Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Obama Plans to Wean U.S. Off Foreign Oil... Just Like the Seven Presidents Before Him

No one has summed it up better than Jon Stewart did last year: since Nixon, every U.S. president, Democrat and Republican, has bemoaned our dangerous addiction to foreign oil. And yet, U.S. oil imports have increased nearly constantly since 1949, with the exception of a drop in the late 70s and early 80s when the oil crises of the 70s forced Americans to get serious about conservation and efficiency. Now the U.S. imports more than 11 million barrels of oil each day. Almost two-thirds of our oil comes from imports, and half of that comes from unstable or unfriendly countries.

Source: Council on Foreign Relations

Today, President Obama reiterated his wish to cut oil imports by one-third in a decade. His proposed strategy:
  1. Finding and producing more oil within our borders.
  2. Reducing overall dependence with alternative fuels and efficiency.
Step 1 is what Republicans want to focus on (Drill Baby Drill!); Step 2 is what Democrats want to focus on. But even with such a bipartisan strategy, nothing is being done, just as nothing has been to seriously reduce our oil imports.

The reality is, exploring for and producing more oil at home is not a long term fix. The same arguments were brought up during the 2008 campaign when Sen. McCain and others called for expansion of domestic drilling, ostensibly as relief from high summer gasoline prices, and again by Obama last year when he announced his expanded offshore drilling proposal (less than a month before the BP spill). All this despite experts agreeing that new drilling wouldn't cut gasoline prices more than a few cents per gallon—decades later.

And a decrease in oil prices will only lead to an increase in gasoline consumption, which will create a need for more immediate oil resources, which will lead to an increase in oil imports—right back where we started. (Keep in mind that the U.S. has 2% of the world's oil reserves and consumes over 25% of the world's oil.)

What is really going to help us reach oil independence is Step 2.

Advances in alternative fuel vehicles, as well as electric, plug-in, and hybrid electric vehicles are important, and are slowly beginning to penetrate the market. Increasing fuel economy is important too, and the Obama Administration has taken some of the greatest strides in decades to increase the efficiency of American cars (to the chagrin of many Republicans).

But while more efficient cars will certainly decrease the amount of gasoline per mile traveled, they will probably not lead to the deep fuel savings that will be necessary to wean us off foreign oil. That may just need to come from conservation, in the form of less driving and more walking, biking, and public transit.

Jimmy Carter's famous conservation
talk. Source:

Obama hasn't mentioned conservation as part of his strategy for oil reduction, likely because it's not in the "American spirit" to have to sacrifice anything. It's political suicide to campaign for increased gas taxes—despite the myriad benefits—and the harsh criticism Jimmy Carter received for wearing a sweater in the Oval Office and asking Americans to start saving energy is still ringing in most politicians' ears.

In the 112th Congress, Obama has no hope to pass any legislation that will reduce American oil consumption. The only bills he will be able to sign will attempt to expand domestic oil production, a boon to oil companies, but far from a solution to our oil dependence (not to mention an increased risk for catastrophic impacts on the environment, the most grave example of which, after less than a year, many Americans already seem to have forgotten).

President Obama may find it an opportune time to repeat the calls for oil independence as unrest in the Middle East continues to spread and reportedly affect world oil prices. But for serious change to occur, serious measures will need to be taken, measures which the President will surely not be willing to take until at least 2013 (if he is reelected) and which the current Congress will never enact.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Obama Speech on Libya: Close, but No Cigar

By Matt Kane

Last night President Obama addressed the nation about the "kinetic military action" in Libya. In his half hour speech he hit on a few points that should have been made more than a week ago in the lead-up to war in Libya. As I discussed in yesterday's podcast, Obama had his work cut out for him thanks to the horrendous and confusing interview that Secretary of State Clinton and Defense Secretary Gates gave over the weekend on Meet the Press.

One thing that I really liked about the speech was that President Obama came right out and said that the United States led the mission in Libya. I was quite frustrated on Sunday when Clinton said that the United States would be joining the international community, as if the U.S. had not been leading the charge in Libya from the word "go."

One phrase kept popping up in the speech that went directly against what Defense Secretary Gates said on Sunday. Obama said that our "values and interests" are at stake in Libya. That simply is not true. Like Gates said on Sunday, Libya is not in America's vital interest. And talk of values will remain empty as long as Guantanamo is open and Bradley Manning continues to be mistreated. It is akin to Newt Gingrich talking about the sanctity of marriage.

