- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 14, 2006

One of the most unasked questions in politics is “then what?” The aftermaths of the war in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina and the Medicare prescription-drug plan are vivid examples of the failure to ask and to answer this question. Energy is another.

In his State of the Union address, President Bush promised future energy independence. Who would disagree, even though we have been there before without success? More than 30 years ago, after the oil embargo precipitated by the October 1973 Arab-Israeli War, President Nixon created Project Independence to free America from dependence on Middle East oil. Thirty years from now, a future president may well be repeating a similar clarion call.

Mr. Bush is correct: Much of the world’s energy comes from unstable regions largely in or around the greater Middle East. Iran is the current hot spot, as much of the world attempts to convince the mullahs that acquiring nuclear weapons is in no one’s interest. At the same time, Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, threatened to leave the Non-Proliferation Treaty as well to wipe Israel off the map. While diplomacy is the sensible solution, when the U.N. Security Council deliberates over the IAEA’s report on Iran’s nuclear programs, the question of sanctions will arise again.

Suppose that sanctions are (eventually) applied against Iran. And suppose that Iran imposes a reverse oil embargo against the West. While there is no certainty of their economic consequence or whether these events would happen, it is important to ask “then what?” Now and not later.

A second and increasingly plausible oil scenario concerns Nigeria. Over the past month, at least three attacks against oil rigs in the Gulf of Guinea and pumping stations ashore were reported. With a population of about 130 million, half of whom are Muslim, and a tragic history of civil war and violence and endemic corruption, it would be foolish to think that jihadists somewhere do not have an eye on Nigeria. Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo is term-limited, but with no successor in sight. Next year’s elections could prove explosive. Congress has limited U.S. assistance because Nigeria has not returned Liberian dictator Charles Taylor to stand trial despite outstanding warrants.

Nigeria pumps about 2 million barrels of oil a day, about the same as pre-war Iraq, and it has huge natural gas deposits. Suppose that political unrest leads to cutoffs and interruptions of oil, especially if rebels see that as the best way to leverage the West. Then what?

Within our own hemisphere, with Evo Morales’ election in Bolivia and the ever-present Fidel Castro irritant in Cuba, can or will Venezuela President Hugo Chavez attempt to exercise his country’s vast oil reserves as political leverage? Then what?

The West has not recently worried publicly about instability in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states closing the oil spigot. However, Shi’ite-dominated Iraq and Iran and continuing jihadist pressure against the ruling regimes in the Gulf could test this longstanding assumption.

Finally, Europeans are concerned that Russia may not guarantee access to energy promised by President Vladimir Putin. The cutoff of natural gas to Ukraine last month also hit Europe because the gas lines run west through Ukraine. While Russia will make energy security the theme for the G-8 meeting in St. Petersburg, there is ample nervousness in Western capitals that must be eased through practical actions and not merely rhetoric.

In a perfect world, the U.S. government would be carefully considering these energy-security-related contingencies as well as many others. But will any administration plan using the criterion of “then what” or have the courage to consider a full range of possible counteractions? Civil war in Nigeria or Saudi Arabia and the cut-off of oil would raise the issue of intervention. Similar arguments were made in late 1973 to control Saudi oil fields after the embargo was imposed. Today, some in that region fully expect that if the Saudi government faltered, the United States would occupy the oil rich eastern provinces. However, when such thinking became public as it would, any administration irrespective of party would probably be under intense fire for contemplating a military response.

So, then what? We have no national appetite to take the steps needed for true energy independence and prefer to be profligate in the use of energy while eschewing nuclear power and other alternatives. Hence, at a minimum, far more active preventive and public diplomacy to mitigate instability from denying the world access to energy supplies must be pursued.

The first step is to recognize these contingencies and have the courage to set out the full range of possible responses. Second is to bring together international partnerships to mitigate or prevent these untoward contingencies from happening. But besides asking “then what?” even more crucial is “will we?”

Harlan Ullman is a columnist for The Washington Times. His next book, “America’s Promise Restored Preventing Culture, Crusade and Partisanship from Wrecking the Country,” is due out this spring.

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