The land of the unfree – US war on crime has nothing to do with crime

One in 35 Americans are caught up in the corrections system and incarceration is on the rise. Why is this when the US crime rate has dropped so remarkably?
by Andrew Oxford

The United States incarcerates more of its own citizens than any other nation. It has only 5% of the world’s population but 25% of the world’s prisoners. If you count everyone ensnared in the corrections system – on probation or parole – millions of Americans (one of every 31) are anything but free in the land of liberty (1).

“Incarceration is a rich country’s hobby,” says Scott Henson, a Texan journalist and political consultant who has monitored America’s addiction to imprisonment for years and thinks it a pastime of impractical and frivolous consequences. Crime and punishment are disconnected. As funding has increased, more prisons have been built, more of the usual suspects – drug users, dealers, and petty gangsters – have been wrangled into newly constructed penitentiaries, and more warders hired to man the guard towers.

Crime seems to have fluctuated of its own free will, unaffected by the billions of dollars thrown at it and the policies written to combat it. Although crime declined throughout the 1990s and into the new millennium, incarceration rates climbed dramatically, even among the young. Meanwhile, the state of New York saw a dramatic decrease in violent crime as its prison population dropped (2).

State budgets are being leached by rising bills for ever-expanding penal systems – nearing a cumulative $50bn this year – and politicians are exacting cuts on education, healthcare and other social services to make up the difference. Between 1988 and 2008, spending on the prison system grew from four to 30 times the budget for public housing (3).

There is a current of racial inequality and strife that runs through America’s history. From slavery to reconstruction, urban migration to ghettos, one of the starkest examples of the lingering racial divide is the over-representation of people of colour in the prison system.

While distinct in some ways and eerily parallel in others, the racial and criminal narratives of America became particularly intertwined at a time of cultural conflagration. In the 1960s America mutinied. Long-oppressed racial groups – blacks, Latinos and the indigenous people – demanded civil rights, students called for an end to the war in Vietnam, women challenged the assumptions of patriarchy, and environmentalists mobilised against ecological destruction. America was in open revolt against its own culture and Washington responded one of the few ways it knew: it declared a war.
‘Tough on crime’

With many citizens fearful of the uncertain future, politicians devised policies to win the war on crime and the war on drugs. Writing to Dwight Eisenhower in 1968, Richard Nixon expressed confidence in his “tough on crime” platform: “I have found great audience response to this law and order theme in all parts of the country, including areas like New Hampshire where there is virtually no race problem and relatively little crime.” (4)

The war on crime has nothing to do with crime. As Dr Bruce Western, professor of sociology at Harvard University, points out: “Crime rates themselves may not have driven the prison boom but long-standing fears about crime and other social anxieties may form the backdrop for the growth in imprisonment.” (5) While violent crime did drop remarkably in the 1990s, the role “tough on crime” policies played is debatable. Instead, changes in local policing tactics and economic growth should be credited.

Incarceration rates rose steadily throughout this period thanks to the war on drugs, which received more and more funds from federal authorities. In the 1960s drugs were beginning to emerge in the counter culture and working-class neighbourhoods, and their burgeoning popularity and expanding market were seen as a sign of lawlessness. Lawmakers decided to take the war to the streets and create heavy-handed penalties for even petty possession. These laws remain on the books and are enforced by a wide range of agencies, bureaus and police departments, all receiving increasing sums from the federal government. “Drugs draw many into the system who do not actively contribute to crime” explains Western. He says the effect incarceration had on crime rates was small. The government has wasted billions on treating as a crime wave what is really a pressing public health issue.

Yet despite the lacklustre results of the zero-tolerance “lock ’em up and throw away the key” approach to drugs and petty crimes, America continues to break records in terms of incarceration rates. Why? “That’s the $100,000 question,” says Tracy Velasquez, executive director of the Washington-based Justice Policy Institute. “Our political system tends to reinforce an increase in incarceration; [for politicians] there’s a need to be tough on crime.”

