How to Stop Putting Gas in the Islamist Tank
Enriching your enemy may not be a brilliant strategy.

Former national-security adviser Robert C. McFarlane in 2009


Clifford D. May

Islamists are a diverse lot. Some are what diplomats like to call “violent extremists.” They want to kill you. Others are less eager to shed blood, more confident that by mastering electoral politics, manipulating international organizations, and designing effective public-relations campaigns, they can achieve their objectives. What are those objectives? Islamism implies a commitment to the imperative of Islamic power. Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, articulated the basic idea succinctly:

It is the nature of Islam to dominate, not to be dominated, to impose its law on all nations and to extend its power to the entire planet.

If those championing Islamism were only stateless terrorist groups and tin-pot dictators, their geostrategic significance would be minimal. But the regime that rules Iran is dedicated to waging what it calls a global Islamic revolution. And in Saudi Arabia, the state religion is Wahhabism, a strain of Islam that preaches the inferiority of infidels and the rejection of Muslims who do not share Wahhabi ideals.

These regimes float atop an ocean of oil, a commodity that is valuable thanks to those the Islamists despise. It was the Western mind that figured out how to pump oil out of the ground and refine it into a variety of fuels, including those used in internal-combustion engines, another history-bending Western invention.

Imagine you are one of the rulers of Iran or Saudi Arabia: Fabulous wealth is yours due to no intellectual or physical labors on your part. If you invest that wealth wisely, you’ll make even more, but if not, so what? Wealth will flow to you every single day as surely as rivers run to the sea. To sell rugs, olives, or computers requires salesmanship. But oil sells itself: Those who depend on it for their cars, ships, and planes have no other options. Well, theoretically, they do: They could take it by force. But you need not worry about that because, as you are well aware, modern Western ethics prohibit such behavior.

If there were even one oil-rich, Muslim-majority nation solidly committed to liberal democratic values, to freedom of religion and speech, to tolerance and minority rights, the challenges of the 21st century would not be so formidable. But there is no such nation. 

Almost 80 percent of global oil reserves are controlled by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), a cartel, a conspiracy in restraint of trade. Most OPEC countries are autocracies. Many are hostile toward America and other free nations. From the income produced by OPEC oil comes most of the money used to train and arm terrorists around the world, and to build nuclear-weapons facilities in Iran. 

That makes the price of oil and the West’s dependence on it national-security problems of the first order. What can be done? Robert C. McFarlane, who served as then-president Reagan’s national-security adviser, wrote last week that we can and should be producing more of our own oil, but “that is not enough. To outmaneuver OPEC we need to eliminate oil’s monopoly as the only transportation fuel.”