How Obama has disarmed his most potent weapon in the Syria conflict

Cliff Smith Attorney
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The Obama Administration’s mismanagement of the Syrian crisis has been so obvious to most observers, and has drawn the ire of so many people from so many different political points of view, that there is little to be said that has not already been said. Yet there is one not-entirely-obvious aspect that hasn’t been widely discussed, and that is role of Obama’s energy policy has played, or rather not played, in his Middle East policy.

The Obama Administration rode into office on a self-created wave of irrational exuberance about green energy. Wind, solar, ethanol and other so-called green energy sources were going to be “invested” in by a stimulus package and subsequent spending, were going to create tens or hundreds-of-thousands of green jobs, and be a boon for our economy, our environment, and our foreign policy since we’d be “weaned off foreign oil.”

Well, that was before Solyndra and its brethren. By the end of 2012, 34 companies were either in bankruptcy, or were headed in that direction. It cost the taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars, not to mention the huge opportunity costs and crowd-out effects these efforts caused. He hasn’t talked much about green jobs since.

On the flipside, the Obama Administration has done virtually everything it could to stop increased energy production in every other sector.  From repeatedly delaying the Keystone Pipeline to stopping costal exploration, to putting breaksin various ways, on all kinds of fracking projects even though his own Energy Department has found no link between fracking and pollution of water sources, Obama has done much to hurt domestic energy production.

To some extent, Obama has been saved from himself by flyover states like North Dakota, where the discovery of the Bakken Oil Fields, on private land as opposed to federally owned land, has led to vastly increased production. This has helped kept oil prices more level even as demand for oil continues to rise globally. He’s even taken credit for the increased production, which of course he has nothing to do with, as it was a result either of Bush-era permitting or private land development. Nonetheless, after a brief drop in oil prices at the height of the recession, oil prices have gone up and are likely to continue to do so. Obama’s kneecapping of new energy production means that has little power to reverse that trend.

What does all this have to do with Syria and the Middle East? It remains true, as we were repeatedly warned during the Bush era, that our oil dollars often wind up in the hands of unsavory regimes. Syria itself is not a major oil producer, at least by Middle Eastern standards, producing only about half a percent of the world’s oil in 2010. War and sanctions against the regime have driven production significantly lower still. Oil remains a big part of Syria’s beleaguered economy, and it has been a major source of funding for the Assad regime. More significantly, however, is the fact that Syria’s two biggest backers, Iran and Russia, are enormously important oil-producing nations. Iran has bankrolled Assad’s corrupt regime and his now semi-allies Hezbollah for decades with their oil revenue, and it is only because of Russia’s backing that the Assad regime has survived for a myriad of reasons.

Here, history is instructive. The famed “Oil Weapon” of the 1970’s which supposedly was aimed at America’s head turned out to be a boomerang upon closer examination. Other nations rely far more on American dollars than we do on their oil, and to the extent we can lower energy prices, we have them in a vice. America has used this power before, to great effect.

In the middle 1980’s, when the Reagan administration was at the apex of its economic war against the Soviet Union, Reagan, in a covert action, convinced Saudi Arabia to vastly increase oil production. The floor dropped out on energy prices. This had a devastating effect on the economy of the USSR and their ally, Iran. Soviet Central Committee Member Yevgenny Novikov said that “The drop in oil prices was devastating, just devastating. It was a catastrophic event.” It was a major piece of what caused Russia to abandon Afghanistan and later withdraw from Eastern Europe without a shot being fired. The drop in prices also forced Iran to scale back its war with Iraq. Likewise, the great decrease in Russian adventurism in the 90s and 2000s, while clearly related to the fall of communism, also is related to the decrease in oil revenue flowing into Russia. It is only this year that Russia’s oil output reached similar levels to the Soviet era. Sanctions on Iran alone have pushed the regime to the brink. Dropping the price of oil would do that much more to damage the regime.

It’s true that the newly available energy sources in the U.S. cannot be turned on like a spigot the way Saudi Arabia’s could. But the sheer size of the as-yet-unrealized U.S. potential that is sitting largely idle under the Obama Administration has the potential to upend energy markets.  Dropping the price alone would do a lot to accomplish our objectives. A skillful diplomatic effort could effectively utilize this tool to seriously alter the behavior of problematic regimes like Russia, Iran, and Syria.

Obama has a very powerful, unused weapon to shape economic and foreign policy if he was willing to use it. But so long as his Administration ideologically committed to environmental extremism, both his economic and foreign policy will suffer greatly. And so will his country.