Ever since the racial and social strife of the 1960s, rehashed for a new generation by the campaign ads Ronald Reagan ran against Michael Dukakis featuring rapist and murderer Willie Horton, leaders everywhere have been working to appear tougher than their opponents. Henson claims “if you had to put your finger on it, Reagan set the tone of the debate”. But he is quick to emphasise – as observers and activists usually are – that it’s wrong to examine criminal justice policy as a left-right issue, since the left and right have both failed miserably. “Joe Biden and John Kerry and Tom Harkin are the biggest drug warriors in the Senate,” he claims. “Obama, in his stimulus package, even wanted to triple funding [for drug enforcement agencies] and ended up doubling it.”

Velasquez explained that “there hasn’t been a downside to being tough on crime” – a downside when courting votes. But for the millions of Americans locked up for minor crimes and pushed around by well-funded police, the downside has been apparent for some time.

There are social issues in the prison system that warrant not just concern but urgent action. Gangs have been using the penal system as a recruiting mechanism and their influence has grown. Inmate populations have segregated themselves along racial lines to further conform to gang culture. Sexual abuse is also prevalent: a recent study found that 60,000 inmates are abused each year with prison staff cited as frequent culprits (6). Beyond the fences there are other problems: more than half of America’s incarcerated citizens are parents.

Occasionally, politicians point to the amenities afforded to some inmates and lament that murderers and rapists are living more comfortably than they should. A sheriff in Arizona garnered press attention for having his prisoners live in tents beneath the desert sun (a move that prompted an investigation by Amnesty International). Such attitudes have created a system that merits shame and disappointment.
Cradle to prison

In 40 years Americans have asked their leaders only to take those unseemly, typically non-white people on the sidewalks peddling crack, lock them up, and throw away the key. While conservatives like Reagan lamented “cradle-to-grave” welfare, his and other presidential policies have created a cradle-to-prison system where impoverished communities produce youth who choose to take their chances within the profitable drug or criminal world rather than do a minimum-wage job in the service sector. Police, flush with money from the federal government, round up some of the “usual suspects” who will face stiff penalties in a legal system they will have little help in navigating. Locked away, they may leave behind families who could use their help, in fact need it.

Each inmate is different and each story is complicated but politicians at every level of government seem to have found a solution that is absurdly simple. And yet none of it works. Crime is not falling as a result of tougher laws; the criminal justice system is anything but economical; mass incarceration is creating a wide range of social problems in the communities it has affected; and even after the one million plus people who work in the prisons are paid their wages and more laws are authored, America has little to show for its crusade against crime and drugs.

“It’s not the kingpin but the low-level dealer [who is put] in jail,” Velasquez points out. It’s a lack of alternative work that has drawn millions of Americans into drugs and then jail. While narcotics have also spread to wealthier neighbourhoods, Henson reminds us that “one side of the [railroad] tracks has taken the brunt. Drugs have spread but not prosecution”.

If the problem rests in bipartisan racism, in bipartisan neoliberalism and in bipartisan indifference, a solution seems to be emerging from bipartisan concern. While there are several lawmakers on the left who have worked on this issue for decades, the political climate has marginalised their power. Yet as Republicans scramble to secure their conservative credentials by exercising “fiscal conservatism”, many have considered ways of diminishing the costs of the corrections system and finding alternatives to incarceration. And as states struggle to balance their budgets, polls reflect more positive attitudes towards the legalisation of marijuana and wardens run out of cells, this could be the perfect moment for debate.

Ref: Le Monde

VIDEO:Outsourcing the Government (welcome to the neoliberal state!)

Bailing out the bailout (U.S. is going down while the “shameful” still get richer)

The Obama administration has opened a new chapter in its programme to support the US banking and financial industry, stepping up the injection of government cash with a total package that could ultimately top $1trn.

The move follows an increasingly controversial $700bn assistance plan approved last October under the previous administration of George Bush.

The new three-part programme, unveiled on Tuesday, is aimed at jump-starting the faltering credit market that has helped plunge the world’s largest economy into its biggest recession in 70 years.

Wall Street traders have come under
increasing scrutiny [EPA]
The Federal Reserve, the US central bank, will take part in backing new credit that, in turn, will target loans and other credit assistance for consumers, homeowners, small businesses and commercial real estate projects, said Timothy Geithner, Obama’s treasury secretary, as he announced the new plan.

