Bumper Sticker Wisdom

On the October 16 episode of Real Time with Bill Maher, Alec Baldwin said, “If we spent the money we spend in Afghanistan or a fraction of the money we spend in Iraq on alternative energy policy in this country, we wouldn’t even have to bother fighting wars for oil in the Middle East in the first place.” His statement was met with rousing applause by the predominantly progressive/liberal audience, and even though I think that Baldwin is one of the more well-spoken Hollywood liberals who have appeared on Maher’s show, I nevertheless don’t think his assertion should remain unchallenged. It’s not that I think alternative energy is a bad thing. I drive a hybrid. I love alternative energy because our current energy sources are turning the planet into a George Foreman grill, not because they will “free” the United States from the Middle East.

I have heard Baldwin’s reasoning before in both my personal political conversations and even in other public forums. For example, President Obama made “ending our addiction to foreign oil” a primary issue in his campaign. The argument – which is rarely made specifically – basically follows that energy independence would end U.S. commerce in the Middle East, and if the U.S. no longer buys Arab oil, then the U.S. no longer has any interest in the Middle East. In essence – and this is the part Baldwin and others didn’t include – we could leave the Arabs to their own devices, their own problems, their own religious extremism, their own violent tendencies. And eventually they won’t have any reason to attack us again.

Clearly, this is myopic, reductive reasoning that fails to consider the complexities of global economics or the extent of our political involvement in the Middle East. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that we get some magic mineral or our scientists are able to perfect safe, reliable nuclear fusion, effectively ending our oil consumption. Would Obama immediately remove all our soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan? Not in the face of conservative commentators who still maintain that we have to fight “them over there” so we don’t have to fight them here. The more serious argument against immediate troop withdrawal suggests that things are too unstable for U.S. troops to leave. This argument seems to suggest that we are the glue holding Afghanistan together.

Most importantly, I doubt our reliance on oil prevents Obama from calling up Benjamin Netanyahu and simply saying, “Israel is officially on its own, buddy.” In fact, the Middle Eastern nations’ single greatest complaint about U.S. foreign policy is our consistent, uncritical support of Israel. And this support is increasing, or at least under pressure to increase. Mitt Romney, in what is doubtlessly a preparation for a 2012 run at the White House, spoke at the AIPAC (“America’s Pro Israel Lobby” according to its website) summit on October 19.1 Before stating that Iran, a country of over 65 million people, is “unalloyed evil,” (para. 30), Romney wondered at “how little we ask of the Arab world” (para. 14) and proclaimed his personal and political affection for Israel. What is more, President Obama’s government has voted against endorsing the Goldstone Report, a U.N. investigation accusing both Israel and Hamas of war crimes and crimes against humanity during the 2008 war in Gaza. From both sides of the political spectrum, Israel enjoys remarkable latitude and political support.

But Baldwin’s statement is indicative of an even larger discursive problem. As a nation, we’ve failed to put our uncritical support for Israel up for question. Our national conversation has paid more attention to the Balloon Boy. Baldwin can present the argument that the U.S. is only tied to Middle East through oil because on the Sunday morning talk shows, the Goldstone Report got no play. As a nation, we don’t talk about whether or not we should support Israel, so it is understandable that Baldwin would elide this when he speaks of U.S.-Middle East relations.

What troubles me most is this: a focus only on oil also ignores the vast cultural advantages the U.S. has gained from Arab countries. The food, music, literature, architecture – and if none of those impress you, how about numbers? Yes, we got our numbers from Arabs! But in our discourse, isn’t it more than a little stereotypical that the only thing we can remember is oil? Doesn’t this deploy a repeating image in our cultural lexicon: the Arab gas station attendant? Is this to what our foreign policy reduces this vast region – the so-called cradle of civilization? My contention is that anti-Arab racism pervades our political discussion about the Middle East if we choose to restrict that conversation to oil and terrorism. And Baldwin’s idea – that if we free ourselves of our “addiction to foreign oil,” then the world will be a better place – underhandedly suggests that the ultimate goal for Middle East peace is to leave “them” alone, separate “them” from “us.” After all, so goes this argument, they are not fit for modernity. Essentially, this argument forces the Middle East endgame to be more about isolation than unity and more about fearing the radical differences between our cultures than the glaring sameness of our humanity. It seems to me that the hope of a lasting Middle East peace rests upon a common commitment to avoiding stereotypes and, possibly most of all, to treating Arab interests with respect and legitimacy.

