Oiling the War Machine

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

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

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

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.

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.