Tuesday 31 May 2005

Oil Conspiracy Theory (UPI)

M.D. Nalapat
MANIPUR, India, May 31 (UPI) -- Nature and the "street" both abhor a vacuum, and even after Sept. 11, 2001, it is those active in the "War of Revenge Against the Crusades" who are more adept at crafting tales designed to link the United States with the unemployment, rage and perception of helplessness that provides recruits to the jihad.
While conspiracy theories that seek to "prove" that the United States -- together with those familiar villains, the "Zionists" -- is engaged in a war against Islam, thus far such street gossip has permeated only the Muslim countries, principally Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan. The rest of the world has not been infected with this virus.
Indeed, a case can be made that the United States is more popular today in the poorer parts of the globe than it is in Europe. Unlike the period from the 1950s to the 1980s, when the United States was the target of the resentments and insecurities felt by those recently freed from colonization, from the time cable television spread in the mid-1980s,"street" perceptions of the United States outside the Muslim world have improved steadily. In the words of Jairam Ramesh, an Indian economist, while the cry may still be "Yankee, go home!", to this is added, "but take me with you."
For a superpower, the United States has been demonstrably inept in factoring in psychological attitudes and reflexes in countries visited by U.S. "experts" only in the safety of air-conditioned hotel and conference rooms. Thus, in Iraq the United States appointed an American "administrator" and Iraqi "advisers," when common sense would have indicated that it ought to have been the other way around.

After the hapless Paul Bremer (who would have regarded Bulgaria as unfamiliar, so acculturated was he in the Western European tradition only), Washington chose the individual most associated in the minds of the Iraqis with the sanctions that they hated, John Negroponte, who had -- as U.S. envoy to the United Nations -- helped ensure that the population of Iraq was made to pay a horrible price for having "tolerated" the Saddam dictatorship.

It is now the turn of Zalmay Khalilzad, who as an ethnic Afghan generates only the supercilious contempt of an Iraqi people proud both of their Arab heritage (the same which brought forth Prophet Mohammed) and the antiquity of their country. Try as he will, Khalilzad will not be able to escape this handicap.
The Muslim world, far from being won over, is being lost with each passing week. Ironically, the more democratic a country, the more will its governing group seek to distance itself from the United States. In such a situation, recreating the "Ugly American" mood of the past in countries such as Indonesia, India and Kenya would be a massive geopolitical setback. Yet this is the creeping effect of a conspiracy theory that is slowly permeating into the minds of ordinary people in these countries, in particular the middle and aspiring classes that should be the natural allies of Washington.
The theory is not new and has been expressed before in bits and pieces. It is that the war in Iraq was launched by President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney solely in order to drive up the price of oil to its current range of around $50 a barrel. Thanks to this windfall, while the average taxpayer in the United States has been hit by higher oil prices, the "friends" of Bush and Cheney (including the Saudi royals, who are regarded in the "street" as being family to the first and second families of the United States) have made in profits and increased revenue several times the cost of the war.
According to the theory, the present occupation of Iraq is done precisely because both Bush and Cheney are aware that a ubiquitous U.S. military presence would infuriate the nationalistic Iraqis and ensure that all efforts at restarting oil production in Iraq to pre-1990 levels fail. According to the purveyors of this story, the forced taking away of Iraqi oil from international markets was done in order to "repay" the Saudis, the Kuwaitis and others -- including several powerful individuals in the United States and their friends -- through high oil prices.
It was to create an excuse for denying Iraq the right to pump oil that Saddam Hussein was deliberately allowed to retreat to Baghdad unharmed and subsequently strengthened by U.S. "connivance" in his suppression of the Shias and the Kurds. As for the sanctions, their main aim was to degrade Iraq's ability to export oil.
According to this theory, Britain was an enthusiastic partner of the United States in both of the anti-Saddam wars (and in the subsequent occupation of Iraq) because the country is among the biggest beneficiaries of higher oil prices. "What Tony Blair spent in Iraq, he has got back many times by the present price of oil", goes the refrain. They point to the fact that crude oil futures have risen to $50 a barrel from the March 2003 level of $26 a barrel.
Now comes the best part. Evidently, neither Bush nor Cheney are satisfied at the gouging that is being inflicted on consumers worldwide by steep oil prices. They want to see oil prices rise to $100 a barrel, and this way they calculate that China (regarded by the jihadis as an ally, despite Han-Muslim tensions in Xinjiang) will implode, and this threat to U.S. domination will disappear.
The method that Bush and Cheney have chosen to send oil prices to the $100-per-barrel level is an invasion of Iran, and the planned withdrawal of that country's production from the world's oil markets. After around three to five years of such ruinous prices, the United States (and its partner in crime, Britain) would demolish any competition for its current spot as the top economic power internationally. And thus, it is not Iran's Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who is responsible for the angry sounds from the White House, nor those Iranian nuclear assets, but the target of stratospheric oil prices. Prices that would, in the words of India's Finance Minister P. Chidambaram, impoverish the developing world.
If Bush does seek to invade Iran, or continue the occupation of Iraq, he will need to work out a way that can get oil prices back to below $30 a barrel. Otherwise, the anger now felt by the Muslim world toward the United States will be fused with that felt by peoples angered at the effect that high oil prices are having on their lives. The best way to fight this conspiracy theory is to prove it wrong.
-(M D Nalapat is professor of geopolitics at the Manipal Academy of Higher Education.)

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