Thomas Friedman: Fill ‘Er Up With Dictators

For the last two paragraphs alone…

Fill ‘Er Up With Dictators
Published: September 27, 2006

What’s a matter? No sense of humor? You didn’t enjoy watching Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez addressing the U.N. General Assembly and saying of President Bush: ‘The devil came here yesterday, right here. It smells of sulfur still today.’ Many U.N. delegates roared with laughter.

Oh well then, you must have enjoyed watching Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad breezing through New York City, lecturing everyone from the U.N. to the Council on Foreign Relations on the evils of American power and how the Holocaust was just a myth.

C’mon then, you had to at least have gotten a chuckle out of China’s U.N. ambassador, Wang Guangya, trying to block a U.N. resolution calling for the deployment of peacekeeping troops to Sudan to halt the genocide in Darfur. I’m sure it had nothing to do with the fact that the China National Petroleum Corporation owns 40 percent of the Sudan consortium that pumps over 300,000 barrels of oil a day from Sudanese wells.

No? You’re not having fun? Well, you’d better start seeing the humor in all this, because what all these stories have in common is today’s most infectious geopolitical disease: petro-authoritarianism.

Yes, we thought that the fall of the Berlin Wall was going to unleash an unstoppable wave of free markets and free people, and it did for about a decade, when oil prices were low. But as oil has moved to $60 to $70 a barrel, it has fostered a counterwave – a wave of authoritarian leaders who are not only able to ensconce themselves in power because of huge oil profits but also to use their oil wealth to poison the global system – to get it to look the other way at genocide, or ignore an Iranian leader who says from one side of his mouth that the Holocaust is a myth and from the other that Iran would never dream of developing nuclear weapons, or to indulge a buffoon like Chavez, who uses Venezuela’s oil riches to try to sway democratic elections in Latin America and promote an economic populism that will eventually lead his country into a ditch.

For a lot of reasons – some cyclical, some technical and some having to do with the emergence of alternative fuels and conservation – the price of crude oil has fallen lately to around $60 a barrel. Yes, in the long run, we want the global price of oil to go down. But we don’t want the price of gasoline to go down in America just when $3 a gallon has started to stimulate large investments in alternative energies. That is exactly what OPEC wants – let the price fall for a while, kill the alternatives, and then bring it up again.

For now, we still need to make sure, either with a gasoline tax or a tariff on imported oil, that we keep the price at the pump at $3 or more – to stimulate various alternative energy programs, more conservation and a structural shift by car buyers and makers to more fuel-efficient vehicles.

‘If Bush were the leader he claims to be, he would impose an import fee right now to keep gasoline prices high, and reduce the tax rate on Social Security for low-income workers, so they would get an offsetting increase in income,’ argued Philip Verleger Jr., the veteran energy economist.

That is how we can permanently break our oil addiction, and OPEC, and free ourselves from having to listen to these petro-authoritarians, who are all so smug – not because they are educating their people or building competitive modern economies, but because they happen to sit on oil.

According to, in 2005 Iran earned $44.6 billion from crude oil exports, its main source of income. In the same year, the mullahs spent $25 billion on subsidies to buy off the population. Bring the price of oil down to $30 and guess what happens: All of Iran’s income goes to subsidies. That would put a terrible strain on Ahmadinejad, who would have to reach out to the world for investment. Trust me, at $30 a barrel, the Holocaust isn’t a myth anymore.

But right now, Chavez, Ahmadinejad and all their petrolist pals think we are weak and will never bite the bullet. They have our number. They know that Mr. Bush is a phony – that he always presents himself as this guy ready to make the ‘tough’ calls, but in reality he has not asked his party, the Congress, the people, or U.S. industry to do one single hard thing to reduce our dependence on foreign oil.

Mr. Bush prattles on about spreading democracy and freedom, but history will actually remember the Bush years as the moment when petro-authoritarianism – not freedom and democracy – spread like a wildfire and he did nothing serious to stop it.

The Discussion: 9 Comments

Funny, there was one petro-dictator’s name I didn’t see mentioned here. Not Bush (although he was not defined as such.) I mean President Cheney, who fits the characteristics of the label…

September 27, 2006 @ 3:32 pm | Comment

F**k yeah. Sometimes I feel like I’m one of the only people out there who roots for high gas prices. The fact that gas prices have mysteriously dropped as we head towards the midterm elections – well, not only is it an attempt to influence elections, it’s profoundly unpatriotic, on both a nationalistic level and on that of us all being global citizens.

