Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack: 'Domestic Production of Oil in America has Peaked'

Governor Tom Vilsack was elected Iowa’s 39th Governor in 1998, the first Democratic governor of the state in more than 30 years. He was re-elected to a second four-year term in 2002.

Governor Vilsack addressed the Asia Society on Sustaining Economic Growth While Combating Social Challenges in Asia as part of the series entitled "American Political Leaders on the Future of US Relations with Asia". Governor Vilsack addressed the Asia Society on October 26th, and gave this interview to Nermeen Shaikh following his speech.

In this interview, Governor Vilsack discusses the key foreign and domestic policy questions confronting the United States.

I was struck by a number of the things that you said this evening, including your emphasis on curtailing consumption levels in the US and the "peak oil" problem. There has been a lot of speculation that one of the principal reasons for the American invasion of Iraq was precisely the concern about diminishing oil reserves and America's enormous dependence on Middle Eastern oil. You also said that one of the problems you had with the 2003 US invasion of Iraq was that there wasn't sufficient premise for it, but if one looks at it purely from the perspective of dependence on a resource that is diminishing, for which there is increasing demand, and which happens to be located there, then perhaps the premise becomes clearer. Could you comment on this?

First of all, there's no question that the domestic production of oil in America has peaked, and that there are domestic concerns and restraints on utilizing whatever other resources might be available but which are in environmentally sensitive areas. I would say that if oil was a consideration, then it is hard to understand why the planning relating to the Iraq war was as poor as it was. If oil was a consideration, then there should have been a much better understanding of the culture, and the divisions within Iraq that would transpire when Saddam was gone and there were efforts to create a new government. If oil was the primary or principal reason, then clearly the way in which we've gone about the last five years since Saddam has gone in the reconstruction effort and in trying to stabilize the government, and trying to determine and create a reconstructed Iraq that would take advantage of its assets, the implementation of all this has been quite poor.

I don't know what the motivation at the end of the day was for Iraq other than what was stated by the President, and it's fairly clear that every reason he gave at the time has been disproven. This significantly undermines America's position in the world today.

The issue of energy security is one that will not be solved by simply gaining greater control over someone else's oil, or for that matter even discovering the other 5 per cent that is yet to be discovered. It will require a new economy which is less reliant on oil and carbon. It is not something that can be done in a couple of years, but it must start now. There must be an effort to substantially reduce consumption, smartly, intelligently, innovatively, and creatively. It must start with educating the general public about precisely what they're doing with the energy that they have, and how they can do it more efficiently and effectively, how it would help them personally and how it would also help the country. It starts with creating a desire and a thirst for renewable energy that becomes not just a matter of economics but of a new patriotism. It starts with challenging industry and universities and researchers to come up with creative and better ways to use the resources that we currently use, such as coal, in a way that doesn't damage but actually improves the environment.

All of this has to be done simultaneously and it has be a serious, significant effort. For Americans to buy into this, they have to understand the benefits. They have to understand that there are better-paying jobs connected with this. There are healthier environments. There's the opportunity to exercise moral leadership by the United States internationally on issues involving global warming, climate change and climate security. There's an opportunity for us to be more secure, where we don't necessarily have to deal or work with countries that do not like us or want to do us harm. So there is a multitude of reasons why we could create an unprecedented national effort to make America stronger and safer.

You suggested earlier that a number of your constituents in Iowa understand the US presence in Iraq in the context of, as you said, "the purple thumb"; in other words, the spread of democracy. But do you think your constituents think at all about oil, the levels of consumption that exist in that state, or the country generally, and how that might be related to US involvement in the Middle East and why the US has gone to war with Iraq, which was, after all, only one among many dictatorships? One could ask, for example, why the US did not invade North Korea, where the situation has been arguably far more dire than what it was in Iraq prior to the 2003 invasion.

I think there are probably some people in Iowa that are suspicious about precisely what role oil and the future of oil played in the decision-making of a government that is run by those closely aligned with and connected to the oil industry. There are clearly suspicions to that effect. But I would say that if that was the motivation, then the planning and implementation were extraordinarily ill-conceived, and poorly carried out. I would say that this administration, following the attack on the World Trade Center, if it wanted this country to galvanize behind an effort to produce more oil or use less oil, that was the opportunity of a lifetime, to ask people to do things differently. They chose, for whatever reason, not to utilize that opportunity. I think that, as many mistakes as this administration has made-and they've made many-history may judge that to be the greatest of all mistakes.

