James K. Galbraith

Questions of Oil and War

A few observations on the events of September 11 and their aftermath. First, the horror did not make the American people lose their minds. Reaction everywhere was calm, dedicated, and in New York City and at the Pentagon, heroic. Ugly incidents against Arab-Americans or Islamic religious sites were overshadowed by solidarity expressed on both sides. By and large, any fellow citizen had to be proud of our own.

The events distinguished officials from one another quite sharply. Mayor Giuliani behaved splendidly. Secretary Rumsfeld showed personal stature by staying on the scene during the immediate crisis. ABC News stood out for calm reporting–Peter Jennings and John Miller especially–free of the offensive banner slogans of the other networks, and avoiding pornographic repetition of the scenes from Tuesday morning. Senator Joseph Biden (D-Delaware) spoke with common sense about the limitations of force in reaction.

Not many others reached that standard. While sorrow swept the country, war fever swept the Beltway. Our political leaders personalized the attacks, promised what they cannot deliver, and demanded a deference to their judgment that they have not earned. On TV, Sam Donaldson and many others bayed for blood–the more the better and never mind whose. The call to war was, nevertheless, a calculated one, shifting the burden of response from the police, FBI, diplomats, and foreign governments to our military forces.

Yet talk of war by week’s end was already leading to hard questions. War against whom? With what means? At what cost? Afghanistan is a mountainous, land-locked country described pungently by one officer as “not target-rich.” Bombs will kill civilians, but they are unlikely to find bin Laden. Small groups of soldiers can be sent, but what would they do? How would they get out? A force to depose the Taliban would be a service to humanity and to Afghanistan. But by informed accounts it would not affect bin Laden’s network very much.

What did we learn about that network? That it is imbedded partly in the United States–in Florida, in Boston. That it used small groups armed with knives and limited flight training to turn civil aircraft into flying bombs: low cost for high effect. That it chose vulnerable targets, as the World Trade Center was known to be; there are probably not many places where equal numbers could be killed. And, even at the Trade Center, many did escape. The Pentagon, on the other hand, proved quite robust under attack.

The attacks themselves might easily have failed. They depended on passive responses from the pilots and passengers, and were apparently thwarted on United 93 once the heroes on board learned what had happened in New York. In any event, simple measures (armed marshals, stronger doors, better airport security teams) would deter or defeat an identical effort in the future. Threats of other kinds will emerge, but the methods of September 11 revealed something about the limits to, as well as the potential for, terror on U.S. soil–so far. Complacency is not justified; neither is panic.

The American people did not panic; sadly the financial markets were another story. The authorities ran a risk in reopening the New York Stock Exchange after six days, with uncertain infrastructure, exhausted operatives, and nerves severely on edge. Their reward was a sharp sell-off on the first day. The rush to reopen added a distraction we didn’t need, raising anxieties, and for no larger economic or social purpose.

A prolonged run on U.S. markets could, in turn, cause problems for recovery efforts down the road. These will require very large amounts of public money–goodbye lockbox, goodbye surplus. Will the U.S.–until Tuesday the world’s ultimate good credit–still be seen that way if stock prices and the dollar continue to fall? Can our trade deficit and our appetite for oil coexist with the pressures of new deficits to finance a war, the recovery effort, and–very soon–a fight against recession?

If not, we may soon face deep realities about our dependence on oil, and so about our very presence in the Arab world, against which presence these attacks were directed. That presence is not a fact of nature. It is, rather, the result of 50 years of commercial, industrial, and strategic decisions. To change now would be a large task–to rebuild our cities, our transport, and our patterns of housing and our industrial base, as well as to reduce (rather than expand) our military exposure in the wider world. Few have yet focused on such essentially defensive measures. But they may be required, if the war proves long and difficult (as it probably will) or if, as one can only fear, it spreads throughout the Persian Gulf.

And so, fellow citizens, we’d better start thinking about all that, pretty soon–even as we mourn and honor our dead.

James K. Galbraith teaches at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

You May Also Like:

Published at 12:00 am CST