An Oily Quagmire

Washington is warning Americans that drug addicts help support terrorists. But what about the nation's other habit -- cheap oil?

| Wed Feb. 6, 2002 4:00 AM EST

Buy drugs, support terrorism. That was the unsubtle message from federal drug policy officials as they launched a multi-million dollar advertising campaign during Sunday's Super Bowl.

Certainly, they have some evidence on their side. Terrorist groups from southeast Asia to South America are in the drug trafficking business. But in the meantime, another hazardous American addiction goes unchallenged. No crusade has been launched against a national dependency that delivers billions of dollars each year to foreign powers whose support for terror is far from fanciful: Oil.

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For more than half a century, the US has been beholden to the dictatorships of the Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia, which controls more than a quarter of the world's known oil reserves. The Saudi patriarchate financed the Taliban, the madrassas that educated Taliban fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and (when convenient) Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network.

This connection was documented and declared long before the Taliban became America's villains of choice. But that link never dissuaded the US from seeking Saudi oil. George Bush I's ample business alliances with Saudi rulers have been remunerative for the Bush family and former Bush I officials James Baker and Frank Carlucci, but not terribly useful for protecting America from attacks by Saudi citizens with passports and box-cutters.

Now, the Office of National Drug Control Policy hopes to convince drug-addicted Americans to kick their habits for patriotism's sake. What about that other habit? Nobody in Washington is suggesting we give up buying gas. The liberal leadership is willing to challenge drilling in the Alaskan wilderness, which would be a transparent subsidy to the administration's oil pals, but seems afraid to question our larger petrodependence.

Oil, and America's unending appetite for it, ushered in the death squads of al Qaeda. Oil lubricated the US's disastrous quarter-century-long support for the Shah of Iran -- another invitation to Islamic fundamentalism, as it turned out. Oil floated, and continues to float, the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein.

Access to oil trumps democratic values and human rights at every turn. For half a century, purported realists in Washington have thought nothing of greasing the palms of Saudi princes in exchange for the favor of permitting us (and, to an even greater extent, the Japanese and the Europeans) to buy their oil.

Some realism.

For their part, the Saudis are now wondering aloud whether an American base in their territory is worth all the trouble. Possibly they fear the political price is rising. The Saudi princes, evidently hoping to defuse a native opposition that finds them insufficiently pure, are growing restive about the very American base that so exercises bin Laden and his supporters.

Some Democratic Senators are wising up to the fact that the Saudis have us over a barrel, and while they are reluctant to suggest anything that would answer an al Qaeda demand, they have trial-ballooned the message that this base might be rather more trouble than it's worth. Not coincidentally, we have become aware of a fervent American interest in a substitute oil source: Central Asia.

This prospect has already led to an American base in Uzbekistan and plans for more, along with US support for brutal dictatorships in several of the former Soviet states, repressive regimes whose anti-Islamic policies stand to produce future militants for future bin Ladens.

The economic foundation of this myopia, this heap of bad bargains, is of course the petroleum fixation of a society of SUV patriots. This fixation is not only economic but cultural. Easy oil is an American way of life. Big companies and little folks alike take for granted their God-given right to low prices at the pump. When those prices rise, Americans of all political stripes panic, without giving much thought to where the stuff comes from.

While our national oil fix appears fundamental, it would be truer to say that it is simply undiscussed.

The barking heads of the punditocracy do not inquire of America's potentates as to why the fixation makes sense. They do not press them on crash research programs to develop alternatives. Even amid the cascading Enron scandal, they do not connect the dots to link the national petrofixation, global warming, and the interests of the oil companies that own this administration.

They are, well, petrified.

There is some reason for hope, though. When the issue is adequately explained, Americans appear willing to fund alternatives to oil. In November, after a smart environmentalist campaign, San Francisco passed two ballot measures committing the city to use solar and wind power for public buildings and to promote these renewable energies in homes and businesses as well. Such measures belong on the agendas of city councils all over the country. They belong in state referenda and legislative initiatives. Energy efficiencies of the sort already in widespread use in Europe demand widespread use in the US as well, whatever Dick Cheney may think.

It's too much to hope that, in the twilight of Enron, sun-drenched Houston might listen up. But sooner or later, the only way out of our oily addiction is with such elemental forces as light and wind. Kicking bad habits is patriotic -- but don't expect the oil dealers in Washington to proclaim the virtues of just saying no.

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