Oil, petrodollars and war. Does the U.S. need to permanently police the Middle East?

Soldiers Conduct Combined Clearing OperationThe U.S. interest in going to war or supporting war efforts on behalf of our “democratic” allies like Iraq, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Saudi Arabia is not based, as said by some political leaders, on converting those countries to democracies or providing their citizens with increased freedom. Neither is it, primarily, aimed at reducing terrorism possibilities here at home. For the most part, it is instead aimed at protecting the U.S. and our allies’ interests in oil and stability in some of the most corrupt, autocratic oil-producing states in the Middle East.

Surely, recent history indicates that use of patriotic and compassionate language reflecting America’s historical ethos to justify our actions often wins initial public support for “Operation This” or “Operation That,” but as conflicts drag on and U.S. soldiers, sailors or marines suffer physical and emotional wounds, the gap between articulated justifications and reality becomes clearer to the public. When the fog of war or near-wars lifts a bit, support for U.S. military activity, often becomes muted among the citizenry.

Concern for protecting oil resources, production and distribution has been, and is currently, a paramount objective of the U.S. The U.S. and its allies have helped overturn governments, remake global maps, redefine national or tribal borders, create new nation states and abandon old ones and dispatch national leaders. Contrary to Gen. Powell’s admonition, we sometimes have failed to own the disastrous results of the wars that we have fought (Libya, Iraq, etc.). Based on our own desire for oil, we have tolerated sometimes exotic and many times terrible behavior among private oligarchs and despotic rulers, which, regrettably, often, escapes coverage in text books and in the media. Clearly, the link between our large-scale addiction to oil and its negative political, social and economic consequences in several Middle Eastern countries lacks sustained attention in our public policy dialogue.

The importance of oil and the U.S. willingness to go to war or engage in covert activities to protect it has been intensified by the relationship between petrodollars and the U.S. economy. Since 1944 at The Bretton Woods Conference, the global reserve currency has been the good old U.S. dollar. First, gold was the back-up to the dollar. As reported by the Huffington Post, the dollar was pegged at $35 to an ounce of gold and was freely exchangeable. “But by 1971, convertibility of gold was no longer viable as America’s gold resources had drained away. Instead, the dollar became a pure fiat currency (decoupled from any physical store of value) until the petrodollar agreement was concluded by President Nixon in 1973. The essence of the deal was that the U.S. would agree to military sales and defense of Saudi Arabia in return for all oil trade being denominated in U.S. dollars.” We as a nation committed to go to war in return for ostensible economic benefits and access to oil.

Was it good for the American economy? Sure, at least in the short run. The dollar became the only currency for energy trading. All foreign governments desiring to secure and trade for oil had to hold U.S. currency. The dollar was easily converted into barrels of oil. As the Huffington Post indicated, the dollar costs for oil flowed back into the U.S. financial system. What a deal!

Recently, lower U.S. interest rates, a troubled, slow-growing U.S. economy and the rise of oil-shale production in the U.S. has muted the almost-absolute, four-decade direct relationship between the dollar, and other nations’ need for oil and or export of oil. Instead of “next year in Jerusalem,” some nations like China, Russia and even France and Germany have indicated next year either a return to gold or the use of their own currencies as a peg to trading. However, the petrodollar still plays an important role in the exchange of oil in the global trading system. Its demise, as Mark Twain suggested about reports of his death, is, if not greatly, (at least) somewhat exaggerated. I suspect the petrodollar will be with us for some time.

Our nation’s willingness to militarize support of countries that depart radically from supposed U.S. norms of global behavior (encoded in the U.N Charter and other international agreements), because of their oil resources and the post-World War II emergence of dollar-based trading in oil and its benefits, has muddled U.S. foreign policy. Critics have questioned our not-so benign initiatives in countries throughout the Middle East and, as a result, they have raised issues concerning supposed American exceptionalism.

We have more than just a Hobson choice (that is, there is no real choice at all) if we choose to break from oil dependency. Increased U.S. oil production to secure profits and reach demand will still require both importing and exporting oil. This fact, coupled with the desire to keep the dollar the key oil-trading denomination, will sustain U.S. entanglements and the probability that we will continue to play oil policemen in many places.

A different future could be achieved if we took the president seriously and tried to “wean” ourselves off of oil. Paraphrasing liberally and adding my own meaning, Léon Blum, former French leader, “Life doesn’t give itself to one [nation] who tries to keep all of its advantages at once…morality may consist solely in the courage of making a choice [between energy sources and fuels].” The U.S. has not had the political guts yet to really focus on converting from an oil- and gas-based economy and social structure to an alternative energy and fuel-based one (e.g., natural gas, ethanol, methanol, biofuels, electricity and hydro fuels). Such a strategy would allow consumers greater freedom at the pump. It would be fuel agnostic and let consumers pick winners and losers based on cost, and impact on the quality of their lives and the nation’s life. We know that if we do make alternative energy and fuel choices now, based on equity, efficiency, GHG emissions and pollution reduction criteria, we can secure important environmental, economic, social and security benefits. To fail to act is an act itself, one that will harm the nation’s efforts to become the country on the shining hill and pave the way for other countries and itself to access a better, more peaceful future for present children and their children.


