by Michael Doliner
(Swans - January 14, 2008) Controlling Middle East oil is the primary directive and purpose of the American Imperial policy. As long as the United States continues to maintain the "Empire of Bases" it must control this resource. Oil is "the prize." It is for control of oil that we invaded Iraq and now threaten Iran. The disaster of the Iraq occupation, which leaves American troops in Iraq but little American influence over events except what influence Bush can buy, is insufficient to control the Middle East. Already, independent Iran is increasing its influence (1) throughout the Persian Gulf and beyond. (2) If the United States wants to continue its more than a century-long Imperial policy it will have to eliminate Iran's independence. But any attack on Iran would likely end in worldwide catastrophe. Hence maintenance of America's Empire is no longer possible. But in our denial of this fact we are in danger of lashing out at Iran in a futile, potentially apocalyptic attack. How will the current crop of candidates handle this situation? Will they be more creative than their stand on the destructive policies they advocate on energy independence?
Let's consider Obama first. Here is what his Web site says:
Diplomacy: Obama is the only major candidate who supports tough, direct presidential diplomacy with Iran without preconditions. Now is the time to pressure Iran directly to change their troubling behavior. Obama would offer the Iranian regime a choice. If Iran abandons its nuclear program and support for terrorism, we will offer incentives like membership in the World Trade Organization, economic investments, and a move toward normal diplomatic relations. If Iran continues its troubling behavior, we will step up our economic pressure and political isolation. Seeking this kind of comprehensive settlement with Iran is our best way to make progress. (3)
The problem with Iran is neither its perfectly legal nuclear program, nor its support for Hezbollah, but its very existence. Again, as long as an independent Iran exists the United States will not be able to control Middle East oil. Iran will not negotiate away its legal nuclear program, and will not stop supporting Hezbollah in their resistance to Israel's attacks on Lebanon. And Iran will certainly not negotiate away its own existence. Rapprochement between Russia and Iran, and Iran and China, make any attempt to isolate Iran silly. Obama's approach is destined to fail. He seems like a pretty smart man, so we might conclude that he intends to fail. After all it is one of the strange clevernesses of presidents that they engage in diplomatic maneuvers that they intend to fail. But what then? Either he will have to abandon the long Imperial policy or he will have to try to destroy Iran. But if he intends to abandon the Imperial policy why go through the charade of attempting to negotiate non-negotiable demands and engaging in diplomacy intended to fail? For intended failure is designed to justify invoking a "last resort," in this case attack. Does that mean he actually contemplates an attack on Iran?
Although the Imperial policy is doomed, nobody, certainly no president, can end the American Imperial policy by himself. This policy is very deep within the culture of the American ruling elites. (4) Maintenance of this policy is an article of faith there, and anyone who questioned it would only be risking his own position. As with the questions raised about the "free market" policies of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund that discredited them, questions about the American Empire will have to come from outside. It will be extremely difficult to end this policy in any case, but absolutely impossible unless the policy is exposed to public view. Right now the American Empire is the empire that dare not speak its name. Only if the continuation of the Empire becomes an open political question can the United States decide to abandon it.
No candidate could raise this question during the campaign, but he could leave room for it. Obama's position requires confrontation and phony diplomacy and so does not leave this room. His only option, when all his negotiations and sanctions fail, will be to attack Iran. For Obama will not, like Bush, be able to issue threats and do nothing. Threats, when not carried out, lose their power. Even now such threats no longer frighten Iran and are for American domestic consumption only. Gradually, control of the Middle East will slip away as not only Iran but former American client states such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait make deals with China and India and cut American corporations out either completely or in part. Already such deals are happening and Iran has stopped selling oil for dollars. We are not where we were when Bush took office. The present political culture of the United States will not allow control of the Middle East to just slip away. The attack on Iran simply awaits some plausible pretext. Only if the Empire itself is questioned can anyone stop it. Obama, by opting for "tough, direct presidential diplomacy" intended to fail, has made it impossible to do what is needed -- namely, acknowledge the Empire's existence, admit the Empire's necessary end, and refrain from the futile, barbaric, horribly risky attack on Iran.
