Missing the Oil Story

Recently I attended one of those legendary Washington dinner parties, attended by British cosmopolites and Americans in the know. A few courses in, people were gossiping about the Bush family's close and enduring friendship with the Saudi ambassador, Prince Bandar, dean of the diplomatic corps in Washington. By the end of the evening, everyone was talking about how the unfolding events were going to affect the flow of oil out of Central Asia.

I left wondering whether 6,000 Americans might prove to have died in New York for the royal family of Saud, or oil, or both. But I didn't have much more than insider dinner gossip to go on. I get my analysis from the standard all-American news outlets. And they've been too focused on a) anthrax and smallpox, or b) the intricacies of Muslim fanaticism, to throw any reporters at the murky ways in which international oil politics and its big players have a stake in what's unfolding.

A quick Nexis search brought up a raft of interesting leads that would keep me busy for 10 years if the economics of this war was my beat. But only two articles in the American media since September 11 have tried to describe how Big Oil might benefit from a cleanup of terrorists and other anti-American elements in the Central Asia region. One was by James Ridgeway of the Village Voice. The other was by a Hearst writer based in Paris and it was picked up only in the San Francisco Chronicle.

In other words, only the Left is connecting the dots of what the Russians have called "The Great Game" -- how oil underneath the 'stans' fits into the new world order. Here's just a small slice of what ought to provoke deeper research by American reporters with resources and talent.

Start with father Bush. The former president and ex-CIA director is not unemployed these days. He's been globetrotting as a member of Washington's Carlyle Group, a $12 billion private equity firm which employs a motorcade of former ranking Republicans, including Frank Carlucci, Jim Baker and Richard Darman. George Bush senior and colleagues open doors overseas for The Carlyle Group's "access capitalists."

Bush specializes in Asia and has been in and out of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait (countries that revere him thanks to the Gulf War) often on business since his presidency. Baker, the pin-striped midwife of 'Election 2000' was working his network in the 'stans' before the ink was dry on Clinton's first inaugural address. The Bin Laden family (presumably the friendly wing) is also invested in Carlyle. Carlyle's portfolio is heavy in defense and telecommunications firms, although it has other holdings including food and bottling companies.

The Carlyle connection means that George Bush Senior is on the payroll from private interests that have defense business before the government, while his son is president. Hmmm. As Charles Lewis of the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity has put it, "in a really peculiar way, George W. Bush could, some day, benefit financially from his own administration's decisions, through his father's investments. And that to me is a jaw-dropper."

Why can we assume that global businessmen like Bush Senior and Jim Baker care about who runs Afghanistan and NOT just because it's home base for lethal anti-Americans? Because it also happens to be situated in the middle of that perennial vital national interest -- a region with abundant oil. By 2050, Central Asia will account for more than 80 percent of our oil. On September 10, an industry publication, Oil and Gas Journal, reported that Central Asia represents one of the world's last great frontiers for geological survey and analysis, "offering opportunities for investment in the discovery, production, transportation, and refining of enormous quantities of oil and gas resources."

It's assumed we need unimpeded access in the 'stans' for our geologists, construction workers and pipelines if we are going to realize the conservation-free, fossil-fueled future outlined recently by Vice President Cheney. A number of pipeline projects to carry Central Asia's resources west are already under way or have been proposed. They would go through Russia, through the Caucasus or via Turkey and Iran. Each route will be within easy reach of the Taliban's thugs and could be made much safer by an American vanquishment of Muslim terrorism.

There's also lots of oil beneath the turf of our politically precarious newest best friend, Pakistan. "Massive untapped gas reserves are believed to be lying beneath Pakistan's remotest deserts, but they are being held hostage by armed tribal groups demanding a better deal from the central government," reported Agence France Presse just days before September 11.

So many business deals, so much oil, all those big players with powerful connections to the Bush administration. It doesn't add up to a conspiracy theory. But it does mean there is a significant MONEY subtext that the American public ought to know about as "Operation Enduring Freedom" blasts new holes where pipelines might someday be buried.

This is Nina Burleigh for TomPaine.com.

Nina Burleigh has written for The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, and New York magazine. As a reporter for TIME, she was among the first American journalists to enter Iraq after the Gulf War.

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