Geithner also laid out the ground work for the establishing a fund of $500bn to remove bad mortgage loans held by the country’s banks and in financial markets.

But so far, government spending to repair widespread credit problems in the nation’s banking industry has met mixed reactions.

The Bush administration’s policy of shielding banks from public disclosure and how the money was being spent spurred widespread public scepticism and critics now complain that that the original $700bn program may have been misused and ineffective.

Adding to public concerns was the speed with which the US congress approved such huge spending on a package equal to the size of the national economies of the Netherlands or Turkey.

“After a week of debating, they put this thing out, it was 400-pages long and there was no transparency,” David Williams of Citizens against Government Waste told Al Jazeera.

“No accountability, nothing was attached to this bill to make sure the tax payer could see where this money was being spent.”

Lawrence Mitchell, a law professor and author of The Speculation Economy, says the entire process was ill-conceived because the present economic troubles were years in the making as Washington pressed for more and more deregulation of its banking sectors.

“Figuring out legislation is complex figuring out where the holes are,” Mitchell told Al Jazeera.

“You can’t draft legislation that quickly. Just as you had panic in the financial markets, you had panic bailouts in the governmental arena.”

Read more here...

Thinking the unthinkable

So, everything was possible after all. Governments could take radical action in the financial sector. The constraints of the European stability pact could be forgotten. Central banks could kowtow to governments and stimulate the economy. Tax havens could be blacklisted. Everything was possible because the banks had to be rescued.

For 30 years, any suggestion that the liberal order might be amended to improve the living conditions of ordinary people, for example, met with the same stock responses: the Berlin wall has gone, didn’t you notice?; that’s all ancient history; globalisation is the order of the day now; the coffers are empty; the markets won’t stand it.

And for 30 years, “reform” went ahead – in reverse. This was the conservative revolution, handing over increasingly substantial and lucrative swathes of national assets to the money men, privatising public services and transforming them into cash machines to “create added value” for shareholders. This was liberalisation, with cuts in wages and social security, forcing tens of millions of people to borrow in order to maintain their purchasing power, and “invest” with brokers and insurance agents in order to cover the cost of education, healthcare and pensions.

Falling wages and social security cutbacks naturally led to financial excesses. Creating risks encouraged people to take steps to protect themselves. Speculation boomed, fuelled by the ideology of market forces, and housing became a prime target for investment. Attitudes changed, people became more selfish, more calculating, less public-spirited. The 2008 crash is not just a technical hitch that can be put right by “learning lessons” or “putting a stop to abuses”. The whole system has broken down.

The would-be repair men are already at work, hoping to restore it, plaster over the cracks, give it a fresh coat of paint, all ready to commit yet another offence against society. The wiseacres who now pretend to be disgusted with the reckless results of liberalism are the very ones who provided all the incentives – budgetary, regulatory, fiscal and ideological – for the ensuing spending spree. They should feel disqualified, but they know an army of politicians and journalists are eager to do a whitewash job.

So we have Gordon Brown, whose first act as Chancellor of the Exchequer was to “liberate” the Bank of England, José Manuel Barroso, president of a European Commission obsessed with “competition”, and Nicolas Sarkozy, who invented the “fiscal shield”, introduced Sunday working and privatised the post office: all, it seems, busy “rebuilding capitalism”.

Their effrontery marks a strange hiatus. What has happened to the left? As for the official left, it just wants to turn the page as quickly as possible on a “crisis” for which it is jointly responsible. This is the left that went along with liberalisation, Democratic president Bill Clinton deregulating the financial sector, François Mitterrand ending index-linked wages, Lionel Jospin and Dominique Strauss-Kahn privatising public services, Gerhard Schröder axing unemployment benefit.
So be it. But what about the other left? Will it be content, at a time like this, to dust off its most unambitious projects, the serviceable but terribly timid plans for the Tobin tax, an increase in 
the minimum wage, a “new Bretton Woods Agreement”, wind farms? In the Keynesian era, the liberal right thought the unthinkable and took advantage of a major crisis to impose it. Friedrich Hayek, intellectual godfather of the movement that spawned Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, stated the case in 1949: “The main lesson which the true liberal must learn from the success of 
the socialists is that it was their courage to be 
Utopian which… is daily making possible what only 
recently seemed utterly remote.”

