Getting to Classical Gas

The crisis in the Ukraine, though it has abated for now, has made policymakers rediscover the power of energy production, which has a direct bearing on American strategic strength and leverage on Russia. The more energy America produces, the stronger it is.  And the less it has to rely on pure military power.


Republican lawmakers, while stopping short of calling for U.S. military action against Russia, say the Obama administration has another weapon at its disposal that could help Ukraine — natural gas.

Top-ranking Republicans on Tuesday urged the administration to cut the red tape that has held up the approval process for natural gas exports to key U.S. allies. They argue that by helping Ukraine and European allies end their dependence on Russian energy, the U.S. could ultimately loosen Vladimir Putin’s grip on the region.

This is obvious — anyone could see it. Even I could see it. On March 1, I wrote, “removing American troops in Afghanistan from their dependency on Russian supply routes; drilling for energy, securing the borders; rebuilding the Armed Forces and stopping the hemorrhaging of the American substance to pay for political boondoggles are a good place to start. They will have a greater effect than démarches to the UN and they do not require firing a single shot.”

Why was this policy not readied earlier? Well for one thing the option was out of the administration’s political reach. The tradeoff for acquiring a potent weapon against potentially hostile actors was offending domestic environmental constituencies. And Russians don’t vote. Clean Technica explains Obama’s bind:

We were just noting a couple of big developments in the movement to curb natural gas fracking in US communities when along comes Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) with a push in the opposite direction: export more natural gas in order to bolster international sanctions against Russia for its aggression in Ukraine.

In other words, more fracking!


Obama up until just now was slamming the brakes on fracking. Now a comes a proposal to fight Russia with natural gas. This unfortunately means more fracking — a political nonstarter in the Obama administration. Deprived of such levers, they preferred to rely on “smart diplomacy” which basically assumes that foreign leaders were now suffused with enlightened “21st century thinking”. Unfortunately this does not appear to be the case with Putin.

As the New Republic points out, the administration grades foreign powers by which century they are imagined to occupy.

The administration loves to brand actions it doesn’t like as relics of the past. “It’s really nineteenth century behavior in the twenty-first century,” Kerry said of Putin’s Crimean gambit. A senior administration official who sounded like either National Security Advisor Susan Rice or Ben Rhodes told reporters on background, “What we see here are distinctly nineteenth- and twenty-first century decisions made by President Putin to address problems.”

Well, to start with, by definition Putin’s decisions are taking place in the twenty-first century. The administration here seems to be using the centuries like a teacher handing out a grade: twenty-first century is an A, twentieth century is a C, nineteenth century is an F.

Domestic opponents are graded by the decade. In president Obama’s debate with Mitt Romney he charged his opponent with having a foreign policy from the 1980s. “When it comes to our foreign policy, you seem to want to import the foreign policies of the 1980s, just like the social policies of the 1950s and the economic policies of the 1920s.”


Of course president Obama is always up-to-date so all modern leaders should think like him. But if the Ukraine crisis proved one thing it is that Putin’s complimentary fridge magnet calendar for 2014 has not yet arrived from the neighborhood businesses. Former ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, who left the post just last week to teach at Stanford University, told NBC News that Putin’s remarks implied Russia no longer has to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty. “That’s disturbing. That’s an ominous threat that President Putin was making.”

That was so 19th century that he was disturbed. But he should have seen it coming — at least as contingency. This sudden insight into Putin’s character must reverberate throughout the entire edifice of Obama’s foreign policy.  The common keystone of Obama’s Syrian diplomacy, the nuclear deal with Iran, and even the administration’s need to supply American troops in Afghanistan is Russia. Since Russia is a linchpin in each process, these have all acquired a linkage to the Ukraine.

Obama needs a Syrian settlement, an Iran deal. He needs a supply route.  Putin can hold the president hostage over not one, but three issues.  Anyone planning on imposing sanctions on Russia must be prepared to encounter difficulties in Iran or Syria or the northern distribution route. The Ukrainian lull postpones but does not solve the problem: how to tame Putin. The Russian bear has retreated to its cave for now, whether to hibernate or re-emerge with renewed ferocity momentarily who can say? But the one knife that cuts through the Gordian knot in which the administration is ensnared is gas.


Whether or not Obama can nerve himself to take up the energy weapon and cut the knot is an interesting question. But one thing is clear, a foreign policy based on a foreign leader’s intent is not as sound as one based on an estimate of relative capabilities. Obama has trusted too much to the now shaky assumption that Putin was a “21st century” man. He must now increase his relative capability, just as Reagan would or be left empty-handed.

Whether he will or he won’t remains to be seen. Sometimes it takes time to figure out the classical gas tune, as the video below shows.

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