back to 11/16 mail | 911 Analysis | JJ | JFK | ratville times | rat haus | Index | Search | tree

United States: energy and strategy

by Michael Klare, Le Monde diplomatique, November 2002

Michael Klare is Professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, and the author of Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict (Metropolitan Books, New York, 2001)


THE United States has been so involved in the war against terrorism for the past year that it can seem that winning it is the Bush administration's sole foreign policy objective -- especially since the president has often said that this campaign is his most important responsibility. But though enormous effort is undoubtedly being devoted to this campaign, anti-terrorism is not the only major foreign policy concern.

Since taking office, Bush has devoted equal attention to two other strategic priorities: the modernisation and expansion of US military capabilities, and the procurement of more foreign oil. These two priorities have independent roots, but have intertwined together, and with the war on terrorism, to produce a unified strategic design. It is this design, rather than any individual objective, that now governs US foreign policy.

This design has neither a formal name nor a written declaration of principles; no one in Washington has actually articulated the vision. But there is no doubt that these intertwined priorities, have decisively shifted US military behaviour.

To understand the nature of the change we need to look at recent US actions, and we will start with Iraq and the Persian Gulf. There is no longer any doubt that the Bush administration is planning an invasion of Iraq, to remove Saddam Hussein and install a pro-US government in Baghdad. In preparation, the US Department of Defence is expanding its already large military presence in the Persian Gulf region. Supposedly, the sole aim of the invasion is to destroy surviving Iraqi capabilities for the production of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and prevent the handover of them to terrorists. But Washington is clearly also worried about the future availability of oil from the Gulf area and is determined to eliminate any threat -- such as that of Iraq -- of interruption to the flow. American strategists want to make sure that Iraq's vast oil reserves will be accessible to US oil companies in the future and not be exclusively controlled by Russian, Chinese and European firms.

Then there is Central Asia and the Caucasus. When US troops were deployed there soon after 11 September, it was said their sole objective was to support military operations against the Taliban in Afghanistan. But with the Taliban defeated, it seems they remain for other reasons. Given the US interest in access to the vast energy supplies of the Caspian Sea basin, it is likely that these will include protecting the flow of oil and natural gas from the Caspian to markets in the West. The recent deployment of US military instructors in Georgia, which is an important way-station for pipelines connecting the Caspian with the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, and the announcement of US plans to refurbish a military airbase in Kazakhstan, on the edge of the Caspian Sea make this idea credible.

And there is Colombia. Until recently the US said that its military involvement there was only to combat the illegal trade in narcotics. But lately the White House has identified two other objectives for the aid programme: to combat political violence and terrorism by Colombia's guerrilla organisations and to protect oil pipelines from the interior to terminals and refineries on the coast. To finance these initiatives, the Bush administration has asked Congress to approve increases in aid, including $100m for pipeline protection.

In these developments, and others elsewhere, we can see the strands of US foreign policy. It is their integration that is most significant. In future, we will not be able to understand US foreign policy without taking the integration into account.

So we will look at the strands, and their integration. The first, enhancing US military capabilities, has been a main Bush priority since his electoral campaign. In a speech at The Citadel (a military academy in Charleston, South Carolina) in September 1999, Bush proposed the transformation of the US military establishment. Claiming that the Clinton administration had failed to re-adjust US military policy to the altered realities of the post-cold war era, Bush promised comprehensively to review US strategy and "begin creating the military of the next century",

The transformation of the US defence establishment is intended to achieve two key strategic objectives: to ensure Washington's future invulnerability by installing an effective anti-missile defence system and preserving US superiority in hi-tech weaponry; and to enhance the US capacity to invade and conquer hostile regional powers like Iran, Iraq and North Korea.

The `revolution in military affairs'

Bush affirmed his support for a national missile defence system (NMD) to protect all 50 American states against attack. He also embraced the "revolution in military affairs", using computers, advanced sensor devices, stealth materials and hi-tech systems in future combat. These efforts, he suggested, would ensure US superiority "into the far realm of the future".

To achieve his second objective, Bush called for a substantial expansion of power projection capabilities -- the ability to deploy powerful US forces in distant battle zones and win against any potential enemy. This would mean new hi-tech devices, advanced sensors and pilotless aircraft, and reducing the numbers of existing combat units to accelerate their deployment. As Bush said: "Our forces in the next century must be agile, lethal, readily deployable, and require a minimum of logistical support. We must be able to project our power over long distances, in days or weeks rather than months. On land, our heavy forces must be lighter. Our light forces must be more lethal. All must be easier to deploy". [1]

Immediately after inauguration, Bush ordered the Department of Defence to start implementing the proposals in that speech, and by early 2001, he said that at his request, the Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, had begun the review. "I have given him a broad mandate to challenge the status quo as we design a new architecture for the defence of America and our allies." The architecture would rely on new technologies, and would emphasize power projection. Bush repeated that the US ground forces would be lighter and more lethal, the air forces "will be able to strike across the world with pinpoint accuracy" and its sea forces would maximise "our ability to project power over land". [2]

These objectives have now been embedded in the Pentagon's long-range budget. Introducing the $379bn defence budget for fiscal year 2003 (an increase of $45bn over 2002), Rumsfeld said: "We need rapidly deployable, fully integrated joint forces, capable of reaching distant theatres quickly and working with our air and sea forces to strike adversaries swiftly, successfully, and with devastating effect". [3] Though additional resources will go to missile defence and anti-terrorism, power projection will dominate US military procurement and development.

