Assuming victory

January 26, 2003

THE DAY AFTER a U.S. military victory in Iraq - assuming there is one - American "energy security" will have taken a major step forward. Regardless of the motives that led to armed conflict in the first place, victory will help ensure that the entire Persian Gulf remains hospitable to oil companies.

The region, the world's biggest source of oil, has been a source of growing concern to successive administrations in Washington for several years. Worried American policymakers see a place that looks to be unstable, unreliable and fanatical.

An impressive and violent show of American strength on the ground and a compliant new regime in Baghdad would go a long way toward keeping the entire gulf in line.

The White House says its pressure on Iraq isn't about oil - but can the Bush administration be unmindful of the consequences of war as far as oil is concerned? Vice President Dick Cheney's May 2001 energy task force report has a chapter on "national energy security," and it notes that, because it produces so much of the world's oil, the Persian Gulf region "will remain vital to U.S. interests."

Last Aug. 26, in a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Mr. Cheney said, "Armed with an arsenal of these weapons of terror, and seated atop 10 percent of the world's oil reserves, Saddam Hussein could then be expected to seek domination of the entire Middle East, take control of a great portion of the world's energy supplies."

Well, if he's going to frame the conflict that way, maybe we should take his words at face value.

But there's an important nuance here. Only 24 percent of U.S. oil imports - about 12 percent of total consumption - comes from the Middle East. The region, in other words, is vitally important to the global energy market, but its direct importance to the United States is middling at best. America won't be making an overt grab for Iraqi oil - because it doesn't need to.

But the administration recognizes the indirect link - that disruption in the Middle East and turmoil on the global market would inevitably come back to haunt the United States. The price of oil is global, not local. America's trading partners are global, not local. American interest in a well-ordered world is global, not local.

The United States, in fact, with the blessing of this oilman's administration, is moving toward a greater reliance on natural gas - most of which is either domestic or Canadian - and may even be making a return to nuclear power. It doesn't matter. The world still depends on oil. And the Bush administration sees the United States as the guarantor of oil-price and oil-supply stability.

Victory in Iraq would achieve that - again, assuming there's the right kind of victory. That's not a small assumption.

Other countries see it this way: The benefit of an American-run world economy may not be worth the risk of conflagration and fanaticism in the Middle East. And if a war against Iraq goes wrong for the United States, one White House fear will be fully realized: Middle Eastern turmoil will indeed be coming back to haunt America.

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