A clear case of U.S. impotence

It’s August 2009, oil prices have topped 150 dollars a barrel and a secret uranium plant has been detected in Iran.

Tehran and Caracas are slashing oil exports by 700,000 barrels to punish the West for sanctions, and the US military is ready to move its entire Pacific fleet into the Middle East to counter threats.

It may be tomorrow’s headlines, but on Thursday a high-powered panel of Washington insiders acting as the US president’s national security council found they would face almost impossible choices and be powerless in such a case, baring the United States’ growing inability to lead in global crises.

“In this kind of hostile environment (Iran and Iraq) would have the upper hand,” said Gene Sperling, former president Bill Clinton’s national economic adviser, who played the treasury secretary in the exercise.

It “would make us look impotent,” he added.

“This scenario could start tomorrow,” said retired general John Abizaid, the former US Central Command chief.

Put on by the Securing America’s Future Energy and the Bipartisan Policy Center, the unscripted one-day simulation sought to emphasize the danger of the extremely narrow gap between world oil production capacity and demand, and the heavy US dependence on oil imports.

But it exposed the strained US military’s incapacity to project its power over multiple regions, and the ability of even small countries to provoke a world political and economic crisis.

To play a White House team reacting to the news in real time, SAFE brought together nine former top presidential advisors and officials with intimate knowledge of national security affairs.

The “council” included former treasury secretary Robert Rubin playing the president’s national security advisor, former deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage as secretary of state, former navy secretary John Lehman as secretary of defense, and former national security council official Philip Zelikow as national intelligence director.

The scenario they woke up to on May 4, 2009 was the loss to world markets of one million barrels a day in oil supplies when saboteurs in Azerbaijan caused the shutdown of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline.

The action heightened geopolitical tensions in the region and sent oil prices from the mid-90 dollar range to 115 dollars a barrel.

With the stock markets plummeting, the council has to advise the president what to say and do, and finds its hands tied by the strains of the Iraq war and by domestic politics.

“Energy Secretary” Carol Browner — head of the US Environmental Protection Agency in the 1990s — says the president can release oil from the strategic reserve to alleviate gasoline prices, or call for conservation with lower speed limits, a Sunday driving ban, and other measures.

Looking at possible Russian or Iran involvement in the Azerbaijan blast, “joint chiefs chairman” Abizaid says the strategic reserve has to be kept for military needs.

Others say the public and Congress would not accept forced conservation.

With no information on who made the Azerbaijan attack — Armenians? pro-Russian elements? Iran? — the defense and intelligence officials say they have to be on alert but do not know what else to do.

“Our ability to project power into this area is very limited. We are strung out all over the globe,” said Lehman, noting that the military hasn’t begun to rebuild after years in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Rubin points out that with global production capacity almost maxed out, there is little possibility of replacing the lost oil flow.

“It shows how weak our hand is,” he says, as the group falters on urging the president to do more than assuage US consumers.

Three months later, the situation has drastically worsened. A secret uranium enrichment plant was discovered in Iran, confirming its nuclear weapon ambitions; oil production in Nigeria has been curtailed by rebel attacks.

As the council meets, Iran has just replied to threatened new Western sanctions by cutting back its oil production and Venezuela follows suit, sending prices past 150 dollars.

The president’s advisors say there are no short-term measures to soften the economic or political blow. They also admit sanctions on Iran have little effect, that high oil prices and short supply actually encourage producer cutbacks.

Militarily, with Israel threatening to take action on Iran itself, the Pentagon says the US has to project force in the region. But doing so means moving the entire Pacific fleet to the Middle East, ceding power in the Pacific — and Taiwan — to China.

After years following the 9/11 attacks of not demanding sacrifice of its people, the new crisis has brought things to a head, Lehman said, as he suggests restarting the draft.

“We are facing a mortal threat to our way of life here,” he said.