After 11 September the administration added a new feature: the proposition that the US must be able to employ force pre-emptively to prevent the possible use of weapons of mass destruction. Such action may be necessary, argued the White House, because of the great risk to American civilians from the potential use of such weapons by rogue states undeterred by US retaliatory capacity. This proposition, while rightly seen as significant departure, is quite consistent with the administration's other two goals: ensuring the invulnerability of the US to hostile military action and enhancing its capacity to invade.

The intent to acquire more foreign oil supplies was first evident in the report of the national energy policy development group in May 2001, known as the "Cheney report" after its principal author, Vice President Dick Cheney. The document is meant to be a comprehensive plan to supply the US's growing energy needs over the next 25 years. It incorporates some increased energy conservation, but most proposals are aimed at expanding the supply of energy.

The report caused great controversy because it advocates oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska and because its authors consulted regularly with officials of the now-disgraced Enron. Unfortunately the controversy has deflected attention from its other aspects, particularly those bearing on the international implications of energy policy. Only in the final chapter is its true significance apparent, when we are told of plans to solve the looming energy shortfall in the US by substantially increasing foreign oil imports.

According to the report, US reliance on imported oil will rise from about 52% of total consumption in 2001 to an estimated 66% in 2020. [4] Because oil use is also rising, the US will have to import 60% more oil in 2020 than it does today. This means that imports will have to rise from their current rate of about 10.4m barrels a day to an estimated 16.7m barrels a day in 2020. [5] The only way to do this is to persuade foreign suppliers to increase their production and sell more of their output to the US.

Meeting oil requirements

But many supplying countries lack the capital to make the necessary investments in production infrastructure, and are reluctant to allow US firms to dominate their energy sector. The report calls on the White House to make the pursuit of increased oil imports "a priority of our trade and foreign policy". [6] It calls on the president and other top officials to try two ways to meet America's growing oil requirement.

The first is to increase imports from Persian Gulf countries, which together own about two thirds of the world's known oil reserves. Recognising that no other region can increase production as rapidly and substantially, the report wants a US diplomatic effort to persuade the governments of Saudi Arabia and other producers to allow US firms to improve the infrastructure of their countries.

The second aim is to increase the geographic diversity of US imports, to reduce the economic damage that would be caused by future supply interruptions in the ever-turbulent Middle East. "Concentration of world oil production in any one region is a potential contribution to market instability," the report says, so "greater diversity remains important". [7] To promote diversity, the report calls on the president and top officials to work with US energy firms to increase oil imports from the Caspian Sea basin (especially Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan), sub-Saharan Africa (Angola and Nigeria), and Latin America (Colombia, Mexico, and Venezuela).

The report does not say openly what will be obvious to any reader: almost all areas identified as potential sources of increased oil supplies are chronically unstable or harbour anti-American sentiments, or both. While elites in these countries may favour increased economic co-operation with the US, other sectors of the population often oppose such ties for nationalistic, economic or ideological reasons. So US efforts to obtain more oil from these countries is almost certain to provoke resistance, including terrorism and other violence. There is an unacknowledged security dimension to the Cheney energy plan, with considerable significance for US military policy.

The parallels between the military strategy and energy policy are striking. Without implying any conscious intent by the administration to heighten this conjunction, it is clear that an energy policy favouring increased US access to oil supplies in the Persian Gulf, the Caspian, Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa would be more realistic if accompanied by a strategy favouring a big increase in US capacity to project military power.

Whether or not senior political figures have reached this conclusion, US military officials have certainly done so. In the Quadrennial Defence Review (QDR) report of September 2001, the Department of Defence acknowledges that "The US and its allies will continue to depend on the energy resources of the Middle East," and that access to this region could be jeopardised by military threats. [8] The QDR describes the weapons and forces that the US will need to protect its interests in the Middle East and other zones, listing the capabilities identified in the Bush statements. American strategy "rests on the assumption that US forces have the ability to project power worldwide," it declares. [9]

The third priority, success in the war against terrorism, was spelled out in Bush's address to Congress nine days after the attacks on New York and Washington. This campaign would be not limited to punitive strikes or one great battle but would entail a "lengthy campaign" in many theatres of operation and continuing "until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated". Bush later extended this mandate to encompass states like Iran and Iraq, said to threaten terrorism through pursuit of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.

This strategy needs both intelligence and law enforcement efforts to locate and destroy hidden terrorist cells; and also a military effort to destroy terrorist sanctuaries and punish states that offer them protection or assistance. All these activities are thought crucial to the success of the war on terrorism, but the military aspect has attracted most attention from senior administration officials. It is this aspect that is most closely associated with the other strands of US security policy.

