Pipe Dreams

Why Mitt Romney can't free America from Middle East oil.

Mitt Romney has slammed Barack Obama's administration for its handling of energy since day one of his presidential campaign. On Thursday, the Romney team released its own plan, promising energy independence by the end of this decade. That plan contains important elements that Obama would benefit from adopting as his own. But ultimately, the Romney plan overpromises on results while ignoring many of the biggest energy problems the United States faces.

Republicans have frequently criticized Obama for his admittedly hodgepodge energy strategy, a charge repeated in the new plan. The Romney plan solves that problem by substituting a narrow fossil-fuel production strategy for a genuinely comprehensive plan. Much in that fossil-fuel strategy is reasonable. Romney would shift more power to the states by allowing them to approve drilling on their lands and near their coasts without federal intervention. He would streamline environmental reviews, in part through clear deadlines, and in part by handing more control to the states. If that were accompanied by more federal capacity to process permit applications -- something that Romney has decidedly not promised to do -- the result could be a win-win for business and the environment. Romney also promises to streamline cross-border permitting and expand North American regulatory cooperation, steps that could benefit clean energy and fossil fuels alike.

But the Romney plan promises far too much as a result of these policy shifts. It extensively cites recent Citigroup research to back up its claims its contention that North America could eliminate all imports by 2020 as well as to support its claims about jobs and economic growth. Yet that study is not just about oil supplies -- it assumes that the United States will continue with strict fuel economy standards that lower its oil demand. Romney, though, has argued that such standards are the wrong way to go, and proposes no alternative scheme in his energy plan.

The plan also promises "freedom from dependence on foreign energy supplies." As I explained in a Foreign Policy essay earlier this year, achieving energy independence through expanded supplies is a pipe dream. So long as the United States is part of a global market, domestic crude prices will rise in the face of turmoil overseas, putting the U.S. economy at risk and constraining U.S. freedom of action. The only way to break that link without clashing U.S. oil consumption is to bar energy exports from the United States altogether -- something that Romney, quite correctly, has explicitly opposed. Indeed, one study that the Romney plan cites extensively to back its energy independence claims says the that self-sufficiency "will neither insulate the country from the rest of the global oil market, nor diminish the critical importance of the Middle East to its foreign policy."

Romney also promises cheaper oil as a result of his plan. More oil production would do that, though how much lower remains an open question. The Romney plan pushes this claim further by emphasizing that Canadian and Mexican oil sell at a discount to OPEC crude. Yet the Romney plan would (rightly) permit pipeline infrastructure that would raise the price of Canadian oil by giving Canadian producers full access to the world market. Mexican crude, meanwhile, sells at a small discount because it is of relatively low quality and thus requires more expensive equipment to refine.

What about the 3.6 million jobs the Romney plan promises? Many of those are real: additional oil production would spur job growth at a time when the U.S. economy is hurting. Many others, though, result from oil and gas development that would likely happen during a second Obama term as well. And, according to the Citigroup study that is the source of the Romney figure, 785,000 of the jobs would come from the improved fuel economy that Romney would no longer pursue.

The biggest problem with the plan, though, is not what it does or promises -- it's what it leaves out. The United States remains vulnerable to global oil markets and constrained in its foreign policy because of its massive consumption of oil from all sources. Yet the Romney energy strategy does nothing to address this Achilles heel aside from promising to continue support for basic research.

The plan is also mum on the other grave energy challenge the country faces: climate change. Reasonable people can differ on how much emphasis to place on climate change in U.S. energy policy, but it isn't reasonable to ignore it entirely. The Romney plan does not mention climate at all. To be certain, surging production of natural gas can help curb U.S. emissions, but it will come nowhere close to delivering the reductions the country needs alone. Romney likes to quip that people "do not call [climate change] America warming, they call it global warming," his way of saying that climate change can't be confronted unilaterally. But his plan does not include a multilateral strategy either -- something that other Republicans could easily have helped him craft.

There are many good reasons to embrace rising U.S. oil and gas production and to reform the way government regulates their development. The Romney strategy for fossil-fuel development has some reasonable proposals on both fronts. But when it comes to comprehensively exploiting energy opportunities and confronting energy-related risks, the strategy falls woefully short.



Two Cheers for Syrian Islamists

So the rebels aren't secular Jeffersonians. As far as America is concerned, it doesn't much matter.

