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February 19, 2002

The Fourth Oil War


The "War on Terror" has a lot to do with oil. Osama bin Laden finances al-Qaeda from oil wealth; Afghanistan is a potential oil exporter and oil pipeline conduit; and Bush's likely next targets-Iraq, Iran, Libya, Sudan-are major oil exporters. We should be honest with ourselves: the price of our oil consumption is decades of warfare. If we continue consuming, we should expect more war.

The "War on Terror" should be considered an Oil War. Bin Laden's two primary complaints are the US military presence in Saudi Arabia, and the US military backing of Israel. The first is a direct result of the Gulf War, and the second of the US's desire for a foothold in the Mideast to support our oil interests. We promised the Saudis in 1990 that we'd leave after expelling Saddam from Kuwait - we stayed, mostly because Saudi Arabia is the world's leading oil exporter. If not for oil, bin Laden would have little motivation to attack the US, and would have little monetary means.

The War on Terror is not the first oil war, but the fourth. Tariq Ali, member of British Parliament and an authority on Islamic politics, uses the term "First Oil War" to describe the Israeli-Arab wars which began in 1956. The British and French assisted Israel then in capturing the Suez Canal from Egypt, in large part to assure the ongoing flow of oil. By the next Israeli-Arab war in 1967, the US had taken over the role of military and financial assistance of Israel, and it has maintained that role since. The Arab oil boycott in the 1970s and the oil crises through the 1980s result directly from US support of Israel.

The "Second Oil War" I define as the Iraq-Iran conflict during the 1980s. The US primarily acted as sideline cheerleader in that conflict, just trying to ensure that neither country won, so that oil would continue flowing. While their rationale for the conflict was ideological, the funding for the war was all from oil-neither country has any other major export.

The "Third Oil War" was the US expulsion of Iraq from Kuwait, following the 1990 invasion. Our primary reason for coming to Kuwait's aid was to protect friendly oil regimes (Kuwait and Saudi Arabia) from takeover by unfriendly oil powers (Saddam). The US presence in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia continues until today, as does the US enforcement of the "no-fly zone" over Iraq. In contrast, the US stood by while other countries lacking oil were invaded by neighbors in the same years.

Hence the Fourth Oil War-Bush's War on Terror-is a continuation of a hostile process that has been ongoing since the late 1950s. The sources of the problems show no sign of abating: the US and its allies still import oil; we still rely on unstable dictatorial regimes; those regimes are getting richer and more able to fight the US; and the people living under those same regimes hate the US more and more. Unless we change something about that formula, it will go on producing more wars for the coming decades.

What can we change? Bush and Cheney suggest drilling for more oil in Alaska-a nice solution if one is only interested in postponing the question by a few months, since only a few months' worth of oil is likely to be found in ANWR. The only permanent solution would be to reduce our oil dependency. The Saudi Oil Minister said in a moment of honesty in the 1980s, "The US could reduce its oil imports to zero within a few years if they put their minds to it." It's time we did so.

To do something about oil dependency, we need to recognize the connection between oil-consumptive activities and war: We drive SUVs and use hundreds of other high-energy products; we demand cheap oil to maintain that lifestyle; Congress responds by building the military to ensure the flow of cheap oil from unstable regimes; we then use the military as the need arises in oil-exporting countries; and oil stays cheap so we continue to drive SUVs. The problem is the billions of dollars to maintain the military, and the cost in lives during the periodic wars.

The military cost is substantial: we spend $331 billion a year on defense, and President Bush's new budget seeks a $48 billion annual increase. If Congress approves the increase, the total will be the equivalent of $3,800 for every taxpayer in the country, every year, just to pay for the military. A substantial part of that expenditure goes to ensure oil supply: for example, we maintain 14 aircraft carriers, compared to 13 for the rest of the world combined, so that we can keep one in the Persian Gulf, and one in the Indian Ocean. The Pentagon's military plans require aircraft carriers around the world so we can "project power" to maintain "vital US interests"-which almost always translates to "maintain the oil supply."

We are addicted to oil, and like any addict, we are in denial about our addiction. When Congress considers raising CAFE standards, which would require automobile manufacturers to improve gas mileage, that's considered an intrusion on our lifestyle. But the War on Terror is much more of an intrusion. And Congress rejected-in a near-unanimous vote-signing the Kyoto Protocol, which would commit the US to reducing oil consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, as too costly for Americans. But $3,800 per year in taxes for Oil Wars is higher than any projection of Kyoto's costs.

Our oil-based lifestyle is no longer just an environmentalist issue, and no longer just a symbol of material consumption. Oil consumption has become a matter of national security-not to maintain the supply, but to reduce our demand so we no longer need the supply. The price of maintaining our current oil consumption will be an ongoing Oil War for the indefinite future, of which the War on Terror will be just the current version. We must reduce our oil consumption or face a future of international war. Is that worth the convenience of cheap gas?


Jesse Gordon resided in Israel prior to the 1973 Yom Kippur war and has traveled to several oil-exporting countries, including Nigeria, Indonesia, Mexico, Russia, and around the Mideast.

Watch MetroWest Daily News managing editor Joe Dwinell's live report on WB-56 every Thursday and Friday at 7:45 a.m.

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