It's been about oil for a long time

The Baltimore Sun

ATLANTA -- Should the United States invade a foreign country for its oil?

If that question were posed in a poll, the vast majority of Americans would no doubt answer "no." We're the good guys in the world, spreading democracy, freeing the oppressed, opposing tyrants. We wouldn't invade a sovereign country strictly out of a selfish lust for its resources, would we?

Of course we would. We've already supported coups, sent armies and invaded at least one country to protect our access to petroleum. In his newly published memoirs, Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, put that uncomfortable truth front and center.

"I'm saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows - the Iraq war is largely about oil," he wrote.

Indeed, he believed it was a good idea. He told The Washington Post that, in conversations with the White House, he supported the invasion. "My view is that Saddam, looking over his 30-year history, very clearly was giving evidence of moving toward controlling the Straits of Hormuz, where there are 17, 18, 19 million barrels a day" moving through.

The White House sent out legions of officials to object to Mr. Greenspan's comments, but he isn't the only person making that argument. Scores of liberal activists have made it. So have more than a few prominent conservatives. In American Theocracy, former GOP political strategist Kevin Phillips wrote bluntly, "Oil abundance has always been part of what America fights for."

What other reason does the United States have for its deep involvement in the Middle East, an unstable region full of despots, hostile to democracy and friendly to jihadists? That's why the United States pushed Mr. Hussein out of Kuwait in 1991 - to prevent a subsequent invasion of oil-rich Saudi Arabia. While several agendas converged to drive the war wagon to Baghdad in 2003, the critical factor was protecting U.S. access to Middle East oil reserves.

Iraq and terrorism have dominated the presidential campaign so far, but none of the major candidates - Democrats or Republicans - has emphasized a plan to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. Without such a policy, this country won't be free of the Middle East anytime soon. If we remain addicted to oil, we will have to continue to coddle autocrats (the House of Saud, for example) and send troops to the Middle East. That, in turn, will further inflame a region already hostile to our interests.

President Bush had an unprecedented opportunity to help us end our petroleum dependence in the weeks and months after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, when Americans were prepared to make sacrifices for their security and for their country. With the political capital he had at the time, he could have imposed a steep tax on gasoline. The costs would have increased inflationary pressures, and Americans would have grumbled. But we would have adjusted. And we would have bought less gas.

That moment has been lost. Instead of demanding sacrifices from all of us, the president made fighting terrorism seem easy, imploring Americans to support their country by going shopping. His dismissiveness merely cemented a view that most of us wanted to believe already: Fighting terrorists wouldn't require anything from most of us.

Don't be fooled. The petroleum wars are just beginning. As China and India grow wealthier, more of their citizens indulge in the Western-style consumption patterns that burn vast amounts of fossil fuels. And their consumption is growing while some experts are predicting that petroleum reserves are close to their peak and will decline soon.

Already, China is trying to lock down oil reserves in various parts of the world outside the Middle East. But don't worry. We can go shopping. Just remember that the checkout line is in Shanghai.

What will happen when the United States and China begin to compete for access to the same reserves? Unlike Iraq, China is an emerging superpower with the world's largest army. Any petroleum war with China might well bring an end to U.S. hegemony on the world stage.

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

Steve Chapman's column will return Friday.

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