So will someone now call free trade into question, free trade which is the very heart of the system (1)? “Utopian”? But everything is possible when it comes to banks

Ref: Le Monde

The End of Neo-liberalism?

NEW YORK – The world has not been kind to neo-liberalism, that grab-bag of ideas based on the fundamentalist notion that markets are self-correcting, allocate resources efficiently, and serve the public interest well. It was this market fundamentalism that underlay Thatcherism, Reaganomics, and the so-called “Washington Consensus” in favor of privatization, liberalization, and independent central banks focusing single-mindedly on inflation.

For a quarter-century, there has been a contest among developing countries, and the losers are clear: countries that pursued neo-liberal policies not only lost the growth sweepstakes; when they did grow, the benefits accrued disproportionately to those at the top.

Though neo-liberals do not want to admit it, their ideology also failed another test. No one can claim that financial markets did a stellar job in allocating resources in the late 1990’s, with 97% of investments in fiber optics taking years to see any light. But at least that mistake had an unintended benefit: as costs of communication were driven down, India and China became more integrated into the global economy.

But it is hard to see such benefits to the massive misallocation of resources to housing. The newly constructed homes built for families that could not afford them get trashed and gutted as millions of families are forced out of their homes, in some communities, government has finally stepped in – to remove the remains. In others, the blight spreads. So even those who have been model citizens, borrowing prudently and maintaining their homes, now find that markets have driven down the value of their homes beyond their worst nightmares.

To be sure, there were some short-term benefits from the excess investment in real estate: some Americans (perhaps only for a few months) enjoyed the pleasures of home ownership and living in a bigger home than they otherwise would have. But at what a cost to themselves and the world economy! Millions will lose their life savings as they lose their homes. And the housing foreclosures have precipitated a global slowdown. There is an increasing consensus on the prognosis: this downturn will be prolonged and widespread.

Nor did markets prepare us well for soaring oil and food prices. Of course, neither sector is an example of free-market economics, but that is partly the point: free-market rhetoric has been used selectively – embraced when it serves special interests and discarded when it does not.

Perhaps one of the few virtues of George W. Bush’s administration is that the gap between rhetoric and reality is narrower than it was under Ronald Reagan. For all Reagan’s free-trade rhetoric, he freely imposed trade restrictions, including the notorious “voluntary” export restraints on automobiles.

Bush’s policies have been worse, but the extent to which he has openly served America’s military-industrial complex has been more naked. The only time that the Bush administration turned green was when it came to ethanol subsidies, whose environmental benefits are dubious. Distortions in the energy market (especially through the tax system) continue, and if Bush could have gotten away with it, matters would have been worse.

This mixture of free-market rhetoric and government intervention has worked particularly badly for developing countries. They were told to stop intervening in agriculture, thereby exposing their farmers to devastating competition from the United States and Europe. Their farmers might have been able to compete with American and European farmers, but they could not compete with US and European Union subsidies. Not surprisingly, investments in agriculture in developing countries faded, and a food gap widened.

Those who promulgated this mistaken advice do not have to worry about carrying malpractice insurance. The costs will be borne by those in developing countries, especially the poor. This year will see a large rise in poverty, especially if we measure it correctly.

Simply put, in a world of plenty, millions in the developing world still cannot afford the minimum nutritional requirements. In many countries, increases in food and energy prices will have a particularly devastating effect on the poor, because these items constitute a larger share of their expenditures.

The anger around the world is palpable. Speculators, not surprisingly, have borne more than a little of the wrath. The speculators argue: we are not the cause of the problem; we are simply engaged in “price discovery” – in other words, discovering – a little late to do much about the problem this year – that there is scarcity.

But that answer is disingenuous. Expectations of rising and volatile prices encourage hundreds of millions of farmers to take precautions. They might make more money if they hoard a little of their grain today and sell it later; and if they do not, they won’t be able to afford it if next year’s crop is smaller than hoped. A little grain taken off the market by hundreds of millions of farmers around the world adds up.