Along the same lines, the whole "stain the conscious of the world" rhetoric is just as empty. If every humanitarian crisis necessitated Western intervention a lá Libya, we would see allied forces on nearly every continent. At the very least we would see a large Western force in places like the Sudans, Zimbabwe, Mexico and Belarus, to name a few. It simply is not realistic.

In all fairness, Obama did bring up other countries going through changes that have been met with violence by the ruling regimes. His answer to this? Libya happened at a very specific time with very specific interests (which, for the record, were not listed) and it differs greatly from other places like Yemen or Syria. Without specifics about what makes Libya different, we would have to take Obama's word that American/allied interests in Libya made it more pressing than other civilian tragedies in other Middle Eastern countries. At this point in his presidency, however, only a fool would take Obama at his word.

Finally, Obama hinted that American and allied involvement in Libya will last much longer than anticipated. Even if Qaddafi steps down, Obama said, Libya will need help and support to transition to a truly democratic nation responsive to its people. This open-ended commitment to democracy in Libya should make anyone who has followed the Iraq War very nervous. Obama praised what we have done in Iraq in terms of bringing them democracy, but in reality we still have about 47,000 troops there. He explicitly stated that regime change is not the goal in Libya, but he wants Qaddafi out. Pick a goal and stick to it, Mr. President. You cannot have it both ways.

Obama made a promise similar to the one he made during this year's State of the Union. He said, "Wherever people long to be free, they will find a friend in the United States." *Offer not applicable in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Yemen, Syria, Bahrain, China or any other country not meeting an unspecified rubric of the United States Department of Defense and Department of State. Unless those seeking freedom feel buoyed by Secretary Clinton's mumblings about restraint and peaceful dialogue while Libyan rebels get first-class Tomahawk missiles and air support, I do not know how valued American friendship will truly be.

Questions or comments? Leave them in the comment section or email The Second Age: admin(at)

Thursday, March 24, 2011

French Foreign Minister: Libya Ops Could Take "Days or Weeks"

By Matt Kane

I was reading the New York Times this morning for updates on the situation in Libya and yet again I was taken aback by what officials are saying (or not saying, really) about the coalition's plans in the North African country. While yesterday it was Robert Gates who was dominating the "What did he just say?" game, today it is Alain Juppe, the French Foreign Minister. He is quoted in the Times as saying
"The destruction of Qaddafi’s military capacity is a matter of days or weeks, certainly not months."
Days or weeks? Is that how the allies are operating? I pointed out yesterday that they were taking their time to meet in London to discuss the future of Libyan action, and it now seems clear why. When you ask someone for a timeline and they say, "Days of weeks," what they really mean is, "I have no idea."

Obviously Minister Juppe did not want people to think that the allies did not really know what was going on in terms of Libya, so he added that the military operations would not take months. This seems to be in contrast to what top advisor to French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Henri Guaino, said Monday. He was quoted saying that allied intervention in Libya would last "a while yet." Sounds more than "days or weeks" to me.

I don't think anyone can contest this statement anymore: The allies rushed into this military action against Libya with complete disregard to plans beyond the initial strikes. Juppe also told the Times that "You can’t expect us to achieve our objective in just five days." I don't think anyone did, except for the people calling the shots.

Photo - French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe (Wikipedia)

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Gates: Libya? It's "Complicated"

Speaking from Russia days after that Eurasian giant's Prime Minister called the Libyan operations a "crusade," United States Defense Secretary Robert Gates deflected criticism of allied disorganization saying it was "complicated," adding
"We haven't done something like this, kind of on the fly before. So it's not surprising to me that it would take a few days to get it sorted out."
I don't really want to dwell on this because I've spoken a lot about Libya, but the fact that Gates' retort to the questions of what Jack Cafferty calls the "falling apart" of the allied coalition is "We're not really prepared for this, and it's really hard" is disconcerting. It sounds like something I would say in middle school about my math homework.

