Tuesday, June 22, 2010
Dreamers of the Day
by Mary Doria Russell
Book review by Teresa Friedlander, copyright 2010
According to “The Washington Post” the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is already five or six times larger than the Exxon Valdez catastrophe of 1989; and will continue to spew for at least two more months, or longer if the relief wells fail. We are starting to see the devastating and depressing pictures of fish, birds, and turtles coated with the sticky, slimy crude and could very well see entire ecosystems collapse. So who is to blame for this disaster? BP? The Minerals Management Service? President Bush (2nd)? Vice President Cheney? President Obama? To find the answer, we need to go back in time to the early years of the twentieth century, when the burgeoning automobile industry created a demand for petroleum that shows no signs of stopping. Today the United States is the third highest per capita consumer of oil, after Saudi Arabia and Canada. With China and India producing cars for their growing middle classes, competition for this dwindling resource could soon be as ugly as the Gulf oil spill.
Dreamers of the Day is not a great book. It is written well enough, but the story is a little silly as the narrator is speaking from beyond the grave. If you can tolerate a few clichéd plot devices, the reason to read this book is that the author, Mary Doria Rusell, provides a clear and succinct early history of the Middle Eastern oil industry as well as British efforts to retain control of Iraq and Jordan following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. It was this critical moment in history that set the stage for the world’s current addiction to oil and the consequences that continue to play out.
In the aftermath of World War I, western Europe, Specifically Britain and France, redrew the maps of eastern Europe, Asia Minor, and the Middle East. British colonial secretary, Winston Churchill, called a meeting, in Cairo in 1921, with Middle East experts to decide how to re-organize newly liberated Mesopotamia and Transjordan. T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) was one of the attendees, given his knowledge of the Arabic world, as was Gertrude Bell, a woman of great stature who was also an expert on the Middle East. Colonel Lawrence and Miss Bell both acted as mediators between the various Arabs and the British, carefully winning the respect and trust of the former and educating the latter. The result of this meeting was the installation of Faisal bin Hussein as Iraq’s first king. Faisal was given this honor out of gratitude for helping the British during the first world war by entering Damascus, Syria, at the height of the Arab Revolt against the Turkish Ottomans. Churchill, on the advice of Miss Bell and Colonel Lawrence, recommended Faisal because they believed he could gain the support of Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds. This was a cunning choice as Faisal was from a prominent Sunni family and was also a direct descendent of Prophet Muhammad’s great-grandfather, Hashim ibn Abd al-Manaf. The Cairo Conference had expected Faisal to be more of a puppet than he turned out to be; and Faisal, for his own part, discovered that bringing different religious and ethnic groups together into a single government is much harder than it sounds. Further complicating matters was the on-going rivalry between France and Britain over the entire region known as The Levant.
Meanwhile, demand for petroleum and its byproducts grew exponentially as industry and technology evolved in Europe and North America. Oil producing and exporting companies formed and used Basra, Iraq, at the northern end of the Persian Gulf as their main depot. Britain retained control of Iraq until 1932, granting it independence in exchange for land and natural resources, Royal Air Force bases, and a coordinating role in foreign policy for twenty-five years. During this period Iraq suffered a series of coups d’état and a British invasion; and perpetrated a pogrom against its Jewish citizens. The opportunistic oil companies continued their messy business by lining the pockets of whoever was in power.
Following the second World War, the United Nations annexed Palestine, dividing it into Arab and Jewish States in 1948. The creation of Israel – a homeland for the Jewish people – was unacceptable to the Arabs in the region, especially the displaced Palestinians even though the land in question was mostly unpopulated, barren desert. Israel quickly became the Arab world’s main enemy and has been in a state of preparedness for war ever since. While the creation of Israel had no direct bearing on the production and distribution of oil, the fact that the region became dangerously unstable meant that access to that oil was constantly at risk.
After World War II, the strategically located Suez Canal became critical to the shipping of oil to consuming countries such as the United States. Britain maintained a military presence of 80,000 troops at the Suez Canal in order to protect its access under the terms of the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936. Across the next two decades, anti-British sentiments grew as Egypt struggled with inflation, unemployment, and an unstable economy. In October of 1951, Egypt decided to abandon the treaty and demanded Britain’s withdrawal from Suez. This led to increasing violence and rioting in Cairo and ultimately to a military coup d-état led by Muhammad Neguib and Gamal Abdul Nasser, who would one day be Egypt’s president. Before, during, and after this period, Egypt routinely intercepted cargo destined for Israel as it passed through the Suez Canal. In spite of harsh criticism from the United Nations Security Council, interference with Israel-bound ships increased steadily under Egypt’s new regime. During 1955 and 1956, Britain and Egypt engaged in a growing power struggle as Egypt sought total autonomy. In addition to direct conflict, Nasser engaged in negotiations with communist countries to obtain arms. Britain sought help from the United States but President Eisenhower decided to stay out so as not to offend Saudi Arabia, a key supplier of oil. In a series of chess-like moves, Egypt did the unthinkable and officially recognized the People’s Republic of China. This so angered the United States that Secretary of State John Foster Dulles revoked American financial support for the Aswan Dam project. With the United States out of the way, Nasser claimed that Suez belonged to Egypt and demanded that British forces withdraw.
