Fearful Symmetries

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28 June, 2010

Resource Wars by Michael T. Klare

With the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico ongoing and no end in sight, it seemed appropriate to read Michael Klare's Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict. Klare is the director of the Five College Program in Peace and World Security Studies at Amherst.

The book's thesis is that human history is littered with conflicts over natural resources and, at the dawn of the 21st century when the book was published, global population was rising dramatically and so the conflicts of the new century will likely revolve around competition for those remaining resources such as oil, natural gas, timber, water, etc. Unsurprisingly it is oil that gets the most words dedicated to it with separate chapters for the Persian Gulf, Caspian Sea basin, and the South China Sea. The first of these is perhaps the most immediately relevant considering our venture in Iraq.

One of the most interesting tales to this national security novice was the evolution of our support for Saudi Arabia and thusly our involvement in the Persian Gulf. Saudi Arabia is home to the largest proven oil reserves in the world and the Persian Gulf area has about 65% of the world's oil reserves. Klare notes that oil is the lifeblood of highly industrialized societies and then gives the reader a quote: "'America's vital interests in [the Gulf] are long-standing,' General Anthony C. Zinni, then commander in chief of the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOMM), told Congress in 1999. 'With over 65 percent of the world's oil reserves located within the Gulf stages,' the United States and its allies 'must have free access to the region's resources.'"

Our first engagement with Saudi Arabia in relation to their oil came in 1943 when FDR gave military assistance to them. He recognized that Western powers would become ever more dependent on Gulf oil and two years later met with King Abdel-Aziz Ibn Saud to further establish ties. Every president since then has made it national policy to protect our access to Saudi oil. Carter created the Rapid Deployment Force in 1980 to quickly defend our interests in the region. The RDF became CENTCOMM in 1983. Klare spends many pages describing U.S. policies in relation to Iraq which became a central concern for policymakers in the late 1980s. The book was published just prior to the 9/11 attacks and Klare presciently observed that Iraq was the most likely target of U.S. military intervention in the region.

So why did we invade Iraq? In the broadest sense, we did so because Saddam Hussein posed a threat to the United States' ability to get oil. And now that he has been deposed, we rattle sabers with Iran. "Iran is viewed in Washington as…the nation that is most likely to oppose American oil interests once the risk of an Iraqi invasion has been reduced to marginality."

Klare goes into a fair amount of detail such as discussing Iranian control over islands in the Strait of Hormuz and how it is a bottleneck for oil shipments out of the Middle East. But the larger issue is that, while countries see war as a method of last resort, the first world depends on oil and most of it is in the Persian Gulf region and so, when push comes to shove, conflict is almost inevitable. The takeaway for me was that the United States will do whatever it has to in order to maintain the flow of Middle Eastern oil and, right now, that means keeping the Saudi royal family happy and in charge as they have a big teat for us to suckle.

On a side note, it was interesting to read about Osama bin Laden not as the face of evil incarnate that killed thousands in New York, but as a terrorist and by-product of our involvement in the Middle East.

The Caspian Sea basin and South China Sea as sources of oil also get the treatment. We aren't currently fighting any wars in those areas so they don't readily come to mind when thinking of fossil fuel. But they are highly contested areas. In the Caspian, the surrounding countries (Russia, Kazakstan, Turkmenistan, Iran, etc.) cannot agree on how to divvy up the sea. Territorial waters are disputed and thusly drilling rights in them are as well. Furthermore instability in the area means problems in building pipelines to get the oil to market. Over at the South China Sea, the region's powerhouse, China, is making waves by claiming an ever larger swath of the sea as its own much to the chagrin of other countries such as Vietnam, the Philippines, etc. Japan has an interest here as well as tankers that supply it with oil sail through the area.

Water is not generally a scarce commodity here in Wisconsin, Waukesha excepted, but it becoming increasingly precious in other parts of the world. Klare begins his look at conflict over water by looking at the tensions in the Nile basin. The main actors here are Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt. The populations of all of these countries is rising and thusly so is the need for the waters of the Nile. Unfortunately, no common agreement has been reached in order to ensure that all parties receive the water they need. Egypt is the bully on the block because it has the biggest and most modern armed forces. Klare leaves little doubt that, if another country were to build a dam or otherwise siphon off more Nile water, the Egyptian airforce would be used to destroy any such infrastructure.

