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Pumped Up

Why this war is also about oil.

Though we still lack many details of the September 11 attacks, it's a good guess that oil money was involved. Osama bin Laden's inherited wealth comes from a Saudi construction family that made its fortune in the Arabian oil boom. He is also believed to receive donations from Saudis who grew rich from petroleum leases. If Saddam Hussein assisted in the attack, then oil money may have flowed to the butchers through Iraq, too. And if the terrorists got money from Saudi Arabia and Iraq, then Saudi Arabia and Iraq got money from us--because Americans bought their oil. So as the Bush administration plots the difficult and complex war against terrorism on which it has now embarked, it should add one simple and mundane element: America must reduce its consumption of Persian Gulf oil. And thereby reduce the chance that our own cash is filling terrorists' coffers.

It may be no coincidence that Islamic fundamentalist terror began in earnest in the early 1970s, about when revenues from sales of Persian Gulf oil took off. The United States and other Western nations began sending substantial sums of money to the Gulf states; at about the same time, terror attacks on Western and Israeli targets became more common. It's highly likely that some fraction of the money the West paid for oil ended up funding Arab terror. But the money continues to flow. In 2000 the United States imported 1.6 million barrels of oil per day from Saudi Arabia, which is ostensibly our friend, and 613,000 barrels of oil per day from Iraq, which is unquestionably our enemy. More than one-fifth of America's petroleum imports come from Persian Gulf states, most of which have some connection to anti-American and anti-Israeli terror. American crude oil purchases transferred around $15 billion to Saudi Arabia in 2000, a figure that's expected to be higher this year. America paid Iraq around $5 billion for oil in 2000, with that figure rising this year as well. And though the United States does not buy oil from Iran, which it labels a terrorist-supporting state, other Western nations do; as much as 50 percent of Iran's government budget is believed to derive from petroleum sales.

Without the West's oil money, most Gulf states would have modest resources. With it they can build air-conditioned hotels and terrorist training facilities. Consider Iraq. Saddam became more dangerous to his neighbors--first Iran, then Kuwait--as his oil exports rose through the 1980s. Gulf war devastation and UN sanctions cut off Iraq's oil money in the early 1990s, and Saddam's threats to his neighbors and the world declined in concert. (His mistreatment of his own citizens continued.) In the late '90s, however, sanctions began to erode--and in 1997, America resumed buying oil from Baghdad. The United Nations gave Iraq permission to sell petroleum only if the money were used for food, medical supplies, and Gulf war reparations. But these stipulations are now widely flouted--Saddam has been selling food from the oil-for-food program to buy weapons--meaning Iraq's government is once again flush. Baghdad's projected $19 billion in petroleum export revenue this year will equal, in real-dollar terms, its annual oil take just before the invasion of Kuwait. And there is some reason to suspect (see "Blood Baath" by R. James Woolsey, September 24) that Saddam may be spending part of it to massacre American civilians.

Yet we keep shipping Iraq and other Gulf states our greenbacks. Since the first oil crunch in 1974, American pundits and politicians have spoken interminably of a search for "energy independence." All the while, our dependence has grown. In 1974 America imported 1 million barrels of oil per day from the Persian Gulf; now the figure has more than doubled to 2.5 million daily. During the Gulf war, many commentators connected our fight for Kuwait to our thirst for foreign oil. But as we go to war against terrorists from the Gulf today, almost no one has even noted the connection. Vast purchases of Middle Eastern oil are taken as a given.

In purely economic terms, of course, there is a case for such purchases. Other things being equal, if oil from Arabia costs less than domestic oil or alternative energy, then America will be more prosperous if it buys from the Gulf. Similarly, other things being equal, cheap air travel without annoying security delays is good for prosperity. In an ideal world, we'd buy Iraqi oil and walk right onto the plane. Emphatically, we now know that this is not an ideal world.

Culpability for our failure to reduce petroleum imports falls across the political spectrum. Enviros and nimbys are to blame for opposing domestic oil production in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, along coastal areas, and pretty much everywhere else. Right-wingers are to blame for opposing federal energy-efficiency standards and for celebrating the gas-guzzling SUV. Lefty alarmists and Hollywood airheads are to blame for terrifying the public about atomic power, which in the United States has never caused a single public death (whereas burning fossil fuel causes thousands of premature deaths annually from respiratory disease, and last month more than 6,000 Americans died in petroleum fireballs). Oilmen--including Dick Cheney before he was sworn in as vice president--are to blame for calling for an end to export sanctions against Iraq and Iran before these states stopped sponsoring terror. The American public is to blame for insisting on unlimited access to the cheapest possible energy and then, when something goes wrong (oil-backed terrorists, California electricity, and so on), demanding to know who is responsible for the outrage.

In the short term, America cannot wean itself from oil imports. But a complete cessation is not necessary. Even if the United States merely eliminated its current roughly 2 percent annual increase in petroleum use--which could be accomplished without harm to the economy by an increase in federal mpg and other energy standards--Gulf state oil income would falter. As the world's largest petroleum consumer, America controls the margins of oil demand. If the United States bought less oil from the Gulf, global demand would soften, causing per-barrel prices to decline. Saddam and the Saudi monarchy would feel it in the pocketbook, which might make them rethink their support for those who harm the United States. Right now they don't have to: The United States sends them billions no matter whom they befriend.

Today Americans burn through 875 gallons of gasoline per year per licensed driver, and of that about 100 gallons comes from the Persian Gulf. This works out to roughly $75 per year transferred from the typical American driver to Saddam and the desert princes who smile as their allies chant "death to America." As President Bush commits the United States to a war on terror, in which young American fighting men and women may make the ultimate sacrifice in the mountains of Afghanistan or on the Iraqi plains, it is scandalous that neither he, nor any other leading politician, has asked American voters to sacrifice even a little at the pump. Why won't the president, who warns of "years" of war to root out oil-financed terrorism, remind us that we are the ones buying the oil?

Gregg Easterbrook is a Senior Editor at The New Republic. This article originally ran in the October 8, 2001, issue of the magazine.