This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.
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Last week, the president made a rare appearance at the Pentagon to unveil a new strategic plan for U.S. military policy (and so spending) over the next decade. Let's leave the specifics to a future TomDispatch post and focus instead on a historical footnote: Obama was evidently the first president to offer remarks from a podium in the Pentagon press room. He made the point himself -- "I understand this is the first time a president has done this. It's a pretty nice room. (Laughter)" -- and it was duly noted in the media. Yet no one thought to make anything of it, even though it tells us so much about our American world.
After all, when was the last time the president appeared at a podium at the Environmental Protection Agency to announce a 10-year plan for a "leaner, meaner" approach to the environment, or at the Education Department to outline the next decade of blue-skies thinking (and spending) for giving our children a leg-up in a competitive world? Or how about at a State Department podium to describe future planning for a more peaceable planet more peaceably attained? Unfortunately, you can't remember such moments and neither can America's reporters, because they just aren't part of Washington life. And strangest of all, no one finds this the tiniest bit odd or worth commenting on.
Over the last decade, this country has been so strikingly militarized that no one can imagine 10 years of serious government planning or investment not connected to the military or the national security state. It's a dangerous world out there -- so we're regularly told by officials who don't mention that no military is built to handle the scariest things around. War and the sinews of war are now our business and the U.S. military is our go-to outfit of choice for anything from humanitarian action to diplomacy (even though that same military can't do the one thing it's theoretically built to do: win a modern war). And if you don't believe me that the militarization of this country is a process far gone, check out the last pages of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's recent piece, "America's Pacific Century," in Foreign Policy magazine. Then close your eyes and tell me that it wasn't written by a secretary of defense, rather than a secretary of state -- right down to the details about the "littoral combat ships" we're planning to deploy to Singapore and the "greater American military presence" in Australia.
Of course, the irony of this American moment is that the Republicans, those supposed advocates of "small government," are the greatest fans we have of the ever increasing oppressive powers of the biggest of governments. In recent years, have they seen a single enhanced power they didn't put their stamp of approval on or enhance further? Predictably, no sooner did the president's Pentagon press briefing end than assorted Republicans began attacking Obama and his relatively modest Pentagon plan for reshuffling military funds -- from House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard P. "Buck" McKeon ("a lead from behind strategy for a left-behind America") and Senator John McCain ("greatest peril") to presidential candidate Mitt Romney ("inexcusable, unthinkable") -- as if it were a program for unilateral disarmament.
So when the U.S. faces a problem in the world -- say, keeping the energy flowing on this planet -- the first thing that's done is to militarize the problem. It's the only way Washington now knows how to think. As Michael Klare -- whose upcoming book The Race for What's Left: The Global Scramble for the World's Last Resources will certainly be a must-read of the season -- makes clear, a further militarization of oil and gas policy is underway with an eye to the Pacific, and we have another anxious year on the horizon. (To catch Timothy MacBain's latest Tomcast audio interview in which Klare discusses the crisis in the Strait of Hormuz, click here, or download it to your iPod here.) Tom
The Three Top Hot Spots of Potential Conflict in the Geo-Energy Era
By Michael T. Klare
Welcome to an edgy world where a single incident at an energy "chokepoint" could set a region aflame, provoking bloody encounters, boosting oil prices, and putting the global economy at risk. With energy demand on the rise and sources of supply dwindling, we are, in fact, entering a new epoch -- the Geo-Energy Era -- in which disputes over vital resources will dominate world affairs. In 2012 and beyond, energy and conflict will be bound ever more tightly together, lending increasing importance to the key geographical flashpoints in our resource-constrained world.
Take the Strait of Hormuz, already making headlines and shaking energy markets as 2012 begins. Connecting the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean, it lacks imposing geographical features like the Rock of Gibraltar or the Golden Gate Bridge. In an energy-conscious world, however, it may possess greater strategic significance than any passageway on the planet. Every day, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, tankers carrying some 17 million barrels of oil -- representing 20% of the world's daily supply -- pass through this vital artery.
So last month, when a senior Iranian official threatened to block the strait in response to Washington's tough new economic sanctions, oil prices instantly soared. While the U.S. military has vowed to keep the strait open, doubts about the safety of future oil shipments and worries about a potentially unending, nerve-jangling crisis involving Washington, Tehran, and Tel Aviv have energy experts predicting high oil prices for months to come, meaning further woes for a slowing global economy.
The Strait of Hormuz is, however, only one of several hot spots where energy, politics, and geography are likely to mix in dangerous ways in 2012 and beyond. Keep your eye as well on the East and South China Seas, the Caspian Sea basin, and an energy-rich Arctic that is losing its sea ice. In all of these places, countries are disputing control over the production and transportation of energy, and arguing about national boundaries and/or rights of passage.
In the years to come, the location of energy supplies and of energy supply routes -- pipelines, oil ports, and tanker routes -- will be pivotal landmarks on the global strategic map. Key producing areas, like the Persian Gulf, will remain critically important, but so will oil chokepoints like the Strait of Hormuz and the Strait of Malacca (between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea) and the "sea lines of communication," or SLOCs (as naval strategists like to call them) connecting producing areas to overseas markets. More and more, the major powers led by the United States, Russia, and China will restructure their militaries to fight in such locales.
You can already see this in the elaborate Defense Strategic Guidance document, "Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership," unveiled at the Pentagon on January 5th by President Obama and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. While envisioning a smaller Army and Marine Corps, it calls for increased emphasis on air and naval capabilities, especially those geared to the protection or control of international energy and trade networks. Though it tepidly reaffirmed historic American ties to Europe and the Middle East, overwhelming emphasis was placed on bolstering U.S. power in "the arc extending from the Western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean and South Asia."
In the new Geo-Energy Era, the control of energy and of its transport to market will lie at the heart of recurring global crises. This year, keep your eyes on three energy hot spots in particular: the Strait of Hormuz, the South China Sea, and the Caspian Sea basin.
The Strait of Hormuz