Monday, October 02, 2006

Kunstler: US Pretentions

October 2, 2006
I don't think it's accurate to call it a "war" anymore. It was one briefly back in 2003, and it may become a wider one again in the region. But for now the American situation in Iraq has degenerated into a dangerous, half-assed policing operation. We're not really fighting anyone, just getting in the way of factions fighting each other. A large part of our failure in this project has been our inability to get the electricity and water running properly. Any group of Americans might be equally pissed off and crazy after three years of that.

President Bush has done a bad job of articulating the strategic purpose of our presence there. It's certainly not about "freedom." It is in human nature to prefer simple order to some abstract notion of freedom, and the Iraqis had simple order under Saddam. Anyway, the kind of trashy freedoms that Americans enjoy -- freedom to gamble in Las Vegas, freedom to buy pornography, freedom to enter into ruinous mortgage contracts -- might not seem so appealing to people in an Islamic society.

The purpose of our Iraq project was to stabilize the Middle East by creating a successful buffer state between Iran and Pakistan and the nations west of Iraq, especially Saudi Arabia. Why? To preserve the status quo in our oil deliveries from the region.

Ironically, this last item is the only thing that we have succeeded in -- so far. And one of the reasons the Democratic opposition to Bush has been so unsuccessful is precisely because for all our failure over there, America has not yet experienced a cut-off of Middle East oil -- while anti-war media stars on the Left like Al Franken and Harry Shearer still get to hop in their cars and drive wherever they like without a second thought.

The sentiment among the American public runs increasingly against our adventure in Iraq. But just as no politician has articulated our reason for being there, no one has expressed any coherent idea of what might happen if we had no military presence in the Middle East. I will try to outline a picture of this now.

Possession of the largest reserve of the world's crucial resource, oil, has no doubt driven the people of the Middle East crazy. It has fed the resurgence of a militant Islam that seeks to punish and antagonize the Judeo-Christian West (and, call it whatever else you will, the 9/11 attack was certainly an act of antagonism). It has also caused populations to swell far beyond the carrying capacity of the region, with predicable results. But with most of the Middle East nations now at or past peak oil production -- including Iran and Saudi Arabia --we can expect only more dangerous behavior.

Whatever else might motivate Iran, control of the adjoining southern Iraq oil fields centered around Basra, and the oil facilities offshore in the Persian Gulf, must be high on the list. And a US withdrawal from Iraq would certainly lead to that outcome. Next on Iran's list is the wish to drive a Shiite wedge westward across Iraq to Saudi Arabia, which contains a large Shia population of its own, conveniently occupying the Persian Gulf coastal region where most of Saudi Arabia's oil comes from. The purpose of this "Shiite wedge" would be to bring down the ruling Al Saud family and replace it with an Islamic fundamentalist government. All of these moves are predicated on Iran assuming nominal leadership among the Islamic nations of the region. And all of it would bode ill for American oil supplies.

An American withdrawal from Iraq would leave US bases marooned in the landlocked backwaters of Asia -- with outposts in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. The purpose of these bases so far has been for staging operations from Afghanistan westward toward Iran, Iraq, and the Arabian peninsula. These bases happen to be next door to China, to the east. Would these tiny bases in Asia be used to stage operations against China in some future conflict? Good luck. They would last about five minutes.

Pakistan has been off the radar screen of the American media for years. It is arguably the most dangerous state in the region. It has a thousand recent years of Muslim experience on top of perhaps 100,000 previous years of other influences. The people of Pakistan are not ethnically Arabs or Persians, yet they are even more violently anti-western. Pakistan is overpopulated to the extreme. It has no oil but owns at least twenty nuclear bombs. Very little stands between the current government of General Pervez Musharraf and either complete chaos or an Islamic fundamentalist government. If Musharraf fell, would the US try to insert itself in a meltdown of Pakistan? Good luck on that one. For the moment, only fear of a nuclear exchange with its neighbor, India, stands to modify or influence Pakistan's behavior.

Let's say the US did withdraw from Iraq. This would leave us with bases in Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey. These present a full frontal opposition to Iran, but would have meaning only if we went to war with that country. Such a war would probably leave the oil infrastructure of the Persian Gulf in utter ruin. Which is to say it would do nothing to advance America's strategic interest in maintaining the oil lifeline from the Middle East.

Sooner or later America will lose its ability to influence the people and events in the Middle East, and at the same time we will probably lose access to the oil of the region. Yes, oil is a "fungible" resource that finds its way through markets. But the markets themselves will be badly destabilized by the economics of post-peak production. Do not expect on-time delivery.

The US will withdraw back into the Western hemisphere. We have about 25 billion barrels of conventional crude left of our own. We currently use seven billion a year. Canada has been our largest source of oil imports. They will be left with little besides the tar sands of Alberta. Whatever else might be said of them, the tar sands will make for very expensive oil products. (Ditto the oil shale of the Rockies.) We will not be able to maintain our current living arrangements on these things, nor on coal liquefaction.

The Canadian producers have substantial contracts with China for the products of the tar sands. I have no doubt the US will invoke the Monroe Doctrine to cancel those contracts. Expect a pissed off China. The same goes for Venezuela. Anyway, that nation is way past its production peak and the oil it has left is low quality heavy crude. Mexico is on the verge of an especially steep oil production decline. The low-hanging fruit of the Western hemisphere is gone. Colombia and Ecuador are not going to save American Happy Motoring. Don't get too excited about Chevron's "Jack" discovery in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Even at its most fantastical extrapolation, it would represent about two years of US oil consumption, and it would be expensive to a laughable extreme.

The bottom line is that the only meaningful project for the US now is to turn its attention and remaining resources to the job of preparing for civilized life without oil. This is the topic that is absent from our political discourse on all sides and at all levels. The anti-war community is itself either lost in raptures of Bush-hatred or preoccupied with fantasies for running the interstate highways on used french-fry oil. We have to talk about things beyond just running our cars by other means.

We are a profoundly unserious nation, for all our pretensions.

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