Pubdate: Wed, 06 Feb 2002
Source: Mother Jones (US)
Section: Web Exclusive, Column - Getting Real
Address: 731 Market Street, SuitE 600, San Francisco, CA 94103
Contact:  2002 Foundation for National Progress
Fax: (415) 665-6696
Author: Todd Gitlin
Note: Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism, culture, and sociology at 
New York University and the author of many books on media and society, 
including the forthcoming "Media Unlimited".
Bookmark: (ONDCP Media Campaign)


Washington is warning Americans that drug addicts help support terrorists. 
But what about the nation's other habit -- cheap oil?

Buy drugs, support terrorism. That was the unsubtle message from federal 
drug policy officials as they launched a multi-million dollar advertising 
campaign during Sunday's Super Bowl.

Certainly, they have some evidence on their side. Terrorist groups from 
southeast Asia to South America are in the drug trafficking business. But 
in the meantime, another hazardous American addiction goes unchallenged. No 
crusade has been launched against a national dependency that delivers 
billions of dollars each year to foreign powers whose support for terror is 
far from fanciful: Oil.

For more than half a century, the US has been beholden to the dictatorships 
of the Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia, which controls more than a 
quarter of the world's known oil reserves. The Saudi patriarchate financed 
the Taliban, the madrassas that educated Taliban fighters in Afghanistan 
and Pakistan, and (when convenient) Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network.

This connection was documented and declared long before the Taliban became 
America's villains of choice. But that link never dissuaded the US from 
seeking Saudi oil. George Bush I's ample business alliances with Saudi 
rulers have been remunerative for the Bush family and former Bush I 
officials James Baker and Frank Carlucci, but not terribly useful for 
protecting America from attacks by Saudi citizens with passports and 

Now, the Office of National Drug Control Policy hopes to convince 
drug-addicted Americans to kick their habits for patriotism's sake. What 
about that other habit? Nobody in Washington is suggesting we give up 
buying gas. The liberal leadership is willing to challenge drilling in the 
Alaskan wilderness, which would be a transparent subsidy to the 
administration's oil pals, but seems afraid to question our larger 

Oil, and America's unending appetite for it, ushered in the death squads of 
al Qaeda. Oil lubricated the US's disastrous quarter-century-long support 
for the Shah of Iran -- another invitation to Islamic fundamentalism, as it 
turned out. Oil floated, and continues to float, the brutal regime of 
Saddam Hussein.

Access to oil trumps democratic values and human rights at every turn. For 
half a century, purported realists in Washington have thought nothing of 
greasing the palms of Saudi princes in exchange for the favor of permitting 
us (and, to an even greater extent, the Japanese and the Europeans) to buy 
their oil.

Some realism.

For their part, the Saudis are now wondering aloud whether an American base 
in their territory is worth all the trouble. Possibly they fear the 
political price is rising. The Saudi princes, evidently hoping to defuse a 
native opposition that finds them insufficiently pure, are growing restive 
about the very American base that so exercises bin Laden and his supporters.

Some Democratic Senators are wising up to the fact that the Saudis have us 
over a barrel, and while they are reluctant to suggest anything that would 
answer an al Qaeda demand, they have trial-ballooned the message that this 
base might be rather more trouble than it's worth. Not coincidentally, we 
have become aware of a fervent American interest in a substitute oil 
source: Central Asia.

This prospect has already led to an American base in Uzbekistan and plans 
for more, along with US support for brutal dictatorships in several of the 
former Soviet states, repressive regimes whose anti-Islamic policies stand 
to produce future militants for future bin Ladens.

The economic foundation of this myopia, this heap of bad bargains, is of 
course the petroleum fixation of a society of SUV patriots. This fixation 
is not only economic but cultural. Easy oil is an American way of life. Big 
companies and little folks alike take for granted their God-given right to 
low prices at the pump. When those prices rise, Americans of all political 
stripes panic, without giving much thought to where the stuff comes from.

While our national oil fix appears fundamental, it would be truer to say 
that it is simply undiscussed.

The barking heads of the punditocracy do not inquire of America's 
potentates as to why the fixation makes sense. They do not press them on 
crash research programs to develop alternatives. Even amid the cascading 
Enron scandal, they do not connect the dots to link the national 
petrofixation, global warming, and the interests of the oil companies that 
own this administration.

They are, well, petrified.

There is some reason for hope, though. When the issue is adequately 
explained, Americans appear willing to fund alternatives to oil. In 
November, after a smart environmentalist campaign, San Francisco passed two 
ballot measures committing the city to use solar and wind power for public 
buildings and to promote these renewable energies in homes and businesses 
as well. Such measures belong on the agendas of city councils all over the 
country. They belong in state referenda and legislative initiatives. Energy 
efficiencies of the sort already in widespread use in Europe demand 
widespread use in the US as well, whatever Dick Cheney may think.

It's too much to hope that, in the twilight of Enron, sun-drenched Houston 
might listen up. But sooner or later, the only way out of our oily 
addiction is with such elemental forces as light and wind. Kicking bad 
habits is patriotic -- but don't expect the oil dealers in Washington to 
proclaim the virtues of just saying no.
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