The average American voter does not care about Libya. That may sound harsh, but it’s generally true. The average American does however care a great deal about gas prices. So perhaps it is no surprise that as the regime of Moammar Gadhafi falls, American news outlets are trying to explain the news out of Libya within the frame of prices at the pump. Heck, it was the first idea that came to my mind as I thumbed through the morning news. (An hour later, I posted this blog post.) But that's just one perspective, and perhaps the falling of another Middle Eastern dictator calls for a different perspective on the relationship between war and oil.
The conventional wisdom today is that gas prices will fall in the United States because an end to the Libyan civil war brings stability to the global oil market. Great! Time to lasso up the old sport utility vehicle for a three- to five-hour Labor Day drive to your nearest outdoor getaway. It will be important to make sure that the vehicle is crammed with camping provisions and filled with 18 gallons of the most delicious Middle Eastern petroleum available. It’s likely to be available at the discount rate of just $3 a gallon.
The hopes of $3 gas are fascinating when you consider that the last time political primary debates were happening, $3 gas was scaring the American consumer. When Democrats were duking it out for the nomination in 2007, it was none other then former Sen. Mike Gravel (D-Alaska) who put it as bluntly as possible: “You see $3, but there’s another $4, which is what we spent to keep American troops around the world to keep the price. So you are paying more than $7 a gallon; you just don’t know it,” he said.
I’m not quite sure where Gravel got his $4 figure, but his point is not lost when you consider the number of American troops stationed in petroleum-rich regions of the world. This amazing infographic from Mother Jones puts our oil policy in perspective when you look at the strategic places where hundreds of thousands of American troops are stationed. Next, consider that the American taxpayer provides about $663 billion to fund the defense department and its operation of more than 700 military bases in 130 countries around the world. So that’s more than $663 billion from 300 million citizens.
Adding insult to injury is the amount of fuel being used to conduct these fuel-based military operations in the Middle East. A CNN.com article pointed out recently that, “One out of eight U.S. Army casualties in Iraq was the result of protecting fuel convoys. A post on Scaling Green contained a video of FTI Consulting’s Adam Siegel recalling a chat with Gen. Richard Zilmer. In that conversation, the former commander of troops in the Anbar province of Iraq told Seigel, “I need renewable energy because getting fuel to my base is putting people's lives at risk.”
The fuel used to run operations in the Middle East has become so substantially costly in terms of lives and dollars that it has led one veteran to switch his home to solar power. A veteran of the Bosnian and Iraq wars was recently featured in a pro-wind video, driving her wind-powered car where she says, “100 percent wind power is right for America.” Another veteran says cutting down fuel usage is in the national interest. “It would be naive to think that some of the money we spend doesn't find its way into the bad guys' hands," said Patrick Padilla, who saw heavy fighting in the Iraqi city of Ramadi in 2006. "If I can do my part to cut that down a little bit, then that's hopefully one less person getting shot at, like I had to go through."
So as we see the Libyan situation framed by the price at the pump in the United States, perhaps we should start thinking of the cost in more holistic terms. Going to national parks with the family is part of the American narrative, but that narrative also has a cost. Some costs are printed clearly on signs at gas stations. Other costs are harder to find and are printed in the bowels of defense budgets and tax filings. Other costs are more gut-wrenching and come in the form of wounded soldiers and casualties from fuel convoys and time spent on bases in remote but strategic parts of the world. These costs are complicated, emotional and economic. As a whole, these costs are potentially devastating to the United States, no matter what you pay at the pump.