About two weeks ago, I saw a bumper sticker that said, “Kick their ass. Take their gas.” After a brief surge of anger, during which I wanted to chase down the car and aggressively invite the driver for a cup of coffee and a picture show of Palestinian refugee camps, I comforted myself with one small hope. I hoped that the driver’s view was the minority. Sadly, I can’t say that I was right.

  1. Romney, Mitt. “Address by Mitt Romney at AIPAC National Summit.” Real Clear Politics. 19 October 2009. 20 October 2009. []
Jim Hunter teaches writing and literature at Tarrant County College in Fort Worth, TX. He earned his M.A. in English at Virginia Tech. Read other articles by James.

18 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Jim said on October 22nd, 2009 at 10:04am #

    Hunter seems to be denying that it is realistic to want to change our pattern of energy consumption through doing what many are already calling for, a radical shift to renewable energy technologies such as solar and wind power. His argument is based on some rather vague premises that cultural factors such as racism, rather than the greed for profit and power that actually dominate international and national politics, are the limiting factors.

    Baldwin is correct, and it is not necessary for him to detail the history of Arab culture to justify his position. Hunter’s specious reasoning does nothing more than distract from the fundamental issues of imperialism, global warming and peak oil.

  2. Josie Michel-Brüning said on October 22nd, 2009 at 10:43am #

    Although, I appreciate the reminding at Arabian culture by the author, I agree mainly with Jim.
    Moreover, I think that the arrogant and greedy policy of the successive US administrations with their effective secret arm, the CIA, is to blame for nearly all troubles in Middle East, Afghanistan and elsewhere in combination with the secret service of Israel, not to forget their bankers.
    They caused the destabilizing in many countries.
    Oh, Im so tired, when referring to it and so hopeless when thinking of my grandchildren having to live on such a destroyed planet.

  3. Michael Dawson said on October 22nd, 2009 at 10:47am #

    Baldwin is wrong, and, despite the obvious points about treating Middle Easterners (not all of whom are Arabs) like equal human beings, so is Mr. Hunter. We cannot replace oil unless we replace cars-first transportation, and we can’t replace cars-first transportation unless we replace capitalism. The “alternative energy” sources are simply not scalable to the needed level.

    Meanwhile, US policy on Israel is driven by the need to maintain a good political distraction in the region and at home, to justify our continuing dominance of the Middle East. This dominance is only going to get more and more crucial to the oil- and imperialism-dependent overclass, as the downslope of Peak Oil starts to bite harder and harder.

    The overclass of this society remains history’s most powerful and sophisticated one. They don’t merely drift their way into something as momentous and dangerous as our pro-Israel policy.

  4. Al said on October 22nd, 2009 at 11:37am #

    Most of our problems in the Mideast would disappear if we stopped blindly supporting israel!

  5. lichen said on October 22nd, 2009 at 2:12pm #

    The essence of baldwin’s statement was about taking away all the money uselessly, destructively spent on the military, and putting it into solar, wind, geothermal, tidal power, and high speed rail. Nuclear is pollution, so we won’t include it. He is correct; that money could be spent towards the betterment of the world and our people, instead of using it to murder arabs. Furthermore, it IS right for the US to leave the middle east immediately and never return. If the US military and CIA (illegal terrorist organizations) stop interfering in the middle east and the US exposes israel to international law, everything will be well.

    It is further notable that the US, actually, buys most of it’s oil from Canada’s tar sands. Extracting oil from tar sands is one of the worst environmental crimes imaginable (on the same scale as disgusting poisonous nuclear) and we should certainly not be supporting that, either; it is worse than any faults that could be laid at the middle east’s doorstep.

  6. Suthiano said on October 22nd, 2009 at 3:19pm #

    To Baldwin Josie and Jim,

    You are misinformed if you believe U.S. mid-east policy is configured around “oil”. Saudi Arabia is biggest source in region and there have been no invasions or occupations of that land by U.S.. Meanwhile it remains “Arab” and theocratic.

    Funny thing about oil is that even “unfriendly” countries trade with each other. So despite Mr. Chavez being president of Venezuela, the U.S. continues to do business with that nation, and oil continues to be shipped to the U.S..

