It’s the Oil, Stupid!

by Victor Davis Hanson

Tribune Media Services

It is usually silly to offer a single solution to complex problems. But it’s hard not to when looking at the serial savagery in Iran and the Arab world.

Oil — the huge profits it provides and the insidious influence it gives those selling it — explains most of the world’s worries over the Middle East.

No, that does not mean the United States is fighting in Iraq to get control of its petroleum. For all the charges of “No blood for oil,” the American occupation has neither been able to reverse a decline in oil production in Iraq nor alleviate skyrocketing oil prices worldwide. And, recently, the first new contracts of the now-transparent Iraqi oil ministry went to non-American companies.

What it does mean, though, is that the vast imported-petroleum needs of the West, India and China, and the resulting huge profits that pour into oil-exporting states, have super-sized the Middle East’s problems.

Currently, much of the Islamic world is struggling to come to grips with modernity and globalization. Yet while the West pays little attention to disenchanted Muslims in India, Indochina or Malaysia, we focus our attention on Iranian and Arab radicals. They alone, thanks to oil, have the cash to fund jihadists and hate-filled madrassas.

The Palestinian problem illustrates this point. Since Israel’s occupation of land taken after the 1967 war, much of the world has seen this issue as threatening to regional and global peace.

Such old territorial disputes are, of course, common — and go relatively unnoticed — throughout the world. Japan’s Kurile Islands are still held by Russia. Tibet has been absorbed by China. Nuclear Pakistan and nuclear India fight over Kashmir. The list goes on.

Yet it’s the anger over the tiny West Bank that in the past caused the Arab patrons of the Palestinians to embargo oil to the West and create long gas lines in Europe and America. As a result, a single suicide bomber from Jericho earns more press than anonymous thousands slaughtered in Darfur.

Today, terrorists operate from East Timor to Peru. But global anxiety has been continually focused on Middle Eastern terrorists, from the Palestinian assassins and hijackers of the 1970s to al-Qaeda’s suicide bombers. These killers alone have had the means to disrupt the Western way of life. Take away Hezbollah’s Iranian petrodollars and it could never afford weapons and foot soldiers to slaughter Westerners in the Middle East and beyond.

An oil-rich Saddam Hussein was a threat only because he had purchased more military hardware than is owned by most European powers — and used it to attack oil-exporting neighbors in a bid to control more of the world’s petroleum reserves.

In Iran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is confident that powerful nations abroad will overlook his thuggery in hopes of getting a chance to buy his country’s oil —– or in worry that any tension would send world prices even higher. Ahmadinejad also knows — and fears — that without supporting terrorists or trying to acquire a nuclear bomb that he’d be just another tinhorn loudmouth like Cuba’s Fidel Castro or Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe.

At the same time, vast oil profits do little to help — and probably much to harm — Middle Eastern countries. Unlike in places where economic achievement is the result of savvy business leaders, a hardworking labor force and a literate public, tribal hierarchies in the Middle East simply metamorphosed into billion-dollar nations by virtue of sitting atop crude oil.

One result is a big inferiority complex in the Middle East. There is always the fear that gas and oil reserves will dry up, leaving a Libya, Iran or Saudi Arabia with as much global attention as a Chad or Bulgaria.

Another result is unstable societies. When nations acquire collective wealth gradually through their own industry, a middle class can arise. But in the Middle East, a few tribal and religious sects with oil are fabulously wealthy; most everyone else is abjectly poor. Illegitimate monarchies and jittery dictatorships — always in fear of coups, terrorists and revolutions — depend upon oil-needy foreigners, trading scarce oil and endless petrodollars for export goods and protection.

If the United States could curb its voracious purchases of foreign oil by using conservation, additional petroleum production, nuclear power, alternate fuels, coal gasification and new technologies, the world price might return to below $40 a barrel.

That decline would dry up the oil profits of those in the Middle East who now so desperately use them to ensure that their own problems must also be the world’s.

©2007 Tribune Media Services

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