Cross-posted from The Great Energy Challenge.
The incredibly brave work of the U.S. Special Forces team that killed Osama bin Laden brought some badly needed uplifting news. It gave Americans welcome, if temporary, relief from steady news of American lives lost in the Middle East.
You can really feel that weight of the sacrifice our people are making to defend America watching Sebastian Junger's moving film, Restrepo. The film documents the service and sacrifice of the U.S Army's Second Platoon, Battle Company, 173rd Airborne Brigade in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley. The film is named after Private First Class (PFC) Juan Sebastián Restrepo, one of the first in the unit killed after arriving in Afghanistan.
At one particularly powerful point in the film, the Second Platoon's men learn of the loss of several men in another unit in a nearby valley. Captain Dan Kearney addresses his men:
"OK, is this everybody? ... OK, hey listen up, I'm gonna talk to you guys a little bit about some of what happened up with Chosen Company. I want you guys to mourn, and I want you guys to get over it and do your jobs. OK? First, hey, Proctor, why'd you come in the Army, man?"
"To fight for my country sir."
"To fight for your country?"
"Did you expect there was a chance you might get injured or you might die?"
"Anybody join not knowing that that might be an option? ...We lose PFC Vimoto on June 5th, 2007. What happens the very next day after that, Sgt. Buno? We go out on patrol, we get attacked again? Right. July 22 we lose Restrepo, right? What do we keep on doing after that? Fighting. We keep on fighting and taking it to the enemy."
Gut-check: These young men volunteered to put their lives on the line to defend our country, to defend U.S. interests, to defend us.
For that, they don't just deserve our profound and lasting thanks. We ought to honor them with a deep, serious look by our policymakers at the long-term reasons why we've got people in harm's way in Afghanistan and Iraq, and jets over Libya.
Yes, we had to respond forcefully to the 9-11 attacks. But our people's sacrifice over the past decade demands that we push our leaders to identify the long-term, structural drivers that have put so many of our people in harm's way in this volatile part of the world. With dictatorships being challenged all over the oil-rich Middle East, and gas at $4 a gallon, it's good to ask if our reliance on Middle Eastern oil is one of those drivers.
Today, we send $20-$30 billion a month overseas to import and consume oil. As the Truman National Security Project notes, "While this figure is staggering by itself, the dangerous implications of our addiction are even more pronounced when analyzing where our money goes -- and whom it helps to support." That includes what Vice Admiral Dennis McGinn describes as "nations that wish us harm... put[ting] us in the untenable position of funding both sides of the conflict and directly undermin[ing] our fight against terror."
In 2008, the United States imported about $56 billion of oil from Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Osama bin Laden and 15 of the 9-11 hijackers. A PBS report showed how Saudi oil money underwrites radical "madrasas," anti-Western Islamic schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. During the war against the Soviets, "a new kind of madrasa emerged in the Pakistan-Afghanistan region -- not so much concerned about scholarship as making war on infidels. The enemy then was the Soviet Union. Today it's America."
Graduates of these schools could very well be some of the people shooting at U.S. soldiers like PFC Restrepo in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley. So, I called PFC Restrepo's mother, Marcela Pardo, in Florida to ask her what she thought.
"When Osama bin Laden died, my first thought was that the war would come to an end. Then I thought, 'No, Osama was the primary reason to fight, but, in fact, that's not the only reason. There's the oil,'" she told me. "Is it worth it to pay for it that way? Because [our troops] are going to keep dying day by day."
Marcela Pardo may not be a national security expert. But this physical therapist in southeast Florida is spot on with what she suggests we learn from our deep entanglement in the Middle East. The Institute for the Analysis of Global Security says basically the same thing: "America's best weapon against terrorism is to decrease its dependency on foreign oil by increasing its fuel efficiency and introducing next-generation fuels. If the U.S. bought less oil, the global oil market would shrink and price per-barrel would decline. This would invalidate the social contract between the leaders and their people and stem the flow of resources to the religious establishment."
Marcela Pardo is clearly on to something. The question is, will our leaders take the serious look in the mirror demanded by American sacrifice?
Not if the oil industry gets its way. With dazzling gall, the most profitable industry in the world and its allies in Congress are trying to prevent a sober look at long-term policy by putting on a frenzied victim act. The industry, they claim, is helpless in the face of wrong-headed policies "locking up" domestic energy resources. If only (!) we'd let the industry tear up more public property, gas prices would drop.
Take Rep. Glenn Thompson of Pennsylvania, newly elected on the oil industry's dime, who says that if we just drill more, "gas prices go down." Or the industry's lobbying arm, the American Petroleum Institute (API), claiming that, "given the current political turmoil in the Middle East and increased demand from a slowly growing economy, it is more essential now than ever before that we develop Alaska's [Outer Continental Shelf] to increase domestic production."
Is it really appropriate for an industry and a congressman that are both paid by Marcela Pardo's taxes to shovel this nonsense back at her in return?
U.S. Energy Information Administration data show the U.S. has 1.4 percent of proven world oil reserves while consuming 22 percent of the world's oil production. The oil industry enjoys tens of billions of dollars in welfare each year and has roughly 50 million acres of unused drilling leases. The same industry lobbying arm says we need to drill more to address high gas prices, but cheerily notes that the U.S. was a net exporter of refined petroleum products earlier this year because we have "plenty available for export."
The truth is that the path the oil industry's defenders would have us take won't work. They don't seem to see the problems with a system in which we send our money to people in the Middle East who hate us, and spend American lives to defend that system. They don't mind us spending billions of our tax dollars to underwrite highly profitable companies when we should be focused on scaling clean energy here at home.
Marcela Pardo told me that night: "I have thought so many times why God didn't stop him from dying that day. Probably one of the reasons was because he was such a wonderful and special person, and I'm not just saying that because he was my son. I'm told that in war, the good people sometimes die first. They leave the rest of us to learn things we still have to learn."
Are we ready to learn the lessons available from our long-term entanglement in the Middle East? If so, PFC Restrepo's mother has some to offer.