The Jordan, Tigris-Euphrates, and Indus basins get a similar treatment. When reading about the Jordan, it occurred to me that we don’t generally talk about water as being contentious in this arid part of the world. We hear a lot about Israel, Gaza and disputed territories but increasing populations and relatively little water don't get a lot of play. Unlike the situation in Africa, it is not the case here that there is but a single country with military might so fear of a superior force doesn't factor into things here. Again, as of the writing of the book, there existed no comprehensive regional plan to distribute water equitably. With the relatively small size of the Jordan and the large population growth, water may become scarce very soon in the region and with this development will be conflict.

I realize I'm not doing justice to Resource Wars here so I highly recommend reading it for yourself. Klare writes in a fairly wonky way at least insofar as he gets down to brass tacks. There are no funny asides or debts owed to the For Dummies series but he does write for the layperson. He carefully lays out the relevant background and shows how the situation today evolved from past events. And maps show the reader where the hot spots are.

More than once in reading the book I was reminded of the movie A Few Good Men. The United States has its finger in many natural resource pies. The invasion of Iraq is the biggest, most obvious example but we have troops around the globe doing things like guarding oil pipelines which don't garner a whole lot of attention. Plus, as Klare notes, we may get dragged into confrontation in defense of our allies such as in the South China Sea if China were to take actions that threaten the flow of oil to Japan. Everyday our government engages in policies and actions to ensure that we Americans get way more than our share of the world's natural resources and we don't even know about it.

Some of the potential conflicts that Klare admonishes us about are due to simple numbers. To survive, every human being needs water. The more people you have, the more water a society will need. But I think there's also a side to some of the resource wars that is more lifestyle-driven. We Americans talk about "No Blood For Oil", compact fluorescents, hybrid cars, etc. but none of these things bring about changes which make invading countries or propping up brutal dictatorships of oil-rich countries unnecessary. My own opinion is that the environment will improve and the U.S. will avoid resource wars when we Americans stop thinking that we can have our cake and eat it too. I think we're under the illusion that if we just make things a little greener, we can still have our SUVs, iPods, McMansions, and use 100 gallons of water per day without damaging the environment or use more than our fair share. A good example comes from an editorial called "The other, bigger 'oil spill': Your use of disposable plastic". The money quote:

Recycling or even reusing alone will not reduce the plastic waste on our planet if we continue to create more and more disposable plastic products every day.

Being green by recycling and reusing doesn't cut it. What's needed is a reduction in consumption – a basic alteration to our lifestyle. Driving a Prius may be green but it's not taking public transportation.

To bring this back to Klare's book, I believe that we'll be involved in resource wars for decades to come because of a couple reasons. One is simply that oil is the foundation of our economy and lifestyle. It's used for transportation, heating our homes, lubricants, synthetic fibers, fertilizers, and so on ad infinitum. Secondly, we Americans want our Apple gadgets and our cars more than we want a clean environment or to disengage from war. It's just that simple. When we, less than 5% of the world's population, start consuming much less than our current 25% of the world's fossil fuels, then change will come.

For his part, Klare is more optimistic than I am. He says that "We undeniably possess the ingenuity and capacity to develop such institutions", i.e. – those which can equitably distribute water and develop desalinization technology. He also makes the case for strategies based on cooperation rather than violence. I think he's right in that we human beings have the capacity for cooperation and that there are very good reasons to go that route but I have very little reason to think that we'll do so.
|| Palmer, 2:02 PM


" I think we're under the illusion that if we just make things a little greener, we can still have our SUVs, iPods, McMansions, and use 100 gallons of water per day without damaging the environment or use more than our fair share."

I love that you mention ipods. This has (based on my ranting in recent days) my new big issue. Millions of people threw out their perfectly good iphones last week so they could have the hottest new thing. This is the same week Europe said we are facing a mineral shortage: http://green.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/06/16/europe-sounds-alarm-on-minerals-shortage/?partner=rss&emc=rss

Thanks for writing about this book.
Anonymous Jesse, at 7:43 AM  
You're welcome, Jesse. I highly recommend reading the book yourself.

I'll admit that iPods are kind of an easy target but I think they are a good representative of disposable culture in a way that involves lots of varied resources.

I suppose that as known minerals sources are tapped, we'll begin to see more competition in areas that many of us have never thought about. Afghanistan obviously has a lot, as the government reminded us recently.
Blogger Palmer, at 10:14 AM  

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