    Likewise Iraqi oil would have continued to flow to the U.S. without invasion and occupation.

    And as lichen correctly pointed out Canada is U.S. #1 provider.

    With all the above considered, it hardly seems reasonable to define oil as the central issue in U.S. mid-east policy. The consequence is that other reasons must be sought. An honest, serious investigation will inevitably lead to Israel.

  7. Michael Dawson said on October 22nd, 2009 at 3:44pm #

    Why do people who claim it’s all about Israel always fail to think out their own story? As Al says, many of our immediate problems in the Middle East would go away if we cut off Israel.

    But think another step farther: What would happen after that? The masses of the region would in very short order start asking why we prop up and arm the Saudi “royals” and so many other predatory despots. They would return to the Mossadegh question.

    Hence, our elite is rock solid on Israel support, despite the obvious costs and dangers. It’s a fantastic distraction from our underlying interests and actions.

    Meanwhile, Suthiano, you could use a little harder analysis yourself. As every major power figure has said, the world is going to be forced more and more into competing for Middle Eastern oil, where remaining reserves are by far the highest, over the coming decades. The world’s biggest oil consumer, the USA, will not be exempt. Whichever power has sweetheart deals and armies in the region will retain enormous advantages.

  8. Deadbeat said on October 22nd, 2009 at 4:32pm #

    Meanwhile, Suthiano, you could use a little harder analysis yourself. As every major power figure has said, the world is going to be forced more and more into competing for Middle Eastern oil, where remaining reserves are by far the highest, over the coming decades. The world’s biggest oil consumer, the USA, will not be exempt. Whichever power has sweetheart deals and armies in the region will retain enormous advantages.

    This is bogus. The USA gets most of its oil from the Americas (Canada and Latin America). Also Venezueala has more oil in its reserves than the Middle East. I would say that Mr. Dawson needs to check out article from James Petras. Many of those articles are posted here on DV.

  9. Deadbeat said on October 22nd, 2009 at 4:35pm #

    Also Venezueala has more oil in its reserves than the Middle East

    That sould read Venezuela has more oil in its reserves than the Saudis. The difference is that Venezuela oil is a heavy grade that is more expensive to extract. Chavez himself has stated that should the price of oil remain over US$50.00 that it then is cost effective. This should be no problem as oil prices has pretty much remain above this benchmark.

  10. brian said on October 23rd, 2009 at 12:05am #

    The war in iraq was brought about by the neocons and was in the interests of israel. The best commentator on this notion is Stephen Sniegorski , who says the war in iraq was conceived in Israel …

    ‘In the following essay I attempt to flesh out that thesis and show the link between the war position of the neoconservatives and the long-time strategy of the Israeli Right, if not of the Israeli mainstream itself. In brief, the idea of a Middle East war has been bandied about in Israel for many years as a means of enhancing Israeli security, which revolves around an ultimate solution to the Palestinian problem.’

    etc
    http://www.thornwalker.com/ditch/snieg_conc1.htm

  11. Jeff said on October 23rd, 2009 at 3:52am #

    For one, the money being spent is a fiction, a fiat currency that conjured up by the Federal Reserve. It is not capital in any sense of the word that is the money held from savings and profits. The US economy is a pure fiction, one of the most backward and inefficient economies in the world, constantly allocating resources and its perception as something more is due to the fact that of the dollar as reserve currency for the world. Such a relationship requires that a large part of the money must be spent on maintaining the global military dominance of US power in order to enforce the order that global capitalist seek. We can not magically say….’lets spend it on windmills’. That is absurd, naive, childish. If we abstained from military spending and reallocated monies to such affairs, the dollar would have little value and the US would then have to operate like the rest of the world and actually produce things of value that people want, of which we are very poor at doing. The abundance and opulence that we perceive would suddenly disappear and reality would be very different.

  12. Dan Kelly said on October 23rd, 2009 at 5:53am #

    In addition to the above-mentioned “The war on Iraq: Conceived in Israel” by Stephen Sniegoski, readers will also be interested in Jeffrey Blankfort’s “A War For Israel.” Excellent information on the subject is provided daily at Mondoweiss.

    http://mondoweiss.net/

    http://www.leftcurve.org/LC28WebPages/WarForIsrael.html

    “Every time anyone says that Israel is our only friend in the Middle East, I can’t help but think that before Israel, we had no enemies in the Middle East.” -Franklin Lamb

  13. Michael Dawson said on October 23rd, 2009 at 9:44am #

    One constant service provided by DV is continuing proof of how very far we remain from having a political left in the USA. The pack of kooks that comment here is quite astounding.

