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Comments on the Persian Gulf War I by Dr. Eric Karlstrom (April, 1991)

Nobody’s Hanging Yellow Ribbons For the Persian Gulf Part I

by Eric Karlstrom

Sierra Runoff, April, 1991

The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, he has a remarkable capability for not even hearing about them.

George Orwell, “Notes on Nationalism”, 1945

The government and media tell us we have a decisive, glorious military victory in the Persian Gulf. Nationalistic pride is seen everywhere with American flags, yellow ribbons and “support our troops” bumper stickers. But what about he effects of the war on the people and environment of the Persian Gulf? The fact is that in terms of its human and environmental costs, the Gulf War was an atrocity and a massacre.

At a cost of up to $billion per day, the US military unleashed more firepower in the Persian Gulf in 5 weeks than was used in all of World War II or Vietnam. The Air Force flew over 90,000 missions at the rate of 3,000 per day, or one per minute.   At least 70 percent missed their targets. Although carefully “sanitized” press releases mostly censored the human carnage and have made it difficult to obtain reliable figures, an estimated 200,000 were killed, many of them innocent women and children. A U.N. mission states that post-war Iraq has been bombed back to the “pre-industrial age” and the situation there is “near apocalyptic”.

They warn that thousands more may soon die in epidemics and famines as a result of the wholesale destruction of buildings, sanitary facilities, water and sewage systems, transportation networks, and food supplies.

The agriculturally-productive delta between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers (“the cradle of civilization”) and much of the rest of Iraq and Kuwait have been devastated. Scientists estimate it will take generations and longer for the fragile desert ecosystems to recover. The desert battles of WWII set off many extraordinarily large dust storms and today, some 40 years later, only about 35 percent of the vegetation cover has regenerated in areas where tanks flattened the landscape. Some 600 oil fires are now burning out of control in Kuwait, consuming about 5 million barrels of oil/day and producing upwards of 5,000 tons of toxic smoke/day. Red Adair estimates they will be “lucky” to get the fires out within two years.

The effects of the smoke pollution may soon include nitrogen and sulfur oxides, depletion of the ozone layer from nitrogen oxides, and global warming from carbon dioxide. Of, if sufficient smoke reaches the stratos phere, a small-scale “nuclear winter” could alter local and even global climate patterns, potentially causing crop failures in the Middle East, India, Pakistan, and North America. In addition, millions of barrels of oil have spilled into the fragile Persian Gulf, creating an oil slick 5 times the size of the Exxon Valdez spill and damaging over a hundred miles of Saudi coast. The Saudi Environmental Agency states that the US is responsible for at 30% of the present spill. In short the US military strategy amounted to ecocide, a “scorched earth policy” designed to destroy Iraq and Kuwait in order to “liberate” Kuwait.

Was the war necessary and justified? Did the US actively seek to avoid it? No, on both counts. In fact, the US blocked all attempts to negotiate a peaceful settlement. Bush’s deployment last fall of 400,000 troops to the Gulf to “defend” Saudi Arabia signaled his intention to wage war on Iraq. By November, Bechtel Corporation had already signed contracts with the Government of Kuwait to rebuild the soon-to-be-war-torn Kuwait.

But why would Bush wage war at a time when peace was breaking out all over the world and the U.N. had virtually unanimously condemned Iraq’s aggression and put international sanctions in place? A real “new world order” based on peace and international cooperation was within grasp.

Bush waged the Gulf war in order to secure our access to cheap oil, preserve our “way of life”, and guarantee U.S. military and economic dominance in the world. As a Bush advisor put it:

“Even a dolt understands the principle. We need the oil. It’s nice to talk about standing up for freedom, but Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are not exactly democracies, and if their principal export were oranges, a mid-level State Department official would have issued a statement and we would have closed Washington down for August.” (Time Magazine, 8/20/90)

Some 65 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves occur in the Middle East, with20 percent under Iraq and Kuwait. (The U.S. has just 4 percent). At the present rate of extraction, he world’s oil may be gone within the first half of the next century. Hence, assuming continued dependence on fossil fuels, whoever controls the last great oil pool of oil will have unprecedented power.

Joseph Gerson of the American Friends Service Committee states:

“President Bush’s particular interest in “liberating” Kuwait lies less in keeping current oil supply lines open than in dominating access to long-term oil reserves and controlling the international economic balance of power. Control over the flow of Middle East oil has given the US enormous power over the economies of Western Europe, Japan and the newly industrialized countries of the Pacific. Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait challenged this power. The Gulf war has given Washington the opportunity to reaffirm its control over the region and thus its place as the world’ number one power. This is the New World Order Bush is talking about.”

Bush probably also waged war in order to prevent the cutbacks in military budgets which seemed inevitable as the Cold War melted away and the nation planned for a substantial “peace dividend”. In part, it was war for war’s sake. After all, nowthat America is the world’s largest debtor nation ($3.2 trillion) and is being economically surpassed by Japan and Germany, our role as superpower can best, and perhaps only, be defined and asserted militarily. Finally the war conveniently diverted national attention from numerous domestic crises, including the impending recession, the savings and loan crisis, the deteriorating quality of the environment, and the 2-3 million homeless (which accompanied 77 percent cuts in federal housing programs between 1980 and 1990). Our national priorities are certainly reflected in the national budget where 50 percent of tax revenues goes to the military, wheras only 13 percent goes to health, education, and the environment. Two thirds of the government’s research budget goes to the military while energy research gets only 4 percent, and the environment receives only 2 percent. The U.S. now spends $16 billion per year on prisons and has surpassed South Africa to the lead the world in incarceration rates. Thus it is now becoming clear that our “national security state” is really a neo-fascist police state and that war is our energy policy.

