Bill Totten's Weblog

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Blood for Oil? Part 5

by Doug Stokes

ZNet Commentary (September 04 2007)

This is the fifth article of the series Blood for oil? Global capital, counter-insurgency and the dual logic of American energy security.

Whose blood for our oil?

In the last article of this series we saw that there is a very clear marriage between the promotion of capitalism in the global South, primarily through the entrenchment of market orientated reforms, and the stabilisation and insulation of transnationally orientated states through US military aid and training. The American state continues to act both for reasons of national and transnational interest with US intervention serving to 'plug' political economies into global capitalism as both productive and relatively stable circuits. Of course, the form of stability that this entails does not necessarily equate into a majoritarian stability, and similarly to the Cold War period, continues to have egregious effects upon human rights, state development and social justice.

Aside from the oil riches of the various states now in receipt of US military aid and training, another common factor is the fact that each recipient military is credibly charged with gross human rights violations with US military aid and training in counter-insurgency warfare intimately bound up with human rights abuses. For example, as we saw above the Colombian military is now in receipt of billions of dollars of US military aid. However, the Colombian military is closely aligned with paramilitary forces who continue to carry out a dirty war against Colombian civil society. For example, in 2000, over 8000 political assassinations were committed in Colombia, with eighty percent of these murders committed by paramilitary groups allied to the Colombian military {1}. This trend shows no sign of abating and in one of the most extensive recent reports on human rights in Colombia the UN notes that its 'office ... [has] continued to receive complaints about human rights violations implying the direct responsibility ... of the security forces ... Many of the violations, due to their serious, massive or systematic nature, constitute crimes against humanity and are susceptible to trial by the International Criminal Court' {2}.

The principal recipient region for the US's $98 million 'pipeline protection money' has been Arauca in north-eastern Colombia. According to Colombia's far-right President Alvaro Uribe, Arauca is a 'laboratory of war' and provides the security model envisaged for the rest of the nation. A 2004 UN High Commissioners report continued to document the high level collusion between the Colombian military and paramilitary forces {3}, with many of the most serious violations in Arauca taking place within a few minutes walk from the bases where US military training is occurring. For example, in August 2004, Colombia's Attorney General's office noted that soldiers based outside the city of Saravena, Arauca, executed three union leaders whilst senior officials on the base are alleged to have participated in a cover-up. US Special Forces counter-insurgency trainers are housed on the same base. {4}

According to the UN the latest tactic of the Colombian military involves dressing murdered civilians in guerrilla clothing so as to justify their deaths {5}. Crucially however, paramilitarism has long formed an integral part of the overall US-backed counter-insurgency strategy. Moreover, this reliance on paramilitary forces was not confined to the Cold War era. For example, in 1991 both the US Department of Defence and the CIA reorganized Colombian military intelligence networks which saw the further covert incorporation of paramilitary networks within the Colombian military itself. The secret reorganisation focussed solely on combating what was called "escalating terrorism by armed subversion" through the creation of what Human Rights Watch characterised as a 'secret network that relied on paramilitaries not only for intelligence, but to carry out murder' {6}.

Similar to the Colombian military, both Georgian and Uzbek security forces have horrendous human rights records. For example, Uzbek security forces regularly commit horrific human rights abuses with the US Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor concluding that throughout the period of US military assistance the Uzbek state's 'human rights record remained very poor, and it continued to commit numerous serious abuses. Torture is endemic, prison conditions are extremely harsh, and independent journalists, opposition politicians and human rights activists are subject to harassment.' {7}

Similarly, the US State Department in it's 2004 annual report on human rights in Nigeria argued that there were 'politically motivated killings by the Government or its agents' with 'police, army, and security forces committed extrajudicial killings' and using 'excessive force' to disperse protestors during the year' as well as using 'lethal force against suspected criminals and suspected vandals near oil pipelines in the Niger Delta Region'. In a worrying signal for even any semblance of accountability the report continues that '[m]ultinational oil companies and domestic oil producing companies often hired private security forces and subsidized living expenses for police and soldiers from area units assigned to protect oil facilities in the volatile Niger Delta region'. {8} In sum, the new policy of diversification of oil and the stabilisation of political economies conducive for global capitalism carries high human costs, especially in those specific zones where oil extraction takes place. US sponsored counter-insurgency warfare now forms the central strategic modality of US military engagement with the use of paramilitary forces and private military contractors developing as part of the prevailing strategic architecture under the so-called 'war on terror' {9}.

