Osama bin Laden is dead. As President Barack Obama put it, the man was “a terrorist who's responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent men, women and children.” In the coming days, the United States will be moving into “Now what?” mode. For now, let's take a hard look at what has changed in this country since Osama bin Laden came on the scene.
In the post Sept. 11 world, the price of a barrel of oil has steadily climbed while Americans increasingly focused on where our oil comes from. Not since the gas line days of then-President Jimmy Carter has the price of a barrel of oil become so entrenched in our everyday vernacular.
The oil price climb
During much of 2001, oil prices were on the decline. Prices had climbed earlier in the year to about $30 per barrel of crude, but in the months before bin Laden’s Sept. 11 attacks, the price was well below $20 per barrel. As for the price of the gasoline you put in your car and truck, it was less than $2 per gallon. While there were fluctuations in these prices in the days following the attacks, for the most part, prices continued to decline until 2002.
But that didn't last long. While energy prices declined during the beginning of the war, things changed as 2002 got rolling. From then on, oil prices steadily rose. When the first coalition forces set foot in Iraq during the 2003 invasion, oil prices had climbed to about $30 a barrel. Your price at the pump was hovering between $1.60 and $2.15, depending on where you filled up. Following President George W. Bush’s re-election and through the end of his term, oil prices skyrocketed. By the time Hurricane Katrina had struck the Gulf Coast and nearby refineries, the price of oil had settled at just less than $60 per barrel. As Bush’s term ended, and with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in full action, prices hit $125.50 per barrel, a number that fell sharply as the economy in the U.S. braced for a total free fall. Oil prices remained at more than $100 a barrel until 2011.
As the U.S. changed presidents and tried to recover from the recession, prices stayed in the double-digits until further Middle Eastern unrest erupted. As Egypt overthrew its dictator, and Libya’s government became the target of NATO military action, oil prices soared. All the while, Osama bin Laden sat in his cave (or his mansion) and watched as the U.S. paid increasing high gas prices.
Defense, energy imports and lives
The fact that U.S. defense spending increased immediately after Sept. 11 is not surprising, but here are the numbers: In 2000, the defense budget was just less than $300 billion. When you factor in the costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, plus other increases in the budget, the number has doubled. The estimated Department of Defense budget now stands at about $700 billion for 2011.
Then there’s the issue of where we get our oil. Despite fighting one war against an OPEC nation (Iraq), and bin Laden’s various contacts with countries in the region, the U.S. increased the number of barrels it imported from OPEC nations for much of the 2000s. According to the Energy Information Administration, before the 2001 attacks, the United States was importing 1.9 million barrels a year from OPEC nations. By 2008, the number had steadily climbed to 2.1 million barrels a year. But with the 2008 financial crisis, the number fell to 1.7 million in 2009 and has climbed only slightly since then. These are huge numbers. Those numbers tell me that little has changed when it comes to oil sources since bin Laden attacked us in 2001.
These price fluctuations pale in comparison to the human cost. Nearly 5,000 coalition service members have died while fighting in Iraq. In Afghanistan, that number is about 2,400. The number of people killed in the Sept. 11 attacks was 2,996. And we may never have a total official number of casualties from secret operations that take place every day.
So while we don't know what's next, what has happened in the past decade should not be forgotten. Bin Laden’s actions resulted in many Americans making the ultimate sacrifice to prevent a repeat occurrence. His actions also changed how we use our military, how we fund our Defense Department and how we operate in the Middle East. Yet, while the price of a barrel of crude oil has climbed, we haven’t changed much when it comes to our buying patterns. Perhaps that change will take place in the coming decade.