Garrisoning the Global Gas Station: Challenging the Militarization of U.S. Energy Policy

American policymakers have long viewed the protection of overseas oil supplies as an essential matter of "national security," requiring the threat of -- and sometimes the use of -- military force. This is now an unquestioned part of American foreign policy.

On this basis, the first Bush administration fought a war against Iraq in 1990-1991 and the second Bush administration invaded Iraq in 2003. With global oil prices soaring and oil reserves expected to dwindle in the years ahead, military force is sure to be seen by whatever new administration enters Washington in January 2009 as the ultimate guarantor of our well-being in the oil heartlands of the planet. But with the costs of militarized oil operations -- in both blood and dollars -- rising precipitously isn't it time to challenge such "wisdom"? Isn't it time to ask whether the U.S. military has anything reasonable to do with American energy security, and whether a reliance on military force, when it comes to energy policy, is practical, affordable, or justifiable?

How Energy Policy Got Militarized

The association between "energy security" (as it's now termed) and "national security" was established long ago. President Franklin D. Roosevelt first forged this association way back in 1945, when he pledged to protect the Saudi Arabian royal family in return for privileged American access to Saudi oil. The relationship was given formal expression in 1980, when President Jimmy Carter told Congress that maintaining the uninterrupted flow of Persian Gulf oil was a "vital interest" of the United States, and attempts by hostile nations to cut that flow would be countered "by any means necessary, including military force."

To implement this "doctrine," Carter ordered the creation of a Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force, specifically earmarked for combat operations in the Persian Gulf area. President Ronald Reagan later turned that force into a full-scale regional combat organization, the U.S. Central Command, or CENTCOM. Every president since Reagan has added to CENTCOM's responsibilities, endowing it with additional bases, fleets, air squadrons, and other assets. As the country has, more recently, come to rely on oil from the Caspian Sea basin and Africa, U.S. military capabilities are being beefed up in those areas as well.

As a result, the U.S. military has come to serve as a global oil protection service, guarding pipelines, refineries, and loading facilities in the Middle East and elsewhere. According to one estimate, provided by the conservative National Defense Council Foundation, the "protection" of Persian Gulf oil alone costs the U.S. Treasury $138 billion per year -- up from $49 billion just before the invasion of Iraq.

For Democrats and Republicans alike, spending such sums to protect foreign oil supplies is now accepted as common wisdom, not worthy of serious discussion or debate. A typical example of this attitude can be found in an "Independent Task Force Report" on the "National Security Consequences of U.S. Oil Dependency" released by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in October 2006. Chaired by former Secretary of Defense James R. Schlesinger and former CIA Director John Deutch, the CFR report concluded that the U.S. military must continue to serve as a global oil protection service for the foreseeable future. "At least for the next two decades, the Persian Gulf will be vital to U.S. interests in reliable oil supplies," it noted. Accordingly, "the United States should expect and support a strong military posture that permits suitably rapid deployment to the region, if necessary." Similarly, the report adds, "U.S. naval protection of the sea-lanes that transport oil is of paramount importance."

The Pentagon as Insecurity Inc.

These views, widely shared, then and now, by senior figures in both major parties, dominate -- or, more accurately, blanket -- American strategic thinking. And yet the actual utility of military force as a means for ensuring energy security has yet to be demonstrated.

Keep in mind that, despite the deployment of up to 160,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and the expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars, Iraq is a country in chaos and the Department of Defense (DoD) has been notoriously unable to prevent the recurring sabotage of oil pipelines and refineries by various insurgent groups and militias, not to mention the systematic looting of government supplies by senior oil officials supposedly loyal to the U.S.-backed central government and often guarded (at great personal risk) by American soldiers. Five years after the U.S. invasion, Iraq is only producing about 2.5 million barrels of oil per day -- about the same amount as in the worst days of Saddam Hussein back in 2001. Moreover, the New York Times reports, "at least one-third, and possibly much more, of the fuel from Iraq's largest refinery... is [being] diverted to the black market, according to American military officials." Is this really conducive to American energy security?