Many aspects of the war in Afghanistan reflect the power projection model that Bush delineated. In preparation for the campaign, the US airlifted large amounts of weapons and equipment to friendly states in the area, and deployed a powerful fleet in the Arabian Sea. Much of the fighting was done by light infantry, supported by long-range bombers with precision-guided weapons. A high premium was placed on battlefield manoeuvre and advanced surveillance devices to pinpoint enemy locations day and night.

A similar operation in Iraq will mean tens of thousands of US troops quickly inserted in key locations across the country, with relentless air and missile attacks. "We would not need to hold territory and protect our flanks to the same extent [as in the Gulf war]," a senior officer told the New York Times. "You would see a higher level of manoeuvre and airborne assault, dropping in vertically and enveloping targets, less slogging mile by mile through the desert". [10] The planned attack should mean wide use of US Special Forces with armed dissident groups, as in Afghanistan.

The war on terrorism has merged with the US effort to safeguard access to oil, especially in the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea basin. The war in Afghanistan can be seen as an extension of the shadow war in Saudi Arabia between radical opponents of the Saudi monarchy and the US-backed royal family. Ever since King Fahd decided, after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, to allow US troops to use his country as their base for attacks on Iraq, Saudi extremists, led by Osama bin Laden, have fought an underground war to topple the monarchy and drive the Americans out. US moves to destroy al-Qaida and its support in Afghanistan can be seen as an effort to protect the Saudi royal family and ensure access to oil. [11]

Safeguarding the oil flow

The war on terrorism has also merged with US efforts to safeguard the flow of Caspian oil and natural gas to the West. These began modestly during the Clinton administration, when the Department of Defence established links with the forces of Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, and began to provide military aid and training. [12] But since 11 September, these efforts have increased, and temporary US bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan are being made semi-permanent. There is US aid "for the refurbishment of a strategically located air base" in Kazakhstan, which, according to the State Department, is intended to "improve US-Kazakh military cooperation while establishing a base along the Caspian". [13] The US will also help Azerbaijan to begin to defend the Caspian Sea, where there have been recent encounters between Azerbaijani oil-exploration vessels and Iranian gunboats. These initiatives are said to help countries' participation in the war against terrorism, but are also linked to US efforts to provide a safe environment for the production and transport of oil.

Whatever the intent of US policymakers, the three key strands of their foreign security policy have now merged into a single strategy. Attempts to analyse them as separate phenomena will become more difficult as they increasingly intertwine. The only way to describe US security policy today is to speak of a unified campaign -- "the war for American supremacy" -- combining elements of all three. It is too early to gauge the significance of this, but we can make some preliminary observations.

The combined campaign has more vigour and momentum than its parts; it is hard to question or criticise a strategy that integrates so many key aspects of security. When separated, it might be possible to impose limits on one aspect -- to constrain procurement levels or troop deployments in oil regions. But when these are combined with anti-terrorism, it is almost impossible to advocate limits. It is highly likely that the combined campaign will very successfully gain and retain support from Congress and the people.

But the enterprise has a significant risk of "mission creep" and "overstretch": it could lead to open-ended overseas operations that become more complex and dangerous and require ever-growing US resources and personnel. This is the behaviour Bush warned against during his election campaign, but now seems to have fully embraced. It appears to be the case in the Gulf, Central Asia, and Colombia, where the combined impact of the policy strands makes it difficult to establish limits.

The greatest test of the strategic design may well come in Iraq. Bush has made no secret of his desire to overthrow Saddam Hussein, and the Department of Defence is planning a US invasion. Many Arab leaders have warned Bush that such an invasion will trigger disorder and violence throughout the Middle East. Senior Pentagon officials have also pointed out the costs and risks of maintaining a large US military presence in Iraq, of necessity, after Saddam Hussein has been ousted. But none of these warnings seems to have had any effect on the White House.


  1. See on December 2, 1999.

  2. Remarks made at Norfolk Naval Air Station, Norfolk, Virginia, 13 February 2001, on 15 February 2001.

  3. National Defence University, Washington DC, 31 January 2002, on March 9, 2002.

  4. National Energy Policy Development Group (Washington DC, May 2001).

  5. International Energy Outlook 2002, US Department of Energy, Energy Information Administration, Washington DC, 2002.

  6. National Energy Policy Development Group.

  7. Ibid.

  8. Quadrennial Defence Review Report, US Department of Defence, Washington DC, 30 September 2001, p 4.

  9. Ibid, p 43.

  10. New York Times, 28 April 2002.

  11. See "The Geopolitics of War," The Nation, 5 November 2001; see also "Line in the Sand: Saudi Role in Alliance Fuels Religious Tension in Oil-Rich Kingdom," The Wall Street Journal, 4 October 2001.

  12. See Michael T Klare, Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict, Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt, New York, 2001).

  13. Congressional Budget Justification: Foreign Operations, Fiscal Year 2003, US Department of State, Washington DC, 2002.

Original text in English

Copyright © 2002 Le Monde diplomatique
All Rights Reserved
Reprinted for Fair Use Only.

back to 11/16 mail | 911 Analysis | JJ | JFK | ratville times | rat haus | Index | Search | tree