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.”
The most promising possibility: Natural gas is a resource America has in abundance. Cutting-edge American technology — e.g., horizontal drilling and fracking — has made natural gas easier and cheaper to extract. As McFarlane points out, natural gas “can be used in various forms to fuel vehicles. Compressed natural gas (CNG) is well-suited to drive long-haul and other fleet vehicles” but for “light trucks or automobiles, a better approach lies in using natural gas to make the liquid-fuel methanol, a high-octane, clean and safe fuel . . . ”
He notes that the Methanol Institute, a private industry group, estimates that producers can, right now, deliver an amount of fuel equivalent to the energy in a gallon of gasoline for approximately $3. The cars we drive would require only minimal and inexpensive modifications in order to run on methanol — as race cars already do.
Let me emphasize: McFarlane is not proposing that we stop using gasoline and other petroleum products. He is not proposing government subsidies for natural gas, methanol, or other fuels. On the contrary, he is making the case for eliminating subsidies and government favoritism of one fuel over another. He and others are arguing for breaking the monopoly that oil currently enjoys and encouraging the creation of a competitive fuel market.
If, for any reason, that does not happen, only those who invested their own money would suffer. If it does happen, however, having a larger fuel supply from more than one source would provide multiple benefits: It would reduce the funds available to Islamists (strengthening national security), bring down the cost at the pump and reduce price volatility (easing the burden on families, commuters, truckers, etc.), and keep more money and jobs in the United States, thereby reinvigorating the domestic economy (good for those who live, work, and invest in America). The downside? There is no downside.
“Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman stressed that the foremost economic duty of government is to eliminate cartel pricing,” McFarlane notes. At the moment, however, government is not doing its economic duty. Nor is it doing its national-security duty: It should not require a Clausewitz to grasp that transferring unprecedented amounts of wealth to your enemy in a time of war is counterproductive. Yet, at the moment we are knowingly funding the “violent extremists” who want to kill us, as well as the more moderate Islamists who merely want to dominate us.
From time to time, Islamists of both stripes must gaze at Westerners and wonder: “How can people so technologically smart be so strategically stupid? Like the oil under the desert sands, this must be a gift from Heaven.”
— Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.