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Tomgram: Michael Klare, Is Washington Out of Gas?

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This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

Way back then, the signs out on the streets read: "No Blood for Oil," "How did USA's oil get under Iraq's sand?" and "Don't trade lives for oil!" Such homemade placards, carried by deluded antiwar protesters in enormous demonstrations before the Bush administration launched its invasion of Iraq in March 2003, were typical -- and typically dismissible.  Oil?  Don't be silly!

True, Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz spoke admiringly about Iraq "floating on a sea of oil," but that was just a slip of the tongue.  President Bush was so much more cautious.  Despite his years in the energy business and those of his vice-president (not to speak of the double-hulled tanker that had been named after his national security advisor while she was on the board of Chevron), he almost never even mentioned oil. When he did, he didn't call it "oil," but Iraq's "patrimony."

Back then, of course, everyone who mattered knew that whatever the invasion of Iraq was about -- freedom, possible mushroom clouds rising over U.S. cities or biological and chemical attacks on them, the felling of a monster dictator -- it certainly wasn't about oil.   An oil war?  How crude (so to speak), even if Iraq, by utter coincidence, happened to be located in the oil heartlands of the planet.

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And it wasn't just the Bush administration.  You wouldn't have found the New York Times speaking about oil wars either.  Not much has changed, actually.  As in last weekend's eight-year-late modified mea culpa for the Iraq war that former liberal war hawks conducted in that paper's magazine section, you could find some breast-beating, testosterone-dissing, and even regret for past positions, but not a mention of oil.  And -- who would expect anything else -- never a mention either of the ignorant hoi polloi who carried such oily signs, demonstrated against war, and are best forgotten, or any stray experts who genuinely opposed Bush's wars before they were launched.  (Here's a little tip for those who want to make it into the Rolodexes of high-powered Washington reporters: being wrong is helpful, and wisdom is a platonic ideal not to be dented by evidence of the lack of it.)

As for our most recent (definitely not oil) war in Libya where American and NATO planes are still bombing the you-know-what out of the remnants of Muammar Gaddafi's forces, the explanations in the news pages have generally focused on preventing massacres, "humanitarian intervention," and the felling of evil dictators.  For oil, you have to head for section D (the business pages) where, under the headline "The Scramble for Access to Libya's Oil Wealth Begins," you could indeed finally read a comment like this: "The resumption of Libyan production would help drive down oil prices in Europe, and indirectly, gasoline prices on the East Coast of the United States.  Western nations -- especially the NATO countries that provided crucial air support to the rebels -- want to make sure their companies are in prime position to pump the Libyan crude."

Of course, despite the best attempts of Bush's men in Baghdad, we never did get Iraq's oil.  But that's the lumps you take when, as an imperial power, you don't actually win your oil war.  And there are more lumps when you can't win any war, oil or otherwise.  Michael Klare, TomDispatch regular and author of Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet, is an expert on both war and oil.  In the second in a series of TomDispatch posts on American decline, he considers whether both America and oil are now on the downhill slope.  Tom

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America and Oil
Declining Together?

By Michael T. Klare

America and Oil.  It's like bacon and eggs, Batman and Robin.  As the old song lyric went, you can't have one without the other.  Once upon a time, it was also a surefire formula for national greatness and global preeminence.  Now, it's a guarantee of a trip to hell in a hand basket.  The Chinese know it.  Does Washington?

America's rise to economic and military supremacy was fueled in no small measure by its control over the world's supply of oil.  Oil powered the country's first giant corporations, ensured success in World War II, and underlay the great economic boom of the postwar period.  Even in an era of nuclear weapons, it was the global deployment of oil-powered ships, helicopters, planes, tanks, and missiles that sustained America's superpower status during and after the Cold War.  It should come as no surprise, then, that the country's current economic and military decline coincides with the relative decline of oil as a major source of energy.

If you want proof of that economic decline, just check out the way America's share of the world's gross domestic product has been steadily dropping, while its once-powerhouse economy now appears incapable of generating forward momentum.  In its place, robust upstarts like China and India are posting annual growth rates of 8% to 10%.  When combined with the growing technological prowess of those countries, the present figures are surely just precursors to a continuing erosion of America's global economic clout.

Militarily, the picture appears remarkably similar.  Yes, a crack team of SEAL commandos did kill Osama bin Laden, but that single operation -- greeted in the United States with a jubilation more appropriate to the ending of a major war -- hardly made up for the military's lackluster performance in two recent wars against ragtag insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan.  If anything, almost a decade after the Taliban was overthrown, it has experienced a remarkable resurgence even facing the full might of the U.S., while the assorted insurgent forces in Iraq appear to be holding their own.  Meanwhile, Iran -- that bÍte noire of American power in the Middle East -- seem as powerful as ever.  Al Qaeda may be on the run, but as recent developments in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and unstable Pakistan suggest, the United States wields far less clout and influence in the region now than it did before it invaded Iraq in 2003.

If American power is in decline, so is the relative status of oil in the global energy equation.  In the 2000 edition of its International Energy Outlook, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) of the U.S. Department of Energy confidently foresaw ever-expanding oil production in Africa, Alaska, the Persian Gulf area, and the Gulf of Mexico, among other areas.  It predicted, in fact, that world oil output would reach 97 million barrels per day in 2010 and a staggering 115 million barrels in 2020.  EIA number-crunchers concluded as well that oil would long retain its position as the world's leading source of energy.  Its 38% share of the global energy supply, they said, would remain unchanged.

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What a difference a decade makes. By 2010, a new understanding about the natural limits of oil production had sunk in at the EIA and its experts were predicting a disappointingly modest petroleum future.  In that year, world oil output had reached just 82 million barrels per day, a stunning 15 million less than expected.  Moreover, in the 2010 edition of its International Energy Outlook, the EIA was now projecting 2020 output at 85 million barrels per day, hardly more than the 2010 level and 30 million barrels below its projections of just a decade earlier, which were relegated to the dustbin of history.  (Such projections, by the way, are for conventional, liquid petroleum and exclude "tough" and "dirty" sources that imply energy desperation -- like Canadian tar sands, shale oil, and other "unconventional" fuels.)

The most recent EIA projections also show oil's share of the world total energy supply -- far from remaining constant at 38% -- had already dropped to 35% in 2010 and was projected to continue declining to 32% in 2020 and 30% in 2035.  In its place, natural gas and renewable sources of energy are expected to assume ever more prominent roles.

So here's the question all of us should consider, in part because until now no one has: Are the decline of the United States and the decline of oil connected?  Careful analysis suggests that there are good reasons to believe they are. 

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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