How America's Decline Is Linked to Oil
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At that moment, the United States and oil seemed at the pinnacle of their power. As the victor in the Cold War and then the first Gulf War, the American military was ranked supreme, with no conceivable challenger on the horizon. And nowhere were there more fervent believers in “unilateralist” America’s ability to “shock and awe” the planet than in Washington. The nation’s economy still appeared relatively robust as a major housing bubble was just beginning to form. China’s economy was then a paltry 15% as big as ours. Only seven years later, it would be approximately 40% as large. By invading Iraq, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld planned to demonstrate the crushing superiority of America’s new high-tech weaponry, while setting the stage for further military exploits in the region, including a possible attack on Iran. (A neocon quip caught the mood of the moment: “Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran.”)
The future of oil seemed no less robust in 2003: demand was brisk, crude prices ranged from about $25 to $30 per barrel, and the concept of “peak oil” -- the notion that planetary supplies were more limited than imagined, that in the near future production would reach its peak and subsequently contract -- was still considered laughable by most industry experts. By invading Iraq and setting up permanent military bases at the very heart of the global oil heartlands, the White House expected to ensure continued control over the flow of Persian Gulf oil and gain access to Iraq’s voluminous reserves, the largest in the world after those of Saudi Arabia and Iran.
From an imperial point of view, it was a beautiful dream from which Americans were destined to awaken abruptly. As a start, it quickly became apparent that American technological prowess was no panacea for urban guerrilla warfare, and so a vast occupation army was soon needed to “pacify” Iraq -- and then pacify it again, and again, and again. A similar dilemma arose in Afghanistan, where a tribal-based religious insurgency proved remarkably immune to superior American firepower. To sustain hundreds of thousands of American soldiers in those distant, often inaccessible areas, the Department of Defense became the world’s single biggest consumer of oil, burning more on a daily basis than the entire nation of Sweden -- this, at a time when the price of crude rose to $50, then $80, and finally soared over the $100 mark. Procuring and delivering ever-increasing amounts of gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel to American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan may not be the principal reason for the wars’ spiraling costs, but it certainly ranks among the major causes. (Just the price of providing air conditioning to American troops in those two countries is now estimated at approximately $20 billion a year.)
With oil likely to prove increasingly scarce and costly, the Department of Defense is being forced to reexamine its fundamental operating principles when it comes to energy. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld’s notion that troops could be replaced by growing numbers of oil-powered super-weapons no longer appears viable, even for a power already garrisoning much of the planet for which “unending” war has become the new norm.
Yes, the Pentagon is looking into the use of biofuels, solar arrays, and other green alternatives to petroleum to power its planes and tanks, but any such future still seems an almost inconceivably long way off. And yet the thought of more wars involving the commitment of vast numbers of ground troops to protracted counterinsurgency operations in distant parts of the Greater Middle East at $400 or more for every gallon of gas used appears increasingly unpalatable for the globe’s former “sole superpower.” (Hence, the sudden burst of enthusiasm over drone wars.) Seen from this perspective, the decline of America and the decline of oil appear closely connected indeed.