Politicians, oilmen, and green-energy boosters love to invoke the idea of energy security. None of them know what they're talking about.

No one envies BP's top brass this week. The company's executives have a full schedule of hearings on Capitol Hill over the next several days, as well as a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama, at which they are sure to be asked a great many questions about the still-ongoing Gulf of Mexico oil spill that BP simply can't answer. Faced with the prospect of penalties and drilling moratoriums on its U.S. operations, the company is reportedly planning to tell Obama that, in the Financial Times' words, "crippling the company would not be in the interests of the U.S. or its future energy security."

That two-word phrase -- "energy security" -- is an idea invoked frequently by everyone from oil company executives to green-energy proponents, and one that has taken center stage in the United States since the Gulf spill. Last week, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar cited energy security in explaining the need to continue drilling in the outer continental shelf. Senators John Kerry and Joseph Lieberman have argued that their new clean energy and climate bill will help the United States achieve energy security. Obama's new National Security Strategy, published last month, invokes energy security no fewer than four times.

Yet when I brought together a diverse group of 36 experts in April to take stock of what we know about how oil affects U.S. national security (a detailed summary of the discussions and their conclusions is here), the conclusion was unmistakable and troubling: We know a lot less about what energy security is than our confident rhetoric suggests.

Those who talk about energy security usually focus on two vulnerabilities: the impact of oil markets on the U.S. economy and the ways in which oil empowers the countries that produce it. Let's start with the economic argument, which arises from the seemingly strong relationship between oil spikes and recessions. University of California San Diego economist James D. Hamilton has famously argued that almost every U.S. recession since World War II has been caused by a spike in oil prices. Others have disagreed: Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, when he was an academic, contended that high interest rates, rather than soaring oil prices, were what did the economy in.

The current recession has rekindled the debate, but in truth, our understanding of how oil affects the U.S. economy is shockingly limited. We hear often, for example, that Americans send a billion dollars abroad every day to pay for oil. But what matters is not only how much Americans spend on oil, or who reaps the profits, but also what they do with them -- something about which we know very little. If oil producers spend the money on U.S. exports, the impact on the U.S. economy might be minimal. If they park it in bank accounts, or use it to fund sketchy home loans, the consequences are likely far graver.

When it comes to the ways that oil empowers countries that produce it, we're equally ill informed. We're often told that oil funds terrorism, but we're actually fairly clueless about how and how much. Different terrorist organizations rely on oil profits to varying degrees, which aren't at all commensurate with the threat they pose to the United States. Hezbollah, for example, is an expensive enterprise to run, and oil money is a critical source of funding, according to a recent Rand study. But al Qaeda is much cheaper to operate, according to the same study, and the group's much-vaunted Saudi oil connection may be relatively unimportant to its survival. Our understanding of how oil empowers hostile states themselves is equally poor. It is hard to tell, for example, whether Iran was able to charge ahead with its nuclear program during the last decade because of high oil revenues, or because of unrelated technical breakthroughs.

Nor do we have a good idea of how much geopolitical leverage oil-producing countries gain from their supplies. Our instincts about oil's potential as an economic and political weapon stem from the 1970s, when hostile Arab producers slashed shipments to the West, causing widespread havoc. Things have changed mightily in the intervening 30 years, however. Global oil markets now buffer oil supply disruptions, while strategic petroleum reserves (large stocks of oil controlled by Western governments, including the United States) provide an additional cushion of safety. Yet we still do not understand the system's limits. Security experts still debate, for example, whether Iran could close the Strait of Hormuz for an extended period, and if it could, what the consequences for global markets would be. They also spend little time trying to understand the conditions under which global oil markets might collapse, or what the consequences of such a development would be.

And while we focus on how oil empowers those who produce it, we know far less about its negative effects on the same countries. Much has been written about the resource curse, which appears to cruelly consign many oil-rich countries (Nigeria is a poster child) to permanent poverty, dictatorship, and strife. Whether smart policy interventions can forestall such consequences, though, is far from understood. Similarly, while much ink has been spilled on the hazards of expensive oil, far less attention has been paid to the dangers of cheap oil. Mexico, for example, gets about 40 percent of its government revenues from oil. A sudden drop in the price of crude could spur unrest and drain the Mexican government of the money it needs to fight security threats that often spill over into the United States. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, is an enigma on this front: No one knows exactly what plummeting oil prices would do to the country's stability, and few spend much time trying to find out. Yet policymakers rarely, if ever, raise these issues as matters of national concern.

Our confusion about energy security is not just an academic problem -- it has important consequences for U.S. policy. Is BP's financial health really essential to U.S. energy security? That depends on how vulnerable the United States would be to a clumsy sale of the company's assets. And does Obama's new National Security Strategy effectively address the big problems that the United States faces where oil and national security meet? Until we understand that nexus much better, we won't truly know.



Israelis Agree With Bibi

In the wake of the flotilla controversy, Israelis resoundingly back their government's stance on Gaza.

A reliable new poll of Israeli public opinion shows that attitudes on the Gaza blockade are heavily hawkish -- in diametric opposition not only to most international reactions, but also much of the Israeli media's own commentary. This finding is the first detailed measurement of Israeli views following the Israel Defense Forces' (IDF) violent boarding of the Gaza-bound Mavi Marmara, which resulted in the deaths of nine people. The poll surveyed Israeli Jewish opinion and was conducted by telephone interviews on June 7 by Pechter Middle East Polls, a young, Princeton, N.J.-based survey research and analysis firm working with pollsters throughout the region.