Defenders of market fundamentalism want to shift the blame from market failure to government failure. One senior Chinese official was quoted as saying that the problem was that the US government should have done more to help low-income Americans with their housing. I agree. But that does not change the facts: US banks mismanaged risk on a colossal scale, with global consequences, while those running these institutions have walked away with billions of dollars in compensation.

Today, there is a mismatch between social and private returns. Unless they are closely aligned, the market system cannot work well.

Neo-liberal market fundamentalism was always a political doctrine serving certain interests. It was never supported by economic theory. Nor, it should now be clear, is it supported by historical experience. Learning this lesson may be the silver lining in the cloud now hanging over the global economy.

Ref: Project syndicate by Joseph E. Stiglitz

Speculate to accumulate

he International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation promised that more trade would help to eradicate poverty and hunger. Foodcrops? Self-sufficiency in food? They had a better idea. Local farms would be closed down or encouraged to concentrate on exports. This would make the most, not of natural conditions which might be good for growing tomatoes in Mexico or pineapples in the Philippines, but of the fact that production costs are lower in Mexico and the Philippines than they are in Florida or California.

Farmers in Mali would rely on more highly mechanised, more productive producers in the Beauce or the Midwest for grain supplies. The farmers would pack up, move into town and get jobs in some western firm that had relocated to take advantage of cheaper labour than it could find at home. The countries on the East African seaboard would lighten their load of foreign debt by selling their fishing rights to the factory ships of wealthier countries. The Guineans would import tinned fish from Denmark or Portugal. Never mind the additional pollution generated by transporting all these goods. A life of bliss was guaranteed and so were the profits of the middlemen – wholesalers, shippers, insurers, advertisers.

The World Bank, prime promoter of this “development” model, now tells us that there may be food riots in 33 countries. And the WTO fears a resurgence of protectionism: some food-exporting countries – India, Vietnam, Egypt, Kazakhstan – have decided to reduce exports in order to feed their own people. What a nerve! The North is easily upset by other people’s selfishness. The Chinese eat too much meat, that’s why the Egyptians are short of wheat.

Some states have followed the World Bank and IMF advice and turned over their food crops. They can no longer keep their produce for themselves. Well, they will pay, that’s the law of the market. According to UN Food and Agriculture Organisation figures, their bill for grain imports has risen by a massive 56% in one year. Naturally the World Food Programme (WFP), which feeds 73 million people in 78 countries every year, is asking for a further $500m.

Someone must have decided this was excessive, as it got only half that amount. But the sum it sought was only what the war in Iraq costs every couple of hours, and a tiny fraction of what the sub-prime mortgage crisis will cost the banking sector, which has been bailed out by the state. To look at it another way, the WFP asked on behalf of millions of starving people for 13.5% of the sum earned last year by John Paulson, the astute hedge fund manager who realised that thousands of Americans are in negative equity and face ruin. No one knows how much the incipient famine will yield or who will reap the profits, but nothing is ever lost in a modern economy.

History repeats itself, one speculation after another. The Federal Reserve’s monetary policy encourages debt, first the internet bubble, now the real estate bubble. In 2006 the IMF was still saying there was “every indication the mechanisms for granting loans on the US property market were still relatively effective”. Market effective. Perhaps the two words should be welded together once and for all. The real estate bubble has burst. So the speculators are resurrecting an old eldorado: the grain markets. Purchasing contracts to deliver wheat or rice at a future date and counting on selling them at a higher price. And what ensures prices will keep on rising? Famine.

So what does the IMF do? The IMF, which has “the best economists in the world” according to its managing director, explains that “one way to solve the problem of famine is to increase international trade”. The poet Leo Ferré once said that “all you need to sell despair is the right formula”. It looks as though they’ve found it.

Ref: Le Monde

The US gas garrison

The Carter Doctrine, established 28 years ago, put the US military in service of assuring the nation’s regular supplies of imported oil. This has near-bankrupted the US and corrupted the military, yet left the US insecure in energy sources and globally loathed. The time has come to demote petroleum and stand down the troops.
By Michael T. Klare

American policymakers have long viewed the protection of overseas oil supplies as an essential matter of “national security”, requiring the threat of – and sometimes the use of – military force. This is now an unquestioned part of US foreign policy.

