Blood and Oil

by Victor Davis Hanson

Tribune Media Services

With the gruesome killing of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko, Vladimir Putin’s Russia stands accused of poisoning yet another critic.

Meanwhile, Syria continues to mastermind the murders of Lebanese democrats. Israeli-free Gaza is as violent as ever. Hezbollah is busy replenishing its stock of Iranian missiles. The theocracy in Iran keeps promising an end to Israel. Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez is slowly strangling democracy in Latin America in a manner that an impoverished Fidel Castro never could.

And then, of course, there’s Afghanistan and Iraq.

It’s easy to think that all of this violent instability across the globe is unconnected. But, in fact, in one way or another, oil and its huge profits are at the bottom of a lot of it.

Islamic jihadists, fed from petrodollar wealth of the Middle East, have the cash to arm and plan operations from Baghdad and Kabul to Madrid and London. Thanks to oil, unhinged leaders like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran and Chavez in Venezuela can stay in power (and demand the world’s attention) despite policies that ultimately harm their people, ruin their economies and imperil their neighbors.

Russia, meanwhile, is essentially threatening Eastern Europe with energy cutbacks and reviving the old Soviet nuclear and arms industries. It’s stirring up an already volatile Middle East by selling radical Islamists everything from nuclear reactors to high-tech anti-tank guns. President Bush may have seen, as he attests, something reassuring in the heart of President Putin. But Russia’s new oil riches offer a fast track back to superpower status — which we’re already seeing them use to silence critics at home and abroad.

Furthermore, the global thirst for oil distorts interstate relations. Take the case of China. Its amoral foreign policy is aimed mostly at securing petroleum. Because Beijing is involved in long-term oil deals with Sudan, it’s reluctant to join the West in pressuring the corrupt Sudanese government to cease the genocide in Darfur. (Of course, the West, beholden to China for economic reasons, is in turn reluctant to pressure China.) Similarly, China worries far more about getting its hands on Iran’s oil than stopping its nuclear proliferation.

The U.S. is often subject to the same blackmail. Take away its need for imported oil and American officials long ago would have ceased visiting Saudi Arabia — a monarchy based on sharia law and the cash nexus for Islamist madrassas and Wahhabi terrorism. Rather than appeasing a few hundred sheiks in the Gulf, American presidents — both Democratic and Republican — might have instead worried more about the poor millions slaughtered in Chad, Darfur, Ethiopia and Rwanda.

High-priced oil also warps the entire world’s limited attention span. We hear daily about Israeli “occupation” in the Middle East because the oil-rich patrons of the Palestinians have sent their terrorists ample subsidies and in the past leveled oil embargoes to punish those sympathetic to Israel. Yet millions more people the world over have also lost land. We don’t televise daily refugees from, say, Tibet or Cyprus, since their patrons have no ability to shut down global commerce.

The distortions caused by abrupt influxes of oil wealth have nearly turned upside down the once traditional and tribal Middle East. Sudden oil revenues prop up inefficient state-run economies, while ensuring that profits go to the few. Without democracy and free markets, the majority of impoverished Arabs lack access to their nation’s treasure — and blame foreigners for dealing only with their own elite who control the oil spigots and purse strings.

What money that does trickle down has been used for conspicuous consumption, not national investment — as monarchs and dictators import consumer toys to pacify the disenchanted. In other societies, modernity came at a measured pace, but in the Middle East nomads and peasants have skipped the telegraph and headed straight to the camera cell phone. Of course, the poor “Arab street,” tuned into satellite TV, blames the postmodern West for titillating its newfound appetites.

To remedy this mess, a good start would be to lower our own oil consumption, expand American production and diversify our energy sources with solar, nuclear and ethanol power and coal gasification. Only by taking these steps can America — the most desperate of all oilaholics — collapse the world price and thus erode the assets of our adversaries.

With a divided U.S. government and a slight dip in world prices, there is a window of opportunity. Democrats can ask for more mandated conservation and alternate energy; in exchange, Republicans can bargain for more drilling and nuclear power.

In World War II, an energy-independent United States bombed the oil fields of the Third Reich to stop Hitler’s killing. Today a wartime but energy-hungry America is daily enriching our worst enemies.

©2006 Tribune Media Services

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