Oil and Democracy Don't Mix
Bush administration policies
guarantee a constant flow,
no matter what the human cost.
by Frida Berrigan
In These Times magazine,
At a 1996 energy conference in New Orleans,
Dick Cheney, then CEO of Halliburton said, "The problem is
that the good Lord didn't see fit to put oil and gas reserves
where there are democratic governments." Laying the blame
on the divine is a stretch, but it seems that the vice president
is right: democracy and oil do not mix. Just look at the United
States' top 1o oil suppliers. Algeria, Angola, Nigeria and Saudi
Arabia are repressive regimes with deplorable human rights records.
Mexico and Venezuela, while democracies, are marked by instability,
inequality and civil strife. Iraq remains at war and under occupation.
Only Norway, Canada and the United Kingdom are fully functioning
democracies. Why don't oil and democracy mix? At least part of
the answer can be found in Washington's policy of providing military
aid and training to leaders who guarantee an uninterrupted flow
of oil, defending it against all threats-even those coming from
their own citizens.
Since the beginning of the war on terrorism
in 2001, the United States' top 10 sources of oil imports have
experienced a 350 percent increase in U.S. military aid and training.
In 2003, the United States plans to provide these countries with
$58 million in military assistance. In fiscal year 2001, their
military assistance totaled $12.2 million.
A large part of the increase is explained
by Washington's rewarding of regimes like Algeria and Nigeria
for their ability to cloak domestic repression in the rhetoric
of the "war on terrorism." As the United States looks
ahead to a never ending war on terrorism and growing dependence
on foreign oil, this dynamic will become increasingly common.
Africa accounts for 16 percent of U.S.
oil imports, and the National Intelligence Council predicts an
increase to 25 percent by 2015. Hunger for this oil, combined
with the need to collect allies in the war on terrorism, led the
Bush administration to adopt a "see no evil" position
toward human rights problems and inequality in the continent's
This policy is so entrenched that William
Burns, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern and North
African affairs, remarked with admiration while on a 2002 trip
there, "Washington has much to learn from Algeria on ways
to fight terrorism" Burns must not have read his own State
Department 2002 Human Rights Report, which notes that Algerian
"security forces committed extra-judicial killings, tortured,
beat or otherwise abused detainees " Algeria has proven oil
reserves of more than 9.2 billion barrels and is considered underdeveloped
in terms of production, representing a golden opportunity for
And so, in spite of persistent human rights
abuses, relations between Washington and Algiers are warming.
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has visited the White House twice
and officials are discussing establishment of an American military
base in Algeria. Emboldened by this, Algerian generals are pushing
for access to previously denied lethal technology like combat
Nigeria is the fifth largest exporter
of oil to the United States, and with the discovery of new deep-water
oil reserves right off the coast U.S. strategic interest is growing.
In July 2003, as President Bush departed
for Africa, Gen. James Jones, the U.S. commander responsible for
African operations, announced that Washington was negotiating
long-term use of a "family" of military bases across
Africa and predicted a much bigger role for U.S. military in the
Gulf of Guinea, right off the Nigerian coast.
Washington's desire for Nigerian oil and
territory triggered deeper military relationships. During the
reign of Gen. Sani Abacha military ties were frozen. But since
his death in 1999, the thaw has been quick. That year, Nigeria
purchased $74,000 in U.S. weaponry. By 2001, the United States
delivered thousands of times that-a total of $3.1 million. Military
aid also skyrocketed, from $90,000 in 1999 to more than $4 million
How increased military aid will improve
human rights and efforts toward democratization is unclear. The
State Department's Human Rights Report found that the Nigerian
"military and security forces committed extrajudicial killings"
Military aid is also increasing in areas
that do not supply the United States with oil-yet. the seven countries
that make up the Caspian region-Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan,
the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan-are
rich in oil, but the West is still trying to figure out how to
extract and transport it. In the meantime, the region became strategically
important for other reasons-its proximity to Afghanistan and its
eagerness to aid in the war on terrorism.
Uzbekistan granted the U.S. permission
to establish a "semi-permanent" military base in its
territory, other countries offered "fly-over rights, 'troops,
intelligence and rhetorical support for the war on terrorism.
In exchange, the handful of dictators, generals and presidents-for-
life that rule the Caspian nations were granted reprieve from
their international pariah status. Tens of millions in U.S. military
aid quickly followed.
Collectively, these countries are slated
to receive almost $40 million in U.S. military aid in 2004. In
2001, Azerbaijan and Tajikistan were under U.S. sanctions and
received no military aid. The other five nations received a collective
total of $12.3 million in military aid. In other words, military
aid from the United States will increase more than 200 percent
in just three years-not including Congress' $70 million Special
Supplemental for Caspian countries in 2002.
In the Caspian, and in most of the other
countries where U.S. military aid and training markedly increased
in the past three years, the weapons are not being used to defend
borders from impending invasions. Rather, military resources are
used to squash indigenous movements for self-determination, undermine
campaigns for human rights, punish those who call for democracy
and government accountability, and protect leaders who came to
There are a few exceptions to the "oil
and democracy don't mix" maxim, and they are instructive.
Norway, the United Kingdom and Canada are major oil suppliers
to the United States, but were established democracies with diversified
economies before getting into oil exploration. Replicating these
successes in other oil-rich countries will require a radical revision
of U.S. military and energy policy. Now would be a good time to
FRIDA BERRIGAN i5 a senior research associate
with the Arms Trade Resource Center, a project of the World Policy