On this basis, the first Bush administration fought a war against Iraq in 1990-1991 and the second Bush administration invaded Iraq in 2003. With global oil prices soaring and oil reserves expected to dwindle in the years ahead, military force is sure to be seen by whatever new administration enters Washington in January 2009 as the ultimate guarantor of US well-being in the oil heartlands of the planet. But with the costs of militarised oil operations, in both blood and dollars, rising precipitously, isn’t it time to challenge such “wisdom”? Isn’t it time to ask whether the US military has anything reasonable to do with American energy security, and whether a reliance on military force, when it comes to energy policy, is practical, affordable or justifiable?

The association between “energy security” (as it’s now termed) and “national security” was established long ago. President Franklin D Roosevelt first forged this association way back in 1945, when he pledged to protect the Saudi Arabian royal family in return for privileged US access to Saudi oil. The relationship was given formal expression in 1980, when President Jimmy Carter told Congress that maintaining the uninterrupted flow of Persian Gulf oil was a “vital interest” of the US, and attempts by hostile nations to cut that flow would be countered “by any means necessary, including military force”.

To implement this “doctrine”, Carter ordered the creation of a Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force, specifically earmarked for combat operations in the Persian Gulf area. President Ronald Reagan later turned that force into a full-scale regional combat organisation, the US Central Command, or Centcom. Every president since Reagan has added to Centcom’s responsibilities, endowing it with additional bases, fleets, air squadrons and other assets. As the country has, more recently, come to rely on oil from the Caspian Sea basin and Africa, US military capabilities are being beefed up in those areas as well.

Global protection service
As a result, the US military has come to serve as a global oil protection service, guarding pipelines, refineries and loading facilities in the Middle East and elsewhere. According to one estimate, provided by the conservative National Defence Council Foundation, the “protection” of Persian Gulf oil alone costs the US Treasury $138bn per year – up from $49bn just before the invasion of Iraq.

For Democrats and Republicans alike, spending such sums to protect foreign oil supplies is now accepted as common wisdom, not worthy of serious discussion or debate. A typical example of this attitude can be found in an Independent Task Force Report on the “National Security Consequences of US Oil Dependency” released by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in October 2006.

Chaired by former secretary of defence, James R Schlesinger, and former CIA director, John Deutch, the CFR report concluded that the US military must continue to serve as a global oil protection service for the foreseeable future. “At least for the next two decades, the Persian Gulf will be vital to US interests in reliable oil supplies,” it noted. Accordingly, “the United States should expect and support a strong military posture that permits suitably rapid deployment to the region, if necessary”. Similarly, the report adds: “US naval protection of the sea-lanes that transport oil is of paramount importance.”

The Pentagon as Insecurity Inc
These views, widely shared, then and now, by senior figures in both major parties, dominate – or, more accurately, blanket – US strategic thinking. And yet the actual utility of military force as a means for ensuring energy security has yet to be demonstrated.

Keep in mind that, despite the deployment of up to 160,000 US troops in Iraq and the expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars, Iraq is a country in chaos and the department of defence (DoD) has been notoriously unable to prevent the recurring sabotage of oil pipelines and refineries by various insurgent groups and militias, not to mention the systematic looting of government supplies by senior oil officials supposedly loyal to the US-backed central government and often guarded (at great personal risk) by US soldiers. Five years after the US invasion, Iraq is only producing about 2.5m barrels of oil per day – about the same amount as in the worst days of Saddam Hussein back in 2001. Moreover, the New York Times reports that “at least one-third, and possibly much more, of the fuel from Iraq’s largest refinery is [being] diverted to the black market, according to American military officials” (1). Is this really conducive to US energy security?

The same disappointing results have been noted in other countries where US-backed militaries have attempted to protect vulnerable oil facilities. In Nigeria, for example, increased efforts by US-equipped government forces to crush rebels in the oil-rich Niger Delta region have merely inflamed the insurgency, while actually lowering national oil output. Meanwhile, the Nigerian military, like the Iraqi government (and assorted militias), has been accused of pilfering billions of dollars’ worth of crude oil and selling it on the black market.

