No More Mr. Tough Guy

By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN

New York Times

February 8, 2006

I've always thought Dick Cheney took national security seriously. I don't anymore. It seems that Mr. Cheney is so convinced that we have no choice but to be dependent on crude oil, so convinced that conservation is just some silly liberal hobby, that he will never seriously summon the country to kick its oil habit, never summon it to do anything great.

Indeed, he seems determined to be a drag on any serious effort to make America energy-independent. He presents all this as a tough-guy "realist" view of the world. But it's actually an ignorant and naïve view — one that underestimates what Americans can do, and totally misses how the energy question has overtaken Iraq as the most important issue in U.S. foreign policy. If he persists, Mr. Cheney is going to ensure that the Bush team squanders its last three years — and a lot more years for the country.

Listen to Mr. Cheney's answer when the conservative talk show host Laura Ingraham asked him how he reacted to my urgings for a gasoline tax to push all Americans to drive energy-saving vehicles and make us energy-independent — now.

"Well, I don't agree with that," Mr. Cheney said. "I think — the president and I believe very deeply that, obviously, the government has got a role to play here in terms of supporting research into new technologies and encouraging the development of new methods of generating energy. ... But we also are big believers in the market, and that we need to be careful about having government come in, for example, and tell people how to live their lives. ... This notion that we have to 'impose pain,' some kind of government mandate, I think we would resist. The marketplace does work out there."

What is he talking about? The global oil market is anything but free. It's controlled by the world's largest cartel — OPEC — which sets output, and thereby prices, according to the needs of some of the worst regimes in the world. By doing nothing, we are letting their needs determine the price and their treasuries reap all the profits.

Also, why does Mr. Cheney have no problem influencing the market by lowering taxes to get consumers to spend, but he rejects raising gasoline taxes to get consumers to save energy — a fundamental national interest.

Don't take it from me. Gregory Mankiw of Harvard, who recently retired as chairman of President Bush's Council of Economic Advisers, wrote in The Wall Street Journal on Jan. 3 about his New Year's resolutions: "Everyone hates taxes, but the government needs to fund its operations, and some taxes can actually do some good in the process. I will tell the American people that a higher tax on gasoline is better at encouraging conservation than are heavy-handed [mileage standards]. It would not only encourage people to buy more fuel-efficient cars, but it would encourage them to drive less."

Mr. Cheney, we are told, is a "tough guy." Really? Well, how tough is this: We have a small gasoline tax, but Europe and Japan tax their gasoline by $2 and $3 a gallon, or more. They use those taxes to build schools, highways and national health care for their citizens. But they spend very little on defense compared with us.

So who protects their oil supplies from the Middle East? U.S. taxpayers. We spend nearly $600 billion a year on defense, a large chunk in the Persian Gulf. But how do we pay for that without a gas tax? Income taxes and Social Security. Yes, we tax our incomes and raid our children's Social Security fund so Europeans and Japanese can comfortably import their oil from the gulf, impose big gas taxes on it at their pumps and then use that income for their own domestic needs. And because they have high gas taxes, they also beat Detroit at making more fuel-efficient cars. Now how tough is that?

Finally, if Mr. Cheney believes so much in markets, why did the 2005 energy act contain about $2 billion in tax breaks for oil companies? Why does his administration permit a 54-cents-a-gallon tax on imported ethanol — fuel made from sugar or corn — so Brazilian sugar exports won't compete with American sugar? Yes, we tax imported ethanol from Brazil, but we don't tax imported oil from Saudi Arabia, Venezuela or Russia.

"Everyone says we need a new Marshall Plan," said Michael Mandelbaum, a foreign policy expert and the author of "The Case for Goliath." "We have a Marshall Plan. It's our energy policy. It's a Marshall plan for terrorists and dictators."

How tough is it, Mr. Cheney, to will the ends — an end to America's oil addiction — but not will the means: a gasoline tax? It's not very tough, it's not very smart, and it's going to end badly for us.