September 30, 2009

Book Review: Crude World

This won’t be a full review of the new book Crude World: The Violent Twilight of Oil by writer Peter Maass, as it was treated to good reviews already this past week in The New York Times and by my dear colleague Robert Kaplan in the Wall Street Journal. But I did want to flag this book as a solid natural security read.
Crude World
The bulk of this tome is a series of anecdotes in chapters themed of human misery: Plunder, Mirage, Greed, and Scarcity, for example. It is reminiscent of The End of Oil by Paul Roberts, one of my older favorites; it is striking that one substance can provide enough thought-provoking material for a seemingly endless stream of books.

A few things struck me in Crude World. The first is the corruption so often rampant in oil producing countries. This seems to be a big theme in foreign policy as of late. Last Sunday, Rep. Jane Harman wrote of Afghanistan in The Washington Post that “without a viable partner, the strategy will fail. That's why I say: ‘It's the corruption, stupid.’”  In the G20 “Leaders’ Statement” resulting from last week’s Pittsburgh summit, world leaders declared that “We are committed to maintain the momentum in dealing with tax havens, money laundering, proceeds of corruption, terrorist financing, and prudential standards.” If corruption is seen as a new plague of geopolitics (note: not a concept I agree with) then this book could serve as a nice roadmap for some places to target.

As Maass notes in the chapter titled “Rot,” “Today, you needn’t be a Marxist to be interested in the role of natural resources in political conflicts.” Quite true. I consider myself and my collegues quite far from the Marxist camp, yet we explore daily on this blog the linkages, often stark ones, among resources, politics, and conflict that cannot be ignored in developing policies to secure the United States. That sentence, coupled with the author’s description of the first Gulf War in the chapter “Desire” recall a description by Peter Gleick in his April 1991 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists article, “Environment and Security: The Clear Connections,” in which Gleick noted the ways energy and water were used in targeting, in threatening Iraq, and in the justifications of both sides for their actions. As he wrote almost two decades ago: 

We live in an unusual period in history, as traditional military tensions and conflicts are becoming increasingly intertwined with new global challenges: widespread underdevelopment and poverty and large-scale environmental problems that threaten human health, economic equality, and international security. In many ways, the Persian Gulf war reflects these new issues…The political and ideological questions that now dominate international discourse will not become less important in the future: rather, they will become more tightly woven with other variables that loomed less large in the past.

Indeed. Maass derives from his exploration of that war, the current Iraq War, and many other situations around the world a far more nuanced view than one might expect. “[A]fter several months in Iraq,” he writes on page 138, “I realized how confounding oil can be.” While there are clear connections, pinpointing specifics can be extraordinarily difficult. At the intersection of natural resources and politics, the truth is often subjective. And as Maass described it in the book’s Introduction: “I knew that the war zones I’d visited since the 1980s were consequences rather than explanations.”

Photo Courtesty of Random House, Inc.