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January 31, 2008

Tree-Huggers and Hawks Unite: Brendan Simms explains how we can simultaneously fight terrorism and save the planet

Posted by Brendan Simms

Brendan Simms - Reader in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society - argues that we can simultaneously fight terrorism and improve the environment by reducing our reliance on Middle Eastern oil - and that this is very possible to achieve.

In the Cold War, economic warfare against the Soviet Empire was one of the most important fronts. The West maintained the "Cocom" list of prohibited technologies, and when tensions were particularly high, Washington attempted to prevent her allies from trading with the East, resulting in the famous pipeline spat of the fist Reagan Administration.

For many years throughout the 1980s, the Saudi Royal Family punished Moscow for the invasion of Afghanistan and rewarded the West for opposing it by pumping billions of barrels more oil. This kept petrol prices down, fuelled a Western boom, and slashed Soviet foreign exchange earnings, which were largely generated from oil exports. The economic failure of the Soviet bloc - the manifest inability of a materialist ideology to supply many of the wants of its subjects, was a major reason for the collapse of the communism.

No such victory is in sight or even possible in the war on Islamist terror, according to Dr Gal Luft, the Executive Director for the Analysis of Global Security in Washington.

This is because, as he told a packed meeting of the Henry Jackson Society at the House of Commons yesterday, the Saudis continue to make unimaginable profits from oil production. These fund not just a massive and enfeebling welfare system in the Kingdom itself - nobody pays taxes - but a foreign policy based on the export of extremist Islamist ideology. Wahabis, who make up about 1 percent of the Muslim Community of Umma, pay for about 90% of Islamic and Islamist activities. Saudi petrodollars bankroll perhaps up to 12,000 madrassas, many though by no means all of them breeding grounds for prejudice and extremism.

Bizarrely, therefore, the West invest blood and treasure to make the Middle East a better place, while each time we go to a petrol station, we are, as Luft puts it, "funding a war against ourselves".

The potential financial muscle which oil reserves represent in the Western economies is shown by the fact that the proven Saudi oil reserves alone are valued at more than seven times the entire worth of the London stock market. The Kingdom could buy General Motors with just six days of production.

Moreover, the situation is getting worse. Because of political instability and rising Asian - particularly Chinese - demand, the price of oil has steadily risen over the past five years. We have in fact no way of knowing just how much oil is still available because this information is closely guarded by the regime in Russia, Venezuela and the Middle Eastern oil-producing states.

And if this were not bad enough, the design and production of motor vehicles - which have an average life-span of about seventeen years - threatens to lock us into this dependency for the next two decades.

All this matters because the western capitalist democracies find themselves held to ransom. We are constrained in our responses to repressive behaviour in energy rich Burma, Sudan and Iran. We are especially powerless - or so it seems - to insist on human rights and reform in Saudi Arabia to halt the march of extremism. After all, we are addicted to oil, and the drug-addict does not tell his dealer not to beat his wife.

The answer, as Set America Free, the US project which Luft advises, argues, is to rid ourselves of our dependency on oil.

We should explore battery technology. All new cars should be fitted with flexible fuel engines, as the majority of those produced in Brazil are. These could run on alcohol fuel, which would stimulate the production of sugar and other commodities from which this renewable source of energy can be generated.

It has been done before: the original Model T. Ford ran on both alcohol and conventional petrol. The additional cost is only $100 per car. Such a course of action would create multiple positive synergies.

The environment would benefit: the threat of global warming might recede a little. Developing countries, currently crippled by the increase in oil prices would enter into a new partnership with the developed world to produce alcohol fuel.

This North-South global compact for energy security would consign the Middle Eastern despotisms to the obscurity which the old "salt empires" of the Tortuga and Turks islands, critical to the eighteenth-century Royal Navy, were reduced once we had overcome our saline dependency. To compete with electrical cars, apparently, the oil price would have to come down to $5 a barrel.

It is no wonder, then, that Luft is described as the most hated man in the Saudi capital Riyadh, the Texan oil capital of Houston and the centre of the American car industry, Detroit! His ideas may be about to gain wider currency: they have informed the recent energy speeches of the Republican favourite and presidential hopeful John McCain.

There is every sign that the influence of the Bush-Cheney-Halliburton oil lobby, much magnified by myth in any case, is about to come to an end. This means an emancipation not so much from the clutches of shadowy corporations as from the geopolitical agenda of hostile governments, who control ninety percent of world oil production.

Tree-huggers and hawks are on the verge of uniting. Environmental concern and national security, two at that time largely unconnected themes which informed Henry Scoop Jackson's radical thinking in the 1970s, may be about to enter a new and dynamic synergy.

Dr Brendan Simms is Reader in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society.

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