Absolutely. You have also mentioned the importance of alliances, and how fostering present relationships and creating new ones is absolutely essential for the United States. Given your emphasis on alliances, and the present situation with North Korea and Iran where there are divisions in the Security Council about what resolutions should be passed, how, if you were in power, would you address these differences?

I would like to think that we wouldn't be in quite the same position!

I'm sure you wouldn't actually.

I think it's important to focus on that because the situation might very well have been different. I think most administrations probably would have continued along the lines of the Clinton administration in direct engagement with North Korea-having conversation, discussion, diplomacy, secret and otherwise, to try to figure out what set of circumstances and conditions would make it more likely rather than less that they would pursue a nuclear program. What we've done with non-engagement, with hiding behind the six-party talks, is that we've enabled North Korea to go from a country that may have had the capacity to produce one or two nuclear weapons but lacked the capacity to sell, transfer, or sign those weapons to someone who might use them, to a country that now has the capacity perhaps to produce as many as ten. At that point they are freer, if you will, to consider negotiation, sale, transfer of the technology of the items themselves. So direct engagement would and should have been pursued, and had it been pursued, perhaps we could have gotten the agreement that was struck in the early 1990s back on track and potentially could have expanded it.

In terms of discussions today, it is incumbent upon America to point out to China that the current situation with North Korea is in neither their best interest nor ours. It's clearly not in anyone's best interest to have a calculating dictator armed with the capacity to sell nuclear weapons, whose economy in the past has been based in part on black marketing of weapons, dope and currency, with the capacity to do the same with a nuclear bomb. It's not in China's best interest because now the equation's a bit different for Japan. Japan has expressed a decision at this point not to pursue their own nuclear program, but there's now a reawakening of militarism within Japan which I'm sure China is not particularly thrilled with. Why is that reawakening happening? Well, because North Korea fired a missile off. Maybe it was a dud, but nevertheless they fired it off, and they appear to have tested a nuclear weapon. So the ability to point out to China why it's in their best interest to work in concert with us to neutralize North Korea and the threat they produce, I think, is important. You'd have a two-track process where the United States is directly connecting with and talking to North Korea, and reassuring them and China that it's not our intent to necessarily change the regime. So long as it's our intent to change the regime in North Korea, it's going to be virtually impossible to get the Chinese to the table in a meaningful way, because they don't want the consequences of regime change. They don't want millions of refugees pouring over their border, creating more problems for them. If we're really serious about solving this problem, we have to be engaged in a different way.

What about Iran?

It also true with regard to Iran that our failure to engage and to talk has created a much more difficult and troublesome situation. When President Bush designated by name Iran, North Korea and Iraq as the axis of evil, it was a huge mistake. It's one thing to talk about characteristics of states and nations that you don't particularly agree with. It's something else again to single out three specific nations, then invade one of those nations and knock out in three weeks an army that their neighbor fought to a draw for 10 years. Now if you're the folks on the other side of the border, what common-sense conclusion could you reach? You've been designated, you've been linked, the country next to you has been invaded, and an army that you couldn't beat was defeated in a relatively short period of time. Again, we need to engage in diplomacy and conversation with Iran. What Iran may want is recognition internationally as a player in the region. Again, there's a notion that we're trying to change the regime. We need to work with a number of countries, including Russia and other international powers, to reassure Iran that it's not our intent to change their regime. If we can reassure them that it's our intent to figure out a way in which they can have international respect and recognition-in exchange for recognition of Israel's right to exist, the ability to work with them to produce a more stable Iraq, and the ability to work with them to empower moderates and isolate extremists in the Islamic world-then it's in their best interest and ours to do so.

You've said that people don't often talk about the potential threat of nuclear terrorism. Could you elaborate, first of all, on whether you think such an attack could happen in the United States, and if so, where the material would come from, and how the US could prevent this from happening?

