Rethinking US Empire and Oil Imperialism Pt. 4

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

So far this series of articles have examined US intervention in the oil rich ME and made a number of arguments about the wider structural logic of US statecraft. Throughout the post-war period the American state has underwritten a political order largely through military aid and training to a number of recipient militaries in oil-rich regions. Given the continued necessity for oil as a global strategic commodity and the fact that oil is often located in areas where states have fragile social bases, it is perhaps unsurprising that this relationship between military aid and oil has continued. Interestingly throughout the post-Cold War era, and especially since 9/11, the American state has actively pursued a policy of energy security through a process of diversification. That is, the US has been increasing its presence in other oil-rich regions outside of the ME. The key regions are located in South America, Central Asia and Africa.

Given the increased instability in the ME and the ever increasing reliance by core powers on foreign oil, US planners are becoming ever more anxious in relation to stabilising these energy supplies to world markets. As part of the so-called ‘war on terror’ we are witnessing an increased militarization of the relationship between energy, global capitalism and US intervention and whilst US counter-insurgency tends to be seen as a Cold War strategy, it is increasingly being wedded to this process of energy security whereby oil-rich regimes are in receipt of millions of dollars worth of US military aid and counter-insurgency training. It is to these areas that I now turn and I show that US intervention in these regions is still subject to the dual logics that I described above. I also detail the ways in which this new strategy of energy diversification is impacting upon human rights and social justice in the global South.

Transnational conflicts and energy diversity

Prior to 9/11, senior US planners had recognised that energy security was becoming even more important to US interests. In early 2001, US Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham stated that the US faces ‘a major energy supply crisis,’ over the next two decades. Abraham continued that the ‘failure to meet this challenge will threaten our nation’s economic prosperity, compromise our national security, and literally alter the way we live our lives’.1 In charting US oil dependency the National Energy Report, authored in May 2001 by US Vice President Dick Cheney predicted that US reliance on foreign oil would continue to increase in the future. The report argued that ‘the share of US oil demand met by net imports is projected to increase from 52 percent in 2000 to 64 percent in 2020. By 2020, the oil for nearly two of every three gallons of our gasoline and heating oil could come from foreign countries’. Tellingly, the report recommended that the US should make ‘energy security a priority of our trade and foreign policy … The security of US energy supply is enhanced by several factors characterising our diplomatic relationships … These factors range from geographic proximity and free trade agreements to integrated pipeline networks, reciprocal energy-sector investments, shared security commitments, and, in all cases, long-term reliable supply relationships’.2

Aside from US domestic consumption however, the report goes on to argue that the US should take the lead in seeking greater ‘diversity of world oil production’ with greater diversity having ‘obvious benefits to all market participants’.3 This decrease on a reliance on Middle Eastern sources of oil will lead to an increased reliance on new states and regions. Specifically, Atlantic basin sources that encompass the ‘Western Hemisphere, the Caspian, and Africa’. The report makes clear that the US must act both for reasons of national and transnational interest with diversification helping to ‘lessen the impact of a supply disruption on the U.S. and world economies’. Moreover, US strategy ‘in each of these high-priority regions’ should focus on institutionalising capitalist social relations and opening up these regions to the penetration of foreign capital so as to improve ‘the investment climate’.4 The report thus recommends that the US state should continue to act for both reasons of national and transnational interest through institutionalising and underwriting capitalism in these new oil rich regions via a strategy of increased market incorporation and strategic presence.

Interestingly, given the well documented relationship between natural resources and conflict the US has increasingly sought to ‘stabilise’ states with often fragile social bases so as to ensure the smooth incorporation of these regions within the global economy. This in turn is leading to US interests being defined against social change in the global South that might potentially impact upon energy supplies to world markets. This potentiality was recognised within the report, Strategic Energy Policy: Challenges for the 21st Century, produced by the US Council on Foreign Relations. The report begins by highlighting the highly integrated nature of the global political economy: ‘[a]s the 21st century opens, the energy sector is in critical condition. A crisis could erupt at any time from any number of factors, from an accident on the Alaskan pipeline to a revolution in a major oil-producing country. It would inevitably affect every country in today’s globalized world’.