I'm no military commander, but to bomb targets in a country embroiled in a civil war "on the fly" might not be the best military strategy. Despite Obama's two promises of the United States not taking a leadership role, Gates today also offered to keep the United States leading the Libyan operations for the next week or so. From the New York Times:
But the United States military also indicated on Wednesday that it could sustain its role for some time in the Libya operation without damaging commitments elsewhere, notably in Afghanistan.
The allies who are standing behind the United States in the operations seem to be in no rush to overtake operations from America. From the same New York Times article:
The French foreign minister, Alain Juppé, said on Wednesday that representatives from the United States, Europe, Africa and the Arab nations would meet next week in London to discuss who would be in charge of military operations once the initial onslaught on Libya’s air defense systems and recalcitrant ground forces was complete, The Associated Press said.
Next week? I would like to know what is preventing these countries from meeting before next week. It's clear that there was no plan beyond "Drop some bombs." This is the slowest "on the fly" coalition I've ever seen.

Photo - Defense Secretary Robert Gates (Wikipedia)

Monday, March 21, 2011

Obama Breaking Promises Regarding Libya

One of the most poignant—and very welcome—quote in President Obama's speech on Friday regarding the situation in Libya was,
It is not an action that we will pursue alone. Indeed, our British and French allies, and members of the Arab League, have already committed to take a leadership role in the enforcement of this resolution, just as they were instrumental in pursuing it.
A rational individual reading this quote would assume that this would mean that the United States would be taking a backseat role in the military action in Libya. Welcome news to war-weary Americans who have lived the past ten years with Afghanistan and the past eight with Iraq. As trillions and trillions of dollars leave America for wars on the other side of the world—despite talk of government shutdowns and budget crises—the statement that the U.S. would not be leading these strikes was good news in a bleak financial environment.

Obama repeated this promise on Saturday in Brazil, saying,
As a part of this effort, the United States will contribute our unique capabilities at the front end of the mission to protect Libyan civilians, and enable the enforcement of a no-fly zone that will be led by our international partners.
 So you can imagine my surprise at this headline: "U.S. to hand over Libyan operation to France or UK." Even worse, here was the lead paragraph:
US Defence Secretary Robert Gates today said that his country expects to hand over the leadership of the military operations against Libyan regime to a coalition likely to be headed by either the French, the British or NATO "in a matter of days".
Wait, what? After two assurances from President Obama that the United States would not lead the military operations against Libya we are actually looking to hand over said leadership? And we do not even know to whom?

So I decided to do a quick Google search of "us-led libya." Multiple outlets are referring to the strikes in Libya as "U.S.-led." The Atlantic says that Operation Odyssey Dawn could cost the allies between $400 million and $800 million. The outlet also uses the language of "U.S.-led" operations.

Obama also threw out the phrase "international community" nine times in the two speeches, trying to link the U.S.-led actions as being backed by the world. Unfortunately, this is not the entire truth. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin went so far as to say that the operations reminded him "of a medieval call for a crusade." China tempered their negative response, saying that the actions violated international law and damaged the UN Charter. Both countries abstained from the UN vote authorizing military action in the North African country.

The Arab League, another group touted by Obama as being behind military action in Libya, has not been as supportive as the Obama administration has portrayed. The Secretary General of the League, Amr Moussa, called an emergency meeting to discuss the events. The New York Times characterized the Arab League's opinion of the air strikes as "extreme unhappiness."

Barack Obama talks a big game and has rarely backed it up when it comes to foreign policy. Guantanamo is still open, Bradley Manning is essentially being tortured while Obama's press secretary touts the administration's "transparency," and now the U.S. is leading military action in a country that is not a direct threat to the United States. To make matters worse, a French official has echoed the words of Libyan dictator Moammar Qaddafi, saying Monday that the operations in Libya could last "a while."

Obama's broken promises continue to pile up. The fact that he continually told the American people that the United States would not take a leading role in military action against Libya, while at the same time having the United States take the leading role in military action against Libya, shows just how empty his words have become. One promise that I hope Obama keeps is the one stating that American ground troops will not be deployed in Libya. Given his other promises regarding the country, however, I am not holding my breath.

Photo - Obama during his Libya remarks on Friday (Politico)

Friday, March 18, 2011

Could Libya Become Obama's Iraq?

Today, Barack Obama made a speech regarding the use of American military force in Libya to protect the civilians of the North African country, who have been subject to violent repression from Moammar Qaddafi and his loyalist forces. In it, the president promises some big-ticket items—namely the "protection of civilians in Libya." Listening to the speech I got some flashbacks to the lead-up to the Iraq War at the beginning of the millennium.

