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Go Back: Home > Earth Island Journal > Issues > Spring 2002 > A Response to Terror

A Response to Terror

Defeat Terrorism: Abandon Oil

Terrorism, vengeance and the clean energy alternative

In the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, George W. Bush declared that America had been targeted "because we're the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world." Maybe there's another reason.

In his February 23, 1998 call for a "Jihad against the Crusaders," Saudi Arabian millionaire Osama bin Laden argued that it was a religious duty "to kill the Americans and their allies – civilians and military" to force US soldiers "out of all the lands of Islam." He cited "three facts that are known to everyone."

  • Bin Laden wrote bitterly of King Fahd's decision to invite thousands of US soldiers to establish a stronghold inside Saudi Arabia, the homeland of the holy Islamic City of Mecca. "[F]or more than seven years," bin Laden wrote, "the US has been occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places..., plundering its riches, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its people, terrorizing its neighbors, and turning its bases... into a spearhead through which to fight the neighboring Muslim peoples."
  • Bin Laden also railed against the US's "continuing aggression against the Iraqi people... despite the huge number of those killed, in excess of one million."
  • Finally, he proclaimed that the real "aims behind these [US Middle East] wars are religious and economic," designed to "divert attention from [the] occupation of Jerusalem and murder of Muslims [in Palestine]."

In the aftermath of the September attacks, Reuters, the BBC and the Associated Press monitored public reaction throughout the Middle East in search of an answer to the question "Why was the US attacked?" The same three points came up repeatedly – Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Israel/Palestine. The consistency of these complaints should draw our attention.

A Government's First Duty Writing in response to bin Laden's 1998 fatwa, Ivan Eland, the Cato Institute's director of defense-policy studies, argued that the first goal of any nation's security policy should be "to protect citizens and property."

Eland noted that, "One of three terrorist attacks worldwide is directed against a US target. And that's not because the US is a rich capitalist nation. No, terrorists attack the US primarily for what it does, not what it is.... Because terrorist attacks are extremely difficult to prevent," Eland concluded, "the administration needs to concentrate its efforts on minimizing the motivation for such attacks in the first place.... Americans should not have to live in fear of terrorism just so Washington's foreign policy elite can attempt to achieve amorphous and ephemeral gains on the world chessboard."

Instead of taking the civilized course of tracking down the guilty parties and trying them before a world tribunal (as was the case in the Lockerbie airline bombing, the first World Trade Center bombing and the Beirut Marine barracks bombing), the Bush administration launched a massive aerial bombardment against Afghanistan. Such a response threatens to unleash the kind of endless escalation that Eland feared.

The bombs, which initially were intended to destroy Afghan air defenses and assassinate the Taliban's leaders, soon wound up destroying Red Cross humanitarian warehouses, hospitals and homes. The sympathy that the world expressed for the US in September began to wane with the first photos of Afghan children whose bodies had been torn apart by cluster bombs. An investigation by University of New Hampshire Economics Professor Marc W. Herold produced a shocking discovery: In the first 61 days of the US attacks, 3,767 Afghan civilians were reported killed by US bombs – a death toll that exceeded the revised estimates of the 3,300 civilians killed in the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. [For the latest civilian death toll in the Afghan war, see: http://pubpages.unh.edu/~mwherold.]

The military tactic of "massive retaliation" may not be an effective response to acts of terrorism. Israel provides a gruesome test-case. "If we have learned anything from Israel's treatment of the Palestinians," observes attorney Adam Gutride of A Jewish Voice for Peace, "it is that terrorism cannot be ended through retaliation, occupation or militarism."

A Foreign Policy Based on Oil As John Bacher details in his article "Petrotyranny" [see this edition of the EIJ], there is one factor that links US foreign policy to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and a rogue's gallery of repressive regimes, dictators, juntas and despots around the world. The glue that binds nearly every one of these unsavory alliances is the same: oil.

Our foreign policy is captive to oil. The Pentagon runs on oil. Our position as a superpower is dependent on oil. The US has 200,000 troops stationed in 40 other countries, mostly deployed to secure our access to foreign oil. As Tom Cutler, the former head of NATO's Petroleum Planning Committee, observed in the Armed Forces Journal International, the military's primary objective is not to maintain peace or safeguard liberty, but "to ensure adequate oil supplies for the national defense."

As author Barbara Kingsolver observed: "In the Persian Gulf War, we rushed to the aid of Kuwait, a monarchy in which women enjoyed approximately the same rights as a 19th-century American slave. The values we fought for and won there are best understood, I think, by oil companies."