What about Hillary Clinton? Surprisingly, Clinton has no policy position on Iran on her official Web site. She does have a speech she gave on February 14, 2007. It is a good illustration of what we can expect from her. Here is a quote:
Now, make no mistake, Iran poses a threat to our allies and our interests in the region and beyond, including the United States. The Iranian president has held a conference denying the Holocaust and has issued bellicose statement after bellicose statement calling for Israel and the United States to be wiped off the map. His statements are even more disturbing and urgent when viewed in the context of the regime's request to acquire nuclear weapons. The regime also uses its influence and resources in the region to support terrorist elements that attack Israel. Hezbollah's attack on Israel this summer, using Iranian weapons, clearly demonstrates Iran's malevolent influence even beyond its borders. (5)
Mrs. Clinton does not tell us, in this quote, what she plans to do about Iran, but her lies and distortions give us a good idea. She plans to continue a hostile attitude. We can also see that she plans to continue the politics of lying and deception. But does she just plan to talk tough, engage in pointless diplomacy intended to fail, and try to muddle through, or does she plan to attack? One can read through this speech without getting any clear answer to this question. She goes on:
But America must proceed deliberately and wisely, and we must proceed as a unified nation. The smartest and strongest policy will be one forged through the institutions of our democracy. That is the genius of our American system and our constitutional duty. We have witnessed these past six years-- until the most recent election of a new Congress by the American people-- the cost of congressional dereliction of its oversight duty, a vital role entrusted to Congress by our constituents, enshrined in, and even required by our Constitution.
Clearly Mrs. Clinton has no plan. Or is it merely that she is here talking as a senator and saying, with all these words, that the Senate and House are important? The bloated meaninglessness of her words is distressing. Such fuzz cannot be a cover for clear thinking, for her position is that of someone who does not even know what is at stake and wants to pass the decision on to someone else. Mrs. Clinton is intellectually bankrupt. Here is a segment of her Iraq policy taken from her Web site:
The most important part of Hillary's plan is the first: to end our military engagement in Iraq's civil war and immediately start bringing our troops home. As president, one of Hillary's first official actions would be to convene the Joint Chiefs of Staff, her Secretary of Defense, and her National Security Council. She would direct them to draw up a clear, viable plan to bring our troops home starting with the first 60 days of her Administration. She would also direct the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs to prepare a comprehensive plan to provide the highest quality health care and benefits to every service member -- including every member of the National Guard and Reserves -- and their families. (6)
Once again she has no plan other than to ask a lot of officials to get together and make a plan. Her plan is to plan. This paragraph is filled with a lawyer's sneaky evasions. Notice "start" and "starting." She is promising only to have a convention plan, not to carry out those plans. Nothing anywhere suggests that she knows why we are there. She criticizes the Bush administration only for incompetence and its failure to consult Congress. That the United States has an Empire, that control of Middle East oil is essential to that Empire's maintenance, that Iran's independent existence makes this control impossible, and that any attack on Iran would be a disaster, seems to be completely beyond her. She has tried to say nothing for so long that she has nothing to say.
Her rhetoric is a good example of the kind of obfuscation that has long hidden the Empire's existence. It reveals, once again, the technique of offering efforts designed to fail -- flurries of activity that result in nothing. Fake diplomatic initiatives, convening of councils, military investigations into their own possible war crimes, and the initiation of "peace processes" (since when did peace become a process?) and "road maps" all fall into this category. Hillary Clinton's health care initiative at the beginning of her husband's administration is a perfect example of such sound and fury signifying nothing. And this is what she proposes to do in the Middle East.