The parallels begin with the classic pre-war rhetoric of the "international community." In the case of Saddam, George W. Bush made the case that the Iraqi leader could not care less what the world thought of him and his actions, saying in his 2003 State of the Union Address: "Almost three months ago, the United Nations Security Council gave Saddam Hussein his final chance to disarm. He has shown instead his utter contempt for the United Nations, and for the opinion of the world."

Similarly, Obama today said about Moammar Qaddafi, "Ample warning was given that Qaddafi needed to stop his campaign of repression, or be held accountable.  The Arab League and the European Union joined us in calling for an end to violence. Once again, Qaddafi chose to ignore the will of his people and the international community."

Obama used another pre-war keyword: accountability. Today he said that, "Our focus has been clear: protecting innocent civilians within Libya, and holding the Qaddafi regime accountable." This is not the first time "accountability" has been one of the reasons used to urge military force against a dictator. On March 16, 2003 Dick Cheney told Tim Russert that "Now, with all due respect to the French, if you look back at their track record, they have consistently opposed efforts to hold Saddam Hussein accountable for his actions."

John Kerry used the accountability schtick back in 2004 when he was running for president, defending his vote to authorize use of force in Iraq on Meet the Press by telling Tim Russert, "I supported the notion that we must as a country hold Saddam Hussein accountable for what he was doing."

My question is this: why, all of a sudden, must we hold Qaddafi accountable? Why did we not hold him accountable following the Lockerbie bombing? Or when its perpetrator got a hero's welcome after being released by the British back in 2009? Are we really to believe that, up until the people of Libya tried to overthrow Qaddafi, the Western powers thought that he was a legitimate ruler incapable of these atrocities?

Additionally, the threat of military actions if UN resolutions are not met is nothing new. One of the main justifications for Iraq was Saddam Hussein's continual flouting of measures put upon his regime by the UN.  The key phrase here is "non-negotiable." Obama said, "Let me be clear, these terms are not negotiable." The terms he is referring to regard humanitarian aspects of life—from the cessation of attacks on civilians to everyday items like electricity and water.

Rewind to October 2002, when then-President Bush said the following in Cincinnati in a speech about Iraq: "America believes that all people are entitled to hope and human rights, to the non-negotiable demands of human dignity."

Obama's speech itself also had inherent contradictions. Ezra Klein at the Washington Post made an excellent point when he tweeted, "If Libya collapses into chaos and tribal warfare, how do we protect civilians but not send in ground troops?" If our goal—which Obama made very clear—is to protect Libyan civilians and we cannot do that via air power, what will the administration do? Re-neg on its promise to the Libyan people, or re-neg on its promise to the American people?

Klein made another great point in yet another tweet, talking about Obama's statement, "And we are not going to use force to go beyond a well-defined goal -- specifically, the protection of civilians in Libya." One major issue that American foreign policy has faced in the past decade is a lack of definition of important terms like "victory." George W. Bush's assertion of "Mission Accomplished" in Iraq simply underscores the point.

Beyond all of this, there is another issue that military action in Libya will create. With the precedent set of American military power entering North African/Middle Eastern countries that are not direct threats to American sovereignty, where will it end? Which countries will be "graced" with an American military presence and which will be left to their dictators' whims? Do the developments in Yemen and Bahrain warrant American military action? What makes Libya so special in our protection of its civilians?

While Obama may believe that American military action in Libya is good for the international community, it is important to remember that George W. Bush thought the same thing about invading Iraq. The justifications both have been highlighting—dangerous leaders shunning the international community, holding dictators accountable, non-negotiable human rights—are eerily similar. And before people say that Obama is very different from Bush, I would agree only when it comes to domestic matters. But when it comes to foreign policy—Guantanamo detainee treatment and Pakistani predator drones especially—to me they're quite similar. They share a Secretary of Defense, to boot.

I hope I am wrong, and there is plenty of things that can happen between now and a ground war in Libya. We are nowhere near the "point of no return." The justifications being used, however, for military action in Libya seem to mirror those used for military action in Iraq. Say what you want about Libya being different from Iraq; the problem is that I seem to have heard it all before.