Within the report US national interests are married to the prevention of major social or political changes in the global South with any alteration of prevailing relationships affecting ‘US national security and foreign policy in dramatic ways’. The report continues that the US should take the lead in policing the global energy regime: the US should act to promote ‘market forces wherever and whenever possible, while acting to ensure order in case of market failures or severe shortfalls or accidents’. Market failures include ‘interference in trade flows by private or state-owned entities and actions by adversaries’. Interestingly, the report concludes by making it very clear that the US should use its military force to ensure that crucial energy supplies continue to flow to world markets and that the American state should seek to assume a similar strategic primacy in these new oil-rich regions than it currently does in the Middle East.

The report argues that if the US ‘does not respond strategically to the current energy situation, the US risks perpetuating the unacceptable leverage of adversaries and leaving the country’s economy vulnerable to disruptions and volatile energy prices’. This new form of energy security through diversification has intensified in the post-9/11 era with the US dramatically increasing its military assistance to oil rich states as part of the so-called global ‘war on terror’. As we shall now see, the US is becoming increasingly bound up with consolidating authoritarian state structures in the third world so as to ensure stable supplies of energy to the global political economy. As outlined above, the three areas subject to these US oil interventions are the Western Hemisphere, the Caspian, and Africa and I now examine these forms of transnational conflict in each of these regions.

Global capitalism and energy diversification

Amongst the Atlantic basin suppliers, Latin America supplies more oil to the US than all of the Middle Eastern states combined, with Mexico, Venezuela and Colombia the largest suppliers. As the Cheney report makes clear however, the Andean region of South America, notably Venezuela and Colombia have become increasingly central to US concerns. In summarising these commitments, the former Commander in Chief of the US’s Southern Command (USSOUTHCOM), General James T. Hill affirmed the link between US strategy and the preservation of transnationally orientated oil-rich economies. Hill argued that US’s ‘Southern Command’s security cooperation activities’ served to expand US ‘influence, assure friends, and dissuade potential adversaries’ whilst promoting a market stability ‘through training, equipping, and developing allied security force capabilities’. Importantly, Hill argued that ‘Southern Command will play a crucial role in developing the kinds of security forces that help provide the ability to govern throughout the region, and particularly in Colombia’.5

In ‘stabilising’ Colombia, the US has been sending billions of dollars of US military aid to the Colombian military since 2000. Although this money is said to be for a war on drugs it is in fact for a classic counter-insurgency war against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) which is Latin America’s oldest armed insurgency movement.6 Marc Grossman, US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs explained the reasons why the US continues to support the Colombian military, despite its record of gross human rights violations. Grossman argued that the Colombian insurgents represent a danger to the $4.3 billion in direct U.S. investment in Colombia. They regularly attack U.S. interests, including the railway used by the Drummond Coal Mining facility and Occidental Petroleum’s stake in the Caño Limón oil pipeline. Terrorist attacks on the Caño Limón pipeline also pose a threat to US energy security. Colombia supplied 3% of U.S. oil imports in 2001, and possesses substantial potential oil and natural gas reserves.7

As Grossman indicates, Colombia has discovered vast oil reserves within its territory.8 More importantly, however, the insurgency in Colombia threatens regional stability, and in particular Colombia’s neighbour Venezuela which is one of the US’s largest suppliers of oil. General Peter Pace, Hill’s predecessor at US SOUTHCOM, outlined the wider strategic considerations of US access to South American oil, and linked US intervention in Colombia with fears of regional instability generated by the FARC. He started by explaining how important South American oil is to the US, arguing that there is a ‘common misperception’ that the US ‘is completely dependent on the Middle East’ for oil, when in fact Venezuela provides ‘15% – 19 % of our imported oil in any given month’. Pace then went on to note that the ‘internal conflict in Colombia poses a direct threat to regional stability’ and US oil interests, with ‘Venezuela, Ecuador, and Panama’ the ‘most vulnerable to destabilization due to Colombian insurgent activity along their borders’.9

