During a debate in Portland on energy issues last week, Republican Senate candidate Charlie Summers kept bringing up an inconvenient truth.
I’m not talking about mankind’s responsibility for global warming. He doesn’t even think that’s a truth, much less something that should inconvenience anybody. Summers, a Naval reservist who’s served in Iraq and Afghanistan, is more concerned about the hell of war than the hell on earth unchecked climate change is predicted to unleash.
On three separate occasions during the energy debate, Summers asserted that when we buy oil from the Middle East, we are effectively “paying the people that we are fighting against.”
This is not only “inherently wrong,” he said, it’s “morally wrong.” Ipso facto: “we have a moral obligation to look at every energy resource opportunity that we have,” including nuclear power, “clean coal,” and the oil beneath the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
I emailed Summers’ campaign requesting clarification — which Middle Eastern countries was he referring to, and in what ways are they “fighting” us? I got no response, but a little research unearthed a lot of clues.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, 22 percent of the oil and other petroleum products we imported last year came from countries in the Persian Gulf, including Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. Saudi Arabia pumped more crude bound for our shores than all its Gulf neighbors combined.
As revealed in diplomatic documents released by WikiLeaks two years ago, the State Department thinks our oil-rich allies in the Gulf are doing next to nothing to stem the flow of money to terrorist groups in the region. And Saudi Arabia leads the pack in this respect, too. In a classified 2009 memo declassified by WikiLeaks, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote, “donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.”
This is not news. A lengthy investigation 10 years ago by U.S. News & World Report concluded that since the late 1970s, Saudi Arabia has been “the single greatest force in spreading Islamic fundamentalism, while its huge, unregulated charities funneled hundreds of millions of dollars to jihad groups and al-Qaida cells around the world.”
We don’t import Iranian oil, and we’re not technically “fighting” them (yet), so I don’t think Summers was referring to the Iranians. No, he was essentially calling our allies in the region — the Saudis chief among them — our enemies.
That also explains Summers’ reluctance to be specific. It’s not diplomatic for senators to publicly accuse our friends of bankrolling our foes with Americans’ hard-earned money. And to do so begs us to question other decisions, like Congress’ approval of a $60 billion arms deal for the Saudis two years ago, including $30 billion worth of F-15 fighter jets that President Barack Obama signed off on last December.
Summers’ remarks bring up a broader issue. The Middle East is a nest of vipers in a tinderbox, and by pouring arms and dollars into the region, American policy over the past several decades has only made the situation more volatile. We’ve turned a blind eye when the oppressive, autocratic regime in Saudi Arabia allowed funds to flow to groups whose objectives further our interests (like the mujahideen in Afghanistan and rebels fighting the Russians in Chechnya, or, more recently, forces opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad). Then, when the extremists we’ve supported inevitably turn on us, we’re compelled to spill more blood and spend more treasure to maintain the stability necessary to keep the oil spigots on.
So Summers is right that we should stop paying these people for oil, but he’s wrong in saying the answer is to increase extraction of polluting fuels in our country.
U.S. oil imports had actually been falling, in tandem with declining oil consumption, since the recession kicked in four years ago. However, since last summer, imports of black gold from Saudi Arabia have risen by 20 percent, driven by factors like the drilling moratorium in our gulf that followed the disastrous and hugely expensive BP oil spill. More domestic oil drilling is clearly not the solution.
The time and money it would take to replace Middle Eastern oil with domestic fuel would be better spent increasing energy conservation and the development of renewable energy sources. In the meantime, an American policy dedicated to fostering democracy and modernization in the Middle East, rather than propping up repressive kings and dictators, would defuse the anger that motivates attacks against Americans in the first place.
That’s what I call a moral obligation.
Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. His column appears here weekly.