The next president's approach to Iran is far from the only important item on his or her agenda, but it is a crucial one. It is unfair to expect a candidate to expose the Empire. A really successful candidate must realize that he or she cannot oppose the rich and powerful, but must persuade them that the Empire must end. Given the turmoil of the Bush administration and the yawning abyss that seems to lie just ahead of us, this might not be as hard as it seems. The Bush administration's on-again-off-again attack plans reveal an understanding within at least some ruling circles of the disaster an attack on Iran would be. Although it is just one step from the impossibility of an attack on Iran to the nonviability of the Empire as a whole, the ruling class cannot take this step. They need the Empire to be exposed to allow them to do what they, if they were truly enlightened, would want to do anyway -- namely, end it and return America to its non-interventionist tradition. To attack Iran is to endanger the whole world, and no one who wants civilization to continue, not even the rich and powerful, can want that, right? Nevertheless this attack has every possibility of happening; indeed, it will happen if the ruling circles try to maintain their very well established American Empire. Even though this Empire is crumbling everywhere, and even though an attack on Iran would not save the Empire, and even though the Empire is enormously expensive rather than profitable, and even though its end is absolutely necessary to provide resources to mitigate the effects of the other enormous problems facing the country and the world, and even though America's return to its non-interventionist roots would end the terrorist threat, the rich and powerful cannot even imagine ending the Empire. For the need to continue the Empire is a bedrock assumption. Since the ruling circles by themselves are powerless to stop maintaining the Empire, we can only restrain an attack on Iran, if at all, by exposing the Empire and its nonviability and thereby persuading the rich and powerful to give it up. To be sure, the idea of convincing the rich and powerful to abandon the American Empire, the maintenance of which has been their primary interest for more than a century, is an outrageously bold plan. Admittedly, it is a very long shot. It would require revising the history of the twentieth century. But there is no other alternative. Maintenance of the Empire requires a catastrophic attack on Iran, which in any case is destined to fail of its objective. Any attempt to end the war without ending the Empire is doomed to failure.
I realize that what I am asking is enormous, and many will suggest that I stick to the politically possible, but what we think of as politically possible is not good enough. In fact it is no good whatsoever. We need a radical turn. The choice is between decisive action and the illusion of drift that ends eventually in world war. Not just individual policies, but the entire framework of looking at them must change. The terms of America's place within the world must change with the next administration.
This in itself should be enough to tell that neither Obama nor Clinton will do. But let us look at another related topic, energy policy. Conventional oil, the kind that bubbles up when you punch a hole on dry land or in relatively shallow water, peaked at 74,298,000 barrels per day in May of 2005. (7) We have never pumped more than we did then, and it's not likely that we will again. The world now uses roughly 88,000,000 barrels a day and makes up the difference with unconventional oil, the drawing down of stocks, and the production of biofuels. Because of this shortfall the US production of biofuels is growing very rapidly. In doing this we are converting food into fuel. "Starting out from 7% in 1998, the percentage of the corn crop covered by ethanol plant capacity in progress has now reached 37-38% of the corn crop." The reference is to "Fermenting the Food Supply" by Stuart Staniford (The Oil Drum, January 7, 2008), one of the best researchers on peak oil, in my opinion. I urge everyone to look at this article. (8) Its argument is long, but straightforward. Staniford convincingly shows what one would expect, namely that biofuel growth correlates with its profitability, that is, with the cost of oil, but also corn prices. This obviously ties corn prices to oil prices. Staniford continues:
That's bad news because demand for oil is extremely inelastic, and the world is struggling to grow the supply of it at present, so over the medium term it seems fairly plausible that there will be further rises in oil prices. As we will see shortly, one can throw the entire global food supply at our fuel problems and still only make a modest impact on them...You can immediately see the problem here. The biofuel potential of the entire human food supply is quite a small amount of energy compared to the global oil supply -- somewhere between 15-20% on a volumetric basis, so 10-15% on an energy basis. If you look at the rate of growth from the mid 1980s to 2000 (and it would be similar to 2005 but the graph doesn't go that far), we were requiring about an additional 10mbd per decade. So if we continue to try to drive more at historical rates of growth, eg as the middle class in China, India, and other developing countries continue to build roads and get cars, while our oil supply is stagnant, we can only get about a decade or thereabouts from converting our entire food supply to fuel.... However, just because it's not a very good idea globally, doesn't mean it wouldn't be profitable to the folks doing the conversion.