In 1956, Britain, hiding behind Israel and aided by France, declared war against Egypt in a bid to regain control of Suez. Each of these nations had separate motives: Britain needed Suez to control its remaining colonies; France wanted to weaken Nasser so its North African colonies would not grow restless; and Israel wanted to use the canal for shipping. Britain calculated that Nasser’s alliance with communist countries would cause the United States to support the invasion once it began. In this, they were mistaken. Tension between the United States and the Soviet Union was growing and the threat of another global war, should the Soviets back Egypt, kept President Eisenhower from engaging militarily. In a surprise move, Nasser asked the United States for assistance in finding a diplomatic solution to the crisis. The United Nations then demanded an immediate cease-fire and the removal of the invading forces. Britain and France had no choice but to withdraw; and Israel had learned important lessons about waging offensive wars. In order to enforce the cease-fire, the United Nations stationed a peace-keeping force on the Sinai Peninsula.
This uneasy peace held for the next decade, but Egypt began a massive military build-up along its border with Israel and closed the Straits of Tiran to any ship flying the Israeli flag. With no access to the Indian Ocean, Israel began a parallel build-up of forces and arms. In spite of UN presence, Israel was continuously under attack by Syrian and Palestinian guerillas – or terrorists. Adding to the tension was the need for water for Israel’s growing population. The River Jordan delimits Israel’s eastern border with Jordan and Syria, and in 1964, Israel opened its National Water Carrier system to bring water to the arid central regions. This had the effect of reducing the water flow into Syria and Jordan. In retaliation, with financial support from Saudi Arabia and Egypt, Syria and Jordan began construction of canals to divert the River Jordan’s headwaters from the Sea of Galilee. Beginning in April of 1965, Israel launched a series of air attacks to stop construction of the headwater diversion projects, because Israel’s water supply would have dropped significantly and the salinity of the Sea of Galilee would have increased as well. On May 30, 1967, Egypt, Jordan, and Syria signed a treaty pledging mutual support should Israel attack again. President Nasser, who for years had tried to be a peace-maker in the region, said: “Our basic objective will be the destruction of Israel. The Arab people want to fight.”
On June 5, 1967, feeling that an attack by Egypt and other Arab nations was imminent, Israel made a preemptive strike on Egyptian forces amassed on the Sinai Peninsula. Within three days, Israel had succeeded in capturing Sinai. Meanwhile, Jordan and Syria made a series of attacks from the West Bank region. Israel, however, was fighting for its life and quickly decided to take the Old City of Jerusalem as well as the Palestinian West Bank territory surrounding it. Syria, acting on false reports that Israel was losing the war, began cautiously conducting air raids across their shared northern border. The Syrians, however, were caught off guard by the vastly superior and fully deployed Israeli Air Force. In spite of a cease-fire being called by Syria and Jordan, the Israelis attacked Golan in retaliation for the years of attacks sponsored by Syria and also because this area was difficult to defend, given its geography. Six days later, the war was over and Israel was in control of the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights. In addition to vastly increased territory, Israel also became home to approximately one million Arabs.
Israel’s military success only served to heighten the tension in the region and in October of 1973, members of the Organization of Oil Producing and Exporting Countries (OPEC), plus Egypt, Syria, and Tunisia, declared an oil embargo against the United States for providing supplies to Israel’s military during the Yom Kippur War of 1973. This caused gas prices to skyrocket and supplies to fall. Panic swept the United States and waiting in long gas lines became the national pastime. Bowing to pressure from the United States to negotiate with Syria, Israel agreed to give up the Golan heights. OPEC in turn lifted the embargo after a year but the threat remained.
President Jimmy Carter understood the long-term consequences of America’s dependence on foreign oil and put in place an energy policy designed to reduce our consumption of fossil fuels and to increase our use of renewable resources such as solar power. He was, unfortunately, several decades ahead of his time and his immediate successor, Ronald Reagan undid every one of President Carter’s innovative energy incentives almost immediately upon taking office. Three decades later, the Gulf of Mexico is dying from our oil addiction. While it might feel good to place the blame on a single president, CEO, or corporation, in reality we are all guilty. We Americans have known for a long time that our wasteful consumption would have to end and yet we failed to demand more fuel efficient cars and freedom from our oil suppliers. Instead, we demanded gas-guzzling sport-utility vehicles, high-performance sports cars, pick-up trucks, and Hummers.
At some point, the Gulf oil guyser will be plugged and the real work of cleaning up will begin. Will this catastrophe be the catalyst for our nation to break our oil dependence? Or, will we instead be like drug addicts who lie, steal, cheat, and kill in order to feed our disease until it kills us?
Copyright 2010 Teresa Friedlander all rights reserved