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What Do Religious Patents And Pope Francis Have To With Reducing Oil Dependency?

Israel has more patents per capita than any other nation in the world. Despite wars and tension at its borders, international investor interest remains high, particularly in high-tech industries. Indeed, high-tech industries continue to grow faster than any other industrial sector.

Okay. I have a serious question for questioning minds. The Jerusalem Post stated that pollution levels dropped by 99 percent on Saturday, Yom Kippur, a key Jewish religious holiday. The article indicated that nitrogen oxides decreased by 99 percent in the Gush Dan and Jerusalem regions and that other serious pollutants that affect health and well-being also dropped significantly. (Truth in advertising compels me to say that Israel has another holiday called Lag B’omer, where folks light bonfires to celebrate a wise sage in Israel’s past. Many also travel to the sage’s tomb. Both activities make air quality terrible. But understanding, apology, patience and penitence may result yet in friendlier environmental options.)

Wow, could Israel patent environmental behavior based in religion to secure a healthy environment? What would they patent? Perhaps, activities resulting from seeking forgiveness for previous driving and fuel related sins generating harmful pollutants. Asking forgiveness and apologizing are what Jews are supposed to do on the Holy Day. Or should they try patenting the environmental God, Himself or Herself, to make sure we have a major partner with respect to minimizing pollution in the environment. Here, they could include other possible partners like the scientists busy at work in Switzerland on the “God particle” in their patent.

Maybe Israel’s success with Yom Kippur behavior would lead Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Hindus and Mormons to define and patent Holy No Drive Days or better yet, because of lessons learned from Israel and possible Israeli involvement, lengthier environmental behavior days, weeks, months or years. Because of the negative impact on the global economy, international security and the environment of the world’s present dependency on oil and oil’s derivative gasoline, perhaps all the major religions and even the minor ones could agree on a range of environmentally friendly behavior changing initiatives, particularly related to one of the largest pollutants of them all…oil. Each patent would be based on prescriptions written or derived from religious interpretation of each religion’s environmental norms and tenants and holidays. Here’s one: Just say no to gasoline and yes to use of replacement fuels. Tithings from believers or congregants would support the effort. Figure it out, enough long holidays and the world might begin to reduce levels of pollution and likely GHG emissions, as well as oil-based wars and tension. Maybe we could develop a whole set of religious patents, that once patented, would be capable of being used by any nation or religion and any group or individual free. You know, building good, Godly behavior.

No government subsidies, no new government regulations. If behavioral changes stick, based on religious initiatives, our grandchildren and their grandchildren could live in a better world. While, likely impossible and the idea of patenting good behavior is more humorous than real, the thought seems worthy of a prayer or two and lots of meaningful sermons as well as interfaith action.

Collaboration by churches, synagogues and mosques could influence governments to jump in and also play a leadership role. Clearly, religiously inspired guilt is often aspirational and motivational — sometimes politically. Combined with religiously inspired individual commitment concerning grassroots activity, it could secure secular support for the development and implementation of comprehensive fuel policies concerning environmental, security and economic objectives — like social justice.

Where might we go with this? Probably not very far. But think of it. We spend much time arguing about God, and often much less time achieving godliness through reforming institutional and our behaviors as good stewards of the world. If we could marshal (excuse the pun), the leaders of some of the major religions of the world to help reduce harmful pollution from gasoline, GHG emissions and wars related to oil, over time, amendments to individual and group activities could help “convert” the bleak forecasts concerning climate change and increasingly dirty air for the better. Additionally, such an effort could also lead to a reduction of tension in areas like the Middle East, and global and national economic growth based on the development and distribution of both transitional replacement and renewable fuels.

I don’t expect invitations to discuss the matter from religious forums or meetings. But seeking collaboration from the religious community to end dependence on oil is something to think about in terms of the “what ifs.” Maybe in this context, a respected celebrated religious leader like Pope Francis could be asked to try to bring together religious leaders and even some secular ones to at least begin to discuss initiatives across man- or women-made national boundaries.

The proposed agenda would link short-term coordinated strategies to use transitional replacement fuels such as natural gas, ethanol, methanol and biofuels with longer-term plans (with immediate efforts) to increase the competitiveness of electric and hydro fuels. For my religious colleagues and secular friends, it seems to me that beginning these discussions is a moral and practical imperative.