In the aftermath of the recent ship-boarding incident, three-quarters of Jewish Israelis say Israel should not open the Gaza Strip to international aid shipments. Narrower, yet still solid, majorities also say Israel should not accept an international investigation, nor adjust its tactics to win favorable international consideration.

Even more surprising, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's job-approval rating has now climbed into positive territory: 53 percent of respondents were satisfied with his performance, while 40 percent were dissatisfied. By contrast, 71 percent voiced dissatisfaction with U.S. President Barack Obama, and a clear majority, 63 percent, are also dissatisfied with the overall U.S. reaction to the Gaza flotilla controversy so far.

To put this reaction in context, it helps to first look at popular assessments of the deadly ship-boarding operation itself. The sole previously reported survey on this point, from a June 4 Maariv newspaper poll, concluded that a majority of Israelis thought that the operation should have been conducted "in a different way." However, in the subsequent Pechter poll, Israelis Jews were asked to consider how they think IDF soldiers should have acted once confronted with violent activists aboard the ship. A plurality, 46 percent, thought Israel used the "right amount of force" aboard the Mavi Marmara, and nearly as many, 39 percent, said Israel used "not enough force" in boarding the Turkish ship. Only 8 percent thought that the IDF used too much force.

The Israeli public appears even more inclined to hawkish solutions when it comes to future attempts to breach the Gaza blockade. The poll noted media reports about Iran's purported plan to send Red Crescent vessels to Gaza, asking respondents if Israel should "let them in quietly" or "stop them whatever it takes." The results are strikingly lopsided: 84 percent would stop them, whatever it takes, while just 7 percent would let them in quietly. Similarly, when asked what Israel should do if the Turkish navy and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan personally attempt to break the Gaza blockade, as some reports have suggested might happen, three-quarters said Israel should stop them at any cost.

Alternative policies garner only minority support from the Israeli public. Just one-fifth (22 percent) of respondents advocate opening Gaza to international humanitarian shipments. More incremental shifts elicit a slightly more sympathetic popular response, but fall well short of gaining majority support. Two-fifths (37 percent) of those surveyed would support "an international inquiry committee that will investigate the recent ship incident." Almost as many (35 percent) agree with the general proposition that Israel should "adjust its tactics to elicit a more favorable international reaction."

This data carries a number of important political implications, both for Israeli domestic politics and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Of most immediate importance, Netanyahu's job is not in jeopardy as a result of this latest international imbroglio. If the Israeli public were to blame any of its elected officials for this diplomatic setback, it would be Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who represents the Labor Party. The new Pechter poll shows that Barak's approval rating, unlike Netanyahu's, is now in negative territory: Just 41 percent are satisfied with his job performance, against 52 percent dissatisfied. Even so, around 75 percent of Israelis reject the notion that Barak should resign his post, according to last week's Maariv poll.

The Israeli public's hawkish stance also constrains Netanyahu's ability to substantially alter Israel's Gaza policy in the wake of the Mavi Marmara incident. In moving toward acceptance of some kind of international presence on an investigative commission and toward some increase in Israel's allowance of humanitarian aid to Gaza, Netanyahu is reaching the outer limits of what the Israeli electorate could realistically be persuaded to accept.

The survey also found extremely high levels of intensity among respondents, a fact that makes it particularly difficult for the Israeli government to move against the tide of public opinion. In my 30 years of professionally analyzing Israeli and Arab polls, I have rarely seen such a passionate response from those surveyed. For example, among the very large majorities who said Israel should do whatever it takes to block Iranian or Turkish vessels from reaching Gaza, extraordinarily high percentages said they feel "strongly" about the issue: 68 percent for Turkish boats, and an even higher proportion, 78 percent, regarding Iranian blockade-runners.

The one methodological caveat to this conclusion concerns Israel's Arab citizens, who constitute approximately 18 percent of its adult population and vote freely in its elections, but are usually considered separately in survey analysis. Had they been included in this latest poll, previous research suggests that the overall numbers would have shifted modestly in a more dovish direction. However, Arab Israeli opinion will almost certainly not be a major factor considered by the current Israeli government, which relies on the support of Jewish Zionist parties to maintain power.

These findings, however, do not spell doom for hopes of a negotiated settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Crucially, the Israeli public's stance on Gaza coexists with relatively dovish views on other key Palestinian issues. For nearly a decade now, even during wars or major surges in terrorist attacks, a solid majority of Israeli Jews have consistently supported a two-state solution to the dispute. This fundamental fact was again attested as recently as March, in the latest Hebrew University/Truman Institute poll, which showed 68 percent in favor of that option. Moreover, that poll showed a narrow majority explicitly willing to accept "dismantling most of the settlements" in the West Bank as the price for peace.

Netanyahu's challenge is to translate these opinions into a policy that can bring both long-term security and peace to his people. Given the Israeli public's hawkish views toward Hamas-ruled Gaza, but their willingness to explore concessions in the West Bank under Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, the most realistic way forward is surprisingly straightforward: Keep pushing Israel and the Palestinian Authority toward new, practical, political agreements. Find better ways to help the people of Gaza, but not their Hamas rulers -- whom Israelis rightly view as a threat, not only to their own security, but also to any prospect of Palestinian-Israeli peace. In other words, work with Abbas, against Hamas.