Reagan-Bush Energy Strategy

Q. We haven’t really heard you call upon Americans to conserve as a part of this crisis.
A. I call upon Americans to conserve.
Q. Will you elaborate?
A. No.

President George H.W. Bush, Kennbunkport press conference, August, 1990

The lunacy of Bush’s Gulf War is that the industrial “way of life” he seeks to preserve is unsustainable and now threatens the ecosystem of the entire planet. The tragic environmental consequences of our oil addiction confront us everywhere- toxic air and water pollution; the increasing uninhabitability of our cities, the death of forests, lakes and organisms from acid rain; the threat of global warming; and the destruction of ocean habitats from oil spills. It took nature a million years to produce the fossil fuels our global industrial economy now consumes in a year. And at present rates of consumption, we will exhaust the world’s oil reserves within 50 to 80 years.

Meanwhile, Americans, with 5 percent of the world’s population, consume 25% of the world’s energy. The average American consumes 50 times more energy than a citizen of Bangladesh. We consume 17 million barrels of oil/day, of which 8,4 million are imported, 50% of that going to fuel cars and trucks. The U.S. has 35 percent of the world’s cars and at present they get an average 19 mpg. Increasing car fuel efficiency standards by only 2.8 mpg would save the amount of oil (5 percent) the U.S. imported from Iraq and Kuwait prior to last fall’s embargo. Automobiles have now been developed which get between 55 and 121 mpg, and the Senate’s Bryan Bill would have required vehicles to get at least 42 mpg. This bill would have saved 1,700 million barrels of oil per year, more than twice the 775 million barrels the U.S. gets from all the Arab OPEC countries. Bush lobbied hard against the bill and defeated it.

Why is Bush willing to sacrifice countless lives, billions of dollars, and the earth’s environment to assure that we maintain our dependence on oil? And why is he unwilling to promote conservation and efficiency measures which would help clean-up the environment and conserve oil? The answers are deeply embedded in the economic structure of America. The American Petroleum Co. is the largest political lobby in Washington. Bush himself founded Zapata Oil. Secretary of State Baker is linked with Exxon, Mobil, Standard Oil, and Kerr-McGee. Vice-President Quayle is backed by Standard Oil. The Department of Defense is the single largest oil consumer in the world.

Who were the real winners of the Gulf War? First, the U.S. government maintained its control over Middle Eastern oil prices. Also, Chevron’s profits jumped 800 percent from 1989 to 1990 and other oil companies posted 30 to 80 percent gains in the last months of 1990. And, of course, now that billions of dollars worth of weapons have been exploded over the Gulf, military contractors will have to replace them.

Our present environmentally insane energy policy was not inevitable. (President) Carter had initiated efforts to halt our growing dependence on foreign oil and dramatically increased funding for research on renewable energy sources and increased efficiency. In fact, conservation measures have provided seven times more new energy supplies since 1973 than all efforts to build new power plants or drill new wells combined. Given a chance, increased efficiency standards can reduce the quantity of oil we need and renewable sources can eventually replace the rest. Solar, wind, biomass, biogas; we now have the technology we need to convert to sustainable energy sources. What has been lacking is the political will.

But the gains of the Carter years were quickly erased by the Reagan-Bush administration. During the 80s, Reagan-Bush: 1) cut federal spending for research and development for conservation and solar energy technologies by 90 percent, 2) reduced the budget for renewable fuels by 90 percent, 3) cut federal funding for mass transit in half, 4) granted auto industry requests to reduce fuel efficiency requirements for 1986-1988, and 5) turned the Department of Energy upside down so that DOW now devotes 2/3 of its budget to producing nuclear weapons rather than funding energy development.

Thus, the Political Ecology Group states:

“The Gulf War is the culmination of more than a decade of government energy policies that have consistently undermined efforts to promote efficiency and renewable alternatives to oil.”

This policy continues. Last year, West German Parliament set a goal to reduce CO2 emissions by 32 percent over 15 years. The Bush administration, meanwhile, called for more studies of the problem and no action. As Greenpeace’s Peg Stevenson notes, the government “casts polluting industries as the “victims” of a hasty response to the greenhouse threat.” In effect, according to Stevenson, “the oil and energy companies tell the administration what to do and it does it.”

Not surprisingly, then, the current National Energy Strategy, prepared by DOE in the fall of 1990 (and reiterated in Bush’s 1991 State of the Union Message) abandons virtually all conservation and renewable energy options that would reduce our fossil fuel dependence, while simultaneously urging increased tax subsidies which pay oil companies to exhaust U.S. oil supplies as fast as possible. Rather than calling for reduced dependence on foreign oil, the strategy proposes we maintain our present level of oil imports through the year 2010.


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