Using our might to keep oil cheap

March 20, 2006|By CYNTHIA TUCKER

ATLANTA -- Conservatives have denounced the thriller Syriana, a film that explores the Machiavellian politics of Mideast oil. Pundit Charles Krauthammer, for example, says the movie exports "the most vicious and pernicious mendacities about America to a receptive world."

The film, for which George Clooney won an Oscar for best supporting actor, is definitely a Hollywood version of international politics.

But the movie's essence is merely a recounting of recent U.S. history: Consecutive administrations - Democrat and Republican - have done whatever was necessary to ensure a continuous supply of cheap petroleum. That's the overriding reason that President Bush invaded Iraq.

While most American presidents have been smart enough to avoid an outright war, using U.S. muscle to guarantee the oil supply has been policy for decades, according to Andrew J. Bacevich, Boston University professor and author of The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War.

"The clear preference was for a low profile and a hidden hand. ... Washington preferred covert action to the direct use of force," Mr. Bacevich, a West Point graduate, wrote in a chapter titled "Blood for Oil." But in March 2003, President Bush radically changed tactics, sending the world's most powerful military to topple Saddam Hussein.

Now that President Bush has careened through a series of justifications for this unnecessary war, none of which bears close scrutiny - ties to al-Qaida, weapons of mass destruction, weapons-of-mass-destruction-related programs, democracy, etc. - perhaps it's time for a reasoned look at what the Bush administration hoped to get out of an invasion.

Supporters of the Bush Doctrine are quick to suggest the idiocy of an invasion to gain access to Iraqi oil fields. They're right. Instead, the White House wanted to guarantee a military staging ground to replace our bases in Saudi Arabia; the House of Saud is increasingly worried about the backlash from Islamist extremists agitated over the U.S. presence there.

So why not set up shop in Iraq, which gives us access to the entire Persian Gulf region?

While Gen. John P. Abizaid, commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, has said that the United States has no plans for permanent bases in Iraq, the Pentagon has spent $1 billion on base reconstruction in and around Iraq and Afghanistan and wants to spend $1 billion more.

Bush administration officials have refused to specifically rule out U.S. bases on Iraqi soil, although doing so might help quell the insurgency - or at least clarify our intentions. That's because we always intended to stay.

Oil wasn't the only factor, of course. Multiple agendas converged to drive the war wagon to Baghdad: Donald H. Rumsfeld wanted to try out his theories of a faster, lighter military; neoconservatives such as Paul Wolfowitz genuinely believed they could implant Jeffersonian democracy in the stony soil of Mesopotamia; Dick Cheney just enjoys exerting raw power. But Iraq became the centerpiece of their various schemes because they believed it would achieve the higher purpose of preserving access to the oil supply.

It's not too late to start to curb America's huge appetite for oil before we end up at war with China in 10 or 20 years over dwindling reserves. The political moment when it would have been easy to change consumption habits has passed: Mr. Bush could have sought and received a stiff increase in the federal gas tax - as much as $1 a gallon - just after 9/11. Americans were ready, then, to make sacrifices.

It would be harder now but hardly impossible. Polls show that more than half of Americans would accept a higher gas tax if it led to less reliance on foreign oil. While the price increase would ripple through the economy, we would adjust - with more public transit, more carpooling and fewer discretionary car trips.

If Americans don't like the portrait of their country they saw in Syriana, there's one smart way to respond: Change it. Stop using raw power to guarantee cheap oil.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is cynthia@ajc.com.

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