    Deadbeat claims that Venezuela has more oil reserves than the Middle East, then tries to rescue himself by changing the comparison to Saudi Arabia. Even the latter is utterly wrong, of course, unless one deals in pure self-indulgent fantasy.

    Meanwhile, Jeff thinks paper money is all a dream, that there is no such thing as an economy. Sociology 101 would seem to be something beyond Jeff’s capacities and interests. Jeff, buddy: Paper money is real because people accept it as a legitimate means of exchange. The economy is real because people make things, organized by other people and paper money.

    Jesus, we need help.

  14. Mista D said on October 23rd, 2009 at 12:04pm #

    … oh and don’t forget ‘War is big business’…. as long as people can make money from war, you’ll always be having a war…. wether you have a miracle solution to energy resources or not.

  15. Deadbeat said on October 24th, 2009 at 1:43am #

    Michael Dawson writes …

    Deadbeat claims that Venezuela has more oil reserves than the Middle East, then tries to rescue himself by changing the comparison to Saudi Arabia. Even the latter is utterly wrong, of course, unless one deals in pure self-indulgent fantasy.

    The latter is not “utterly wrong” especially since it is based on your pontification rather than any information. I’m citing Chavez and his own comments about his own reserves. Chavez himself stated that Venezuela has greater reserves than the Saudis. The issue is that his heavy oil required a $50.00 price point which he was able to get especially over the past eight years. So I would hope Mr. Dawson cite something to support his position unless he hope that he can spew erroneous “conventional wisdom” like the Left has been doing for the past 30 years that has promoted “War for oil” and diminished the influence of Zionism regarding Middle East policy.

    Jesus, we need help.

    I would suggest to Mr. Dawson that he needs the help in order to quit absorbing the “conventional wisdom” and start doing more research.

  16. Obstreperous said on October 24th, 2009 at 7:13am #

    “About two weeks ago, I saw a bumper sticker that said, “Kick their ass. Take their gas.” After a brief surge of anger, during which I wanted to chase down the car and aggressively invite the driver for a cup of coffee and a picture show of Palestinian refugee camps…”

    Mr. Hunter; Such a bumper sticker is not so much a position, or a concern about oil, as a way to flip the bird at people who think we should not end atrocities (gassing of the Kurds as just one example) no matter what provocation or act they engage in.
    The bumper stick is just the concise way of quoting Wm. F Buckley Jr., “Liberals, it has been said, are generous with other peoples’ money, except when it comes to questions of national survival when they prefer to be generous with other people’s freedom and security.” (Such a bumper sticker wouldn’t even fit on a Hummer.)
    When you run him down to swap picture, perhaps you could bo online and watch a few beheading videos as long as you’re getting into the whole, “who’s the bad guy?” discussion. There are a lot of wrongs in this world. If people will listen to reason, then diplomacy is indeed the route to resolution. If people only want to kill you and not listen, then you can die, which is one solution. Alternatively, some people choose to fight back. They call it defending themselves. The killers enjoy it when bystanders call that self-defense aggression. People choose their perspectives. I would bet your bumper sticker friend wants peace and justice as dearly as you. Perhaps that coffee would be a good thing. Maybe you could suggest it less aggressively. It is aggressiveness that got us into this whole mess.

  17. russell olausen said on October 25th, 2009 at 6:59pm #

    Alex Baldwin is ignorant of reality and that makes him a snake oil salesman. The U.S. sounds like it has problems but pretending alternate energy will salve the economic hardship a switch from oil will cause is plain evil. The command economy most of you call for will result in a tower of hurt and the American way puts the little people first to sacrifice. This whole debate will make the last scenes in ”Runaway Train’ look like a parking lot accident.

  18. Annie said on October 26th, 2009 at 9:08am #

    I believe that Mr. Hunter doesn’t cop to having all the answers to a complex problem. He is merely stating that relationships and cultural and political understanding are hugely important in fixing the world’s wrongs. If all of us could approach life with less hubris and more humility, sharing might be a little easier.