Aside from Colombia, the popular left wing leader of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, has been a thorn in America’s side since his election in 1998 as he has rejected the neo-liberal vision which seeks to further incorporate Latin America into an asymmetric global political economy. In response, the US backed a coup attempt against Chavez in 2002. Immediately afterwards State Department spokesperson Phillip Reeker stated that the US wished ‘to express our solidarity with the Venezuelan people and look forward to working with all democratic forces in Venezuela’. He went on to explain that the coup had been caused by Chavez’s ‘undemocratic actions’ that ‘provoked’ the ‘crisis in Venezuela’.10 Contrary to this assertion however, Chavez had won elections in 1998 and 2000 by the largest majority in four decades of Venezuelan history, and had passed a new democratic constitution by popular referendum in 1999.11

In backing the coup the US government’s National Endowment for Democracy had channelled ‘hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants to US and Venezuelan groups opposed to Mr Chavez, including the labour group whose protests sparked off the coup’, whilst the US Navy was alleged to have co-ordinated and aided the coup plotters.12 Thomas Dawson, the IMF External Relations Director, stated that the IMF stood ready to assist the new junta ‘in whatever manner they find suitable’.13 A Bush Administration spokesman stated quite bluntly that although Chavez was ‘democratically elected’, one had to bear in mind that ‘legitimacy is something that is conferred not just by a majority of the voters’.14 Chavez still remains firmly on the US radar with General Hill arguing that ‘radical populism’ (defined as the process whereby ‘leaders in the region are tapping into deep-seated frustrations of the failure of democratic reforms to deliver expected goods and services’) remains a ‘primary’ threat to ‘to U.S. interests’.15 Moreover, the US continues to attempt to undermine the democratic process in Venezuela.16

Unhindered access to South American oil and the preservation of transnationally orientated political economies has became an even more pressing concern for US planners after the September 11th attacks and the continuing failure of the US-led occupation in Iraq. The former US Ambassador to Colombia, Anne Patterson, explained that ‘after September 11, the issue of oil security has become a priority for the United States’, especially as the ‘traditional oil sources for the United States’ in the Middle East have become even ‘less secure’. By sourcing US energy needs from Colombia, which ‘after Mexico and Venezuela’ is ‘the most important oil country in the region’, the US would have ‘a small margin to work with’ in the face of a crisis and could ‘avoid [oil] price speculation’.17 In relation to Colombia this was illustrated clearly with the Bush administration’s $98 million for a specially trained Colombian military CI brigade as part Bush’s South American military aid plan, the Andean Regional Initiative.

Unlike the more generic Colombian CI brigades, this brigade is devoted solely to protecting the US multinational Occidental Petroleum’s 500-mile long Cano Limon oil pipeline in Colombia.18 US Secretary of State Colin Powell explained that the money was used to ‘train and equip two brigades of the Colombian armed forces to protect the pipeline’ to prevent rebel attacks which are ‘depriving us of a source of petroleum’.19 Patterson went on to explain that although this money was not provided under the pretext of a war on drugs ‘it is something that we must do’ because it is ‘important for the future of the country, for our oil sources and for the confidence of our investors’.20 Bush reaffirmed this commitment when he argued that ‘Colombia was the source of about two percent of US oil imports’ in 2001 (the year that the pipeline protection brigade was rolled out) which therefore created a ‘mutual interest in protecting this economic asset’.21

As is the case with South America, Central Asia is an oil rich region and US national interests and its security assistance have been explicitly linked to stabilising particular kinds of political economies in the region with US military aid supporting highly abusive militaries. The US led war against Afghanistan led to an intensification of US military presence throughout the region, and a number of Central Asian states are now in receipt of US military aid which is justified as part of the global ‘war on terror’.22 However, US military presence was by no means limited to the Afghan campaign as Elizabeth Jones, the US assistant Secretary of State made clear in 2001 when she argued that ‘[w]hen the Afghan conflict is over we will not leave Central Asia. We have long-term plans and interests in this region…’23

