Oil and Democracy Don’t Mix

Bush administration policies guarantee a constant flow, no matter what the human cost

Frida Berrigan

Oil refineries pose an existential threat, as evidenced by the more than 500 refinery accidents reported to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency since 1994. (Glenn Euloth/ Flickr)

At a 1996 energy conference in New Orleans, Dick Cheney, then CEO of Halliburton said, The problem is that the good Lord didn’t see fit to put oil and gas reserves where there are democratic governments.”

Laying the blame on the divine is a stretch, but it seems that the vice president is right: democracy and oil do not mix. Just look at the United States’ top 10 oil suppliers. Algeria, Angola, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia are repressive regimes with deplorable human rights records. Mexico and Venezuela, while democracies, are marked by instability, inequality and civil strife. Iraq remains at war and under occupation. Only Norway, Canada and the United Kingdom are fully functioning democracies. 

Why don’t oil and democracy mix? At least part of the answer can be found in Washington’s policy of providing military aid and training to leaders who guarantee an uninterrupted flow of oil, defending it against all threats — even those coming from their own citizens.

Since the beginning of the war on terrorism in 2001, the United States’ top 10 sources of oil imports have experienced a 350 percent increase in U.S. military aid and training. In 2003, the United States plans to provide these countries with $58 million in military assistance. In fiscal year 2001, their military assistance totaled $12.2 million.

A large part of the increase is explained by Washington’s rewarding of regimes like Algeria and Nigeria for their ability to cloak domestic repression in the rhetoric of the war on terrorism.” As the United States looks ahead to a never ending war on terrorism and growing dependence on foreign oil, this dynamic will become increasingly common.

Africa accounts for 16 percent of U.S. oil imports, and the National Intelligence Council predicts an increase to 25 percent by 2015. Hunger for this oil, combined with the need to collect allies in the war on terrorism, led the Bush administration to adopt a see no evil” position toward human rights problems and inequality in the continent’s oil-rich nations. 

This policy is so entrenched that William Burns, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern and North African affairs, remarked with admiration while on a 2002 trip there, Washington has much to learn from Algeria on ways to fight terrorism.” Burns must not have read his own State Department 2002 Human Rights Report, which notes that Algerian security forces committed extra-judicial killings, tortured, beat or otherwise abused detainees.” Algeria has proven oil reserves of more than 9.2 billion barrels and is considered underdeveloped in terms of production, representing a golden opportunity for U.S. companies.

And so, in spite of persistent human rights abuses, relations between Washington and Algiers are warming. President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has visited the White House twice and officials are discussing establishment of an American military base in Algeria. Emboldened by this, Algerian generals are pushing for access to previously denied lethal technology like combat aircraft.

Nigeria is the fifth largest exporter of oil to the United States, and with the discovery of new deep-water oil reserves right off the coast U.S. strategic interest is growing.

In July 2003, as President Bush departed for Africa, Gen. James Jones, the U.S. commander responsible for African operations, announced that Washington was negotiating long-term use of a family” of military bases across Africa and predicted a much bigger role for U.S. military in the Gulf of Guinea, right off the Nigerian coast.

Washington’s desire for Nigerian oil and territory triggered deeper military relationships. During the reign of Gen. Sani Abacha military ties were frozen. But since his death in 1999, the thaw has been quick. That year, Nigeria purchased $74,000 in U.S. weaponry. By 2001, the United States delivered thousands of times that — a total of $3.1 million. Military aid also skyrocketed, from $90,000 in 1999 to more than $4 million for 2003.

How increased military aid will improve human rights and efforts toward democratization is unclear. The State Department’s Human Rights Report found that the Nigerian military and security forces committed extrajudicial killings.” 

Military aid is also increasing in areas that do not supply the United States with oil — yet. The seven countries that make up the Caspian region — Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan — are rich in oil, but the West is still trying to figure out how to extract and transport it. In the meantime, the region became strategically important for other reasons — its proximity to Afghanistan and its eagerness to aid in the war on terrorism.

Uzbekistan granted the U.S. permission to establish a semi-permanent” military base in its territory, other countries offered fly-over rights,” troops, intelligence and rhetorical support for the war on terrorism. In exchange, the handful of dictators, generals and presidents-for- life that rule the Caspian nations were granted reprieve from their international pariah status. Tens of millions in U.S. military aid quickly followed. 

Collectively, these countries are slated to receive almost $40 million in U.S. military aid in 2004. In 2001, Azerbaijan and Tajikistan were under U.S. sanctions and received no military aid. The other five nations received a collective total of $12.3 million in military aid. In other words, military aid from the United States will increase more than 200 percent in just three years — not including Congress’ $70 million Special Supplemental for Caspian countries in 2002.

In the Caspian, and in most of the other countries where U.S. military aid and training markedly increased in the past three years, the weapons are not being used to defend borders from impending invasions. Rather, military resources are used to squash indigenous movements for self-determination, undermine campaigns for human rights, punish those who call for democracy and government accountability, and protect leaders who came to power illegitimately.

There are a few exceptions to the oil and democracy don’t mix” maxim, and they are instructive. Norway, the United Kingdom and Canada are major oil suppliers to the United States, but were established democracies with diversified economies before getting into oil exploration. Replicating these successes in other oil-rich countries will require a radical revision of U.S. military and energy policy. Now would be a good time to start.
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Frida Berrigan writes for TomDispatch, Waging Nonviolence and other outlets. Her book, It Runs in the Family: On Being Raised By Radicals and Growing Into Rebellious Motherhood, was published by OR Books in 2015. She lives in New London, Conn., with her husband, three kids and six chickens.

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