Tuesday,20 November, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1229, (15 -21 January 2015)
Tuesday,20 November, 2018
Issue 1229, (15 -21 January 2015)

Ahram Weekly

The US and Gulf oil

While Obama has made US foreign policy less dependent on Gulf oil, US global standing demands Washington’s continued concern with global energy supplies, writes Amr Abdel-Ati

Al-Ahram Weekly

Energy resources, oil and natural gas in particular, have acquired increasing importance for industrialised societies. This is not just because they fuel their economies, but also because of the role they play in determining a nation’s strength and international status.

This is all the more so in light of structural discrepancies in the international order and, consequently, the distribution of energy resources.

The dominant powers in the international order — with the exception of Russia — have shortages in strategic energy resources (oil and natural gas), which make them dependent on sources abroad to meet the needs of domestic consumption.

Secure and sufficient energy resources are critically important to world powers. This is particularly the case for the US, which seeks to safeguard its international economic and political standing.

With competition from such rising powers as China and India, as well as other industrialised nations, world powers are keen to secure control over resources that are growing rare in relation to global demand. In this context, the notion of “energy security” has become a subject of increasing focus.

Because the US is still dependent on outside resources to meet its energy needs, the question of “energy security” has acquired more importance in the formulation of foreign policy. It is here that Washington tries to use all available means to ensure the security and sufficiency of these resources, even if this requires some changes in its fundamental foreign policy principles.

Both the Bush Junior and Obama administrations realised that the failure to diversify and innovate in the pursuit of energy security would render the US vulnerable to the conditions and dictates of major oil-producing countries. These administrations adopted a two-pronged approach that was based on a domestic component — investment in renewable energy resources and intensified drilling for oil and natural gas at home — and an external component.

This external component focused on the Middle East, sought to diversify energy resources and supply lines abroad, and to heighten the security of existing ones. The repercussions of the events of 11 September 2001 and the pre-eminence in the Bush administration of individuals with close links to US energy companies combined to give priority to the external component.

The Bush administration took advantage of the aftermath of 9/11 to incorporate two objectives into one: the war against terrorism and the realisation of US energy security. Many US actions in its war against terrorist organisations were often so intertwined with the pursuit of the latter aim that it had become difficult to tell which actions were meant to pursue which aims.

The war in Afghanistan, launched in October 2001, is a case in point. It sought not only to eliminate the Taliban and Al-Qaeda but also to enhance the US military presence in a region that is vital to the transport of petroleum energy resources from Asia to global markets. In like manner, while the Bush administration never stated this explicitly, the US war against Iraq, launched in March 2003, sought to ensure US control over Iraqi and Gulf oil reserves.

In addition to using military might as a means to achieve its foreign policy objectives of securing oil resources and facilities in the Middle East and their delivery lines to world markets, and US markets in particular, the Bush administration also turned to other areas that could serve as alternatives to conventional energy suppliers in the Gulf/Middle East. The many problems the US encountered in this region, together with the mounting costs of US reliance on oil and gas extracted from it, encouraged efforts in this direction.

Thus, Washington turned to African countries with abundant oil reserves and to the Caspian Sea region. As part of this diversification drive, Washington began to extend or increase economic aid and assistance to oil-producing nations and to step up diplomatic activity aimed at resolving conflicts in those countries so as to ensure the stability necessary for oil production.

However, when Barack Obama assumed the helm in the US, the question of energy security took a backseat in foreign policy formulation. There were four reasons for this, which highlight the fundamental differences between the foreign policy outlooks of the Obama and Bush administrations.

The first reason was that Obama was opposed to the Bush administration’s foreign policy as characterised by its aggressive interventionism. He regarded the invasion of Iraq as “a war of choice” that the US should never have embarked on and that had disastrous consequences for the American economy and the US’s international economic standing. From his first day in office, Obama vowed to withdraw US troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.

The second reason was that during Obama’s first term (2008-2012), US energy resources and supply lines abroad were never threatened to the degree of requiring intervention to safeguard them. Third, the Obama administration was more focused on the domestic component of energy security. It increased its investments in renewable energy resources and in oil and gas exploration in the US.

Indeed, Obama’s administration scored impressive inroads in this regard, reducing the influence of the question of energy security on foreign policy in light of the reduction of US dependency on imported energy due to current and anticipated increases in its own fossil fuel reserves.

The fourth reason was that while the Obama administration opposed the Bush approach to securing US energy resources abroad, it nevertheless benefited from some of the policies of the previous administration.

With the expectations of increased domestic production and rising reserves of fossil fuel, attention in the US has turned to the question of whether such resources can replace conventional sources abroad. There was talk of “energy independence”, with a particular eye to freeing US policy in the Middle East from potential “blackmail” from oil-producing nations.

It would also bring an end to the need to provide security cover for those nations, to protect oil tankers during their passage through the Straits of Hormuz and maintain a security presence in the Gulf. At the same time, quite a few energy experts believe that the discovery of large quantities of fossil fuel reserves in the US will significantly alter the global energy market, as investors increasingly turn their attention to these reserves.

As the optimism, or over-optimism, surrounding “energy independence” and reduction in US “addiction” to Gulf oil took hold, many writers and researchers began to predict that US’s Middle East policy would be “liberated.” Washington would no longer have to turn a blind eye to the policies of the authoritarian governments and dictatorships of that region in exchange for oil and gas supplies, they wrote.

But some voices in the US did not share this optimism. America’s newfound petroleum wealth will not diminish the status and influence of the Arab Gulf as the US will not be able to achieve energy independence and will continue to rely on imported crude. The US will never be able to generate sufficient quantities of reserves to cover its growing energy needs, they argued.

It might be able to reduce its dependency on Gulf oil, but it is nevertheless a major power that is determined to safeguard sufficient reserves for the future at a time when foreign oil is less costly than domestic production and when the reserves in the Gulf are far larger than those in other countries that the US might turn to as alternatives.

Also, in times of crisis, Gulf countries have a production capacity that is unmatched by other oil-producing nations which, moreover, tend to produce at the highest possible capacity whenever possible in order to generate the greatest profits.

While acknowledging the difficulty in attaining energy independence, some US analysts suggest that it is still possible for the US to continue importing oil but without accepting any strings attached, whether in the form of diplomatic or security commitments.

They maintain that US energy policies must be shaped solely by American values and principles according to long-term US interests and, therefore, that the US must not sacrifice the principles of democracy and human rights in its dealings with dictatorial regimes.

But such views are overly idealistic. For one, the US cannot jeopardise its interests contingent on oil imports from certain nations because those nations have authoritarian governments that violate human rights, while it can pressure those regimes to respect human rights and move towards democracy.
At the same time, US decision-making processes in this regard are extremely complex and involve inputs and pressures from many influential groups. The oil lobby and the military-industrial complex are crucial and their interests converge on the position that the US must sustain cooperation with those regimes, as it needs to continue to rely on imported oil.

The idealism of championing democracy and human rights at the expense of US energy interests is also difficult to sustain in light of the toll this would take not just on America’s domestic economic health but also on its international economic standing, especially in light of competition from emerging powers.
Chief among these is China, which has stepped up its drive to secure its energy resources abroad in order to support its economic and developmental revolution, which is enabling it to play an increasingly influential role in the international theatre and to rival the US’s global standing.


The writer is associate editor of Al-Siyassa Al-Dawliya published by Al-Ahram.

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