“Syriana” gets a bad rap

The commentary among conservatives about the movie “Syriana” was negative when the movie came out in theaters last year. Some will wonder why I categorized this under “GeoPolitics”, but the movie covers it in a fictional way with regards to oil and the Middle East, and I think the movie has some truth to it.

I did not see the movie when it was in theaters, and I was dissuaded from doing so by the negative reviews I saw, since they portrayed it as accusing the U.S. of being the big bad bully in the world, with no redeeming value, and the Middle East as the victim. I saw it recently on DVD.

In a way it does portray the U.S. as the bully, but it tries to be balanced about it. It also shows a bit of why this is the case. We need the oil. There are no two ways about it. We are so dependent on it, that if it were cut off tomorrow it would be disastrous for us, not to mention a lot of the world. It tries to portray the problem as circumstantial. We don’t do what we do just to put Arabs under our thumb. We do it because we need what they have, at least for the time being. At least we’re willing to do it with a modicum of fairness. We trade for it, rather than just taking it. We also recognize it as necessary for political and military power. This movie illustrates that a bit.

It attempts to dramatize some of the things that are going on in the world and why they’re happening. It shows a decrepid and demoralized, but still functioning CIA. It shows oil companies that are in a power struggle with each other for maximum profits, getting the oil from wherever they can, however they can. And it shows the lives of Arabs, their hopes and ambitions, but without the power to reach them, and so their ambitions are foiled or misdirected to serve the goals of others. In one case, they’re misdirected by an Islamic school which takes some former oil workers, inculcates them into an extreme theological/political movement, and ultimately uses them to carry out a terrorist attack.

It also shows an American family that is caught up in what’s going on. The husband in the family is ambitious. He understands some of what’s going on, but not totally. He falls in with an Arab political leader he believes can make him money with some innovative ideas, ideas which come in conflict with American strategic interests, unbeknownst to him. 

I think the story in this movie represents how things once were between the U.S. and the Middle East, but it’s kind of out of date now. The policy used to be to prop up authoritarian regimes in the region. This was probably done because they were a strong bullwark against the Soviet Union in the region. This structure no longer serves any positive purpose. So we’ve embarked on a democratic program for the Middle East to address the new enemy that has attacked us, the emergence over decades of a fascistic movement in the Muslim culture.

The movie reminded me of a non-fiction book I’ve read called, “Confessions of an Economic Hit Man,” by John Perkins. In it he describes how, working as an economist for a private firm that works for the CIA, he had worked in tandem with oil companies, and by association the World Bank and the IMF to gain entry for oil companies in Third World countries. The movie doesn’t talk about this, but typically the countries were burdened with astronomical debts they could never pay, on purpose. He said the private firm he worked for, and the CIA, worked to corrupt the governments of “target” countries, and if they didn’t turn in our favor, their leaders were assassinated and/or we invaded to topple the government and replace it with a puppet regime. This is dramatized in “Syriana”, but it doesn’t go into explaining the machinations of why they do it. The elites in these countries lived the high life. They got bribes and kickbacks, and were generally treated well, but their populations lived in abject poverty. The program served two purposes: It helped our economy by gaining more oil, and the countries served as a “coalition of the coerced and the bribed” as John Kerry would have put it, against communist expansion. This served a strategic purpose in containing Soviet expansion.

In the Middle East he said we did things differently. With Saudi Arabia, instead of burdening it with debt, since they had a poor banking infrastructure, we offered to manage their money for them. We worked out a special deal: They sold us cheap oil, we promised to provide them with military security. They would take a portion of their oil profits and invest it in our Treasury bonds, and a portion of the proceeds from them would be used to fund modernization projects in their countries, with the monies going exclusively to a select group of companies: Halliburton, Brown & Root, and a few others. This tightly tied our two countries together economically.

From looking at the commentary on the DVD for “Syriana” it looks like the producers of the movie understand that the relationships are not merely a “I scratch your back, you scratch mine” situation. We need what they produce. The producers of the movie showed a desire to motivate people to take the initiative and try to take steps that will begin the process of getting us off our addiction to oil. Fine with me.

However, I’ve recently learned that there are other forms of oil that are now being produced, due to the higher price for it on the world market. There’s lots of “oil sands” in Canada. In fact of what they’ve measured, there’s more oil in Canada than all of the Middle East now! There’s enough reserves for all of our oil needs for the next 100 years. The oil sands are more expensive to process than just getting the crude out of the ground in the Middle East, but world demand for oil has raised the price of crude, which makes the oil sands price-competitive. I’m hopeful that ethanol will turn out to be a viable option, but if it doesn’t I think we ought to shift towards getting oil from friendly nations. Ideally it would be best if we had a diversity of fuels to choose from. This would lead to competition among the energy commodities. If petroleum gets too high, people can shift to ethanol. And likewise, if ethanol gets too high.

Of all the oil producing nations, I don’t think you’d get an argument from anybody that Canada is the friendliest. I’d feel just fine paying a higher price for gas, or using ethanol, if I was doing it with the knowledge that my money wasn’t somewhere along the way going to fund Islamic extremism.

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