I think it's important if we're talking about homeland security to recognize the most serious set of circumstances and consequences to people in this country, and to ask how we work toward a zero probability of that occurring. When the Soviet Union collapsed, 22,000 nuclear weapons vanished and we're not sure where they are all are. We know where many of them are and we know that some of them are still less secure than they should be. We know the potential for harm is great, and we know that we have a border where today we're building a fence to keep unauthorized immigrants from coming into our country. I think we ought to be as concerned about somebody crossing the border with a suitcase full of nuclear material and parking it in a major metropolitan area and killing not 3,000 but 300,000 or 3 million. Everything we do in homeland security should be focused on that more serious and significant risk, how we would prevent it, mitigate it, and deal with it. That involves an acceleration of the Nunn-Lugar process of securing nuclear weapons. It involves accelerating technology to figure out if there's a way in which we can produce nuclear power without producing waste material that ends up being turned into a bomb. It involves a continued conversation about what nonproliferation truly means in today's world, whether or not we need to think more broadly or differently about what that precisely means, and how, as an international community, we're going to reduce the proliferation of nuclear weapons. It's a huge issue, and it's one that's not been adequately addressed by this administration. You cannot be serious about an issue like this when you're focused on duct tape, warning systems based on color coding, and three ounces of liquids on airplanes! It's a much more serious business than that, and there needs to be recognition of that. That's why relationships are so important. In order to prevent that type of situation from occurring, you have to prevent a North Korea, for example, from being able to sell that technology to someone who might use it. You have to know through intelligence and through relationships around the world who might be doing this, who might be thinking about it, who might have the potential, and how you stop it. If you don't have relationships, you don't have intelligence, you don't have information, and you can't prevent it. It really is all about relationships. They're so important, and so ignored in this administration. We've essentially alienated most of our friends and unified our enemies, as I said earlier.

But you don't think that the fear of nuclear terrorism and the places it might originate from should leave open the possibility of US military intervention in either Iran or North Korea?

I don't know that you would necessarily, as a part of your diplomatic efforts, want to take any option off the table. But it is clear to me that there needs to be a more aggressive effort diplomatically than there has been.

You spoke a bit in your lecture about the concept of stewardship, and the resonance that this has in the United States. Could you explain what that means, what the origins of the concept are, and why it resonates in the way it does?

I think Americans, both those who are church attenders and those who have a deep, abiding connection to the land, the air, and the water, believe that these are gifts that were given to us not to waste. They were gifts given to us not to dissipate, but to utilize and pass on to the next generation in better shape than we found them. I think there's a growing recognition, understanding and concern among Americans that we may not be doing all that we need to be doing to protect the air, land and water.

For some, there is a religious responsibility, for others, a moral responsibility, and for some simply a common-sense responsibility to protect and enhance the environment and to pass it on in better condition. That requires, for example, a recognition by the national government that global warming is real, and that the United States has a responsibility to help lead an effort to address this issue. It has a responsibility to create innovative solutions in terms of recycling and renewables, in terms of lowering consumption, in terms of carbon trading, carbon sequestration, or whatever combination of things has to be done so that America is in a position to provide moral leadership to the rest of the world. We are blessed with a strong, functioning economy, with a large middle class and a stable and secure government. We are blessed with abundant natural resources. Because of those blessings, there is a responsibility that we have to use them to strengthen America and provide for a better world. The interesting thing about it is that when we do this, we create a more vibrant economy and healthier cities and environments for our children. There are lots of positive benefits in addition to being able to go to the table with the rest of the international community and say, we're back. We're willing to talk about what occurs after 2012, after the Kyoto Protocols expire. We're ready to talk about what the next step needs to be. We're ready to engage and participate in that, and we think we can do it without necessarily damaging at the end of the day the overall economy. We think, in fact, it can enhance the economy. You've got to put a hopeful and optimistic view on this. You can't say, well, you're going to have to give everything up. You've got to take advantage of this opportunity. This is going to create new opportunities for us in America. This aspect of moral leadership I think is part of stewardship. It's a part of making sure that we leave the world a better place than we found it.

What role would you like to see the United States playing globally in the next 25 years?

I'd like to see the United States be the innovator and the creator, doing what most today would think impossible or improbable, just as we always have. When folks were figuring out the horse and buggy, we were building cars. When they were figuring the car out we were building airplanes. When they figured that out, we were building spaceships. What is the next set of innovations that can provide for a better, safer, more secure world? My hope is that the United States is providing moral leadership on issues involving climate control and climate security, that we're working with the international community, that we're working with the International Energy Association and other groups to try to find creative ways for us to work together. My hope is that the United States has a foreign and national security policy that is focused on building and strengthening alliances and friendships in all parts of the world, and that to the extent they are enemies of the United States they are very much isolated in the world, not united as they may be today.

Interview conducted by Nermeen Shaikh of the Asia Society.