Saturday, February 18, 2012

The "oil from people that don't like us" fallacy

This one has been bouncing around the discourse for decades, and I'm kinda tired of it:
Environmental concerns notwithstanding, America will be using oil — and lots of it — for the foreseeable future. It is the fundamental means by which we transport ourselves, whether by air, car or truck. Where do we get that oil? Mostly from countries that don’t like us, like Venezuela, which has the world’s second-largest oil reserves.
 Other favorite whipping boys in the we-get-our-oil-from-baddies meme are Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Syria. The idea being that by burning oil, we are facilitating terrorism, extremism, and all manner of bad things.

Sometimes this argument is used to push conservation and low-carbon sources of energy (good ideas) and sometimes it is used to push expansion of domestic oil production or oil production in friendly (read "white") nations (as above, where Joe Nocera embarked on his incredibly ill-thought-out defense of the Keystone XL project). But whether employed for good ends or dubious ones, the argument is unsound.

Let's say we cut our oil consumption and send dramatically less money to, say, Saudi Arabia. Sounds great. Osama Bin Laden was born there! Let's put the squeeze on them! Only problem is, Saudi Arabia and Osama Bin Laden fought each other for years. Bin Laden absolutely rejected the legitimacy of the government of Saudi Arabia -- something about allying themselves with the United States and having US troops stationed there.

Did I mention that Saudi Arabia is an ally? Not a very good ally, perhaps, but better than the alternatives, which is why we're friends with them. Weakening them (even assuming we could) doesn't really help us.

You might say: but Osama had money from his family, which got its money from the Saudi economy, which got its money from oil. All true. And if you were able to utterly strangle the Saudi Arabian economy to the point that there were no more spoiled rich kids, you would have removed one of the elements that went into the making of the deadliest terror attack in American history. In the process, though, you have sowed how much hatred, created how many new enemies, how radically undermined the state you are using to keep them in check? It seems like a lot of harm for very little benefit. Money, after all, was not the critical element that made 9/11 possible. What do a dozen box cutters run for these days?

Cutting oil imports would also hurt (very slightly, as India and China pick up our slack) countries like Iran and Venezuela, whose leaders are certainly not friendly to us. But the danger emanating from the quarter, such as it is, is not really driven by money either; both countries are relatively poor, with primitive armed forces and corruption-burdened economies. If we impoverish them further, how does that help us? Afghanistan and North Korea are as poor as one could wish, yet they still manage to make their fair share of trouble -- aided more than hindered by the fact that they have virtually nothing to lose. (Maybe crushing their economy will teach them not to mess with us; that worked so well with the Weimar Republic.) Are their leaders the sort of people who will respond to that by redirecting funds away from foreign policy towards the needs of the poor? To give up guns for butter? People really haven't thought this through.


  1. There is another way to look at this. Many have the idea of - "Drill Baby Drill, so we don't have to import oil from countries that don't like us."

    Given the 3% of of know oil reserves that the U.S. has, and the 25% of world oil that the U.S. consumes, what they are advocating is using up all of America's oil right away. In a kind of wierd logic, it makes more sense to use up your enemies oil first.
    Of course, leaving it in the ground is the best idea.

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