General Anthony Zinni, the head of the US’s Unified Central Command (responsible for implementing US security assistance programs throughout Central Asia) gave an indication of what these long-term plans were and underlined the continuing dual logic of US intervention in Central Asia when he stated that US CENTCOM and its military aid and training programs contribute in crucial ways to maintaining ‘stability in this volatile region’ which ‘is key to the free flow of oil and other commerce essential to the world economy’. He continued that ‘attention to the legitimate defense needs of our friends, and by maintaining appropriate military presence and access, we can promote regional security while protecting our own vital interests’.24 A recent US State Department reports echoes Zinni’s concerns. It lists US national interests in relation to each Central Asian state with a unifying theme being the necessity to incorporate the regions energy resources within the US-led international order and to deepen market economies. In relation to Georgia, for example, the US Department of State argues that US interests centre on the promotion market forces and the linkage of Georgia with the global economy: ‘Georgia is an important geopolitical linchpin in the Caucasus region: as the western portal to the Great Silk Road and the newest conduit of Caspian oil to world markets, Georgia is a strategic gateway of energy and trade routes linking East and West’.25

Given Georgia’s centrality to US policy it is unsurprising that it is the leading recipient of US aid in the region with a $64 million US funded ‘train and equip’ strategic program for Georgia’s security forces closely resembling the CI program being rolled out in Colombia. Approximately 150 US Special Forces instructors are training Georgian security personnel in counter-insurgency warfare. A Georgian Defence Ministry spokesman stated that the US CI trainers would work to develop a rapid reaction force which will guard ‘strategic sites, particularly oil pipelines’. Similarly, Uzbekistan, one the US’s ‘foremost partners in the fight against terrorism’,26 received over $90 million in US military aid in late 2001. US military assistance continued and in 2003, the US provided $25 million for military assistance and $18 million for border security assistance that included new training programs for Uzbek Special Forces in counter-insurgency warfare. General Zinni explained that Uzbekistan possesses ‘a potential wealth of natural resources, and Caspian region energy (oil and gas) … is poised for extensive development in the next several years’. However, because of the ‘enormous energy riches at stake the potential for instability exists as countries settle questions of ownership and acceptable export routes’. Our relationships with the CAS are evolving and will continue to grow in the future’.27

This trend is also occurring in parts of Africa. One of the key African states is the West African state of Nigeria which is the largest exporter of oil in Africa, and is the fifth largest supplier of oil to world markets.28 To encourage the further integration of Africa within the global political economy the US has been promoting free trade agreements and in 2000 signed the African Growth and Opportunity act designed to open Africa up for global capital, especially investment by western oil transnationals. As Ed Royce, the Chairman of the US House of Representatives Subcommittee on Africa argued, ‘African oil should be treated as a priority for U.S. national security post 9-11’ with African oil providing ‘a revenue stream that should supply capital to grow African economies … [t]here is no good reason why African oil producing countries should not take advantage of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) to diversify their economies’.29 Bush reiterated this commitment in 2004 when he signed the AGOA Acceleration Act of 2004 that extended AGOA to 2015.

Bush argued that no ‘region has more to gain from free markets than Africa’ with AGOA giving ‘American businesses greater confidence to invest in Africa, and encouraged African nations to reform their economies and governments to take advantage of the opportunities that AGOA provides’.30 Alongside these processes of further market incorporation has been a corresponding rise in US military aid and training, with US Foreign Military Financing to Africa alone increasing by 800 percent between 2000-2006.31 In 2004, General Charles Wald, deputy commander of EUCOM (the military command responsible for Europe and Western Africa) completed a tour of several West African states, including Nigeria. In outlining US interests in Africa, Wald argued that the US has a ‘huge interest in Africa from a security standpoint, from a strategic standpoint and from the standpoint of protecting our security interests and investment interests’.32 Interestingly, when discussing joint military operations between the US and Nigeria and whether military cooperation would extend to the protection of Nigerian oil infrastructure in the conflict ridden Niger Delta zone, Wald stated that ‘Wherever there’s evil, we want to get there and fight it’.33

