Wednesday, February 04, 2004

Why Drive Lite is needed -- III: Betting on Democracy to Secure Oil

The Wall Street Journal is running a series titled "Power and Peril: America's Supremacy and Its Limits". Today's edition contains the fifth of the episodes titled: Power Politics: In Quest for Energy Security, U.S. Makes New Bet: on Democracy.

That's a topic not touch upon often on the front pages of major US newspapers. WSJ won't let you read the article online unless you subscribe to it, but here are excerpts:

... For more than half a century, the U.S. has veered between confrontation and cajolery as it strove to secure a pillar of its global power: a steady flow of fuel at a stable price from the Persian Gulf. The U.S. has jumped from country to country in search of reliable friends.

It has often stumbled: The shah of Iran was overthrown. Saddam Hussein mutated from prickly partner to foe. The House of Saud still stands but wobbles, both at home -- where a divided ruling family staggers between reform and reaction -- and in Washington, where people ask how an ally could spawn 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers. ...

...Today, haunted by terrorism, the U.S. makes a different calculation. Citing the absence of political freedom in the Mideast, Mr. Bush said in a speech last fall "it would be reckless to accept the status quo."

Also out to overthrow the status quo, however, are America's enemies in the region. Democracy, if it really takes hold there, could amplify their voices. Anger at Western use of Arab oil has been a theme for decades of populist rhetoric, both secular and Islamist. Just last month, Osama bin Laden, in a tape played on al Jazeera television, denounced the U.S. occupation of Iraq as a "big power" plot to control the Gulf's oil. Years earlier, Mr. bin Laden offered his own policy for an oil market he called the "biggest theft in history." A barrel of crude, the Saudi-born al Qaeda leader said in 1998, ought to cost $144, quadruple its current price.

...America's wish to keep Persian Gulf oil secure took a violent turn in Iran. In 1953, the CIA carried out a British plot to topple an Iranian leader who had nationalized the Anglo-Persian Oil Co.

At first, the U.S. had no enthusiasm for an idea it saw as a last gasp by Britain's expiring empire. Christopher Woodhouse, an official the U.K. sent to Washington to lobby for the plan, wrote later how he helped win over the U.S.: "I decided to emphasize the Communist threat to Iran rather than the need to recover control of the oil industry."

The resulting coup against Mohammed Mossadegh brought back the exiled Iranian shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, who promptly invited U.S. companies to join a new international consortium to run Iran's oil industry. Washington poured in arms, turning Iran into a Cold War bulwark against the Soviet Union.

...Britain's National Archives last month released several secret reports on America's likely response to the oil crisis. A December 1973 assessment by Britain's Joint Intelligence Committee said Washington might use subversion to "replace the existing rulers of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Abu Dhabi with more amenable men" or try "gun-boat diplomacy" to intimidate existing rulers. But an invasion to seize Arab oil fields was "the possibility uppermost in American thinking," the report added. It said Mr. Schlesinger had told Britain's ambassador "it was no longer obvious to him that the United States could not use force."

Another British intelligence report from the period outlined a "dark scenario" under which U.S. policy makers would use force "despite their experience in Vietnam. . . . This would, of course, be a highly dangerous policy with only slim chances of success." Military action, the U.K. intelligence committee warned, would provoke Arab sabotage and leave America's European allies "badly torn."

... "We've been going round in circles for decades," says Milton Copulos, a consultant the Energy Department hired in the 1980s to gauge Soviet oil potential. Now president of a think tank called the National Defense Council Foundation, Mr. Copulos has assessed hidden economic and military costs of imported oil. If military spending directly related to protecting oil supplies and other costs were reflected at the pump, he figures, gasoline would cost $5.28 a gallon in the U.S. "We are always looking for a quick fix, but the fundamental problem is we have to wean ourselves off oil," he contends.

Unless this happens, Saudi Arabia will remain the pivot of U.S. energy security. It now creaks under political and other pressures, but Washington has to keep it turning. Mr. Bush recently named James C. Oberwetter, a Texas oil lobbyist and former head of the American Petroleum Institute, as ambassador to the kingdom.


This should be a very powerful motivation for people to be thinking more actively and seriously about Energy consumption in the U.S. Given the long time lag present for controlling energy consumption even under the best of technological conditions, means that some thought must be given to how intelligently we use our energy. Hence "Drive Lite"!

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