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Is Barack Obama Morphing Into Dick Cheney?

Four ways the President is pursuing Cheney’s geopolitics of global energy.

| Thu Jun. 21, 2012 1:56 PM EDT

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

As details of his administration's global war against terrorists, insurgents, and hostile warlords have become more widely known—a war that involves a mélange of drone attacks, covert operations, and presidentially selected assassinations—President Obama has been compared to President George W. Bush in his appetite for military action. "As shown through his stepped-up drone campaign," Aaron David Miller, an advisor to six secretaries of state, wrote at Foreign Policy, "Barack Obama has become George W. Bush on steroids."

When it comes to international energy politics, however, it is not Bush but his vice president, Dick Cheney, who has been providing the role model for the president. As recent events have demonstrated, Obama's energy policies globally bear an eerie likeness to Cheney's, especially in the way he has engaged in the geopolitics of oil as part of an American global struggle for future dominance among the major powers.

More than any of the other top officials of the Bush administration—many with oil-company backgrounds—Cheney focused on the role of energy in global power politics. From 1995 to 2000, he served as chairman of the board and chief executive officer of Halliburton, a major supplier of services to the oil industry. Soon after taking office as vice president he was asked by Bush to devise a new national energy strategy that has largely governed US policy ever since.

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Early on, Cheney concluded that the global supply of energy was not growing fast enough to satisfy rising world demand, and that securing control over the world's remaining oil and natural gas supplies would therefore be an essential task for any state seeking to acquire or retain a paramount position globally. He similarly grasped that a nation's rise to prominence could be thwarted by being denied access to essential energy supplies. As coal was to the architects of the British empire, oil was for Cheney—a critical resource over which it would sometimes be necessary to go to war.

More than any of his peers, Cheney articulated such views on the importance of energy to national wealth and power. "Oil is unique in that it is so strategic in nature," he told an audience at an industry conference in London in 1999. "We are not talking about soapflakes or leisurewear here. Energy is truly fundamental to the world's economy. The Gulf War was a reflection of that reality."

Cheney's reference to the 1990-1991 Gulf War is particularly revealing. During that conflict, he was the secretary of defense and so supervised the American war effort. But while his boss, President George H.W. Bush, played down the role of oil in the fight against Iraq, Cheney made no secret of his belief that energy geopolitics lay at the heart of the matter. "Once [Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein] acquired Kuwait and deployed an army as large as the one he possesses," Cheney told the Senate Armed Services Committee when asked to justify the administration's decision to intervene, "he was clearly in a position to be able to dictate the future of worldwide energy policy, and that gave him a stranglehold on our economy."

This would be exactly the message he delivered in 2002, as the second President Bush girded himself for the invasion of Iraq. Were Saddam Hussein successful in acquiring weapons of mass destruction, Cheney told a group of veterans that August 25th, "[he] could then be expected to seek domination of the entire Middle East [and] take control of a great portion of the world's energy supplies."

"We are not talking about soapflakes or leisurewear here. Energy is truly fundamental to the world's economy. The Gulf War was a reflection of that reality."

For Cheney, the geopolitics of oil lay at the core of international relations, largely determining the rise and fall of nations. From this, it followed that any steps, including war and environmental devastation, were justified so long as they enhanced America's power at the expense of its rivals.

Cheney's World

Through his speeches, Congressional testimony, and actions in office, it is possible to reconstruct the geopolitical blueprint that Cheney followed in his career as a top White House strategist—a blueprint that President Obama, eerily enough, now appears to be implementing, despite the many risks involved.

That blueprint consists of four key features:

1. Promote domestic oil and gas production at any cost to reduce America's dependence on unfriendly foreign suppliers, thereby increasing Washington's freedom of action.

2. Keep control over the oil flow from the Persian Gulf (even if the US gets an ever-diminishing share of its own oil supplies from the region) in order to retain an "economic stranglehold" over other major oil importers.

3. Dominate the sea lanes of Asia, so as to control the flow of oil and other raw materials to America's potential economic rivals, China and Japan.