We see then that US planners are increasingly seeking to diversify energy supplies away from the Middle East to new oil rich regions located principally in South America, Central Asia and West Africa with US military power being used to underwrite forms of political and economic order conducive for global capitalism as a whole. Similar to the Cold War period, the American state seeks to make these regions safe for global capitalism through stabilising states with fragile social bases and containing (and rolling back) inimical social forces be they Islamist, nationalist, indigenous or explicitly anti-capitalist. So far, this form of intervention continues to be subject to the dual logic that I outlined earlier on in this paper in so far as US intervention both serves US national interests through underwriting US hegemony and securing crucial oil supplies and transnational interests in terms of underwriting an open international market within which all other core states can participate. For example, Colombia has received more US military aid than all of the other states examined in this paper combined and whilst the US is Colombia's largest trading partner, European investors are a close second: in 2004 Colombia conducted just over thirty six percent of its annual trade with the US and almost nineteen percent with the EU.

The next largest trading partner was Venezuela with just over five percent {10}. China is today one of the largest investors in Latin America with the majority of that investment in natural resource extraction, including oil. Roger F Noriega, Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs argued that whilst Chinese investment in Latin America 'includes a political dimension' it's 'growing presence in the region reflects its growing engagement throughout the world' which 'does not necessarily constitute a threat to US interests' {11}. This point is underscored when we consider the fact that although the US enjoys strategic primacy within the global oil regime, the majority ends up in the Asia Pacific region (including China and Japan) which consumes 23,446,000 barrels a day whilst the US consumes 20,517,000 {12}.

Will this current benign global oil regime continue or will the US use this strategic primacy to act in a more protectionist way so as to safeguard US oil interests through, for example, seeking to close markets off to other core states? This is of course the six million dollar question and there are definite tensions within the current oil regime such as the fact that oil is a non-fungible resource with all of the advanced industrialised economies becoming more reliant on oil coupled with the chronic instability in oil-rich regions and the ever diminishing supplies. On the flip-side the EU, Japan (and increasingly China) could seek to lessen their reliance on US power and develop their own bilateral or multilateral trade relationships outside of US control (for example, an increased lean towards Russian oil and gas by EU powers) {13}.

The scramble for energy by China could also have an impact upon the current global oil regime, especially if the Chinese seek to parlay their bilateral arrangements with oil-rich states into forms of political influence that US planners consider to be inimical to US interests. What can be said for certainty is that at the present moment any move towards a more protectionist regime is unlikely given that the fact that in many ways the US is in a bind. Should it revert to resource protectionism there is a very strong likelihood that other core powers will seek to balance against US power which would in turn impact upon US strategic, political and economic interests in profound ways and would undoubtedly hasten the struggle for energy autonomy.

Moreover, in so doing the US would fracture the liberal international order from which the US derives enormous benefits {14}. Of course, this does not discount the very real potential for ideology to 'overdetermine' US policy, and there are a number of debates, arguments and disagreements amongst US foreign policy planners as to the precise strategies that the American state should pursue to maintain US hegemony as we move into the 21st Century. We should not also discount the often chaotic nature of social, political and economic processes and the ways in which various policies can often have contradictory and highly contingent effects. All we can say in relation to these very contemporary developments is 'watch this space' and it is still too early to see whether the dual logics will continue to compliment each other as a key plank of US primacy or whether an increased US unilateralism will translate into an increased push for autonomy in relation to energy security by other core powers {15}. What can we conclude from this account?


This paper has argued that the overly instrumentalist accounts of US intervention in oil rich regions fail to fully capture either the political logic of American statecraft and more importantly the structural role that the American state has played in the making of global capitalism in the post-War period. US intervention in oil rich regions seeks first and foremost to produce and stabilise transnationally responsive political economies with US strategic intervention seeking to insulate local states and ruling classes conducive for this transnationalisation process. In the post-Cold War era and especially after 9/11, the US has been pursuing an increasingly aggressive policy of energy diversification so as to ensure some degree of energy security for the global economy should the Middle East become even more insecure. The regions subject to these new interventions are South America, West Africa and Central Asia, and given the on-going failure of the US project in Iraq it is logical to conclude that these regions will become more important to US energy security so as to give global energy supplies some 'elbow room'. I have argued that this new strategy is having a profound impact in terms of consolidating often highly authoritarian regimes which in turn has an impact upon human rights, social justice and state development {16}.