So here is the problem. If the market is allowed to dictate what is and is not done, an enormous amount of the world's food supply will be converted into ethanol. Those who drive can pay more than those who eat. Food prices will skyrocket, and billions of people will starve. This will be an absolute disaster for the poorer parts of the world, but will also be a disaster for the United States. Given the growth rates for ethanol production this problem will surface within five years. The only possibilities for preventing mass starvation are drastic drops in oil price, reduction in fuel use, or a change in public policy. The first two are extremely unlikely. What about the third?
How do Obama and Clinton approach the production of biofuels? Here is Obama:
Expand Locally-Owned Biofuel Refineries: Less than 10 percent of new ethanol production today is from farmer-owned refineries. New ethanol refineries help jumpstart rural economies. Obama will create a number of incentives for local communities to invest in their biofuels refineries. (9)
Aggressive action to transition our economy toward renewable energy sources, with renewables generating 25 percent of electricity by 2025 and with 60 billion gallons of home-grown biofuels available for cars and trucks by 2030. (10)
Sixty billion gallons per year is roughly four times what we produce today. Given the problems with cellulosic ethanol this seems entirely impossible. Is it unrealistic to expect busy candidates to be aware of the catastrophic consequences of their policies? If so then the continuation of civilization is unrealistic. As Staniford has clearly shown, the only possibility of curbing the biofuels catastrophe is in a change in public policy. This will not be easy. No candidate wants to tell the American people that they will have to use less, lots less, and live differently, lots differently. But just that is what is required. Obama and Clinton both have grandiose plans for developing new energy sources. But anyone who understands the scale of the problem realizes that none of this will work, and facing the fact that it won't work is crucial to developing a plan for using less. Obama and Clinton are completely out of their depth.
It is hard to realize just how serious the situation is. It is natural to think that things will go along pretty much as they have gone along in the recent past. They won't.
7. See http://www.simmonsco-intl.com/files/Another nail in the coffin.pdf (PDF document): "Another Nail in the Coffin of the Case Against Peak Oil," Matthew R. Simmons,
November 16, 2007.
[Excerpt:] "Over time, however, the facts point to the glaring and inconvenient reality that the May 2005 crude production represented an all-time high, even though it barely exceeded 74 million barrels a day -- 74,298,000/day according to the EIA. April, May and December 2005 were the first three months in the 150-year history of oil when the world ever produced this much oil. In July 2006, global crude once more inched above the 74 million barrel a day high-water mark. No other monthly report before or since shows oil produced at or above the 74 million barrel per day mark.
As months passed, the EIA revisions ended through 2006 data. As we near the end of 2007, May 2005 is still the magical 'moment in time' when global crude oil peaked at 74.3 million barrels a day. Some miracle series of new oil fields could suddenly be found and quickly brought on to production, but the more time that passes, the less likely this is."
[The author concludes:] "In the meantime, the world is desperately in need of a sustainable series of new energy sources and urgent adoption of conservation measures to wean 'us' all from a chronic addiction not just to oil, but all three forms of fossil fuels. Peak Oil is probably now past-tense. We have no Plan B. Natural gas and possibly peak use of quality coal and uranium might be lurking in Peak Oil's shadow.
The world sleep-walked for three decades while believing all natural resources would last as long as any of us were around. The important Limits to Growth book published by the Club of Rome in 1972 was both misunderstood and ultimately ridiculed.
As our global appetite for energy grew, the era of high quality hydrocarbon energy entered its twilight era. The nub of the world's most singular problem is to insure we can sustain the 21 st century without experiencing social chaos and ultimately a widespread geopolitical conflict or war. This, in essence, is embodied in the strange debate about what is known as Peak Oil." " (back)
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