Lost in Petroleum


Michele Solmi

by Steve A. Yetiv

On November 7, 1973, Richard Nixon called for major proposals to deal with the energy crisis caused by the 1973 Arab oil embargo and for a grand national undertaking which, “by the end of the decade” would allow the United States to “have developed the potential to meet our own energy needs without depending on any foreign energy source.” Virtually every other American president in recent memory has called for a major project for reducing American oil dependence: Gerald Ford followed in Nixon’s line of thinking, calling in January 1975 for a grand, ten-year plan to decrease oil dependence, and Jimmy Carter made such thinking yet more famous, calling oil dependence one of the greatest threats to American security, and asserting that his energy program was the “moral equivalent of war.” Subsequent presidents have echoed these ambitions, and though the administrations of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and especially the latter, have made some strides in developing a comprehensive energy policy, it remains elusive.

 The Petroleum Triangle tells the story of the links between oil, globalization and terrorism. Although it is not akin to the famous Bermuda Triangle, one could still say metaphorically that we are somewhat more lost in the petroleum triangle than is good for American or global welfare. It is critical to understand the connections between oil, globalization and terrorism if we seek to comprehend modern global politics. What happens within the Petroleum Triangle will help to determine if the death of Osama bin Laden will ultimately cripple Al-Qaeda and its affiliates, or be yet another milestone in an ongoing age of terrorism, and it will shape myriad other dimensions of world politics in the 21st century.

The story of oil, globalization and terrorism is a story in which powerful presidents from Jimmy Carter to George W. Bush have been tarnished; in which dictators from the Shah of Iran to Saddam Hussein have fallen; in which countries have been impacted significantly by the effects and allure of oil wealth; and in which citizens and soldiers have been killed by the thousands in wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan. This story has played out not in some isolated area of the globe as was often the case in previous centuries, but in front of an international audience that is connected by the many sinews, pathways and influences of the globalized world.

Yet there is a crucial primary puzzle within this triangle: how did such a small band of terrorists become such a real and perceived threat to global security? I stress the difference between a “real” and “perceived” threat, because Al-Qaeda (and its affiliates) has become both a real threat based on its actual capabilities to do harm, and a perceived threat based on the fear that it has sowed, up and beyond its real capabilities. This real and perceived threat of Al-Qaeda was viewed as profound enough to motivate the strongest power in world history to declare war on terror, to send tens of thousands of troops abroad in order to try to destroy it, and to create a worldwide alliance to defeat it at the cost of trillions of dollars.

Based on my extensive research and findings, I believe that Middle East oil revenues and globalization have fundamentally overlapped in terms of eras (rising over roughly the same period of time from the 1950s to the present) and have combined to augment the real and perceived threat of transnational terrorism. Together, Middle East oil and globalization have combined in various ways to help create Al-Qaeda’s real and perceived threat, and that of its affiliates and offshoots. The combined effect has shaped important contours of the Petroleum Triangle and of world affairs. In a nutshell: while Middle Eastern oil has fueled terrorism, globalization has provided terrorists with the global highways and side roads in which to traverse.

Middle East oil has fueled terrorism by helping to fund the terrorist infrastructure. It has also offered the political conditions, such as the perceived American efforts to steal or control Persian Gulf oil and resentments against the oil-rich Saudi royal family, that have helped to fertilize Al-Qaeda, that have fermented the anti-Americanism from which Al-Qaeda benefits, and that have helped Al-Qaeda recruit followers and gain sympathy in some quarters.

Meanwhile, globalization has been critical for the penetration of states by terrorists; for easing international travel, for exploiting modern technologies at lower cost than would have been the case otherwise, and for easing fundraising and the flow of terrorist capital. In some ways, globalization has also heightened the perceived threat of terrorism via international communications and media, which have reported on the terrorist threat extensively and have sometimes arguably given Al-Qaeda a platform for communicating its views and amplifying its threat. The pathways and sideroads of the interconnected web of world politics have also sometimes made it easier for Al-Qaeda operatives to elude detection and the wide net of American power.

Put together the effects of oil and globalization have produced a noxious mix that has contributed to Al-Qaeda’s real and perceived threat. I offer a few arguments below that can provide a taste of how this has happened. By “combined effects,” I mean two things: first, Middle Eastern oil revenues have produced effects that have augmented the effects of globalization and vice versa. And, second, Middle Eastern oil and globalization have not only reinforced each other but have produced some new effects that probably neither could have produced alone. Both types of combined effects, in turn, have contributed to Al-Qaeda’s real and perceived threat.

First, oil money has contributed to the creation and sustenance of both Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, which has provided Al-Qaeda with a safe haven in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, globalization helped the jihadis in the Afghan resistance to launch Al-Qaeda as a global organization, to make their nascent transnational force viable. Globalization became the bridge from Afghanistan to the world stage that the organization needed in order to function at long distances.

Second, although Middle Eastern oil revenues enabled industrialization, but it has also helped preserve the cultural status quo. At the same time, globalization has engendered pressures for change against this status quo. The tension between these two forces is a deep fault line in many oil-rich states, contributing to social and economic dislocation and quite probably to the types of sentiments that either generate or can be exploited by terrorists.

Third, while oil contributes to the infrastructure of and motivation for terrorism, global communications have facilitated terrorism and helped spread fear. Globalization is characterized by a web of communications, which have created a plethora of vital links among societies. In previous eras, the 9/11 attacks, or any of Al-Qaeda’s rhetoric, could not have been communicated worldwide in so dramatic a form. Global communications have served Al-Qaeda by spreading fear, aggrandizing it as a terrorist organization, spreading its radical message, and aiding in recruitment. It has helped Al-Qaeda project a threat that may well exceed actuality, thus enhancing its notoriety. Working in combination, Middle Eastern oil and globalization have also contributed to a negative narrative about America and oil. Oil issues have fed anti-Americanism. Global communications have spread this negative narrative. The communications revolution has created the potential for Al-Qaeda, which would otherwise be hamstrung, to create rifts between Muslims and the West.

Finally, the oil and globalization eras have combined to make terrorist attacks more dangerous once they occur. Globalization has created interconnections in economic markets and other arenas. These interconnections, in turn, offer vulnerable nodes for terrorist attack and can augment the terrorist threat. For instance, in earlier eras, the September 11 attacks might have been less of a seismic event, but in 2001 the terrorists had hit on one of the key nerves of a globalized world.

Overall, the fate of Al-Qaeda, its affiliates and transnational terrorism in the twenty-first century is impossible to predict. A race is on between the factors that embolden and strengthen Al-Qaeda and its affiliates and those that sap their energies and weaken them. Although Al-Qaeda has certainly been diminished by various developments in recent years, including the death of Bin Laden, it may take years or even decades before we know the ultimate outcome of this race. What occurs in the Petroleum Triangle may well shape important contours of this unfolding tale.

About the Author:

Steve A. Yetiv is Professor of Political Science at Old Dominion University. His research explores American foreign policy and decision making toward the Middle East, global energy, globalization, and theories of foreign policy and international relations. He is the author of The Petroleum Triangle: Oil, Globalization, and Terror