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The military/oil complex – Do we deserve a chance to debate when the nation goes to war?

Marshall-soldiers

Dwight D. Eisenhower was America’s iconic military leader during World War II and its president from 1953 until 1961. His fatherly smile and his general demeanor lent confidence to Americans. Whether he was one of America’s best presidents is a question for historians to decide. But his last comments before leaving office were historically profound and very prophetic with respect to U.S. involvement in the Middle East.

Ike, as he was affectionately called, said in his farewell address to the nation on Jan. 17, 1961 that “we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. … Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

Regrettably, perhaps since WWII, no American entanglement on foreign soil, indeed, no American war (except perhaps critical wars like Grenada and Panama … a bit of cynicism), has reflected the sustained support of the American people from beginning to end. Many American citizens have had trouble justifying our involvement on moral, military, political, economic and social welfare grounds. Some of the theories, often embellished in rhetoric, used by our leaders as rationales for various wars since WWII, have been discarded because of their simplicity or their failure to conform to post-war facts on the ground. Remember The Domino Theory justifying the Vietnam War?

We have not been entirely honest with the service personnel we have sent to Afghanistan and Iraq. While not a random sample, I have been fortunate to talk with many of the returning soldiers from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (including a Special Forces veteran or two), and most believe that, at its core, the nation’s involvement in both countries rests not on bipartisan justifications concerning exporting democracy and freedom, but on the desire to preserve and protect access to oil for the west. Implicit in their comments is a belief that Eisenhower’s warning about the military industrial complex has now become a reality (except that with respect to Iraq and Afghanistan, it is more accurate to call it the military/oil company complex).

The intensity of their perspective, while perhaps forged in part by their being involved up front in the horrors of war and killing, is not theirs alone. “Of course it’s about oil; we cannot really deny that,” said Gen. John Abizaid, former head of U.S. Central Command and Military Operations in Iraq. Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan agreed, writing in his memoir, “I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil.” In 1998, Kenneth Derr, then CEO of Chevron, said, “Iraq possesses huge reserves of oil and gas — reserves I’d love Chevron to have access to.” Today it does. According to a policy brief from scholars at Harvard’s Kennedy School, “Although, the threat of ‘resource wars,’ over position of oil reserves is often exaggerated, the sum of the political effects generated by the oil industry makes oil a leading cause of war.”

Media reports from over the last decade or more suggest the same nefarious link between war and oil exists concerning Afghanistan; indeed, this link exists between all of our country’s recent wars in the Middle East. Sure, oil is not the only reason we go to war, but those of us concerned with public policy and the fog, as well as human, economic and social costs of war ought at a minimum, try to make sure that citizens in this nation are aware of and can debate the role of oil. More transparency may lead to less national harm and more rational decisions about joining or starting conflicts.

Why, in light of the fact that oil, oil exploration, oil development and oil distribution has been and remains a key variable generating U.S. involvement in many past and present wars, do we, as a nation, avoid a sustained strategic drive to foster the use of alternative competitive fuels, such as ethanol, methanol, natural gas, electricity and hydrogen fuel? Our efforts to date have been relatively minuscule and often are impeded more by a lack of a vision of the public good, ideological and partisan whims, economic and political interests than by an honest appraisal of independent analyses and honest debate. We owe the young people that we sent to battle at least this much. Give them a chance to make love, not war! We can be fuel agnostic and let the public interest and ultimately the marketplace choose the winners when it comes to cheaper, cleaner, safer fuels. The nation and its residents deserve a chance to safeguard the country’s environment, its economy and its security!

(Photo: A ceremony in Iraq in December 2011 marking the withdrawal of the last U.S. troops from the country. Credit: Getty Images)

Canada, oh Canada, will your tar-sands oil help or hurt US fuel objectives?

Tar Pit #3I just finished a recent Forbes article by Jude Clemente, “Canada is North America’s Great Oil Security Blanket.” Gosh, it’s good to know that Canada can supply 10 million barrels a day for the next 675 years. Just think of the biblical proportions of Canada’s reserves. Methuselah lived only 969 years! I feel safer already.

I am (fairly) comfortable that the French won’t take over Quebec and act out residual imperial desires and that the British won’t try to recapture their former colonies. So, sleep easy and leave a note in the morning to your children, their children and their children’s children, ad nauseam. Future generations of U.S. residents won’t have to worry about the definitions of peak oil or real oil shortages, and we will always have fossil fuel in our future. Our very valued friend to the north can and will produce whatever oil the U.S. requires for centuries.

Aren’t we lucky?! Our decedents will be able to depend on what the author calls “ethical Canadian oil.” Why? He argues that “Canada is a democracy and a free market sought by investors that desire less risk.” Wow…freedom to choose and capitalism; John Rawls and Adam Smith. I am crying with joy. But my emotional high lasts for only a few minutes.

Do we need to substitute Middle East imports for Canadian imports, even though Canada is a trusted ally? Are Canadian oil reserves a real, long-term, strategic benefit to the U.S. and are they ethical (a funny term used in the context of big oil’s historical behavior, speculation with respect to investment in oil and the perils of surface mining)? According to many analysts, oil from tar sands is among the most polluting and GHG emission causing oil in the ground. Aren’t you happy? In light of reserves, we can tether ourselves to fossil fuels for hundreds of years and a range of environmental problems, including, but not limited to, air pollution, landscape destruction, toxic water resulting from tailing ponds and excessive water use. Many scientists warn of increased rates of cancer and other diseases. While the tar sand industry, to its credit, has tried to limit the problems, according to the Scientific American article by David Biello, “tar sands may be among the least climate- [and health-] friendly oil produced at present.” By the way, conversion to gasoline will likely result in higher prices for the least advantaged among us, not exactly Rawlsian ethics.

We are in a difficult position, policy wise. Sure, we can establish long-term institutional relationships with Canada and its provinces that will assure U.S. on-demand access for Canadian oil sands. To do this would be comforting to vested interests and some leaders who still believe that oil is the key to America’s economic future. But business, academic, nonprofit, community as well as government leaders are increasingly searching for alternatives that will be better for the economy, the environment and national security. Weaning the U.S. off of oil, as the president has sought, will require, at least for the transportation sector, substituting a “drill, baby, drill” mentality for a strategy that includes increased use of alternative fuels, open fuel markets and flex-fuel vehicles.

Alternative fuels are not perfect, but for the most part, they are much better than gasoline in light of national energy and fuel objectives. Many replacement fuels, like natural gas and natural gas-based ethanol, cannot compete easily because of government regulations (e.g., RFS, etc.) and oil company efforts, despite large subsidies to limit their purchase by consumers (e.g., lobbying against open competitive markets, franchise agreements, price setting, etc.). Most alternatives appear to have sufficient reserves to provide the consumer with cheaper and better fuel than gasoline for a long time. For example, natural gas seems to have more than a proven 100-year supply, and that’s without further exploration.

The policy framework is easier to define than implement given America’s interest group politics. It would go something like this: As soon as they are ready for prime time and reflect competitive prices, design and miles per tank, increasing numbers of electric and perhaps hydrogen-fueled cars will appeal to a much wider band of U.S. consumers than they do now. The nation should support initiatives to improve marketability of both thorough research and development. Until then, the good or the better should not be frustrated by the perfect or an unreal idealization of the perfect. Please remember that even electric cars spew greenhouse gas emissions when they are powered by utilities that are fired up by coal, and that the most immediately available source of hydrogen-based fuel is natural gas. Currently, there are no defined predictable supply chains for hydrogen fuel. Perhaps, more important, neither electricity nor hydrogen fuel cells can be used in the 300,000,000 existing cars and their internal combustion engines.

So what’s a country to do, particularly one like the U.S., which is assumedly interested in reducing GHG emissions, protecting the environment, growing the economy and decreasing dependence on foreign oil? Paraphrasing, the poet Robert Frost, let’s take the road less traveled. Let’s develop and implement a strategic, alternative-fuels approach that incorporates expanding consumer choices regarding corn and natural gas-based ethanol, a range of bio fuels and more electric and hydrogen fuel cars. Let’s match alternative fuels with initiatives to increase Detroit’s production of new FFVs and the capacity (through software adjustments and conversion kits) for consumers to convert their existing cars to FFVs. To succeed, we should take a collective Alka-Seltzer and build a diverse strong fuels coalition that will encourage the U.S. to develop a comprehensive, alternative fuel strategy. The coalition, once formed, should place its bet on faith in the public interest and good analysis to gain citizen and congressional support. I bet the nation is ready for success — just remember how Linus of the famous Peanuts comic strip ultimately gave up his security blanket.

 

Photo Credit: http://priceofoil.org/