  1. CheckerboardStrangler

    Threat to our “way of life”??
    A way of life where people “refuse to accept forced conservation”? Hell, the people refuse to accept ANY FORM of conservation whatsoever!
    Furthermore the oil and auto industries, coddled by the government, make it IMPOSSIBLE for those who DO TRY.
    Witness heavy fines for anyone who attempts to use homemade biodiesel, witness the steadfast refusal of state and federal governments to adopt what is essentially a paperwork change to accept the Euro4 diesel standards so that thousands of Euro smart diesel options can be introduced into the American car and light truck market.
    Witness the refusal to quickly implement plug in electric hybrids, and the sluggish move on forwarding solar electric.
    Witness a country that doesn’t implement mandatory switchover to CF light bulbs!!!
    Witness a fat, lazy country that insists on maintaining a lifestyle of exurbian commutes in gigantic tank style vehicles weighing in excess of six thousand pounds in order to haul a solitary two hundred pound ass to work and play at less than fifteen miles per gallon.
    Witness sixty years of ignoring everyone from
    Admiral Rickover to Eisenhower to Carter, all warning us of our steadily increasing dependence on foreign oil and the military industrial complex to prop up a corporatist fascist autocracy and a fiat currency.

    Know what I say? Fuck em, that’s what I say, gasoline at fifteen dollars a gallon tomorrow, that’s what I say.
    Mortal threat my rosy red ass, the American way of life isn’t “non-negotiable”, it’s pure folly.

  2. Kim Scipes

    I totally agree with Checkerboard Str and his comments about “threat to our way of life.”

    But I disagree with “fuck ’em.” It’s not a very helpful approach. For better or worse, I don’t want to get into that place.

    The larger, overwhelming issue here is the US’ unwillingness to vastly reduce our consumption of all kinds of unnecessary crap–and our “leaderships” (Republicans AND Democrats) willing to send every one of our kids all over the world to kill for our right to consume–and destroy the planet.

    The reality is that Americans are the most wasteful people on the planet: if everyone in the world consumed at the rate of the average American, we would need 11 more planet Earths! We’re much worse than the Western Europeans even, who are themselves quite wasteful–for everyone to live at their consumption level, we’d need 3 more planet Earths.

    The fact is that our consumption level is powered by fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas) that are non-renewable, and are overwhelming contributors to climate change (often referred to as “global warming,” which IS true overall, but in some areas the temperatures are going down, while in someplaces it is going up). Climate change IS happening, and IS because of human beings.

    The consumption of fossil fuels is causing carbon dioxide (CO2) to change the chemistry of the atmosphere, trapping gasses inside the atmosphere, raising the overall temperature of the earth. IF the Earth warms more–and the best thinking today is more than 2 degrees Centigrade above what it was before the industrial revolution began in 1750, with 450 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere (we’re at 382 ppm currently)–then the temperature will have risen so much as to melt the permafrost across Russia and Canada, releasing massive amounts of methane gasses into the atmosphere. Methane is something like 3,000 times more detrimental to the atmosphere than CO2–if this happens, then climate change is completely out of humans’ control. (Al Gore, who many despise for being a ‘liberal’ is actually quite conservative on this–he doesn’t even mention methane in “An Inconvenient Truth”!)

    So, it seems obvious that we need to massively reduce our CO2 emissions–best thinking is by 80% overall (90% in the so-called “developed” countries) by 2030, or else we hit 450 ppm.

    At the same time, we’re either past or getting damn near to reaching the point of “peak oil,” where most of the oil that has ever existed in the world has been used. At the same time, with China and India developing to the extent they have, there is a massive increase in demand for the remaining oil. As should be easy to figure out, the price of oil will only overwhemingly go up over time: we will see oil selling at over $100 a barrel very soon–and it will only go up (at least generally).

    As a country, we are terribly unprepared. We have really done little to confront this problem. (Of course, all of these issues have been major issues in the presidential campaign, I’ve noticed–not!)

    We have a choice–and there are no guarantees we will be successful. Nonetheless, our choice is to either drastically reduce consumption–including massive limits on automobile companies where they cannot produce cars that don’t get at least 30 mpg–and immediately shift to alternative renewable energy sources (wind, solar, etc–NOT biofuels and NOT nuclear), and greatly disband our military–putting those resources into alternative energy production, health care for all, education, mass transit, etc.–or we can spend outrageous amounts of money feeding the Pentagon, be willing to send our children off to war around the world, give up all of our civil liberties, endure poverty, and watch our civilization die as the planet soon hits “tilt.”

