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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

"Over the last three years," he boasted in his January State of the Union address, "we've opened millions of new acres for oil and gas exploration, and tonight, I'm directing my administration to open more than 75% of our potential offshore oil and gas resources. Right now—right now—American oil production is the highest that it's been in eight years… Not only that—last year, we relied less on foreign oil than in any of the past 16 years." He spoke with particular enthusiasm about the extraction of natural gas via fracking from shale deposits: "We have a supply of natural gas that can last America nearly 100 years. And my administration will take every possible action to safely develop this energy."

Obama has also voiced his desire to increase US reliance on Western Hemisphere energy, thereby diminishing its dependence on unreliable and unfriendly suppliers in the Middle East and Africa. In March 2011, with the Arab Spring gaining momentum, he traveled to Brazil for five days of trade talks, a geopolitical energy pivot noted at the time. In the eyes of many observers, Obama's focus on Brazil was inextricably linked to that country's emergence as a major oil producer, thanks to new discoveries in the "pre-salt" fields off its coast in the depths of the Atlantic Ocean, discoveries that could help the US wean itself off Middle Eastern oil but could also turn out to be pollution nightmares. Although environmentalists have warned of the risks of drilling in the pre-salt fields, where a Deepwater Horizon-like blowout is an ever-present danger, Obama has made no secret of his geopolitical priorities. "By some estimates, the oil you recently discovered off the shores of Brazil could amount to twice the reserves we have in the United States," he told Brazilian business leaders in that country's capital. "When you're ready to start selling, we want to be one of your best customers. At a time when we've been reminded how easily instability in other parts of the world can affect the price of oil, the United States could not be happier with the potential for a new, stable source of energy."

"When you're ready to start selling, we want to be one of your best customers."

At the same time, Obama has made it clear that the US will retain its role as the ultimate guardian of the Persian Gulf sea lanes. Even while trumpeting the withdrawal of US combat forces from Iraq, he has insisted that the United States will bolster its air, naval, and special operations forces in the Gulf region, so as to remain the preeminent military power there. "Back to the future," is how Major General Karl R. Horst, chief of staff of the US Central Command, described the new posture, referring to a time before the Iraq War when the US exercised dominance in the region mainly through its air and naval superiority.

While less conspicuous than "boots on the ground," the expanded air and naval presence will be kept strong enough to overpower any conceivable adversary. "We will have a robust continuing presence throughout the region," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared last October. Such a build-up has in fact been accentuated, in preparation either for a strike on Iranian nuclear facilities, should Obama conclude that negotiations to curb Iranian enrichment activities have reached a dead end, or to clear the Strait of Hormuz, if the Iranians carry out threats to block oil shipping there in retaliation for the even harsher economic sanctions due to be imposed after July 1st.

Like Cheney, Obama also seeks to ensure US control over the vital sea lanes extending from the Strait of Hormuz to the South China Sea. This is, in fact, the heart of Obama's much publicized policy "pivot" to Asia and his new military doctrine, first revealed in a speech to the Australian Parliament on November 17th. "As we plan and budget for the future," he declared, "we will allocate the resources necessary to maintain our strong military presence in this region." A major priority of this effort, he indicated, would be enhanced "maritime security," especially in the South China Sea.

Central to the Obama plan—like that advanced by Dick Cheney in 2007—is the construction of a network of bases and alliances encircling China, the globe's rising power, in an arc stretching from Japan and South Korea in the north to Australia, Vietnam, and the Philippines in the southeast and thence to India in the southwest. When describing this effort in Canberra, Obama revealed that he had just concluded an agreement with the Australian government to establish a new US military basing facility at Darwin on the country's northern coast, near the South China Sea. He also spoke of the ultimate goal of US geopolitics: a region-embracing coalition of anti-Chinese states that would include India. "We see America's enhanced presence across Southeast Asia," both in growing ties with local powers like Australia and "in our welcome of India as it 'looks east' and plays a larger role as an Asian power."

As anyone who follows Asian affairs is aware, a strategy aimed at encircling China—especially one intended to incorporate India into America's existing Asian alliance system—is certain to produce alarm and pushback from Beijing. "I don't think they're going to be very happy," said Mark Valencia, a senior researcher at the National Bureau of Asian Research, speaking of China's reaction. "I'm not optimistic in the long run as to how this is going to wind up."

Finally, Obama has followed in Cheney's footsteps in his efforts to reduce Russia's influence in Europe and Central Asia by promoting the construction of new oil and gas pipelines from the Caspian via Georgia and Turkey to Europe. On June 5th, at the Caspian Oil and Gas Conference in Baku, President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan read a message from Obama promising Washington's support for a proposed Trans-Anatolia gas pipeline, a conduit designed to carry natural gas from Azerbaijan across Georgia and Turkey to Europe—bypassing Russia, naturally. At the same time, Secretary of State Clinton traveled to Georgia, just as Cheney had, to reaffirm US support and offer increased US military aid. As during the Bush-Cheney era, these moves are bound to be seen in Moscow as part of a calculated drive to lessen Russia's influence in the region—and so are certain to elicit a hostile response.

In virtually every respect, then, when it comes to energy geopolitics the Obama administration continues to carry out the strategic blueprint pioneered by Dick Cheney during the two Bush administrations. What explains this surprising behavior? Assuming that it doesn't represent a literal effort to replicate Cheney's thinking—and there's no evidence of that—it clearly represents the triumph of imperial geopolitics (and hidebound thinking) over ideology, principle, or even simple openness to new ideas.

When you get two figures as different as Obama and Cheney pursuing the same pathways in the world—and the first time around was anything but a success—it's a sign of just how closed and airless the world of Washington really has become. At a time when most Americans are weary of grand ideological crusades, the pursuit of what looks like simple national self-interest—in the form of assured energy supplies—may appear far more attractive as a rationale for military and political involvement abroad.

In addition, Obama and his advisers are no doubt influenced by talk of a new "golden age" of North American oil and gas, made possible by the exploitation of shale deposits and other unconventional—and often dirty—energy resources. According to projections given by the Department of Energy, US reliance on imported energy is likely to decline in the years ahead (though there is a domestic price to be paid for such "independence"), while China's will only rise—a seeming geopolitical advantage for the United States that Obama appears to relish.

It is easy enough to grasp the appeal of such energy geopolitics for White House strategists, especially given the woeful state of the US economy and the declining utility of other instruments of state power. And if you are prepared to overlook the growing environmental risks of reliance on offshore oil, shale gas, and other unconventional forms of energy, rising US energy output conveys certain geopolitical advantages. But as history suggests, engaging in aggressive global geopolitical confrontations with other determined, well-armed players usually leads to friction, crisis, war, and disaster.

In this regard, Cheney's geopolitical maneuvering led us into two costly Middle Eastern wars while heightening tensions with both China and Russia. President Obama claims he seeks to build a more peaceful world, but copying the Cheney energy blueprint is bound to produce the exact opposite.

Michael T. Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College, a TomDispatch regular, and the author most recently of The Race for What's Left: The Global Scramble for the World's Last Resources (Metropolitan Books). To listen to Timothy MacBain's latest Tomcast audio interview in which Klare discusses imperial geopolitics as the default mode for Washington since 1945, click here or download it to your iPod here.

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