Oiling the War Machine

The unholy union of the war on terrorism and our insatiable thirst for petroleum

| September/October 2002

In its short tenure the Bush administration has launched two major foreign policy initiatives: a global war against terrorism and a global campaign to expand American access to foreign oil. They began as separate projects but have become increasingly intertwined, so that today the war on terrorism and the struggle for oil have become one and the same.

The underpinnings of the Bush foreign policy can be found in the Cheney Report, the administration's national energy policy paper released in May 2001. This report became infamous for two reasons: First, Cheney wouldn't release the names of the corporate representatives who helped him write it, and, second, the report recommends drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But these controversies distracted attention from the gist of the report, which, 'recommends that the president make energy security a priority of our trade and foreign policy.'

The report predicts that the United States will become increasingly reliant on foreign oil. Today, we obtain about half of our petroleum from foreign sources; by 2020, the report foresees imports accounting for two-thirds of U.S. consumption. From this, it draws two conclusions: The United States must maintain good relations with Middle East oil producers, especially Saudi Arabia, while at the same time diversifying our sources of petroleum. This means developing close ties with major suppliers in all 'high-priority' oil-producing areas, including Africa, Latin America, and the Caspian Sea region. These plans were put aside only temporarily after September 11.

The cold fact that our demand for oil shapes our foreign policy is most obvious in Saudi Arabia. Though at least 8 of the 18 airline hijackers in the September 11 attacks were Saudi, though Osama bin Laden himself is Saudi, though the Saudis practice Wahhabism, the conservative Muslim outlook that characterized the Taliban, and finance some of the most reactionary schools for instructing Muslim militants around the world, the Bush administration is in no position to break relations with this undemocratic regime that controls 25 percent of the world's known oil reserves.

Or look at the recent U.S. military training operation in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. Ostensibly, the aim of the operation-which involved the deployment of several hundred U.S. Special Forces advisers-was to boost the Georgian military's capacity to fight terrorists and other insurgents along its border. But it is also evident that Washington seeks to reduce threats to vital pipelines that will carry oil from the Caspian Sea-identified in the Cheney Report as 'a rapidly growing new area of supply'-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.

A similar situation is developing in Colombia. The United States has recently taken a great interest in Colombia's decades-long civil war, first on the pretext of fighting the war on drugs. (Both left-wing guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary gangs are involved in the drug trade, but the White House shows little interest in stopping the paramilitaries.) The Bush administration is now seeking to directly aid the Colombian military in its war against the guerrilla groups-often described as terrorists by U.S. officials. As part of this effort, the United States will help Colombian armed forces protect a pipeline that delivers oil from Occidental Petroleum's Cano Limon oilfield to refineries and terminals on the coast-a pipeline the rebels have often sabotaged.

Several factors are driving this merger of the anti-terrorist cause and the goal of securing our oil supply. The first is geography: Many of the world's largest oil reserves are located in areas that are politically unstable. The second is the growing U.S. dependence on imported oil, which is occurring at the same time that world demand for oil, especially from the developing nations, is increasing.

With the American public fixated on the threat of terrorism, however, the White House is understandably reluctant to publicly tie its foreign policy to the protection of oil supplies. Thus, the war against terrorism provides a convenient rationale for U.S. military intervention in oil-rich parts of the world. U.S. involvement may start with indirect forms of assistance, such as arms and military training programs, but it's likely that it could eventually mean deployment of U.S. combat troops in some places.

The Bush administration has a right and an obligation to take the necessary steps to protect the United States against further acts of terrorism. That effort has been given unequivocal support by the public and Congress. But this support does not extend to an open-ended campaign to expand our sources of foreign oil. Before undertaking this policy, we should explore whether conservation and alternative energy systems could better meet America's energy requirements, a path that would reduce the risk of U.S. involvement in an endless series of overseas conflicts.

Michael T. Klare, a veteran analyst of peace and military issues in the alternative press, and professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, is the author of Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict (Metropolitan Books, 2001). Reprinted from The Progressive (June 2002). Subscriptions: $32/yr. (12 issues) from Box 421, Mt. Morris, IL 61054.