The same disappointing results have been noted in other countries where U.S.-backed militaries have attempted to protect vulnerable oil facilities. In Nigeria, for example, increased efforts by American-equipped government forces to crush rebels in the oil-rich Niger Delta region have merely inflamed the insurgency, while actually lowering national oil output. Meanwhile, the Nigerian military, like the Iraqi government (and assorted militias), has been accused of pilfering billions of dollars' worth of crude oil and selling it on the black market.

In reality, the use of military force to protect foreign oil supplies is likely to create anything but "security." It can, in fact, trigger violent "blowback" against the United States. For example, the decision by the senior President Bush to maintain an enormous, permanent U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia following Operation Desert Storm in Kuwait is now widely viewed as a major source of virulent anti-Americanism in the Kingdom, and became a prime recruiting tool for Osama bin Laden in the months leading up to the 9/11 terror attacks. "For over seven years," bin Laden proclaimed in 1998, "the United States has been occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places, the Arabian Peninsula, plundering its riches, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its people, terrorizing its neighbors, and turning its bases in the Peninsula into a spearhead through which to fight neighboring Muslim peoples." To repel this assault on the Muslin world, he thundered, it was "an individual duty for every Muslim" to "kill the Americans" and drive their armies "out of all the lands of Islam."

As if to confirm the veracity of bin Laden's analysis of U.S. intentions, then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld flew to Saudi Arabia on April 30, 2003 to announce that the American bases there would no longer be needed due to the successful invasion of Iraq, then barely one month old. "It is now a safer region because of the change of regime in Iraq," Rumsfeld declared. ''The aircraft and those involved will now be able to leave.''

Even as he was speaking in Riyadh, however, a dangerous new case of blowback had erupted in Iraq: Upon their entry into Baghdad, U.S. forces seized and guarded the Oil Ministry headquarters while allowing schools, hospitals, and museums to be looted with impunity. Most Iraqis have since come to regard this decision, which insured that the rest of the city would be looted, as the ultimate expression of the Bush administration's main motive for invading their country. They have viewed repeated White House claims of a commitment to human rights and democracy there as mere fig leaves that barely covered the urge to plunder Iraq's oil. Nothing American officials have done since has succeeded in erasing this powerful impression, which continues to drive calls for an American withdrawal.

And these are but a few examples of the losses to American national security produced by a thoroughly militarized approach to energy security. Yet the premises of such a global policy continue to go unquestioned, even as American policymakers persist in relying on military force as their ultimate response to threats to the safe production and transportation of oil. In a kind of energy "Catch-22," the continual militarizing of energy policy only multiplies the threats that call such militarization into being.

If anything, this spiral of militarized insecurity is worsening. Take the expanded U.S. military presence in Africa -- one of the few areas in the world expected to experience an increase in oil output in the years ahead.

This year, the Pentagon will activate the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), its first new overseas combat command since Reagan created CENTCOM a quarter century ago. Although Department of Defense officials are loathe to publicly acknowledge any direct relationship between AFRICOM's formation and a growing U.S. reliance on that continent's oil, they are less inhibited in private briefings. At a February 19th meeting at the National Defense University, for example, AFRICOM Deputy Commander Vice-Admiral Robert Moeller indicated that "oil disruption" in Nigeria and West Africa would constitute one of the primary challenges facing the new organization.

AFRICOM and similar extensions of the Carter Doctrine into new oil-producing regions are only likely to provoke fresh outbreaks of blowback, while bundling tens of billions of extra dollars every year into an already bloated Pentagon budget. Sooner or later, if U.S. policy doesn't change, this price will be certain to include as well the loss of American lives, as more and more soldiers are exposed to hostile fire or explosives while protecting vulnerable oil installations in areas torn by ethnic, religious, and sectarian strife.

Why pay such a price? Given the all-but-unavoidable evidence of just how ineffective military force has been when it comes to protecting oil supplies, isn't it time to rethink Washington's reigning assumptions regarding the relationship between energy security and national security? After all, other than George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, who would claim that, more than five years after the invasion of Iraq, either the United States or its supply of oil is actually safer?