As the Worldwatch Institute notes, the Pentagon is the world's largest oil consumer, burning "enough energy in 12 months to run the entire US urban mass transit system for almost 14 years." In peacetime, the US military consumes more than 150 million tons of oil annually.

Oil supplies approximately 34 percent of the world's energy needs but 79 percent of the Pentagon's energy. A US aircraft carrier burns 5,628 gallons per hour while a B-52 bomber swallows 3,612 gallons per hour. At full throttle, an M-1 Abrams tank burns through 252 gallons of fuel per hour while an F-15 on afterburners can torch 240 gallons per minute.

Like the weapons industry, the petroleum industry prospers on the revenue of conflict. Many members of the Bush administration were drawn from the ranks of the petroleum industry and the military-industrial elite. Dick Cheney's former employer, Halliburton, not only builds oil pipelines around the world, it also provides security for 150 far-flung embassies, supplies housekeeping services for US armed forces abroad and has recently begun offering teams of "privatized soldiers" to pump up the ranks of foreign armies.

A Green Response to Conflict If the US economy were redirected to run on clean, renewable energy, we would not only be on the path to mitigating climate change, we would also be on the path to eliminating one of the major causes of terrorism. With towns, factories and homes powered by solar, wind and geothermal energy, no one country could dominate the world's energy-based economies.

Encouraging Americans to buy new automobiles to "keep America rolling" economically only encourages further oil dependence. The best way to counter Osama bin Laden is to reduce – or eliminate – the consumption of polluting petroleum fuels. As Yossef Bodansky, director of the Congressional Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare, pointed out, bin Laden's funding comes from two main sources: Afghanistan's opium trade and $400 million in annual contributions from wealthy patrons in Saudi Arabia and other oil-producing states.

Energy conservation, fuel-efficient engines and renewable-energy technologies are already available. Unfortunately, no US government is likely to adopt this solution as long as oil money dominates the political landscape. Even with Al Gore in the White House, the US still might not have moved to relinquish its oil-based foreign policy since, to do so, would require the US to give up its position as the world's sole superpower. It is our control of oil supplies and the threat of our oil-powered military might that largely define the US as a superpower.

A New Economy from the Old? Some economists have predicted that the economic repercussions of the September 11 attacks may signal the "end of globalization." While the part of the global economy represented by travel, finance and consumer goods may be facing collapse, the arms industry, surveillance services and the personal protection sector – all dominated by US companies - stand to prosper from war and from the fear and repression that it can unleash.

Attorney General John Ashcroft has used the terrorist assault to launch an attack on American citizens' civil freedoms. Calling October's anti-terrorism legislation the "Patriot Act" does nothing to conceal the fact that it marks one of the gravest attacks on civil liberties in our nation's history. The FBI has proposed that the US might wish to adopt torture as an investigative tool.

A New Foreign Policy Former New York Governor Mario Cuomo has joined the call for a "new foreign policy" that addresses the root causes of terrorism. Cuomo has challenged America to fight terrorism by responding to unmet human needs and to counter the "quiet tragedies" of injustice, poverty, hunger, inadequate healthcare and education that plague our world.

In an editorial essay penned one month before the September attacks, historian and author Chalmers Johnson noted with regret that the US, "as the lone surviving superpower, could have led through diplomacy and judiciously distributed foreign aid.... Instead, it has resorted most of the time to bluster, military force and financial manipulation.... American leaders believe that they are above the very concept of international law – unless defined and controlled by them.... History suggests that this country is riding for a big fall."

It is time to move to a world beyond oil, beyond repression and beyond superpowers. By demanding an economy based on clean, free renewable energy, we can replace our current outmoded foreign policy - based on military force, overseas bases, economic intimidation and political unilateralism – with a foreign policy based on human rights, social justice and environmental security.

While struggling to protect our freedoms at home, we must become actively involved in the debate over a new foreign policy. We need to campaign to stop the suffering of the innocent civilian population in Iraq. We need to call for the withdrawal of troops from Saudi Arabia and other countries where they are not welcome. We need to become more involved in finding solutions to the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Bush, Cheney and Ashcroft have given Americans a choice: Are we prepared to sacrifice our freedoms for our foreign policy? Unfortunately, too many Americans appear all too willing to make that trade.

We must challenge the White House agenda, with its promise of endless war, more terrorist attacks and the steady erosion of our civil freedoms. A new world is possible, but we will now have to work harder to bring it about.

   

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