Cliff May

Perhaps money can’t buy love, but it can certainly purchase power. So as oil prices have been rising, the major oil-producing nations have been gaining clout.

Petroleum is no ordinary source of wealth. It is - or has become - a strategic resource: People in the West can no longer do without it. A sudden restriction in the supply would produce wrenching changes in our way of life. Lacking fuel, our military would cease to function. In the midst of a global conflict against militant Islamist regimes and movements, that’s a problem.

Russia holds the world’s largest natural-gas reserves and the eighth-largest oil reserves — energy on which Western Europe has come to depend. Russian strongman Vladimir Putin appears to have thought long and hard about how to exploit these facts.

In the wake of Russia’s aggression against neighboring Georgia, Garry Kasparov — one of the few Russian opposition leaders not yet eliminated, incarcerated, or intimidated — asks: “Can such a belligerent state be trusted as the guarantor of Europe’s energy supply?” The question answers itself, but Europe’s politicians and bureaucrats are taking no steps that could lead toward energy security.

Meanwhile, it is clear that extending and solidifying Russia’s grip over Europe’s energy supplies is among Putin’s goals. Russian domination of Georgia will mean control over the pipeline running from Baku in Azerbaijan, to Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, to the Turkish port of Ceyhan on the Mediterranean Sea. That will give Russia, along with Islamist Iran, a virtual monopoly over the substantial supply of oil and gas originating in the Caspian Sea region.

President Bush and other Western leaders have been calling Russia’s assault on Georgia a mistake. Putin, who made his bones in the KGB, no doubt sees it as a calculated risk. What’s the worst that can happen to him?

The UN will do nothing because the UN is now manipulated, routinely, by its most unsavory members. NATO is not, at present, a serious military alliance, as its failure in Afghanistan — where it was supposed to take the lead — demonstrates. (Al-Qaeda and its local proxy, the Taliban, will be beaten in Afghanistan only if the U.S. military figures out how to do the job, as the U.S. military figured out — learning from mistakes — how to fight al-Qaeda and Iranian-backed militias in Iraq.)

And there is no chance that any U.S. leader will “go it alone” militarily in the Caucusus when so many Americans could not find the Caucusus on a map.

So what cards do the U.S. and its allies have to play? Short term, there is diplomatic hardball which would include threatening Russia with expulsion from the G8 (which was meant to be a club for industrialized democracies only), depriving Russia of any chance to host the next Olympics, and blackballing Russian membership in the World Trade Organization.

Longer term, addressing the West’s strategic vulnerability is imperative. Former CIA director Jim Woolsey points out that salt was, for centuries, a strategic resource. It was necessary for the preservation of food. Without it, soldiers could not travel and villagers risked starvation. Wars were fought over salt. As recently as the Civil War, Union and Confederate troops battled over saltworks in the South.

But technology — the advent of refrigeration — turned salt from a strategic resource into just another condiment. Similarly, technology can free the U.S. and the West from the tyranny of dependence on hostile regimes. We can innovate our way out of this crisis.

We don’t need a new Manhattan Project — we just need to open the energy marketplace, to spur more vibrant competition. Lawmakers can accomplish that by leveling the playing field between oil and alternative fuels, and by encouraging the development of technologies that will squeeze energy more efficiently and cleanly from coal (which the U.S. has in abundance) and from crops grown for this purpose. (And no, that doesn’t create hunger — not when American and European farmers are being paid to keep millions of acres of cropland fallow.)

It will help, too, to accelerate research on and development of cars that can run long distances on electricity — which can be derived from nuclear power facilities, wind farms, solar energy collectors, and many other sources.

Or we can sit back and watch as oil flows to us, while wealth and power flow to the despots ruling Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela. We’ll burn the oil, they’ll amass the power. Our grandchildren will wonder why we were so feckless in the face of such a dire threat to our security and independence. But by then it may be too dangerous to ask such questions aloud.


Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.