Oil moves the War Machine

by Michael Klare

The Progressive magazine, June 2002


Since its inception, the Bush Administration has launched two great foreign policy initiatives: a global war against terrorism, and a global campaign to expand American access to foreign oil. Originally, each possessed its own rationale and mode of operation. As time has passed, however, they have become increasingly intertwined, so that today the war on terrorism and the struggle for oil have become one vast enterprise.

The underpinnings of the Bush foreign policy can be found in the international energy policy paper of May 17, 2001, know as the Cheney report. This report became infamous for two reasons: Cheney wouldn't release the names of the people he consulted for it, and the report recommends drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But, these controversies distracted attention away from the gist of the report, which is spelled out in chapter eight, "Strengthening Global Alliances." There, the report "recommends that the President make energy security a priority of our trade and foreign policy."

The report says the United States will become increasingly reliant on foreign oil. At present, we obtain about half of our petroleum form foreign sources; by 2020, imports will account for two-thirds of U.S. consumption, the report predicts. From this, it draws two conclusions: The United States must maintain good relations with Saudi Arabia and other oil producers in the region, and the United States must diversify oil suppliers around the world. "Middle East oil producers will remain central to world oil security," it says, but "our engagement must be global." This means developing close ties with major suppliers in all oil-producing areas, including the Caspian region, Africa, and Latin America, which the report calls "high-priority areas."

The Administration was already poised to act on this policy when Arab hijackers struck New York and Washington on September 11. These plans were then put aside, as the White House concentrated its attention on efforts to immobilize Al Qaeda and to topple the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. By December, however, the Administration was ready to focus again on the security aspects of growing U.S. dependence on imported oil.

The primacy of oil is clear in several places, most obviously, Saudi Arabia. Though fifteen of the eighteen hijackers were Saudi, though Osama bin Laden himself is Saudi, though the Saudis practice Wahhabism and finance some of the most reactionary madrassas around the world, the Bush Administration is in no position to break relations with the kingdom. Saudi Arabia possesses 25 percent of the world's known oil reserves. And, as the Cheney report notes, "Saudi Arabia, the world's largest exporter, has been a linchpin of supply reliability to world oil markets." It seems Washington has embraced the current Middle East peace initiative by Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia as a way not only to break the Sharon-Arafat logjam but also to shore up the reputation of this crucial ally.

Or look at the U.S. military training operation in the Republic of Georgia, which is just getting under way. Ostensibly, the aim of the operation-which will involve the deployment of several hundred U.S. Special Forces advisers-is to enhance the capacity of Georgian forces to fight terrorists and other insurgents along its border. While this is certainly one of the operation's objectives, it is also evident that Washington seeks to reduce the threat to the vital pipelines that will carry oil from the Caspian Sea across Georgia to ports on the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. Although the main pipeline is still under construction, U.S. officials are clearly worried that it will become a major target for the various ethnic militias that operate in the area.

"The Caspian Sea can also be a rapidly growing new area of supply," the Cheney report notes. "Proven oil reserves in Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan are about twenty billion barrels, a little more than the North Sea." One find in Kazakhstan, it adds, is "comparable to Prudhoe Bay," the giant oil field off the north coast of Alaska. Its recommendation to the President: "Ensure that rising Caspian oil production is effectively integrated into world oil trade." One way it is doing this, in the wake of September 11, is to establish permanent bases in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan.

A similar situation is developing in Colombia. The United States has increasingly involved itself in Colombia's civil war, first on the pretext of fighting the war on drugs. (Both the leftwing guerrillas and the rightwing paramilitaries are involved in the drug trade, but the United States shows little interest in the paramilitaries.) Increasingly, the Bush Administration is seeking to aid the Colombian military directly in its war against the guerrilla groups- often described as terrorists by U.S. and Colombian officials. In the latest incarnation of this effort, the United States will help the Colombian military to protect the pipeline that delivers oil from Occidental Petroleum's Cano Limon oil field to refineries and terminals on the coast-a pipeline the rebels have often sabotaged.

Several factors are facilitating the merger of the anti-terror and oil supply missions. The first is geography: Many of the world's largest reserves of oil are located in areas that are unstable or rent by internal divisions of one sort or another.

The second is growing U.S. dependency on imported oil. As domestic reserves are progressively depleted, the United States will become increasingly reliant on oil derived from sources located abroad. At the same time, world demand for oil, especially from the developing nations, will grow, the Cheney report notes, which could push prices higher. "Growth in international oil demand will exert increasing pressure on global oil availability," it notes.

With the American public fixated on the threat of terrorism, however, the Administration is understandably reluctant to portray its foreign policy as related primarily to the protection of oil supplies. Thus the third reason for the merger of the war against terrorism and struggle for oil: to provide the White House with a convenient rationale for extending U.S. military involvement into areas that are of concern to Washington primarily because of their role in supplying energy to the United States.

For all of these reasons, the war against terrorism and the struggle for oil are likely to remain connected for the indefinite future. This will entail growing U.S. military involvement in the oil-supplying nations. At times, such involvement may be limited to indirect forms of assistance, such as arms transfers and training programs. At others, it will involve the deployment of significant numbers of U.S. combat troops.

The Bush Administration has a right and an obligation to take the necessary steps to protect the United States against further acts of terrorism. Such efforts have been given unequivocal support by the public and Congress. But such support does not extend to an open-ended campaign to procure additional oil from overseas suppliers and to protect these supplies from hostile forces.

Before committing additional military resources to such an effort, we should consider if America's energy requirements could be better provided through conservation and alternative energy systems, which would reduce the risk of U.S. involvement in an endless series of overseas conflicts.

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