In reality, the use of military force to protect foreign oil supplies is likely to create anything but security. It can, in fact, trigger violent “blowback” against the US. For example, the decision by President Bush senior to maintain an enormous, permanent US military presence in Saudi Arabia following Operation Desert Storm in Kuwait is now widely viewed as a major source of virulent anti-Americanism in the kingdom, and became a prime recruiting tool for Osama bin Laden in the months leading up to the 9/11 terror attacks.

“For over seven years,” Bin Laden proclaimed in 1998, “the United States has been occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places, the Arabian Peninsula, plundering its riches, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its people, terrorising its neighbours, and turning its bases in the peninsula into a spearhead through which to fight neighbouring Muslim peoples”. To repel this assault on the Muslim world, he thundered, it was “an individual duty for every Muslim” to “kill the Americans” and drive their armies “out of all the lands of Islam”.

Blowback in Iraq
As if to confirm the veracity of Bin Laden’s analysis of US intentions, the then secretary of defence, Donald Rumsfeld, flew to Saudi Arabia on 30 April 2003 to announce that the US bases there would no longer be needed due to the successful invasion of Iraq, then barely one month old. “It is now a safer region because of the change of regime in Iraq,” Rumsfeld declared. “The aircraft and those involved will now be able to leave.”

Even as he was speaking in Riyadh, however, a dangerous new case of blowback had erupted in Iraq: upon their entry into Baghdad, US forces seized and guarded the oil ministry headquarters while allowing schools, hospitals, and museums to be looted with impunity. Most Iraqis have since come to regard this decision, which insured that the rest of the city would be looted, as the ultimate expression of the Bush administration’s main motive for invading their country. They have viewed repeated White House claims of a commitment to human rights and democracy there as mere fig leaves that barely covered the urge to plunder Iraq’s oil. Nothing American officials have done since has succeeded in erasing this powerful impression, which continues to drive calls for a US withdrawal.

And these are but a few examples of the losses to US national security produced by a thoroughly militarised approach to energy security. Yet the premises of such a global policy continue to go unquestioned, even as US policymakers persist in relying on military force as their ultimate response to threats to the safe production and transportation of oil. In a kind of energy Catch-22, the continual militarising of energy policy only multiplies the threats that call such militarisation into being.

If anything, this spiral of militarised insecurity is worsening. Take the expanded US military presence in Africa – one of the few areas in the world expected to experience an increase in oil output in the years ahead.

Time to rethink
This year the Pentagon will activate the US Africa Command (Africom), its first new overseas combat command since Reagan created Centcom a quarter of a century ago. Although department of defence officials are loath to publicly acknowledge any direct relationship between Africom’s formation and a growing US reliance on that continent’s oil, they are less inhibited in private briefings. At a 19 February meeting at the National Defence University, Africom deputy commander Vice-Admiral Robert Moeller indicated that “oil disruption” in Nigeria and West Africa would constitute one of the primary challenges facing the new organisation.

Africom and similar extensions of the Carter Doctrine into new oil-producing regions are only likely to provoke fresh blowback, while bundling tens of billions of extra dollars every year into an already-bloated Pentagon budget. Sooner or later, if US policy doesn’t change, this price will be certain to include the loss of American lives, as more and more soldiers are exposed to hostile fire or explosives while protecting vulnerable oil installations in areas torn by ethnic, religious, and sectarian strife.

Why pay such a price? Given the all-but-unavoidable evidence of just how ineffective military force has been when it comes to protecting oil supplies, isn’t it time to rethink Washington’s reigning assumptions regarding the relationship between energy security and national security? After all, other than George Bush and Dick Cheney, who would claim that, more than five years after the invasion of Iraq, either the US or its supply of oil is actually safer?