BTW, California, for all its car culture, is the sixth lowest state in per capita gas usage, and the lowest user per capita of electricity. There was a great NY Times article about this and CA’s attempts to reduce greenhouse gasses – I blogged about it if you are interested – not for my post so much but for the link to the article, which I found really inspiring.

September 27, 2006 @ 3:41 pm | Comment

“For the last two paragraphs alone”

Yes that pretty much seems to shed a light on your attitude. Focus on and amplify any criticism of Bush and ignore the broader story.

I wonder how many people like me visit your site just to see your posts on China and skip over all your Bush-is-Satan-because-the-NYT-tells-me-so posts. This stuff really does a disservice to your blog. It keeps its appeal narrowed to a much smaller audience. But, hey, this is your blog.

September 27, 2006 @ 8:52 pm | Comment

Whatever. Want to know the funny thing? I get more links for my domestic US politics posts than my China posts. Go read some other people’s comments here, like Slim and Lisa and Davesgonechina, etc. Being a liberal is pat of who I am, and if you don’t like it, no one forces you to come here. If so many people hate this so much, why do they read my liberal posts, comment on them and keep coming back? You can always just skip them. But then, I suspect there’s a bit of a liberal deep underneath that cold, leathery exterior,Jay. You’ve just to get in touch with your Inner Frenchman. Try it, you’ll like it. 🙂

Thanks for commenting.

September 27, 2006 @ 9:42 pm | Comment

troll – pasted this same comment in six threads

September 27, 2006 @ 11:40 pm | Comment

Wow, Tom Friedman wrote something that wasn’t fatuous garbage! He does seem to be drawing ever closer to reality, which I guess is a good thing, though it certainly would’ve been nice if it’d happened years ago.

Here’s something that the US does not seem to get: China is going to absolutely pants it when it comes to oil supplies. Chinese foreign policy is incredibly smart in this area: they invest money in various African (and some South American, I think) countries for several reasons:
1 – These countries historically had Taiwan buying their support in the UN. Taiwan can’t pay for friends anymore, or at any rate can’t pay more than the PRC, and China is now buying off the last remaining banana republics that recognize the ROC.
2 – These countries will in the short term be markets for Chinese companies – look at the communications companies Huawei and ZTE, which have provided communications networks in bumloads of African and Eastern European countries, and are only now breaking into more developed markets. In the longer term, these countries will provide cheap manufacturing for China. ZTE began manufacturing handsets in Nigeria about a year ago.
3 – China historically provided funding and aid to its revolutionary brothers in Africa and South America; this continues the tradition.
4 – China is buying good will throughout the world, something the US has been distinctly shit at for the last while. Look at the 2004 BBC World Service poll in which 7% more of respondents said that China was a “mostly positive” influence than said the same of the US. (Though interestingly, the same poll finds that the US is slightly higher-rated in African countries than China is, so maybe I’m barking up the wrong tree with this one.)
5 – In the meantime, you know, while they’re there and all, they’re looking for oil. In most of the countries, this won’t turn anything up, but they’re expecting to strike big in some African countries, and it doesn’t hurt that they’re buddy-buddy with Venezuela either.

Friedman doesn’t seem to get this, which isn’t surprising since he’s a polyanna and a tool, but not many other people seem to get it either, which is surprising.
There’s an analogy to be made here, and I would notmally hold back from making it since it’s so facile (to say nothing of playing into the tired old notions that “the US is straightforward; China is inscrutable”), but I can’t really resist here: the US is playing chess – moving predictably and mostly in one direction – while China is positioning its pieces around the edges of the board, like a go player. I thought about sending that one to Friedman, but he’d probably just get another book out of it.

September 27, 2006 @ 11:52 pm | Comment

Hey Jay, the bigger story is the constant attack on the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Bush will be gone soon, but the neo-con, religious right attacks will continue. Richard, Lisa and the rest of the vigilant “liberals” are trying to expose the erosion of the core values of the Constitution. By the way liberal is some one who is open to new ideas and change, conservative is some one who is cautious and prudent. Both are great qualities to have and are not mutually exclusive.

September 28, 2006 @ 1:38 am | Comment

Brendan, I agree – I am in awe of Hu’s dexterity when it comes to foreign policy, usually, at least. He’s sewn up some brilliant deals. I might not like who he’s dealing with, but there’s no enying the man is shrewd and smart.

September 28, 2006 @ 8:31 am | Comment

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