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Bush’s Energy Catch-22

Matthew Silver

Emerging from a military bunker in Colorado from which he monitored an incoming storm, President Bush is preaching conservation. Not for the environment — for gasoline. The irony of this scene merits attention. It highlights a pivotal failing of the current Bush administration that began nearly from his inauguration: a complete lack of coherent, long-term vision.

The specific threat of WMDs notwithstanding, two years ago, the Bush administration took us to war in Iraq for strategic, not tactical, reasons. It is relatively clear that the architects of that war saw it as strategically advantageous along multiple dimensions (for those who would live through it): We topple a dictator, re-open massive oil fields to counter Saudi leverage in OPEC, insert a friendly government between Iran and Syria that will help stymie the then-growing network of nuclear proliferation, and liberate a people oppressed for years.

The superficial problem was that the entire plan hinged on wishful thinking: The Iraqis would hail us liberators and freedom would ensue. More fundamentally, however, the short-term solution was at odds with the real long-term problem: our dependence on foreign oil.

This dependence is, of course, partially responsible for our pressing global environmental problems. The Bush administration’s record in this regard is well known. The Kyoto Treaty, we are told, was rejected on economic grounds. The Bush administration has favored opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for exploration. However, even if the region was a veritable sea of oil, it would do little to alleviate our energy problems. Again, short-term benefits to the economy and oil-companies, respectively, are traded for long-term problems.

Now, many of these issues have come full circle. Rising ocean temperatures, likely caused by atmospheric carbon dioxide released from coal and oil, have unleashed powerful storms and disrupted our oil supplies. Bush belatedly steps into military mode and preaches restraint in oil consumption. In other words, the Bush administration goes to war against a storm brought about in part by the same set of policies that led us to war in Iraq, the latter having little to do with restraining oil consumption — so much for coherence.

President Bush cannot really be blamed for the hurricane, and the need to conserve oil was temporary. But the irony of the scene underscores two critical points about our current state of affairs and Bush administration policies. First, the greatest problems facing the U.S. today, including terrorism, nuclear proliferation, economic stability and growth, global environmental change, and international health concerns, are intimately interconnected, and therefore demand systemic responses. As recent scholarship at MIT emphasizes, systemic problems demand responses sensitive to dynamic interdependencies. This means understanding how our actions in one area may affect another.

Second, many of Bush’s policies provide short-term and ad-hoc solutions that are ignorant of, or even contrary to, such long-term dynamics. The list extends beyond our currently contradictory energy/environmental policies. The Department of Defense, for example, has increased its “information war” to sway anti-American sentiment abroad, meanwhile the Bush administration has closed U.S.-sponsored libraries in the Middle East that encourage real education and freedom of thought. The Bush administration has based its foreign policy on the noble goal of increasing political freedom, yet it undercuts its legitimacy by denying basic freedoms to prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.

The cynic will argue that many of these policies are the result of necessity, whether political, military, or otherwise, and that the president is therefore not responsible for their lack of coherence. To the contrary, given the strength of the U.S. in the world today, it is our actions more than others that dictate the terms of international discourse. And it is the mark of great leadership, or simply competent leadership, to shape, rather be shaped by, events.

The unfortunate landfall of two hurricanes last month briefly thrust the contradictory nature of our energy and environmental policies into the spotlight. In the absence of policy changes that take the long-term interdependence of these and other issues into consideration, I suppose the Bush administration is simply praying the weather will treat us better in the future.

Matthew Silver is a research scientist in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics.