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