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Bush's Master Oil Plan

The aborted coup in Venezuela is just one piece of a broader plan to secure a global oil empire, stretching from Colombia to Uzbekistan.
 
 
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With so many new international crises erupting every day, it is hard to detect any clear forward direction to American U.S. foreign policy. At times, it appears that providing a response to the latest upheaval is about all that Washington can accomplish. But beneath the surface of day-to-day crisis management, one can see signs of an overarching plan for U.S. policy: a strategy of global oil acquisition.

In recent weeks, the Bush administration has taken bold steps to implement this strategy in several far-flung regions of the world. In the Caspian Sea basin -- said to harbor the second biggest reservoir of untapped petroleum after the Persian Gulf -- the United States is building new military bases and providing training to local defense forces. In Colombia, U.S.-equipped government forces will soon be guarding the Occidental Petroleum Company's Cano Limon oil pipeline. And in Venezuela -- America's third largest supplier of oil -- U.S. embassy personnel reportedly met with leaders of an abortive coup against President Hugo Chavez.

All of these developments are obviously tied to other foreign policy considerations besides oil. The United States clearly seeks to promote stability and fight terrorism in these and other areas of the world. But it is also true that the areas that are garnering the greatest degree of attention from Washington -- the Middle East, the Caspian Sea basin, and the Andean region -- are also areas that figure prominently in the administration's long-term energy strategy.

The aim of this strategy is simple: to procure as much of the world's oil for ravenous U.S. markets as possible. With domestic U.S. production facing progressive decline and national consumption rising with every passing day, the United States must obtain more and more of its oil from abroad. Exploitation of the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), if allowed by Congress, could reduce U.S. oil imports by a tiny amount, but would not make any significant difference in the larger energy equation.

The only way to significantly reduce imports is to increase the fuel efficiency of U.S. motor vehicles -- but because President Bush is reluctant to require this, the administration has instead launched a global effort to expand U.S. access to foreign sources of petroleum.

This campaign was first laid out in the national energy plan drawn up by Vice President Dick Cheney in early 2001 and released by the White House last May. Because the plan calls for drilling on ANWR and was prepared with assistance from representatives of the scandal-ridden Enron Corporation, Congress and media have ignored its foreign policy implications. But however significant the domestic debate over Enron and ANWR, it is its international repercussions that are most likely to affect America's long-term future.

In essence, the Cheney report makes three key points:

* The United States must satisfy an ever-increasing share of its oil demand with imported supplies. (At present, the United States imports about 10 million barrels of oil per day, representing 53 percent of its total consumption; by 2020, daily U.S. imports will total nearly 17 million barrels, or 65 percent of consumption.)

* The United States cannot depend exclusively on traditional sources of supply like Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and Canada to provide this additional oil. It will also have to obtain substantial supplies from new sources, such as the Caspian states, Russia, and Africa.

* The United States cannot rely on market forces alone to gain access to these added supplies, but will also require a significant effort the part of government officials to overcome foreign resistance to the outward reach of American energy companies.

In line with these three principles, the Cheney plan calls on the Bush administration to undertake a wide range of initiatives aimed at increasing oil imports from overseas sources of supply. In particular, it calls on the president and secretaries of state, energy and commerce to work with leaders of the Central Asian countries and Azerbaijan to boost production in the Caspian region and to build new pipelines to the West. It also calls on U.S. officials to persuade their counterparts in Africa, the Persian Gulf and Latin America to open up their oil industries to greater U.S. oil-company involvement and to send more of their petroleum to the United States.

In advocating these measures, the Cheney team is well aware that U.S. efforts to gain access to increasing amounts of foreign petroleum could provoke resistance in some oil-producing regions. By 2020, the report notes, America "will import nearly two of every three barrels of oil (it consumes) -- a condition of increased dependency on foreign powers that do not always have America's interests at heart."

This means, of course, that American efforts to obtain increased supplies foreign oil will require more than trade deals and diplomacy - - it will also require the threat of or the use of force to dissuade hostile forces from attempting to obstruct the flow of petroleum to the United States. This, in turn, will require an enhanced U.S. capacity to operate militarily in areas of likely fighting over oil. It is for this reason that Washington is expanding the American military presence in the Persian Gulf area and beginning to establish such a presence in the Caspian basin (notably in Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan). And while these efforts have been accelerated since Sept. 11, it is important to note that they began well before that date.

American efforts to protect the flow of oil is evident in other measures undertaken by the Bush administration. These include a $100 million grant to the Colombian army for the establishment of a special brigade whose main function will be to guard the Cano Limon pipeline against guerrilla attack. The administration is also boosting U.S. military aid to Nigeria, the leading African supplier of oil to the United States. And while there is no evidence of a direct U.S. link to the recent coup attempt in Venezuela, White House officials have repeatedly criticized President Hugo Chavez -- an ultra-nationalist who has resisted increased American involvement in Venezuela's oil industry -- and opened the U.S. embassy to visits by leaders of the anti-Chavez opposition. Washington did not condemn the short-lived coup.

Michael Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., and the author of "Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict" (Metropolitan Books / Henry Holt, 2001).