Why Tom Friedman Is Wrong on Russia and Wrong on Energy

Dr. Judith Apter Klinghoffer taught history and International relations at Rowan University, Rutgers University, the Foreign Affairs College in Beijing as well as at Aarhus University in Denmark where she was a senior Fulbright professor. She is an affiliate professor at Haifa University. Her books include Israel and the Soviet Union, Vietnam, Jews and the Middle East: Unintended Consequences and , International Citizens' Tribunals: Mobilizing Public Opinion to Advance Human Rights

Tom Friedman asks: What did we expect from Russia? After all, we expanded NATO because we assumed that Russia will behave aggressively when opportunity strikes. High energy prices provided the opportunity and Russia behaved as we expected, with"brutish stupidity." It showed Georgia who's the boss in the near abroad. In other words, they acted in the manner we assumed. If you assume Tom Friedman is going to praise Western policy makers for using Russia's temporary weakness to improve NATO's strategic position, you'd be wrong. Friedman argues that Russia is merely acting according to form because we assumed it would. Debatable, to say the least. History certainly does not support such an ideological assumption.

Friedman goes even further. He argues that Russians elected Putin president because NATO expanded and not because of the economic disaster brought about the Russian government's debt default almost exactly a decade ago. 1998 Default Changed Some Lives Forever writes Moscow Times reporter, Maria Antonova.

The ruble dropped in value from 6 rubles to the U.S. dollar to more than 20 rubles to the dollar by year's end. People flocked to currency exchanges and banks, as well as stores, where they hurried to dispose of the cash that was devaluing before their eyes. Lines formed at employment agencies starting at 5 a.m. as people were laid off by bankrupted companies.

While the crisis changed the landscape of the economy 10 years ago this Sunday, it also was a personal story for many people, who learned hard lessons, started new careers or left Russia altogether. Interestingly, the crisis is a dim memory for many, blended together with the multiple, post-Soviet crises of Boris Yeltsin's presidency.

Actually, Russian papers were filled with articles commemorating that anniversary. It was not NATO expansion but the hubris and faulty advice of Jeffrey Sachs and company which caused Russians to equate democracy, capitalism with personal economic disaster. Low oil prices did not help Russians either though they were bound to be temporary.

Unfortunately, the same Clinton administration which moved swiftly to take advantage of the strategic opportunity to enlarge NATO failed to take advantage of the nineties boom to develop alternative fuels. Had the Clinton administration used the budgets surpluses of the nineties to prepare for the predictable rise in energy demand by investing in alternative fuels or even conservation, Putin would not be in a position to throw his weight around today.

Friedman does not mention this failure not because he is not aware of this it but because his solution to it has been proven to be ineffective. In column after column, Friedman argues that to prevent America from being held hostage by oil producers, it must follow in Western European footsteps and raise the price of oil artificially through taxation.

But did the high taxes make Western Europe more independent? Even Tom Friedman would not dare to make such an argument. If anything, Western Europe, especially Germany, is more dependent on Russia than ever. A lot of good their trust in"good" Russia brought them. The high energy taxes has been merely stifling Western European economic growth for decades. What does Friedman suggest they do now?". . . redouble their efforts to find alternatives to Russian oil and gas."

A businessmen involved in oil/gas exploration told me that his company is drilling in Poland and Austria. In other words, the Europeans, like many Americans, finally understand that the way to defeat King Oil is the way King Cotton was defeated, by increasing supply AND finding alternatives. In 1860 cotton was almost as essential not only to the American economy but also to the British and French economies as oil is today. The Confederacy counted on it to save slavery in America. Read the words spoken by Senator James Henry Hammond of South Carolina's in 1958 and think Putin and/or Ahmadinejad 2008:

Without the firing of a gun, without drawing a sword, should they [Northerners] make war upon us [Southerners], we could bring the whole world to our feet.

What would happen if no cotton was furnished for three years? . . England would topple headlong and carry the whole civilized world with her. No, you dare not make war on cotton! No power on earth dares make war upon it. Cotton is King.

Then as now, Northern Democratic appeasers strengthened the hands of Southerners by agreeing with their analysis. They even questioned the moral superiority of Southern slavery to Northern"wage slavery." Yankees just want to dominate the South, has been their joint refrain. Had Tom Friedman been living then, he may have dismissed Republican abolitionism in the same manner he dismisses NATO democracy promotion, nothing but"pious blather". Fortunately, the American people refused to be bullied. They elected Abe Lincoln who proceeded to blockade the South, an action as damaging to the Western economy then as blockading the Straits of Hormuz would be today.

What did the cotton dependent superpowers England and France do? They refused to sell their soul to King Cotton. They simply developed alternative cotton supplies in Egypt and India to name but two places. Eventually alternative fibers were also developed though cotton is still a much used fiber. One thing cannot be disputed: The era of King Cotton was over and had its believers not been misled North American slavery may have withered away in the manner hoped by the Founding Fathers, without mass blood shed and destruction.