Of course, many of these regimes now in receipt of US military assistance were highly abusive prior to the onset of US aid, and US planners could simply state 'we have to work with what is there!'. This is of course correct and it is important that analysts of US intervention must always bear in mind the ways in which US policy must interact and work with local states which in themselves have their own histories, interests and agendas. However, the central question is whether US security assistance leads to less human rights abuses, greater accountability and the strengthening of genuine democracy or whether US military aid serves to consolidate authoritarian regimes. That is, there is a very clear line between working with what you find and seeking to move towards ending human rights abuses and consolidating what you find so as to guarantee concrete economic and political interests. Sadly, as I have shown above, the US continues to put its economic and political interests above that of human rights and the development of genuinely democratic governments as part of its ongoing 'war on terror'. This is all being done within the logic whereby the ends justify the means. In the words of US Vice President Richard Cheney, the US is increasingly working on the 'dark side' whereby the US needs to 'have on the payroll some very unsavoury characters' so as to win the 'war on terrorism' {17}.

On a broader note, a question which emerges from this series of articles, and it is one that it is simply too early to answer just yet, is whether US intervention will continue to be subject to the dual logics that I have outlined in this paper. The US state enjoys a degree of relative autonomy both because it must structurally ensure the necessary conditions for the long term functioning of global capitalism and because of its primacy within the world system. To date, US planners seem to be acutely conscious of the dual role that US intervention is playing. As we move further into the 21st Century, it remains to be seen whether this will continue in the face of increased resource competition for energy sources amongst industrialized economies {18}.


1 Human Rights Watch, Colombia, undated

2 United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, The Human Rights Situation in Colombia, 17th February 2004, page 21.

3 United Nations, Informe del Alto Comisionado de las Naciones Unidas para los Derechos Humanos sobre la situacio'n de los derechos humanos en Colombia, E/CN.4/2004/13, 17 de febrero de 2004, Anexo II, paragraphs 2 and 3. Accessed at Center for International Policy, Blueprint for a New Colombia Policy, March 2005.

4 Center for International Policy, Blueprint for a New Colombia Policy, March 2005.

5 Maria Cristina Caballero, 'In Colombia: Military Crimes Point To A Growing Problem', The Providence Journal, June 25 2006.

6 Human Rights Watch / Americas Human Rights Watch Arms Project, Colombia's Killer Networks: the Military-Paramilitary Partnership and the United States (Human Rights Watch, 1996), pages 28-29. In the same report Human Rights Watch have provided the original documents of the order in both Spanish and English. See pages 105-150.

7 US Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, Supporting Human Rights and Democracy: The US Record 2003-2004, 2004. ; The US has been asked to leave the Karshi-Khanabad airfield in Uzbekistan by the regime of President Islam Karimov. The US criticised him after world media attention was focussed on Karimov following the shooting of hundreds of civilians during an anti-government demonstration. See for more on this. For more on Georgia see

8US Department of State, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Nigeria 2004, February 28 2004.

9 For more on private military contractors see Peter Singer, Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry (Cornell University Press, 2003).

10 European Commission, EU-Colombia trade. Undated.

11 Roger F Noriega, Statement Before the House Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, Washington, DC. April 06 2005.

12 British Petroleum, British Petroleum Statistical Review of World Energy, June 2006. p. 12.

13 European Commission, EU/Russia Energy Partnership, October 30 2000.; see also Peter Gowan, US Hegemony Today, 2003, Monthly Review, 55:3, July/August 2003, pages 30-50.

14 For a liberal critique of the Bush Administration see G John Ikenberry, 'America's Imperial Ambition', Foreign Affairs, September - October, 2002.

15 This paper is based on preliminary research for my new book Transnational Conflict and US Primacy (John Hopkins University Press, 2009)

16 For more on Iraq, the role of counter-insurgency and state formation see Eric Herring and Glen Rangwala, Iraq In Fragments: The Occupation and its Legacy (Cornell University Press, 2006).

17 Richard Cheney, The Vice President appears on Meet the Press with Tim Russert, September 16 2001.

18 There are ongoing debates as to whether the US economy is in decline in relation to other core powers. For a selection see Giovanni Arrighi, The Long Twentieth Century. Money, Power, and the Origins of Our Times (Verso, 1994); David Harvey, The New Imperialism (Oxford University Press, 2003); Peter Gowan, 'Peter Gowan and the Capitalist World Empire', Journal of World-Systems Research, 10:2, 2004, pages 471-539; Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin, Global Capitalism and American Empire (Merlin Press, 2003); Giovanni Arrighi, 'Hegemony Unravelling', New Left Review, 32, March/April 2005.

Bill Totten


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