    Our “leadership” has chosen the second alternative. And the lying, despicable mass media in this country has hidden the resistance to this death trip.

    We–you and me–can try to change what’s going on. Or we can bend over, and kiss our collective ass goodbye. The choice is our’s. But if we don’t get off our asses–individually and collectively–and FORCE our leaders to shift to the first alternative, I will GUARANTEE that our so-called leaders won’t do it.

    One final point: yes, individuals must act to reduce their personal and family consumption. That IS necessary. But it is not enough: we must force the corporations to quit producing anything that damages the environment to the greatest extent possible. That means get rid of the fucking Hummer and any other gas guzzler–but that means we cannot allow the corporations to even produce this stuff, and not depend on consumers eventually “getting it.”

    In other words, this means we are going to have to reject the do-nothing, free market crap of economists and politicians. To me, the choice is to either heavily regulate capitalism–and I’m not sure that would be sufficient–or create a totally new economic system that would allow everyone in the world to live at an ecologically and economically sustainable level. I don’t know which would be best. But I know that “business as usual” is a guarantee of escalating death, destruction and conflict around the world–with the continued decline of this country into the abyss.

    The choice is our’s: which side are YOU on?

    Kim Scipes,

  3. old_curmudgeon

    What amazes me, sadly, is how we have allowed our oil/automotive interests to squelch the obviously possible technological research to find an oil substitute – to lift the dependence on a limited resource mainly controled by people we’ve shit on over the years. I am not a scientist/chemist but I find it hard to believe that after 40 years the countries’ researchers have not come up with a solution – if they were trying. I guess the power of the oil and automotive industries and the threat of lost research $$$$ would be enough to kill the effort. What’s really sad, as CheckerboardStr aludes to above is that we as a society have just sat back on cruise control, barrelling down the highway of our own demise, sucking on bigmacs and ensure, waiting for the lotto numbers to come thru for us. But, that is just this old curmudgeon’s opinion.

  4. ekaton

    Oil is going to be $150/bbl way before 2009. Used SUV’s will be dirt cheap. Used Hondas and Toyotas will soar in price.

    — Kent Shaw

  5. Wayne K Dolik

    Also, any CHB readers thinking about a new car should seriously consider an economical car for purchase. I have traded in the oil markets for a few years, and I do not think oil is going to be any cheaper in the forseeable future.

  6. Gerald Sutliff

    These nay sayers and fear mongers are afraid that we will not be able to interject ourselves unilaterally where and when ever we think we need to. That, in and of itself, does not make us weak; what’s the matter with acting like a leader in a world made up of many. We’ve gotten into the habit of thinking we have everything our own way.

    Big Jer
    Bakersfield, CA

  7. Ardie

    To think outside of the box, one has to first stop being a box. It seems that this is where the think tank boys go wrong. They are boxes trying to think of different boxes. They think such scenarios are probable only because they are in a consensus trance that cannot think otherwise. Moreover, their thinking conditions what Sheldrake terms the Morphogenetic Field which is also N.A. Kozyrev’s immaterial torsion field. In fine, they are weaving self-fulfilling prophesies–and needlessly so. But like all of us, they have been put into a trance from birth and told they are boxes. It is truly a genius who can think out of the box; who can change the Morphogenetic Field in which mankind will no longer think like beasts of prey.

  8. Warren

    So what else is new? When the world price of oil goes up, W’s and Dick’s buddies get rich right along with the Arabs. What do people think the US foreign policy is about? It ain’t about cheap, available oil. It’s about EXPENSIVE oil. My wife and I have two Toyota hybrids in the garage. Not that I give a rat’s ass about CO2. But oil? It’ll be a bigger and bigger deal.

    Edit: By the way, if one counts in the cost of the Iraq War (sharing the wealth with defense contractor buddies) the cost of oil is already several hundred dollars a barrel.

    Edit2: It was nagging at me, so I did some research. The U.S. imports roughly 1 billion barrels of oil per year from the mideast. The Harvard / Columbia University estimate of the cost of the war so far is about 1 trillion dollars including accrued liabilities. We’ve been in the war for about 5 years, so that’s about 200 billion dollars per year, or about $200 per barrel of oil from the mideast. Add $90 for black oil plus $200 for war costs, and that’s the real cost of oil.