End part four of this series———————–

1 Author unknown, Remarks by U.S. Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham.

2 National Energy Policy Development Group, National Energy Policy, May 21, 2001. p.130.

3 National Energy Policy Development Group, National Energy Policy, May 21, 2001. p.132.

4 National Energy Policy Development Group, National Energy Policy, May 21, 2001. p.133.

5 James T. Hill, Posture Statement, US Southern Command, House Armed Services Committee, March 12, 2003.

6ref my book.

7 Marc Grossman, Testimony of Ambassador Marc Grossman before the House Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Foreign Operations. April 10, 2002.

8 Donald E, Schulz, The United States and Latin America: Shaping an Elusive Future (Carlisle PA: Strategic Studies Institute, 2000), p.3.

9 Peter Pace, Advance Questions for Lieutenant General Peter Pace. Defense Reforms. United States Senate Committee on Armed Services. 2000.

10 Phillip Reeker, State Department on Change of Government in Venezuela, 12 April 2002.

11 On Chavez and his popular democratic mandate see NarcoNews, February 20, 2002; On US media responses to the coup see Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting, US Papers Hail Venezuelan Coup as Pro-Democracy Move, April 18, 2002.; For a good overall context to the background of the coup see Conn Hallinan, US Shadow Over Venezuela, Foreign Policy in Focus. April 17, 2002.

12 The Guardian, April 29, 2002.

13 Thomas C, Dawson, Transcript of a Press Briefing, International Monetary Fund, Friday, April 12, 2002,

14 The Observer, April 21, 2002.

15 US House of Representatives, Testimony Of General James T. Hill Before the House Armed Services Committee, March 24, 2004.

16 Richard Gott, ‘Democracy Under Threat’, The Guardian, December 6, 2005.,,1658890,00.html

17 El Tiempo. 10 February, 2002.

18 Christian Science Monitor. 5 March, 2002.

19 House Appropriations Committee. Secretary of State Colin Powell before the Foreign Operations Subcommittee, February 13, 2002.

20 El Tiempo. 10 February, 2002.

21 George Bush, President’s Budget Message on Andean Counterdrug Initiative, Washington, US Department of State, February 04,2002.

22Lutz Kleveman, The New Great Game: Blood and Oil in Central Asia (London: Grove Press, 2004).

23 Jones quote from Saul B, Cohen, ‘The Eurasian Convergence Zone: Gateway or Shatterbelt?’, Eurasian Geography and Economics, 2005, 46:1,p.9.

24 US CENTCOM, Statement of General Anthony C. Zinni, undated.

25 US Department of State, New Independent States, Undated.

26 United States Government, ‘Uzbekistan Military Assistance’ and ‘Uzbekistan Exchanges and Law Enforcement Assistance’, Undated, 2002.

27 Anthony C. Zinni, Statement of General Anthony C. Zinni, Undated.

28 Statement of George L. Person, JR. Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs, U.S. Senate. US Foreign Policy, Petroleum and the Middle East. October 20, 2005.

29 Ed Royce quote from African Oil: A Priority for US National Security and African Development, African Oil Policy Initiative Group, undated.

30 George W Bush, Remarks by the President at Signing of the Agoa Acceleration Act of 2004, July 13, 2004.

31 William D. Hartung and Frida Berrigan, Militarization of U.S. Africa Policy, 2000 to 2005, March 2005,

32 Donna Miles’ US Must Confront Terrorism in Africa’ American Forces Information Services, June 16, 2004.

33 Ian Mason, ‘A Growing Source For Oil Is Also A Target West Africa, A Big Exporter To The U.S., Demonstrates The “Paradox Of Plenty”’, San Francisco Chronicle, September 19, 2004.

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