I was waiting eagerly to read President Bush's "State of the Union" address, so I could compare it to the one proposed last week by the New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman (see photo). This is a comparison that Friedman himself invited by writing the kind of speech that he virtually dared Bush to make -- one styled after the inspiring speech by John F. Kennedy when he announced plans for Americans to go to the moon. If Friedman were president, his speech would go like this:
"I am here to tell you that if we don't move away from our dependence on oil and shift to renewable fuels, it will change our way of life for the worse -- and soon -- much, much more than communism ever could have. Making this transition is the calling of our era....
"With all this in mind, I am sending Congress the Bush Energy Freedom Act. It is based on ideas first offered by the energy expert Philip Verleger and it argues the following:
"Transportation accounts for most of our oil consumption. And many Americans have purchased big cars and SUVs, expecting gasoline to remain cheap. That is no longer the case. Therefore, I propose creating a government agency that will buy up any gas-guzzling car or truck in America at the original new or used price, and crush it. This national buy-back program will be financed by a $2-a-gallon gasolline tax that will be phased in by 10 cents a month beginning in 2008 -- so people know what is coming and start buying fuel-efficient cars right now.
"By removing so many gas guzzlers, we will quickly reduce our oil consumption and create a huge demand for new energy-efficient cars from Detroit, which will rescue our auto industry....[B]y sharply raising the gasoline tax, we'll also make sure that Detroit shifts its fleet to energy-saving plug-in hybrids and hydrogen- and ethanol-fueled vehicles, which will force Detroit to out-innovate Toyota. And by sharply raising the gasoline tax, we will be able to give gas-tax rebates to lower-income folks and have plenty left over to pay for new investment in education and scientific research."
Now that would really be a speech! Of course, it didn't happen. President Bush did, for almost the first time, acknowledge that Americans need to overcome our "addiction to oil." That's a rhetorical advance for him. However, apart from stating that the solution would come from technology, he did not spell out any steps that must be taken in that direction. It's up to the rest of us to publicize the Friedman-Verleger specifics.
And -- hallelujah -- the rest of us are getting engaged. An hour ago I was accosted on the street by two young men who were asking me to join their organization, Environmental Action, which is working to promote awareness of these issues among legislators. I joined. They say that there's a bill in Congress now, H.R. 4384, the "Save Our Energy For Our Future Act" that will require greater efficiency in autos. Apparently it was only introduced a short while ago and has not been publicized much yet. But hang on: We'll have a chance to start lobbying for this initiative when Congress gets in gear with it.
But Thomas L. Friedman is still on the case. Today he addressed quite a different aspect of the oil addiction -- one that should make even President Bush pay attention, since Bush has justified his Iraq war on the argument that we need to help spread democracy.
I agree with him on that point. (Lots of my friends don't, since they don't believe that democracy can be exported.) Well, it has been assisted abroad before, and there is no reason why it cannot be again -- except, probably, in "rentier" economies: those based on extractive industries (especially mining) that can be seized by a small elite. The diamone minesin Africa have enabled a tyranny to exist, since there is no separate, independent middle class.
But by far the most conspicuous rentier economies are based on oil. As Friedman points out in his column of today, that's why the Middle Eastern countries have fallen under the sway of hard-line Islamic fundamentalists in every oil-producing Arab country that has adopted democracy. This happens because the dictators of these countries have based their power on oil, and as soon as they are swept away, there is no other centre of power to take their place. Friedman writes,
"How so? Let's start with Iron Rule No. 1 of Arab-Muslim political life today: You cannot go from Saddam to Jefferson without going through Khomeini -- without going through a phase of mosque-led politics....
'There is nothing between the ruling palace and the mosque. ...The mosque became an alternative power center because it was the only place the government's iron fist could not fully penetrate."
Friedman's observation is familiar to me, since I read my friend John Bacher's excellent book, Petrotyranny, which explained the remarkable correlation between dictatorship and an economy enriched by oil. (Norway is almost the only exception. It was already democratic when the North Sea oil money started to flow in, and it has been an exemplary state since then, helping resolve conflicts abroad --e.g. Sri Lanka and Burma -- and contributing more than one percent of its GDP to development assistance.)
The failure to spread democracy cannot be blamed on the advice of the experts who went to help put together new constitutions. On Monday I am going to Stanford to interview Larry Diamond, who went to Iraq to work on their new post-Saddam constitution. I've been reading his book, Squandered Victory, which reveals the careful attention that he and the Iraqi experts gave to its details. They worried about every little possible shortcoming in the document that might allow a new dictator to gain power.But of course they could not change the society. As Friedman observes, the splits between factions of that society reflect the religious splits. Independent institutions were never allowed to grow up between Saddam and the mullahs. Pluralistic democracy depends on the existence of contending centres of power in the society. The best constitution in the world cannot prevail in that situation. They probably cannot go from Saddam to Jefferson without going through Khomenei.