Cut oil prices and tyrants will fallDAVOS, Switzerland One of the most striking things I've found in Europe these past two weeks is the absolute conviction that the Bush team is just itching to invade Iran to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons.
Psssssssst. Come over here. A little closer. Now listen: Don't tell the Iranians this, but the Bush team isn't going to be invading anybody. We Americans don't have enough troops to finish the job in Iraq. Our military budget is completely maxed out. We couldn't invade Grenada today. If Iran is to forgo developing nuclear weapons, it will only be because the Europeans' diplomatic approach manages to persuade Tehran to do so.
For two years the Europeans have been telling the Bush administration that its use of force to prevent states from developing nuclear weapons has been a failure in Iraq and that the Europeans have a better way - multilateral diplomacy using carrots and sticks. Well, Europe, as we say in baseball, "You're up."
"I think this is an absolute test case for Europe's ability to lay out its own idea for a joint agenda with the United States to deal with a problem like Iran," said the Oxford historian Timothy Garton Ash, author of "Free World: America, Europe and the Surprising Future of the West." "OK, we think bombing Iran is a bad idea. What is a good idea?" For the Europeans to be successful, though, Ash said, they can't just be offering carrots. They have to credibly convey to Iran that they will wield their own stick. They have to credibly convey that they will refer Iran to the Security Council for real sanctions, if it is unwilling to strike a deal involving nuclear inspections in return for normalized economic relations with the West.
"Very often there is the notion that Europe is the soft cop and the U.S. is the hard cop," Ash said. "Here it must be the other way around. Europe has to talk as credibly about using economic sanctions as some in Washington have talked about using military force."
The United States has to help. The carrot the Iranians want for abandoning their nuclear program is not just unfettered trade with the West, but some kind of assurances that if they give up their nuclear research programs, the United States will agree to some kind of nonaggression accord. The Bush team has been reluctant to do this, because it wants regime change in Iran. (This is a mistake; we need to concentrate for now on changing the behavior of the Iranian regime and strengthening the reformers, and letting them handle the regime change.)
If multilateral diplomacy is to work to defuse the brewing Iran nuclear crisis, "the Europeans have to offer a more credible stick and the Americans need to offer a more credible carrot," Ash said. But the Europeans are not good at credibly threatening force.
That's why this is a serious moment. If Britain, France and Germany, which are spearheading Europe's negotiations with Iran, fail, and if the U.S. use of force in Iraq - even if it succeeds - proves way too messy, expensive and dangerous to be repeated anytime soon, where are we? Is there any other way the West can promote real reform in the Middle East?
Yes, there is an alternative to the Euro-wimps and the neocons, and it is the "geo-greens." I am a geo-green. The geo-greens believe that, going forward, if we put all our focus on reducing the price of oil - by conservation, by developing renewable and alternative energies and by expanding nuclear power - we will force more reform than by any other strategy. You give me $18-a-barrel oil and I will give you political and economic reform from Algeria to Iran. All these regimes have huge population bubbles and too few jobs. They make up the gap with oil revenues. Shrink the oil revenue and they will have to open up their economies and their schools and liberate their women so that their people can compete. It is that simple.
By refusing to rein in America's energy consumption, the Bush administration is not only depriving itself of the most effective lever for promoting internally driven reform in the Middle East, it is also depriving itself of any military option. As Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, points out, given today's tight oil market and current U.S. consumption patterns, any kind of U.S. strike on Iran, one of the world's major oil producers, would send the price of oil through the roof, causing real problems for our economy. "Our own energy policy has tied our hands," Haass said.
The Bush team's laudable desire to promote sustained reform in the Middle East will never succeed unless it moves from neocon to geo-green.