4. Promote energy "diversification" in Europe, especially through increased reliance on oil and natural gas supplies from the former Soviet republics of the Caspian Sea basin, in order to reduce Europe's heavy dependence on Russian oil and gas, along with the political influence this brings Moscow.

The first objective, increased reliance on domestic oil and gas, was highlighted in National Energy Policy, the energy strategy Cheney devised for the president in May 2001 in close consultation with representatives of the oil giants. Although mostly known for its advocacy of increased drilling on federal lands, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the Cheney Report (as it came to be known) largely focused on the threat of growing US dependence on foreign oil suppliers and the need to achieve greater "energy security" through a damn-the-torpedoes-full-speed-ahead program of accelerated exploitation of domestic energy supplies.

"A primary goal of the National Energy Policy is to add supply from diverse sources," the report declared. "This means domestic oil, gas, and coal. It also means hydropower and nuclear power." The plan also called for a concerted drive to increase US reliance on friendly sources of energy in the Western hemisphere, especially Brazil, Canada, and Mexico.

The second objective, control over the flow of oil through the Persian Gulf, was, for Cheney, the principal reason for both the First Gulf War and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Although before that invasion, the president and other top officials focused on Saddam Hussein's supposed weapons of mass destruction, his human rights record, and the need to bring democracy to Iraq, Cheney never wavered in his belief that the basic goal was to ensure that Washington would control the Middle Eastern oil jugular.

After Saddam's ouster and the occupation of Iraq began, Cheney was especially outspoken in his insistence that neighboring Iran be prevented, by force of arms if need be, from challenging American preeminence in the Gulf. "We'll keep the sea lanes open," he declared from the deck of an aircraft carrier during maneuvers off the coast of Iran in May 2007. "We'll stand with others to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons and dominating the region."

Cheney also focused in a major way on ensuring control over the sea lanes from the Strait of Hormuz, at the mouth of the Persian Gulf (out of which 35% of the world's tradable oil flows each day) across the Indian Ocean, through the Straits of Malacca, and into the South and East China Seas. To this day, these maritime corridors remain essential for the economic survival of China, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, bringing oil and other raw materials to their industries and carrying manufactured goods to their markets abroad. By maintaining US control over these vital conduits, Cheney sought to guarantee the loyalty of America's key Asian allies and constrain the rise of China. In pursuit of these classic geopolitical objectives, he pushed for an enhanced US naval presence in the Asia-Pacific region and the establishment of a network of military alliances linking Japan, Australia, and India, all aimed at containing China.

Finally, Cheney sought to rein in America's other major great-power rival, Russia. While his boss, George W. Bush, spoke of the potential for cooperation with Moscow, Cheney, still an energy cold warrior, viewed Russia as a geopolitical competitor and sought every opportunity to diminish its power and influence. He particularly feared that Europe's growing dependence on Russian natural gas could undermine its resolve to resist aggressive Russian moves in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus.

To counter this trend, Cheney tried to persuade the Europeans to get more of their energy from the Caspian Sea basin by building new pipelines to that region via Georgia and Turkey. The idea was to bypass Russia by persuading Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan to export their gas through these conduits, not those owned by Gazprom, the Russian state-controlled monopoly. When Georgia came under attack from Russian forces in August 2008, after Georgian troops shelled the pro-Moscow enclave of South Ossetia, Cheney was the first senior US official to visit Tbilisi, bringing a promise of $1 billion in reconstruction assistance, as well as an offer of fast-track entry into NATO. France and Germany blocked the move, fearing Moscow might respond with actions that could destabilize Europe.

Obama as Cheney

This four-part geopolitical blueprint, relentlessly pursued by Cheney while vice president, is now being implemented in every respect by President Obama.

When it comes to the pursuit of enhanced energy independence, Obama has embraced the ultra-nationalistic orientation of the 2001 Cheney report, with its call for increased reliance on domestic and Western Hemisphere oil and natural gas—no matter the dangers of drilling in environmentally fragile offshore areas or the use of hazardous techniques like hydro-fracking. In recent speeches, he has boasted of his administration's efforts to facilitate increased oil and gas drilling at home and promised to speed drilling in new locations, including offshore Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico.

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