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(Driving Up) the Cost of Freedom
Published on Friday, November 22, 2002 by
(Driving Up) the Cost of Freedom
by Gregory Stephens

“As a nation born in revolution, we know the price of freedom. We will not give that up now.”
Dick Cheney, ABC’s “This Week,” September 8, 2002

“As followers of the Prince of Peace, Christians should strive to lessen circumstances that could lead to violent conflicts by reducing our consumption of oil.”
What Would Jesus Drive” website, Nov. 20, 2002

Our freedoms have a hidden price far steeper than most of us realize. What is the cost, for instance, of the freedom North Americans enjoy to drive their cars wherever they want, whenever they want? And who pays that price?

The truth about the cost of the “American Way of Life” can be found in “Strategic Energy Policy Challenges for the 21st Century,” a report submitted to Vice President Cheney by the Baker Institute for Public Policy in April 2001. The “central dilemma” for the United States administration, the report says, is that “the American people continue to demand plentiful and cheap energy without sacrifice or inconvenience.” The American people’s belief in cheap oil as a birthright is what drives the Bush administration’s war plans in Iraq.

This report stresses Iraq’s potential to help provide a more stable oil fix. The U.S. media seems to have passed over the “Strategic Energy Policy” report in silence. Only after the European press published excerpts in early November 2002 did some discussion of the report began appearing in alternative American media. But to date, the oil-driven rationale for a “regime change” in Iraq has been almost entirely absent from mainstream American media.

Iraq has the world’s second largest proven reserves of oil. Under Saddam Hussein, most of the contracts signed to develop these reserves have been with TotalFinaElf of France and Russia’s Lukoil. But Ahmed Chalabi, leader of the U.S.-backed Iraqui National Congress, has told the Bush Administration that a post-Saddam, INC-led government would not honor those contracts. “American companies will have a big shot at Iraqui oil,” Chalabi has made clear. The true aim of the Bush Administration, as Peter Beaumont and Faisal Islam reported in The Observer, seems to be the destruction of OPEC, which is viewed as incompatible with American interests—that is, the right to consume “cheap energy without sacrifice.”

The United States is an “imperial democracy” which “does not know how to listen or reply,” Octavio Paz once wrote. But we can no longer ignore our interdependence with the rest of the world. It is imperative that we listen to other voices which challenge our definition of freedom. Most people who are angry at America do not hate our freedom per se, or our culture. “They hate that you are monopolizing all the nonrenewable resources,” a Muslim community leader told Thomas Friedman. “As a consequence, you support feudal elements who are trying to stave off the march of democracy.”

What many are saying outside the U.S., few North Americans want to hear. As Jeremy Rifkin wrote: “While most Americans think that we are planning an attack on Iraq to save the world from a madman, most Europeans think that Bush is the madman, with the evil intention of grabbing a foothold in the oil-rich Middle East to extend the American empire’.”

George Bush Sr. once declared that “the American way of life is not up for negotiation.” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld claimed that the War Against Terror aimed to persuade the world that Americans must be allowed to continue their way of life. But the truth is that “the American way of life is simply not sustainable,” as Indian novelist Arundhati Roy has said.

Our actions speak much louder than our words. Our leaders give us what we demand, and everyone who drives is a de facto supporter of an Iraqui invasion. Since even most anti-war protesters use and expect cheap oil, opposition to an invasion of Iraq is a meaningless gesture, if it is not also tied to a serious effort to come to grips with our monstruous oil addiction.

Such a reckoning has been initiated at a propitious moment from an unlikely source: evangelical Christians. The “What Would Jesus Drive?” ad campaign begun November 20 will amuse or offend many. Yet the Christian Environmental Network, who organized the campaign, have enlisted academic research and government policy as well as a Biblical foundation.

Some of the WWJD campaign’s recommendations are more revolutionary than merely purchasing a fuel-efficient ride: “When they move to a new location, Christians should choose a place that makes it is easier and more desirable to walk, bike, or take public transportation.” And they should “advocate for and support policies of governments and practices of businesses” that help citizens develop a sustainable lifestyle.

Conservative Christians have often shown a tendency to treat environmentalists as an anti-Christ. But they are surely the only group with the numbers and organization to hold the Bush Administration’s “axis of oil” responsible. It will not be the secular left who can inspire the American people to ask questions such as: Are strip malls and superhighways really the model we want to export to the rest of the world? Does the God of the unrestricted free market really bless our headlong rush to pave the planet? As Herbert Gunther Chao of the Public Media Center in San Francisco points out, if we replicate the American way of life on a global scale, and 1.2 billion Chinese are driving cars, that would literally mean the death of the planet. And as Christian activists insist, we cannot honor God, yet destroy his Creation.

Yet this is precisely the script of the Bush Administration’s “Pre- Eminence Doctrine,” which advocates unchallenged military supremacy, so that competitors will be discouraged from “seeking to overturn the established political and economic order.” At the heart of that order is our sense of entitlement to cheap petroleum, “without inconvenience of sacrifice.”

We ourselves, the American people, are the cornerstone of the regime of oil, which in the final analysis, is only doing our bidding. The costs of the illusory freedoms provided by this regime have become too great to bear, both at home and abroad. True security requires us to recognize that there will be no freedom from terror until we come to terms with our oil addiction.

Gregory Stephens was a Rockefeller Fellow at the University of North Carolina’s Center for International Studies from 2001-02. He is currently a bilingual teacher in Oklahoma City Public Schools. His writings, radio shows, and interviews can be found at Contact 405/922-6959;



For an excellent summary of recent writing and research about the links between oil and the drive for war in Iraq, see Maria Elena Martinez and Joshua Karliner, “Rumors of War—Axis of Oil and Iraq,” San Francisco Chronicle, 11-13-02. Re-posted as “One Link: The Axis of Oil” at:

“Strategic Energy Policy Challenges for the 21st Century.” Co-sponsored by the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations.

European press: Neil Mackay, “The West’s Battle for Oil, “ Sunday Herald (11-4-02).

George Monbiot, “Why Blair is an Appeaser,” The Guardian (11-5-02).

Also, Nick Beams, “The political economy of American militarism in the 21st century,” November 1, 2002. First delivered as public lectures in Sydney and Melbourne. Published on-line at: Peter Beaumont and Faisal Islam, “Carve-up of oil riches begins: US plans to ditch industry rivals and force end of OPEC,” The Observer (11- 3-02).,6903,825103,00.html

Octavio Paz, “The United States and Mexico,” in The Labyrinth of Solitude and Other Writings (Grove Press, 1985), 275; 219, 325.

Thomas Friedman, “Drowning Freedom in Oil,” New York Times (August 25, 2002).

“madman,” Jeremy Rifkin, “Is Big Oil pushing war drive?” Los Angeles Times (10-24-02);

Arundhati Roy reading and conversation with Howard Zinn, at Performing Arts Center, Santa Fe, New Mexico, Sept. 18, 2002. Broadcast on “Democracy Now,” Oct. 15, 2002.

Harvey Cox, “The Market as God: Living in the new dispensation,” Atlantic Monthly (March 1999);

Herbert Chao Gunther quoted in the documentary “The Ad and the Ego,” available at

Pre-Eminence Doctrine, Judith Miller, “Keeping U.S. No. 1: Is It Wise? Is It New?” New York Times (10-26-02). [“National Security Strategy of the United States,” September 2002]

“axis of oil,” James Dao, “Protesters Interrupt Powell Speech as U.N. Talks End,” New York Times (9-5-02).


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