Wednesday, June 23, 2004


It's the new thing, haven't you heard? This article by Gal Luft analyzes some of the problems faced by the U.S. as it has tried to bring Iraq's oil production back online, one of the most significant problems being potential attacks on the pipelines.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of oil terrorism in Iraq is that it may become a new model for Islamist terrorists who seek to destabilize the region. Moving 40 percent of the world's oil across some of the world's most volatile regions, pipelines are attractive terrorist targets. A simple explosive device can put a critical section of pipeline out of operation for weeks. By going after energy infrastructure, terrorists can weaken regimes that depend on oil revenues for their survival and at the same time deliver blows to the global economy. Hence, success in keeping Iraq's oil off-line might encourage other groups operating in the region to do the same.

Most disturbing of all is the possibility that the strategy of pipeline sabotage will migrate across the border from Iraq to neighboring Saudi Arabia, home to one-fourth of the world's oil reserves and 80 percent of the world's spare production capacity. Over 10,000 miles of pipelines crisscross Saudi Arabia, mostly above ground. Disruption of Saudi production in an effort both to weaken the House of Saud and to deny oil to the West would surely send tremors in global energy markets and, under some scenarios, could cause catastrophic environmental damage.

Back in heady days of the early 1970s, in that strange window after the Beatles broke up but before punk really hit, there was a movement among Arab states to "use the oil weapon," to take control of the production of Middle East oil as a means of taking the initiative against the Western powers and getting some of their own back. Scared the crap out of everybody, for a minute. This solidarity among Arab oil-producing states only lasted for a couple of years before historical rivalries reasserted themselves and the united front broke down, eventually resulting in the "separate peace" between Egypt and Israel brokered by President Carter at Camp David.

Now non-governmental organizations, in the form of terrorist groups, are, in a different way, again attempting to using the oil weapon. They know that the West is addicted to the stuff, and that the best way to get a junkie's attention is to cut off his supply of junk. Seems like a good strategy on their part.

Which brings us to what I think is a central question in this war:


If one wants to overly reductionist about it, yes, it is, but not in the way that a lot of conspiratorial types seem to think it is. The caricature of Bush and his oil buddies hunched over a map of the Middle East slicing it up like a cake is just that, a silly caricature. At the same time, it's pretty clear that the U.S. wouldn't really care that much about the Middle East if it weren't floating on a sea of oil. To state the extremely obvious, oil is a vital resource, used to make all kinds of items which we enjoy, so we have a definite national interest in making sure that our access to it is secure. The problem, as I see it, is that our need for "stability" in the region over the short term has blinded us to the negative long term effects of maintaining the status quo. This is pretty much the story of U.S. policy in the region in the 20th Century: we supported despotic regimes as long as they were friendly to us and kept to crude coming.

There was also the Middle East chess game which the U.S. played with the USSR, with alliances constantly shifting according to the needs and realities of the moment, the most obvious example being when the U.S. supported the formerly Soviet-backed Saddam Hussein, fighting with Soviet-made weapons, in his war against the formerly U.S.-backed Iran, fighting with U.S.-made weapons. Even neoconservative shaman Richard Perle, about as far from a "blame America" type as you could find, has recognized that "we are, in a sense, paying a price" for our support of anti-democratic regimes in the Middle East during the Cold War.

So, back to oil: yes, we NEED oil. It's yummy and it tastes great on grilled sea bass (err, wait, that's mango salsa. Sorry.) We just don't need to consume it at the rate that we have been, roughly the rate at which a sailor consumes beer during two days of shore leave. Except that, instead of two days, it's been a hundred years. And, instead of beer, it's oil. It's a metaphor, you see. Anyway, there's no avoiding the fact that the U.S. consumes oil at a much higher rate than any other country in the world, and that this overconsumption and overdependance has adverse effects on our national security by seriously limiting our foreign policy options.

Here's a White House press briefing from May 7, 2001, given by Ari Fleischer, which I think perfectly illustrates the willful blindness which characterizes U.S. energy policy, particularly the policy of this administration. (I really miss Ari. The guy proved that, if done boldy enough, outright, bald-faced lying can almost seem admirable. Spanky McClellan can't hold a candle to him.)

Q: Is one of the problems with this, and the entire energy field, American lifestyles? Does the President believe that, given the amount of energy Americans consume per capita, how much it exceeds any other citizen in any other country in the world, does the President believe we need to correct our lifestyles to address the energy problem?

MR. FLEISCHER: That's a big no. The President believes that it's an American way of life, and that it should be the goal of policy makers to protect the American way of life. The American way of life is a blessed one. And we have a bounty of resources in this country. What we need to do is make certain that we're able to get those resources in an efficient way, in a way that also emphasizes protecting the environment and conservation, into the hands of consumers so they can make the choices that they want to make as they live their lives day to day.

Q: So Americans should go on consuming as much more energy than any other citizens in any other countries of the world, as long as they want?

MR. FLEISCHER: Terry, the President believes that the American people are very wise and that, given the right incentives, they will know how and they will make their own right determinations about how much they can conserve, just as the President announced last week that the federal government, as part of its consumership in California will reduce energy needs -- for example, the Department of Defense facilities in California, by 10 percent. He believes the American people, too, will make the right decisions about conservation and the program he will announce shortly will also include a series of conservation items.

But the President also believes that the American people's use of energy is a reflection of the strength of our economy, of the way of life that the American people have come to enjoy. And he wants to make certain that a national energy policy is comprehensive, that includes conservation, includes a way of allowing the American people to continue to enjoy the way of life that has made the United States such a leading nation in the world.

I highlighted that bit about the American way of life being a "blessed one" because it's always reminded me of a line in the Truman Show, during an interview with Truman's wife Meryl where she refers to life inside Truman's false world as "a truly blessed life." I doubt that Fleischer's allusion to the film was intentional, but it is very illuminating. Without overstating this, I think Americans, to a certain extent, do live within our own Truman-like bubble. We can and do live much of the time as if the rest of the world did not exist.

The 9/11 attacks momentarily shook us from this delusion, but Bush and his crew have been trying to sing us back to sleep ever since. Obviously I don't mean that they've been pretending that the threat doesn't exist, they've been very willing to talk about the terrorism to the extent that they can use the threat to arrogate more power to the executive branch, but they seem unwilling to confront the true dimensions of modern jihadism, and how U.S. policy in the Middle East and our dependance on oil may have contributed to it.

Sooner or later Americans are going to have to come to terms with the global consequences of the American lifestyle. I hope it's sooner, while we can make meaningful policy corrections, rather than later, when we may be looking back bitterly from an America that we no longer recognize.

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