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Leader of the free world, it’s time to step up

The United States has long carried the title of leader of the free world. America hefts it about in its own country like a heavyweight title belt, despite many internal grumblings. Even in the distant reaches of the globe, the United States is the default response when most people are questioned about the personification of freedom. The concept is exalted in public speech and goes largely unquestioned in our discourse. Next to “9/11,” “terror” and the thousand random malapropisms for which President George W. Bush is famous, “freedom” is undoubtedly his favorite theme. And, hey – fourth on the list isn’t bad for a man who regularly does to the English language what his military’s bombers do to the cities of Iraq.

But let’s be honest: Aren’t the people of the free world coasting a little bit? Initially intoxicated from the military dominance achieved after World War II and the economic luxury afforded by the infinitely cheap labor in the third world, the “free world” has come to mean the land of milk and honey, with the mechanisms of what makes that milk and honey possible having been removed from view. In the age of unconventional warfare, freedom itself has gradually come to be thought of as an end, whereas its more correct use is as a means.

In one of the scatterbrained missives typical of his final years, Hunter S. Thompson warned in 2003, “Big Darkness, soon come.” This sentence appeared near the end of a 1,000-word cautionary rant (written for ESPN, no less) about the Bush administration and its many recent misadventures. Thompson was not, to say the least, optimistic about our future, and in 2005 ended his own life (although many presume this had more to do with long-suffered physical ailments than sheer dismay over a Republican oligarchy).

Whatever aspersions one might cast on the man, Thompson’s point is worth evaluating: America is waltzing on the cusp of a very potent strain of disaster that, once unleashed, will be nigh impossible to control for the duration of a long, long night. War has become national policy, Americans giddily tinker with the environment without regard to long-term consequences, and the most technocratically insulated lunge at every opportunity to play dice with the economic universe.

Still, these trends are reversible and the worst of the peril is avoidable. And the best part is that nine times out of 10, the solution is as simple as putting two and two together. You don’t even need access to classified documents or scholarly journals to do this – just reading the pages of any major newspaper that happen to precede the lifestyle section should do nicely.

In the political realm, consider the recent furor over U.S. torture policy: Although Bush eventually succumbed to public pressure and signed a prohibition by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., on the practice, he quickly issued a “signing statement” – an official document that asserts Bush’s prerogative to “construe (the law) in a manner consistent with the constitutional authority of the President … as commander in chief,” as reported by the Boston Globe. In other words, the U.S. government will follow this rule when it poses no conflict and disregard it when it does.

Is this the example America wants to set for the rest of the world? As Iraq grows increasingly chaotic and the abduction of nongovernmental organizations and journalists continues unabated, this is the light by which the United States wishes to guide the world?

In the simplest terms, this is not the ante the United States wants to raise. Given the premise that no degree of desperation has ever willed anyone away from guerilla warfare but only tends to drive people to further extremes, I think this technically adds up to a dare – and nothing says “bring ’em on” like signing off on an Abu Ghraib sequel.

By way of an alternative solution, I would simply defer to a good-faith adherence to the Geneva Convention rather than the sad, silly contest the administration has gotten itself into, apparently trying to lowball its foes in the department of inhumane treatment. A forthright declaration in this direction may indeed hinder our intelligence gathering to some degree (if you’re generous enough to suppose that torture has thus far granted useful or accurate intelligence), but it would go a long, long way to restoring a degree of the international esteem the administration has trashed over the past few years.

Meanwhile, in the other category favored by end-of-the-world panic aficionados, environmental news is constantly awash in dangerous gambits and missed opportunities. Case in point: Among the other curiosities attached to Bush’s most recent budget proposal (including a $700 million plan of privatizing Social Security and termination of spending for 99 federal programs) was the perennial proposal for opening the Artic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil drilling. The Senate passed the proposal last week, 51-49, and is now awaiting debate in the House.

Sparing you the standard claptrap about “pristine wilderness,” let me point out a couple of things. First of all, it hasn’t even been two weeks since British Petroleum’s massive pipeline break smothered two acres Alaska’s Northern Slope with more than a quarter of a million gallons of crude. This is nothing compared to the Exxon Valdez catastrophe of 1989, in which 10.8 million gallons were dumped into open water, but the two occurrences do well to make a point: The business of oil extraction is by nature fraught with the sort of disasters that, no matter how rare, tend to destroy their surrounding environment. Second, even the most optimistic estimation of ANWR’s oil reserves places the amount of recoverable crude at 10.4 billion barrels, according to a press release from the U.S. Department of the Interior. Given the rate of U.S. oil consumption, this would provide for just under a year and a half’s petroleum needs. All this effort and obsession for 18 months worth of gas? Are you kidding me?

Subscribers to the peak oil theory (the concept that the world will very soon enter a time of declining oil production exacerbated by continuously increasing oil consumption) – and our numbers are legion – foresee a quickly approaching era in which whole civilizations swoon and stumble relative to their need for petroleum. Is this really the way to “lead?” By scrambling madly into every remaining corner of God’s green Earth for the last sip of nectar, knowing that it will only forestall collapse by mere moments?

Frankly, everyone knows what’s coming, so why not seize the chance to step up to the plate? I’ve used this column to promote the idea before, but it bears repeating: This is possibly the single appropriate moment to actually pre-empt the free market – that is, not wait around for the supply to bottom out so that a new demand for non-fossil energy emerges. The United States has a prime opportunity to evade one massive migraine of an economic and environmental collapse simply by switching to renewable energy immediately. Not only would the benefits to the United States be myriad and immediate, America would also afford itself the legitimacy of setting the standard for environmental ingenuity.

Ryan McGeeney is a senior majoring in political science.