By all accounts, Sunni Islamists are leading the fight against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and are on track to become the paramount political force in Damascus after he's gone. The mainstream Syrian Muslim Brotherhood dominates the Syrian National Council, the opposition's primary political umbrella and diaspora fundraising arm, while more militant Salafi-jihadist groups are assuming a steadily greater role in fighting regime forces on the ground. Even the supposedly secular Free Syrian Army (FSA) is exhibiting an Islamist character, with one leading commander recently exhorting Syrians to "go for jihad" and "gain an afterlife and heaven." Many outside observers find the Islamist character of the revolt disconcerting, with some even counseling indirect U.S. military intervention as a means of suppressing it.

Unfortunately, there's not much the United States can do about it. Islamist political ascendancy is inevitable in a majority Sunni Muslim country brutalized for more than four decades by a secular minoritarian dictatorship. Moreover, enormous financial resources are pouring in from the Arab-Islamic world to promote explicitly Islamist resistance to Assad's Alawite-dominated, Iranian-backed regime. Providing "secular" rebels with additional money and arms won't reverse the effects.

Fortunately, while the Islamist surge will not be a picnic for the Syrian people, it has two important silver linings for U.S. interests.

For starters, the Assad regime would not be in the trouble it's in today were it not for the Islamists. Though the March 2011 uprising was initially broad-based, the Arab world's most sophisticated internal security apparatus easily pacified protesters outside of heavily Sunni areas. But the mixture of faith and politics proved impossible to contain: Since banning Muslims from attending prayers was politically unthinkable, mosques became the focal points of massive anti-government demonstrations that quickly overwhelmed the regime's capacity to clear the streets without bloodshed.

Islamists -- many of them hardened by years of fighting U.S. forces in Iraq -- are simply more effective fighters than their secular counterparts. Assad has had extraordinary difficulty countering tactics perfected by his former jihadist allies, particularly suicide bombings and roadside bombs. The Islamists' ability to shatter the calm even in high-security neighborhoods of Damascus and Aleppo is slowly stripping away the regime's outer layers of non-Alawite support. Militant Trotskyists just don't pack the same punch.

The Sunni Islamist surge may also be essential to inflicting a full-blown strategic defeat on Iran. Once the regime is toppled, Assad and his minions will likely retreat to northwestern Syria, where non-Sunnis are (barely) a majority. This could result in a rump state in the Alawite heartland, secured by chemical weapons and Iranian-supplied resources and arms. For all of their faults, Sunni Islamists hell-bent (or heaven-bent) on purging the country of Iranian influence can be counted on to reject a "no victor, no vanquished" settlement like the 1989 Taif Accord, which brought Lebanon's civil war to a halt but institutionalized its political fragmentation and loss of sovereignty.

While there is sure to be regional spillover, it will cut mainly against Tehran. There will be tough times ahead for Lebanon, but ultimately the Assad regime's death throes can only work against the Shiite Hezbollah movement. Iraq's ruling Shiite leadership, hitherto sycophantic where Iranian interests are concerned, may find it necessary to distance itself from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's more unpopular Arab clients. With its own restive Sunni minority, Iran itself could be severely rattled by sectarian blowback.

Of course, Syrian Islamists are no friends of the United States -- merely the enemies of one of its enemies. Indeed, their long-term aspirations are arguably more reprehensible than those of the mullahs in Tehran -- Shiites, after all, aren't obsessed with converting others their faith. Syrians have also been prominent in the leadership of al Qaeda, easily recognizable by the surname al-Suri in their noms de guerre: Notable examples include Abu Musab al-Suri, a major al Qaeda ideologue; Ghazawan al-Suri, the leader of al Qaeda in Mosul captured in 2007; Abu Zaid al-Suri, a deputy leader of al Qaeda in the Iraqi town of Rawah, captured in 2006; Abu Layla al-Suri, the leader of al Qaeda in Diyala, killed in 2008.

For the foreseeable future, however, Iran constitutes a far greater and more immediate threat to U.S. national interests. Whatever misfortunes Sunni Islamists may visit upon the Syrian people, any government they form will be strategically preferable to the Assad regime, for three reasons: A new government in Damascus will find continuing the alliance with Tehran unthinkable, it won't have to distract Syrians from its minority status with foreign policy adventurism like the ancien régime, and it will be flush with petrodollars from Arab Gulf states (relatively) friendly to Washington.

So long as Syrian jihadis are committed to fighting Iran and its Arab proxies, we should quietly root for them -- while keeping our distance from a conflict that is going to get very ugly before the smoke clears. There will be plenty of time to tame the beast after Iran's regional hegemonic ambitions have gone down in flames.