The greatest irony is that in 2000 Americans elected two oil men who understood precisely both the problem and what had to be done. Just read or listen to George W. Bush's May 2001 remarks on the subject of energy he made in St. Paul, Minnesota. He pointed out that America was built on cheap energy but failure to increase the supply of energy through drilling and the development of alternative fuels would means that the price of energy would continue to rise for decades. Moreover:

If we fail to act, our country will become more reliant on foreign crude oil, putting our national energy security into the hands of foreign nations, some of whom do not share our interests. And if we fail to act, our environment will suffer, as government officials struggle to prevent blackouts in the only way possible -- by calling on more polluting emergency backup generators, and by running less efficient, old power plants too long and too hard.

America cannot allow that to be our future, and we will not. (Applause.) To protect the environment, to meet our growing energy needs, to improve our quality of life, America needs an energy plan that faces up to our energy challenges and meets them.

Vice President Cheney and many members of my Cabinet spent months analyzing our problems, and seeking solutions. The result is a comprehensive series of more than one hundred recommendations that light the way to a brighter future through energy that is abundant and reliable, cleaner and more affordable.

The plan addresses all three key aspects of the energy equation: demand, supply, and the means to match them. First, it reduces demand by promoting innovation and technology to make us the world leader in efficiency and conservation. Second, it expands and diversifies America's supply of all sources of energy -- oil and gas, clean coal, solar, wind, biomass, hydropower and other renewables, as well as safe and clean nuclear power. Third, and finally, the report outlines the ways to bring producers and consumers together, by modernizing the networks of pipes and wires that link the power plant to the outlet on the wall.

Had Tom Friedman been honest he would have admitted that President George W. Bush was right, and he was wrong. Unfortunately, in this instance as in many others, his administration failed to translate that understanding into action. Our next president must be a man of action. He must also be able to craft the kind of bi-partisan legislation needed to secure action in America. The man who has proven his ability to do precisely that is John McCain but do not expect Tom Friedman to admit it, at least, not yet.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Andrew D. Todd - 8/27/2008

Electricity is in the ascendant, and the oil industry is in long-term, fundamental decline. Almost any reasonable modernization of the energy and transportation sectors would tend to increase the role of electricity at the expense of oil, and this has been known for many years. The energy and transportation networks, however, have been stagnant, because no one could see the logic of putting much money into them. The administration's energy independence policy, such as it is, works out in practice to a desperate search for a non-existent technology which would preserve the status quo ante, approximately defined as the gas station affiliated with a major oil company, with a big refinery in the neighborhood of Houston.

Let's play a silly little game. Let's construct a narrative about 2001, of the type which historians construct about Spring, 1861 and August, 1914. Such narratives are about how the social order lost its ability to contain untoward events. The assassination of the Empress Elizabeth did not lead to a European war, nor did the more ambiguous events at Mayerling. By the day of Sarajevo, something had shifted. In the military sphere, a critical mass of generals on both sides had moved to the idea of "better now than later." The better practitioners of this kind of history rope in the Irish independence movement, the British Suffragettes, and even the French president's mistress. Naturally, they deal with the Austrian general Conrad von Hotzendorf, and his participation in the "Wagnerite" movement, and with the logic of mobilization timetables, etc. Now, let's try to construct that kind of narrative about 2001.

In 2001, the technological basis of society was changing rapidly. There had been a long term movement to electricity, but during the 1990's, on top of this, speculative capital had funded a wholesale overbuilding of the telecommunications system. This fueled the rise of the internet. The internet fueled the rise of open source software, and of blogs. There are two threads leading out of this. One leads to electric cars. The other leads to telecommuting.

In the 1990's, General Motors launched a project to build an electric car. There were a number of reasons for this. Under the rule of Roger Smith, GM had attempted to modernize itself by purchasing an electronics/aerospace company, Hughes Aircraft, and a computer services company, Electronic Data Systems. GM had an inferiority complex vis a vis the high-tech world, and was attempting to work it off. GM acquired partners, Southern California Edison, the State of California, and the Clinton Administration. The rationale for the electric car was air quality, a sensitive topic in California. An electric car could be powered by a coal-fueled generator in Arizona, on the other side of the mountains, and thus, it would not contribute to the smog situation. None of the partners had the serious commitment necessary to carry an electric car to fruition, but they were able to go through the motions fairly inexpensively, and they could energetically publicize what they produced, playing down the differences between what was in effect a kind of engineering student's thesis project and a mass-production vehicle. It was a game, in short, a silly little game, in the same sense that military field maneuvers are a game, with blanks instead of live ammunition. However, from the point of view of the oil industry, not looking too closely, it had certain scary elements. The partners proposed-- in a hypothetical sort of way-- to put an electric charger into every parking place, so that electric cars would be picking up power whenever they were not moving. These chargers would of course be plugged into the electric grid, leaving the oil companies out of the picture. The oil companies panicked, briefly, before they realized that it was only a silly game.

