Kevin Phillips, author of American Theocracy: The Perils and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century, recently spoke at a New America Foundation program I chaired.
Phillips has a fascinating and important article, “American Petocracy,” that has just appeared as the cover story of The American Conservative and revisits the “war for oil” debate. And Phillips article really gets sizzling when he breaks out the biblical drivers that influenced core White House players — particularly Bush and Cheney themselves.
Here are some key excerpts:
the White House had to consider the huge religious and biblical element of the coalition that elected Bush in 2000. Newsweek polling back in 1999 found that 45 percent of American Christians believed in Armageddon and the end times, and almost as many thought that the Antichrist was already alive and on the earth. Because such beliefs concentrate among very pro-Bush evangelicals, fundamentalists, and Pentecostals, my estimate is that some 55 percent of the people who voted for Bush in 2000 would have told pollsters about believing in the end times and Armageddon.
This will strike many as an exaggeration, but the phenomenon is an important one. Richard Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals noted in 2003 that since the break-up of the USSR, “evangelicals have substituted Islam for the Soviet Union. The Muslims have become the modern-day equivalent of the Evil Empire.” According to University of Wisconsin historian Paul Boyer, by the 1990s many prophecy believers saw Saddam as the Antichrist or his forerunner, partly because Saddam was rebuilding the ancient evil city of Babylon. The Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye fictionalized the Rapture-Tribulation-Armageddon sequence so successfully that it sold a whopping 60 million copies in book and tape form. Most of the readers were Bush backers.
Politically, this confronted the White House with both a strategic dilemma and a parallel opportunity. On the plus side, the huge chunk of Bush voters would want to view the U.S. attempt to topple Saddam Hussein in terms of the war of good versus evil. Weapons of mass destruction were a prop but collateral to the larger biblical context. Invading Iraq would evoke that context because Saddam was one of the evil ones — maybe the Evil One, given his Babylon tie-in. Toppling him could aspire to biblical interpretation. Aiding Israel was also biblically vital. Bush had already carved out a related, overarching “good versus evil” posture with his heavily religious post-9/11 rhetoric.
On the enormous costs — both short term and long term — of the Iraq War:
occupied Iraq turned into a quicksand of guerrilla and sectarian rivalry. Insurgents attacked and disrupted pipelines and refineries, and truck drivers refused to transport oil from the north. During the winter of 2005-2006, Iraqi production dropped as low as 1.1 million barrels a day, and covering this production gap took almost all of OPEC’s spare capacity and forced prices higher. Dalton Garis, an economist at the Petroleum Institute in Abu Dhabi, told the Associated Press in April 2006, “Iraq could be making a tremendous difference.” Instead, its shortfall is “a significant contributing factor to the high price of oil.”
American economists Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes, in a draft paper entitled “The Economic Costs of the Iraq War: An Appraisal Three Years After the Beginning of the Conflict,” reached a similar but much more detailed and buttressed conclusion. Publicly, Stiglitz and Bilmes attribute $5-10 of the increased per barrel cost of oil to the mess in Iraq, but their private view seems to be that a very large portion of the now $45-per-barrel oil-price increase is attributable to Iraq.
That makes sense if one considers the hostile reactions of many of the world’s oil-producing nations to the behavior the Bush administration was exhibiting in Iraq and elsewhere. For several years prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, that nation had been insisting — contrary to global policies in effect since the 1970s — that it would price its oil sales in euros, not dollars. Other major OPEC producers — Venezuela and Iran — also began talking about kindred moves and so did elements of the European community. Just after the U.S. invasion, Newsweek’s Howard Fineman wrote that the real clash was not over weapons of mass destruction but over the dollar versus the euro — “who gets to sell — and buy — Iraqi oil, and what form of currency will be used to denominate the value of the sales … yet another skirmish in a growing economic conflict.” Few others had the courage to raise the issue.
Had a U.S. triumph in Iraq enabled Washington to control and open the oil spigots in Iraq, OPEC would have been obliged to desist from talking about dropping the dollar to price oil in euros or a so-called basket of currencies. But as the various dimensions of U.S. failure became clear in 2003 and 2004, other nations — Indonesia, Malaysia, and Russia (not an OPEC member) — began to show their currency claws. Six months after the U.S. invasion, as Iraqi oil output shrank in the face of relentless sabotage of pipelines and other facilities by insurgents, even Saudi Arabia displayed its disdain, not by currency actions but by giving a big gas-development contract to French Total instead of ExxonMobil.
As of 2006, the U.S. dollar has been dropping again, with the ever more conspicuous failure of Bush administration energy policy — this year the U.S. will spend $300-350 billion on imported oil — a significant backdrop. Should these trends intensify and OPEC cease to price oil in dollars, the added burden on Americans will register in everything from home heating oil in northern winters to the prohibitive cost of long-distance driving in the remote exurbs of metropolitan commuter belts. The effects of the great bungle in Iraq may only be beginning.
And Phillips argues that the military is being used more and more as a “global oil-protection” service:
Still another oil cost-burden that the Iraqi failure imposes on the American people involves the huge and finally starting to be noticed portion of U.S. defense outlays that are undertaken to protect foreign oil supplies from disruption. Michael Klare, a leading U.S. scholar on resource wars and oil geopolitics, has tabulated oil-related tasks being assumed by the military from South America and West Africa to the Persian Gulf, Central Asia, and the Straits of Malacca.
His conclusion: the military “is being used more and more for the protection of overseas oil fields and the supply routes that connect them.
. . .Such endeavors, once largely confined to the Gulf area, are now being extended to unstable oil regions in other parts of the world. Slowly but surely, the U.S. military is being converted into a global oil-protection service.” How much do these tax-financed costs effectively add to the price of a gallon of gas or heating oil sold in the U.S. — 25 cents, 40, 85?
In sum, the energy-related price of the administration’s dishonesty and massive miscalculation in Iraq ought to be a central discussion point in this election year and again in 2008. The citizenry has to comprehend just how much is at stake and how the nation’s future has been jeopardized.
Oil is a vital resource that — despite all of the energy independence and energy security efforts (and fiascos) being discussed — America cannot easily step away from.
What is disconcerting is not only the dishonesty that Kevin Phillips highlights but the fact that despite spending enormous sums of money and enduring high human mortality costs on all sides of the current conflict in the Middle East — America’s military operations seem further away from producing stability and certainty in the oil production and supply regions of the world.
Americans are spending enormous sums and not getting the “deliverables” that such expenditures should generate. While Phillips may be right that America is in the oil supply protection racket, we are doing a horrible job even at that.
— Steve Clemons