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12.07.2004

Two Views of Politics, and an Application

Otto von Bismark famously described politics as "the art of the possible." This epigram admits of two, and possibly more, interpretations. The sense in which Bismarck probably meant it is that politics is essentially realistic rather than idealistic, dealing in the choice of possible actions (or refraining from action) in a specific situation. The other possible interpretation that I see is its opposite: that politics is tasked with realizing - and making - possibilities.

A recent editorial by Thomas Friedman (via IHT), taking the latter view, suggests a bold vision for the second Bush administration:
If President George W. Bush is looking for a legacy, I have just the one for him - a national science project that would be our generation's moon shot: a crash science initiative for alternative energy and conservation to make America energy-independent in 10 years. Imagine if every American kid, in every school, were galvanized around such a vision.
Energy independence, he argues, would have far-reaching geopolitical effect beneficial to American interests. Specifically, the development of non-fossil-fuel (and presumably non-nuclear, since this this is an alternative energy source that he doesn't consider) energy options would expand the American economy and, by ending the blank check of oil reserves now held by nations in need of reform:
You give me an America that is energy-independent, and I will give you sharply reduced oil revenues for the worst governments in the world. I will give you political reform from Moscow to Riyadh to Tehran. Yes, deprive these regimes of the huge oil windfalls on which they depend and you will force them to reform by having to tap their people instead of oil wells. These regimes won't change when we tell them they should. They will change only when they tell themselves they must.
* * *

If Bush made energy independence his moon shot, he would dry up revenue for terrorism; force Iran, Russia, Venezuela and Saudi Arabia to take the path of reform - which they will never do with $45-a-barrel oil - strengthen the dollar; and improve his own standing in Europe, by doing something huge to reduce global warming. He would also create a magnet to inspire young people to contribute to the war on terrorism and America's future by becoming scientists, engineers and mathematicians.

Now, I agree that American energy policy should include a commitment to the development on non-fossil fuel energy sources, in addition to more efficient use of existing non-renewable resources. I think we should be open to cleaner-burning coal power, to a cautious resumption of nuclear power, and to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve. There does need to be a national push for the development of renewable and non-polluting energy sources, in which federal planning and funding would have a necessary role. Energy independence for the United States will strengthen its position in the global economy, and will reduce the capital available to terror groups.

Friedman's forecast, however, is too sunny by half. Infatuated, perhaps, with the "possible," he seems to overlook the law of unintended consequences. "You give me an America that is energy-independent, and I will give you sharply reduced oil revenues for the worst governments in the world. I will give you political reform from Moscow to Riyadh to Tehran," he writes. I'm afraid that if I gave Friedman what he asks, I'd get in return not reform but instability. This instability would possibly lead to needed reforms in these oil-producing states, but nothing is guaranteed.

The destabilization of these regimes, despotisms many of them, doesn't amount to an argument against the push that Friedman advocates. I'd view it as part of the case for energy independence, as does Friedman. But alongside an investment in science education, we'd need to prepare for this instability by educating diplomats, policymakers, and intelligence officers in the history and politics of the Middle East. This is something we're far from doing now, as Stanley Kurtz has been reporting for ages. Reform is possible in an unstable Middle East, but wouldn't it be better if the friends of democracy were prepared to help?

I can't say that Friedman is wrong, or even that I disagree with what he's written. I think, however, that he would have written better if, at the top of his page, he had quoted Galbraith's response to Bismarck:
Politics is not the art of the possible. It consists in choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable.
-D. Brown
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