Thomas Friedman: Petropolitics

Could it get any more ironic?

As Energy Prices Rise, It’s All Downhill for Democracy
Published: May 5, 2006

In case you haven’t noticed, all the oil-rich bad guys seem to be having a fine and dandy time these days.

Iran, awash in oil money, thumbs its nose at U.N. demands for it to desist in its nuclear adventures and daily threatens to wipe Israel off the map. President Vladimir Putin of Russia, awash in oil money, jails his opponents at home and cozies up to America’s opponents, like Iran and Hamas, abroad. Sudan, awash in oil money, ignores the world’s pleas to halt its genocide in Darfur. Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chávez, awash in oil money, regularly tells America and his domestic opponents to take a hike.

And Nigeria, Uzbekistan, Angola, Saudi Arabia, Chad and Syria, all flush with oil or gas, are comfortably retreating from even baby steps of democratization.

There is a pattern here. Many people assumed that with the fall of the Berlin Wall, we were going to see an unstoppable wave of free elections and free markets slowly spread across the globe. For a decade that wave seemed, indeed, to be real and powerful.

But as the world has moved from an oil price range of $20 to $40 per barrel to a range of $40 to $70 a barrel, a very negative counterwave has arisen.

What I would call “petro-ist” states — highly dependent on oil or gas for their G.D.P. and having either weak institutions or outright authoritarian systems — have started asserting themselves. And they are weakening, for now at least, the global democratization trend.

Economists have long taught us about the negative effects that an overabundance of natural resources can have on political and economic reform in any country: the “resource curse.” But when it comes to oil, it seems that you can take this resource curse argument a step further: there appears to be a specific correlation between the price of oil and the pace of freedom.

I call it the “First Law of Petropolitics,” and it posits the following: The price of oil and the pace of freedom always move in opposite directions in petro-ist states.

According to the First Law of Petropolitics, the higher the price of global crude oil, the more erosion we see in petro-ist nations in the right to free speech, a free press, free elections, freedom of assembly, government transparency, an independent judiciary and the rule of law, and in the freedom to form independent political parties and nongovernmental organizations. Such erosion does not occur in healthy democracies with oil.

Conversely, according to the First Law of Petropolitics, the lower the price of oil, the more the petro-ist countries are forced to move toward a politics that is more transparent, more sensitive to opposition voices, more open to a broad set of interactions with the outside world and more focused on building the legal and educational structures that will maximize the ability of their citizens, both men and women, to compete, start new companies and attract investments from abroad. (For an elaboration of this argument, see the current issue of Foreign Policy magazine,

Yes, many factors are involved in shaping the politics of a country. But is it an accident that when oil was $20 to $40 a barrel, Iran was calling for a “dialogue of civilizations,” and when it hit $70 a barrel, Iran was calling for the destruction of Israel?

When a barrel was $20 to $40, we had “Putin I.” That’s when President Bush looked Mr. Putin in the eye in 2001 and said he’d found “a sense of his soul.” If Mr. Bush tried to get a sense of Mr. Putin’s soul today — the soul of “Putin II,” the Putin of $70-a-barrel oil — he would see down there the huge Russian energy company Gazprom. Mr. Putin’s regime has swallowed Gazprom, along with a variety of once-independent Russian media outlets and institutions.

While these increasingly bold petro-authoritarians don’t represent the sort of strategic or ideological threat that communism once posed to the West, their impact on global politics is still quite corrosive. Some of the worst regimes now have more oil money than ever to do bad things for a long time — and many decent, democratic countries have to kowtow to them to get oil and gas.

Given the inverse relationship between the price of oil and the pace of freedom in petro-ist states, any U.S. strategy for promoting democracy in these countries is doomed to fail unless it includes a credible plan for finding alternatives to oil and bringing down the global price of crude.

The price of oil should now be a daily preoccupation of the secretary of state, not just the secretary of energy. Today, you cannot be an effective democracy-promoting idealist without also being an effective energy-conscious environmentalist.

The Discussion: 3 Comments

Did Ahmadinejad say that he wished Israel Wiped Off the map??

Lost in translation

It was October last year when we came home, flicked on the radio and listened aghast to the news that the Iranian president denied the Holocaust had happened and said the state of Israel should be wiped off the map. ‘Christ,’ we thought, ‘this nut job’s playing into their hands with this kind of rhetoric.’ Since then “the Cuban missile crisis in slow motion” as one US academic has described the Iran/US imbroglio has ratcheted up to high alert with Seymour Hersch of the New Yorker reporting that the White House is all prepared for nuclear strikes. It would take just 12 hours to deploy nuclear weapons for a bunker busting strike that would kill a million Iranians according to conservative estimates commissioned by the Pentagon. Nuclear armed planes are now on constant alert and public opinion has been framed around those mad, mad statements on Israel by Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

But what if the pronouncements by Ahmadinejad that cast him as this season’s baddie incarnate had been a) mistranslated and b) taken out of context?

When properly translated the Iranian president actually calls for the removal of the regimes that are in power in Israel and in the USA as a goal for the future. Nowhere does he demand the elimination or annihilation of Israel. He called for greater governance for Palestine. The word map does not even feature. And the president makes plain that the Holocaust happened, but, he argues western powers have exploited the memory of the Holocaust for their own imperialistic purposes. What the mainstream ran with is complete deception.

The deception has been aided by the fact that much of the media use an ‘independent’ company called Middle East Media Research Institute (Memri) for translating Middle Eastern languages. Memri just happens to be owned by two right-wing neo-con Israelis: Meyrav Wurmser, the wife of one of Dick Cheney’s aides (and ex-special assistant to ‘Strap-on’ John Bolton), David Wurmser and former(?) Israeli Military Intelligence officer, Colonel Yigal Carmon. Indeed a look at Wikipedia’ s incomplete staff list seems to suggest a heavy Israeli bias in staffing and at least two more ex-Israeli Military Intelligence people. Still the little red email is sure that’s just a coincidence, as is the fact that the Israeli army (presumably military intelligence) has also used this mistranslation tactic in the past.

And once Ahmadinejad had been brushed with the wacko Jew destroyer tag, it was a short hop, skip and ein Sprung before he was alongside Adolf Hitler in the pantheon of baddies. Like Milosevic and Hussein before him, Ahmadinejad’s Hitler comparison is as sure a sign war is imminent.

Unlike Hitler though Ahmadinejad doesn’t rule Iran, nor does he control its foreign or military policy. The man in charge of all that is Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Iran is a theocracy, and Khamenei is the theocrat-in-chief. To give you an idea of where Ahmadinejad lies in Iran’s political hierarchy, note that no one can even run for the presidency in the first place without the approval of Khamenei and the Guardian Council, a group of six clerics and six conservative jurists that are selected by Khamenei.

Ahmadinejad serves the purpose of being a believable bogeyman. He’ll find his Ph.D. in civil engineering and being a founding member of the Iran Tunnel Society useful if Seymour Hersch’s bunker-busting nuke allegations come true.

May 5, 2006 @ 3:07 am | Comment

Juan Cole addresses this issue nicely. I don’t like Ahmadinejad, but just like Zarqawi, and earlier Saddam, he is indeed being made the bogeyman. It’s an election year. What do you expect?

May 5, 2006 @ 4:10 am | Comment

Bush has nothing else to fall back on but fear.

It’s not working so well at the moment. It will be interesting, and probably not in a good way, to see what the October Surprise will be.

May 5, 2006 @ 10:25 am | Comment

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