It is a commonplace, but it is true, that every political campaign “skirts” any number of “issues.” There is a tacit agreement among the candidates to avoid discussion of matters of great national consequence that are controversial and transcend party lines. When they talk about Big Issues, candidates resort to jargon or sound bites — two examples, in this context, of the same style. Asking voters to think not selfishly but as citizens — to think for the Republic, not for themselves — forces candidates to risk alienating acquired voters in exchange for possible ones. Politicians prefer not to force voters to be grown-ups and free men and to think for themselves.
There is nothing wrong with pocketbook issues, quite the contrary. A voter should understand the practical consequences of policy choices to him and his family. However, would-be leaders have a pedagogic responsibility (this goes back to Aristotle) to instruct their fellow-citizens on the significance of choices in the public realm. Otherwise, what is the point of being a nation? We certainly should know whether, and how, public health insurance risks bankrupting our society for good and whether it jeopardizes progress in medical science. We also should ponder whether the Great Republic was set up as a health co-op and what turning it into one will do to our virtues, such as they are.
The great model of American politicians being man enough not to skirt the issue remains the Illinois Senate campaign of 1858, won by Stephen Douglas but in the longer view of course won by Abraham Lincoln. The two men confronted the crucial issue of their time without artifice, which is why they were able at times to get quite “technical,” as we would say today, about it. Can the union and slavery both continue? Lincoln and Douglas could be evasive, even ambiguous, but they were not equivocal, and they viewed citizens as thinking adults. It may be sanctimonious of me to say so (ugly, ugly), but how often do elected mandarins address their fellow citizens without cynicism? Barry Goldwater defined the issue of the mid-century as statism vs. liberty, arguably enabling Ronald Reagan to win in 1980 somewhat the way Lincoln’s clarity of purpose in 1858 enabled him to win in 1860.
WELL, HERE I AM GETTING pedantic, a sin against teaching. But you see my point. There are at least two foreign policy issues that are arguably as important to our Great Republic as were slavery in the mid-19th century and the statist-vs.-liberty debate in the mid-20th. These are our relations with China and our relations with the oil-producing states. And nary a candidate has brought them up yet.
If I find this astonishing it may mean I am a sanctimonious pest, but the fact is that we Americans, as citizens, ought to be grateful if someone running for office, between now and November, causes us the pain and anguish of thinking about China and oil as national, not pocketbook, issues.
If you do not mind, I will return to China in due course, but today I would suggest some smart-aleck such as myself in the press corps (when I am not teaching or playing tennis) seize the next opportunity to get the ball bouncing by asking any candidate just what exactly prevents us from seizing the oil fields? We have the finest army in the world a few miles from the world’s major reserves of hydrocarbons, am I correct? The Saudi regime, the emirates of the Gulf, would all be dead were it not for the American and British uniforms that guard them. Neither the Iraqi army, weakened by the tribal and sectarian fissures in the Tigris-Euphrates so-called cradle of civilization (as well as by our own misguided policies), nor the politicized, paranoiac Persian forces are in any position to resist a focused application of American military power.
Focused on what? Why, very simply, on the oil fields, the world’s energy jugular. The pre-modern state of communal relations, otherwise known as politics, in the Middle East and more narrowly in the Gulf region is really not our problem. It becomes our problem when the locals begin threatening the rest of the world with ruin. That is the only rationale for going into those places in the first place, never mind whatever harebrained rationale Paul Wolfowitz and the rest of the misnamed “neo-conservatives” sold President Bush in 2003. They claimed the WMD issue was important and effective as a selling point, but the problem, they said, was tyranny; hence the solution was to midwife a culture of freedom in the Middle East. This remains the thesis of the only really knowledgeable “neo-conservative” (a misnomer, I repeat) supporting the administration, Fouad Ajami.
Observe that theirs was not an indefensible rationale, only perilously abstract. In public affairs we should not be debating the nature of foreign regimes, only that of our own. The warhawks should have put it to the president, and thence to the rest of us, far more simply: Can we, as a free and democratic Republic, co-exist with regimes and movements advancing under the banner of militant Islam? Yet notwithstanding the misleading way they put the issue, it still would have been more defensible had their planning for occupying parts of the Arab world been more in keeping with the sort of intelligence they display when they move ideas across pages, rather than real men across real territory. Tut-tut there I go again with the sanctimony, sorry.
Apart from all the other mischief they have proven capable of, the miscellaneous tribes of Araby and environs are now partaking of the wreckage of the world’s economies. They are provoking Biblical scourges, notably starvation. Doing something about that, rather than building nations in the “cradle of civilization” (so I repeat myself), is a mission worthy of the world’s first new nation and still its most generous.
Those who are holding the world’s masses hostage to hydrocarbons must be stopped. And if not by us, by whom? And why should we wait until they figure out how to build viable democratic institutions?
WHAT IS TO PREVENT US from seizing the oil fields? The U.S. Army can solemnly announce that it will not take a dime from their exploitation beyond operating costs, and surely there are economists who can figure out how to set up a distribution system that will not wreck the world’s oil markets, with all the ramifications that would bring about. I am in particular thinking of what a provisional neo-colonial administration of the Gulf’s oil resources might do to Africa’s booming oil industries. For what it is worth, the European dependence of Russian oil will be lessened by our seizure of the Middle East’s reserves.
Price controls fail. However, this is not a matter of price controls but of replacing a cartel run by tyrants with a commission that, notwithstanding your private thoughts about the U.S. government, will still be overseen by the U.S. government. Which has got to be better than a committee of Caribbean caudillos and Saudi princes.
Anyway, let the morrow take care of itself. Here we have an election in which the word change seems to come up like a bad intestinal disorder, and yet of changing an oil regime that is putting the entire world at risk of terminal disease, nary a word. Basically, this regime was set up before World War II and consolidated in the 1950s as the Brits retreated from east of Suez, and it consists very simply of this: you (Gulf Arabs) run this industry on market principles and we (Yanks) protect you. Well, hell.
Years ago, one of the most interesting writers to appear in Mr. Norman Podhoretz’s Commentary was a charming, funny, and elegant man named Professor Robert W. Tucker, with whom I used to meet for dinner from time to time at Mr. Lewis Lehrman’s townhouse in the East 70’s. I liked Mr. Lehrman, who was even more elegant than Professor Tucker — a great teacher — and I was disappointed when he failed in his bid for the New York governorship, losing to Mr. Mario Cuomo, who very nearly bankrupted the state while trying to make up his mind about no one remembers what. I should have volunteered to help Mr. Lehrman, he might have been a contender. I was selfish, accepted his hospitality. and did not help in his campaign. Charitably, he never blamed me. But we must turn our failed pages.
Professor Tucker had a great idea that failed to catch on, and whereas Mr. Lehrman probably cannot return to New York politics (though after the matter of that man with the calf-length black socks, who knows?), this idea may get a second chance. Very simply, he proposed what I am suggesting now, seize the oil fields. His position was that it was in our national interest to do so and, following the oil shocks of the 1970s, he argued, it was in the interest of the emerging states of what still was called the Third World, as well. Immense zones of the Third World by now have descended into something like the Fourth and will very soon be in the Fifth if the oil billionaires continue to have their way. So I ask you again, what’s stopping us?
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