Creating real energy security
The reality of the US’s increasing reliance on foreign oil only strengthens the conviction in Washington that military force and energy security are inseparable twins. With nearly two-thirds of the country’s daily oil intake imported – and that percentage still going up – it’s hard not to notice that significant amounts of our oil now come from conflict-prone areas of the Middle East, central Asia and Africa. So long as this is the case, US policymakers will instinctively look to the military to ensure the safe delivery of crude oil. It evidently matters little that the use of military force, especially in the Middle East, has surely made the energy situation less stable and less dependable, while fuelling anti-Americanism.

This is, of course, not the definition of “energy security” but its opposite. A viable long-term approach to actual energy security would not favour one particular source of energy above all others, or regularly expose American soldiers to a heightened risk of harm and American taxpayers to a heightened risk of bankruptcy. Rather, a US energy policy that made sense would embrace a holistic approach to energy procurement, weighing the relative merits of all potential sources of energy.

It would naturally favour the development of domestic, renewable sources of energy that do not degrade the environment or imperil other national interests. At the same time, it would favour a thorough-going programme of energy conservation of a sort notably absent these last two decades – one that would help cut reliance on foreign energy sources in the near future and slow the atmospheric build-up of climate-altering greenhouse gases.

Petroleum would continue to play a significant role in any such approach. Oil retains considerable appeal as a source of transportation energy (especially for aircraft) and as a feedstock for many chemical products. But given the right investment and research policies – and the will to apply something other than force to energy supply issues – oil’s historic role as the world’s paramount fuel could relatively quickly draw to a close. It would be especially important that American policymakers do not prolong this role artificially by, as has been the case for decades, subsidising major US oil firms or, more recently, spending $138bn a year on the protection of foreign oil deliveries. These funds would instead be redirected to the promotion of energy efficiency and especially the development of domestic sources of energy.

Some policymakers who agree on the need to develop alternatives to imported energy insist that such an approach should begin with oil extraction in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and other protected wilderness areas. Even while acknowledging that such drilling would not substantially reduce US reliance on foreign oil, they nevertheless insist that it’s essential to make every conceivable effort to substitute domestic oil supplies for imports in the nation’s total energy supply. But this argument ignores the fact that oil’s day is drawing to a close, and that any effort to prolong its duration only complicates the inevitable transition to a post-petroleum economy.

A more fruitful approach
A far more fruitful approach, better designed to promote US self-sufficiency and technological vigour in the intensely competitive world of the mid-21st century, would emphasise the use of domestic ingenuity and entrepreneurial skills to maximise the potential of renewable energy sources, including solar, wind, geothermal and wave power. The same skills should also be applied to developing methods for producing ethanol from non-food plant matter (cellulosic ethanol), for using coal without releasing carbon into the atmosphere (via carbon capture and storage, or CCS), for miniaturising hydrogen fuel cells, and for massively increasing the energy efficiency of vehicles, buildings, and industrial processes.

All of these energy systems show great promise, and so should be accorded the increased support and investment they will need to move from the marginal role they now play to a dominant role in US energy generation. At this point, it is not possible to determine precisely which of them (or which combination among them) will be best positioned to transition from small to large-scale commercial development. As a result, all of them should be initially given enough support to test their capacity to make this move.

In applying this general rule, however, priority clearly should be given to new forms of transport fuel. It is here that oil has long been king, and here that oil’s decline will be most harshly felt. It is thanks to this that calls for military intervention to secure additional supplies of crude are only likely to grow. So emphasis should be given to the rapid development of biofuels, coal-to-liquid fuels (with the carbon extracted via CCS), hydrogen, or battery power, and other innovative means of fuelling vehicles. At the same time, it’s obvious that putting some of our military budget into funding a massive increase in public transit would be the height of national sanity.

An approach of this sort would enhance national security on multiple levels. It would increase the reliable supply of fuels, promote economic growth at home (rather than sending a flood of dollars into the coffers of unreliable petro-regimes abroad), and diminish the risk of recurring US involvement in foreign oil wars. No other approach – certainly not the present traditional, unquestioned, unchallenged reliance on military force – can make this claim. It’s well past time to stop garrisoning the global gas station.

Ref: Le Monde
Michael T Klare is professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and author of several books on energy politics including Blood and Oil, Henry Holt, New York, 2005 and most recently Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet: The New Geopolitics of Energy, Henry Holt, 2008