GOP-led Congress passed energy bills that increased subsidies for oil companies (thereby further distorting markets against alternative energy), and the Administration sued the state of California for imposing a greenhouse gas reduction policy that would have resulted in higher fuel-efficiency mandates.
Let’s recap the results so far of this catastrophically misguided policy:
1. Oil prices (partly due to the effects of the Iraq War, which have crippled Iraq’s oil sector; see this NYT's piece on how insurgents are stealing Iraqi oil) are at records highs, which has helped stoke the highest inflation rate in decades and complicated efforts to deal with the coming recession
2. Oil-producing U.S. adversaries such as Iran, Venezuela, and Russia are awash in cash, helping to keep dictators in power and undermine democratic reform
3. So-called allies, such as Saudi Arabia, are also awash in cash, allowing them to stall on reforms and continue to funnel more money into the hands of terrorists
4. Our European allies are livid that we have not helped in any meaningful way to address global warming, which could be mitigated through comprehensive international efforts
5. Instead of tens of billions invested in alternative energy projects or tax rebates for the middle class, they’re going to the likes of Exxon-Mobil and Chevron (which routinely set corporate profit records every quarter)
Results like these all lead to the same conclusion. America’s long history of entanglement in the Middle East stems largely from our dependence on oil, and we will continue to be dragged into conflicts in the region until and unless we dramatically reduce the power of these regimes in the way that they would feel it most: their pocketbooks.
Following 9/11, a serious global push to reduce oil consumption would have sent a major signal to the Middle East regimes to either diversify their economies or witness their eventual decline. Ironically, having to face this reality would have provided significant incentives to liberalize their economies, which has proven to be one of the best paths to freedom and democracy.
Instead the Bush Administration took the low road, adopting policies guided by outdated thinking and its strong ties to the oil industry. Bush will leave behind many legacies of failure and incompetence, but this “lost decade” of wasted opportunity on the energy independence front may ultimately be seen as the most costly of all.
P.S. Check this article out in Sunday's WaPo for even more depressing analysis of how the Iraq War's impact on oil prices has hurt the U.S. economy and strengthened our adversaries.