The Roots of Our Painful Oil Addiction

FDR and Ibn Saud

Hear that sound? It's the shattering of records. Oil prices rose to nearly $140 per barrel in the oil futures market, driving the national average gas price to $4 a gallon for the first time, hitting those with lower incomes hardest. And GM fell below one-fifth of U.S. vehicle sales. These are of course linked, and as my colleague Roland Hwang has written new global warming policy would help to alleviate the painful repercussions for Detroit automakers and gasoline consumers.

In addition to the current economic hardship caused by these trends, we need to keep in mind that our national security is also undermined by overdependence on this strategic commodity. A stark reminder of this fact: We are now very close to Osama Bin Laden's outlandish target price for oil about ten years ago, as my friend Anne Korin of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security reminded a Senate committee in recent testimony.

This is not news, of course. But what may surprise some readers is the history behind this Faustian bargain spans half of the twentieth century, back to a symbolically important 1945 meeting between FDR and the ruler of Saudi Arabia, Ibn Saud (accompanied by his slaves and an astrologer) aboard a U.S. battleship in the Suez Canal. There are no transcripts from the meeting, but this was a priority for FDR in the last months of his life because of what lies beneath the sands of the kingdom: The world's vastest reserves of petroleum.

Our entanglement with the Middle East stretches back to the eighteenth century, as historian Michael Oren documents in his masterful history Power, Faith and Fantasy. But the past six decades have been particularly costly, both in dollars and in lives.

This is the topic of an excellent, timely new documentary, Blood and Oil, which puts Hampshire College Professor Michael Klare's body of work on the screen for the first time. The historical thread he documents marches from FDR, through Truman (shown here speaking on this topic before Congress)...


...through President after President into the present.

Bush and Saudis

Klare also boldly forecasts a future where conflicts over this resource spread into Africa, with the U.S. military becoming entangled there too. Klare's historical analysis is certainly bracing and enlightening, so his predictions are worth a listen.

The main takeaway lesson from the film is that we really need our elected leaders in Washington to break away from this twentieth-century pattern of slavish oil addiction. And as switchboard readers know the best way to do this is to drive down our Goliath-sized demand for this commodity. This would shore up national security, take a huge strain off our military, and give consumers a way off this gas price rollercoaster.

One final note: Thank you to the documentary producer for the stills from the film included in this blog post.