In the long run, to make electric cars work, you have to build electric power into the road, so that the cars can continuously replenish themselves while rolling along. This was the big commitment which GM and its allies would not undertake. It was the fear of the oil companies that electric roads would somehow get financed.

In the wake of GM followed Toyota, with the hybrid car. Japanese don't go in for the sort of amateur theatrics which Americans do-- they are very polite to someone, until the day they decide to kill him. The hybrid car used electricity internally to use less gasoline and produce less pollution, while not having the weaknesses of the pure electric car. It simply brought the automobile up to the level of electrical modernization found in a diesel railroad locomotive. One competitor after another eventually moved to adopt the hybrid system. The eventual result would, other things equal, have been to reduce the gasoline market by somewhere between a third and a half. Cutting wages by between a third and a half is usually a formula for an extremely grim strike. Why should the oil companies have been any different?

The next step was Enron, the oil companies attempt to deal themselves into the wholesale electric business. Enron failed, on the eve of 2001.

On the other side, the telecommunications industry was taking off, not in terms of profits, indeed, but in terms of output. The successive bankruptcies of overambitious firms dumped cheap communication circuits onto the market, and people began doing more and more things "over the wire." One of the most alarming ideas that that of open-source, the idea that one could run a technical organization doing important business by the same quasi-anarchist methods by which colleges were traditionally run. A "man of authority," such as Dick Cheney or John McCain, either in government or in big business, had traditionally not had to take seriously the kind of bearded long-haired professor who was not in the habit of applying for grant money. Suddenly, the rules were changing. The long-haired professor could recruit students, working at their own expense, and go from there. One might read Jane Smiley's novel, _Moo_, as a parable. Something similar was happening with blogs. Traditionally, it had been possible, to a degree, to control a limited number of journalists representing national media outlets by offering them special privileges. But there were too many bloggers to be bribed.

There was a "green-techno nexus," in the sense that high-tech, computer-related, industries tended to favor ecological restrictions which they could meet, and which the older "smokestack industries" could not.

Finally, computers and the internet were undermining the recruitment basis of the military. The American military does not want to be a foreign legion. The military recruits young people by offering them job training and college money. It does not like to recruit from places like New York and Los Angeles, because there are so many other opportunities in these cities, and someone who is still available is likely to be a professional loser. The military prefers to recruit from small towns where there is literally nothing to do, because they can get a teachable sort of young person there. However, the internet transforms geography, so that, in a manner of speaking, everyone lives in the San Fernando Valley, or, alternatively, everyone can take the train into Manhattan. The kind of person who goes into the military to get job training and college money is the kind of person who, if he winds up overseas, will learn a bit of Vietnamese, or a bit of Arabic, out of a sense of necessity. An army composed exclusively of Watts and Compton gangbangers would not only be deficient in technical skills, but would also be low on cultural sensitivity, and, by its very nature, would tend to provoke desperate indigenous resistance.

The 2000 election was between George W. Bush, representative of the oil industry, and Al Gore, representative of the technology industry. Gore came very close to winning, even despite the normal "throw the bums out" sentiment an administration in office attracts, and if he had won, he would no doubt have pushed for hybrid car mandates, and for accelerating the deployment of the internet. And he might even have found the government money to pay for electric roads.

Thus the whole setting for September 11, 2001 was an administration with an ongoing sense of persecution, and a sense of "needing to have its war now, rather than later," before the whole country became like California.

Michael Schnayerson, _The Car That Could: The Inside Story of G.M.'s Revolutionary Electric Vehicle_, 1996

Lorraine Paul - 8/26/2008

Surely there isn't anyone who does not know that it is in the interests of both Cheney and Bush, Dr Klinghoffer states, to oil men, to keep fossil fuels the main source of energy? Why should oil-producers start to look for alternative sources, which have been around since at least the 30's, at this moment in time? Where is their profit in that?

Judith Apter Klinghoffer - 8/25/2008

Because the Saudis got scared and dropped the price of oil dramatically. They may yet do so again. Hopefully we will not fall in the same trap again.

Randll Reese Besch - 8/25/2008

Pres. Jimmy Carter did but the research and program to move to solar and wind and better usage of available fuels to be decreased by increased efficiency in engine function was ignored. Just solarizing the country with the available technology could have given massive energy savings and reduced cost of manufacturing by making it a mass produced product.

Mike Schoenberg - 8/25/2008

Got to love the line about the Clinton administration and how they should of been able to look 10 years in the future to use some of their surpluses to build alternative energy. Meanwhile here at home we have a 1-3 trillion dollar war,a 1/2 to one trillion dollar housing crisis but not a word about that.

History News Network