Oil and the Changing Shape of American Security

By Stephen Bryen 

It will be a different world if the United States achieves energy independence.  And now predictions are that this will happen sooner rather than later, probably by 2020.  But becoming energy independent is starting to happen even now, and organizations will try and take advantage of large surpluses, especially natural gas. 

Becoming energy independent has huge foreign policy and national defense implications. 

Today the Great Risk Point (GRP) is the supply of oil through the Persian Gulf. An adversary could create havoc in the shipping lanes, blow up supply depots, or even set oil fields on fire. 

GRP is such a big problem that the current administration is petrified that a rogue Iran will inflame the Gulf, and if not them, then al-Qaeda or the Muslim Brotherhood or their analogues. Take your pick. So the idea is to embrace them and try and redirect them away from precipitous action. 

But an energy independent America no longer faces GRP.  And there are developments that may also save Europe arising from oil discoveries from Israel, to Cyprus and probably to Greece that, if they can be moved quickly enough, can make up the difference from the Gulf.  The money is starting to come into these alternatives and this is shifting the geopolitical stage. 

OPEC will try and fight the trend by lowering energy prices. But lowering energy prices a lot means less money that can be used at home to buy off adversaries, especially the local kind. So if prices dip, which may already be starting to happen, revolution rises.  The trouble in Bahrain is a harbinger, not an oddity. 

The U.S., depending on the timing of all this, is in fat city.  But the loser are not only the Gulf States (including Iran), but also the outliers who do not have enough oil of their own.  China could get into staggering trouble if oil supplies are interrupted. Same for Japan, Korea and many others. And Europe –already heading for its own self-made depression- could collapse. Euro-socialism will go, but what will remain could be a fierce civil war in Europe between have’s and have not’s, and between ethnic groups such as Euro-Arabs, Gypsies, Jews –some new suspects, some the usual ones. 

U.S. foreign policy is built around defense of the Persian Gulf and safeguarding the flow of oil. The first Gulf war started for the United States when Saddam’s Army crossed into Saudi territory. Then the threat was clear and unambiguous.  The second Gulf war also was alarm about Saddam’s intentions and his ability to blackmail the region thanks to arsenals of chemical and biological agents.  (How much he had, what happened to it, remains a matter of dispute, but policy makers believed he had  WMD, which is all that is really important.)

But as local oil replaces imported oil, and natural gas replaces diesel and, eventually gasoline, we enter a period of enhanced ambiguity, not clarity.  Voices will ask why the U.S. should make the supply of oil safe for Europe, or safe for China?  Others will explain that we cannot roll-back revolution in the region, that we lack credibility to do that, and a political upheaval is not easy to solve with military force, especially the diminished forces we now have.  As we learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, the war costs probably exceed our ability to pay, at least for the next five to ten years. 

Certainly there will be renewed emphasis on the southern Mediterranean, and NATO may try and strengthen its role in protecting the emerging supplies of oil.  But to do that Israel will have to become either a de facto or de jure member of NATO, and the Euro-politics of that are really formidable. Other solutions may have to be found, such as new localized collective security agreements. These are in the future, but not very far. 

Meanwhile we are on the precipice of a huge transformation. American domestic and foreign policy may never be the same.

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