Creating Real Energy Security

The reality of America's increasing reliance on foreign oil only strengthens the conviction in Washington that military force and energy security are inseparable twins. With nearly two-thirds of the country's daily oil intake imported -- and that percentage still going up -- it's hard not to notice that significant amounts of our oil now come from conflict-prone areas of the Middle East, Central Asia, and Africa. So long as this is the case, U.S. policymakers will instinctively look to the military to ensure the safe delivery of crude oil. It evidently matters little that the use of military force, especially in the Middle East, has surely made the energy situation less stable and less dependable, while fueling anti-Americanism.

This is, of course, not the definition of "energy security," but its opposite. A viable long-term approach to actual energy security would not favor one particular source of energy -- in this case, oil -- above all others, or regularly expose American soldiers to a heightened risk of harm and American taxpayers to a heightened risk of bankruptcy. Rather, an American energy policy that made sense would embrace a holistic approach to energy procurement, weighing the relative merits of all potential sources of energy.

It would naturally favor the development of domestic, renewable sources of energy that do not degrade the environment or imperil other national interests. At the same time, it would favor a thoroughgoing program of energy conservation of a sort notably absent these last two decades -- one that would help cut reliance on foreign energy sources in the near future and slow the atmospheric buildup of climate-altering greenhouse gases.

Petroleum would continue to play a significant role in any such approach. Oil retains considerable appeal as a source of transportation energy (especially for aircraft) and as a feedstock for many chemical products. But given the right investment and research policies -- and the will to apply something other than force to energy supply issues -- oil's historic role as the world's paramount fuel could relatively quickly draw to a close. It would be especially important that American policymakers not prolong this role artificially by, as has been the case for decades, subsidizing major U.S. oil firms or, more recently, spending $138 billion a year on the protection of foreign oil deliveries. These funds would instead be redirected to the promotion of energy efficiency and especially the development of domestic sources of energy.

Some policymakers who agree on the need to develop alternatives to imported energy insist that such an approach should begin with oil extraction in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and other protected wilderness areas. Even while acknowledging that such drilling would not substantially reduce U.S. reliance on foreign oil, they nevertheless insist that it's essential to make every conceivable effort to substitute domestic oil supplies for imports in the nation's total energy supply. But this argument ignores the fact that oil's day is drawing to a close, and that any effort to prolong its duration only complicates the inevitable transition to a post-petroleum economy.

A far more fruitful approach, better designed to promote American self-sufficiency and technological vigor in the intensely competitive world of the mid-21st century, would emphasize the use of domestic ingenuity and entrepreneurial skills to maximize the potential of renewable energy sources, including solar, wind, geothermal, and wave power. The same skills should also be applied to developing methods for producing ethanol from non-food plant matter ("cellulosic ethanol"), for using coal without releasing carbon into the atmosphere (via "carbon capture and storage," or CCS), for miniaturizing hydrogen fuel cells, and for massively increasing the energy efficiency of vehicles, buildings, and industrial processes.

All of these energy systems show great promise, and so should be accorded the increased support and investment they will need to move from the marginal role they now play to a dominant role in American energy generation. At this point, it is not possible to determine precisely which of them (or which combination among them) will be best positioned to transition from small to large-scale commercial development. As a result, all of them should be initially given enough support to test their capacity to make this move.

In applying this general rule, however, priority clearly should be given to new forms of transportation fuel. It is here that oil has long been king, and here that oil's decline will be most harshly felt. It is thanks to this that calls for military intervention to secure additional supplies of crude are only likely to grow. So emphasis should be given to the rapid development of biofuels, coal-to-liquid fuels (with the carbon extracted via CCS), hydrogen, or battery power, and other innovative means of fueling vehicles. At the same time, it's obvious that putting some of our military budget into funding a massive increase in public transit would be the height of national sanity.

An approach of this sort would enhance American national security on multiple levels. It would increase the reliable supply of fuels, promote economic growth at home (rather than sending a veritable flood of dollars into the coffers of unreliable petro-regimes abroad), and diminish the risk of recurring U.S. involvement in foreign oil wars. No other approach -- certainly not the present traditional, unquestioned, unchallenged reliance on military force -- can make this claim. It's well past time to stop garrisoning the global gas station.

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