Enjoying the freedoms they fought for, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion, AmVets and other groups representing more than 5 million former U.S. servicemen and servicewomen recently marched on the Capitol to support increased oil drilling on public lands, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
President George W. Bush made energy a key issue in his successful presidential campaign last year. Bush struck a single, and popular, national security drum beat on U.S. energy policy -- domestic oil production must be increased to lessen national dependency on imported foreign oil.
In recent years, that has been a quixotic position to take. Substantive national security concerns over the nations' ever-increasing dependency on foreign, imported oil have taken a backseat to environmental symbolism. Seeking to resist those fashionable pressures Bush proposed allowing oil exploration in the ANWR. Before Sept. 11, his proposal looked certain to flounder amid a storm of environmental cirticism.
Veterans' organizations are not typically known for political rabblerousing. But now they have single-handedly re-injected the issue of national security into the deadlocked debate over oil exploration in the Arctic. Coming after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that damaged the Pentagon and killed up to 5,000 people in New York City, their intervention in the debate may change its entire dynamic.
America's new national crisis and the clear instability of major Middle East, especially Arab, oil resources put the Arctic oil debate in an entirely new context. The environmentalists no longer can claim any kind of monopoly on the moral high ground.. Crucial issues of national self-interest, patriotism and security must now be taken seriously as well. But two months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, veterans remain the only group publicly and consistently saying what many more Americans are thinking -- that the United States must significantly decrease its dependence on rogue powers like Iran, Iraq and unstable Saudi Arabia that control the world's main cheap and most easily available oil resources.
The events of the past two months have driven home how fragile America's oil supply is. There are concerns about the stability of Saudi Arabia and the continued stability and security of Kuwait. Iraq's supply can certainly not be confidently guaranteed. President Bush has announced that the United States will no longer purchase oil from Iraq -- our sixth largest supplier -- if it should be proven that Iraq provided the anthrax for the most recent terrorist attacks on the nation.
It was long popularly believed by Americans that Iran and Iraq were the "bad guys" of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, or OPEC. But it is now becoming increasingly clear that Saudi Arabia -- America's second largest oil supplier -- harbors both fierce anti-American animosity and has been a breeding ground for the most venomous and murderous anti-American terrorists. Alleged terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden is of Saudi origin, from one of the wealthiest and most powerful families in the Desert Kingdom. And 15 of the 19 terrorists who hijacked four airliners on Sept 11 and flew three of them into the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon were of Saudi nationality themselves.
In that light, drilling for oil in the ANWR -- an area of federally protected tundra above the Arctic Circle -- represents a giant step forward in national security precisely because it increases U.S. self-sufficiency while decreasing the stranglehold foreign powers have over U.S. energy requirements.
Since the oil embargoes and stagflation of the Jimmy Carter era more than 20 years ago, the United States has developed no new sources of energy or increased its domestic oil refining capacity. As a result, the United States continues to import more than 60 percent of its oil from foreign countries. Yet opponents of Arctic oil drilling skew logic to argue the ANWR reserves are equal to only a six month supply of U.S. energy requirements.
A far more realistic and accurate way to assess Arctic oil potential is to realize that the reserves in the ANWR are comaprable to between 20 and 50 years worth of oil purchased from Saddam Hussein's Iraq or more than 20 of oil purchased from Saudi Arabia.
Since Sept. 11, U.S. public support for oil exploration in the Arctic is at an all time high. But Senate Democrats are holding the issue hostage. Republicans have placed energy policy and national security at the top of their list of legislative priorities. They have already passed an energy bill, including a provision to allow oil exploration in the ANWR. However, the bill is currently stalled in the Democrat-controlled Senate where Majority Leader Tom Daschle says his legislative priorities for this year are government appropriations bills, airline security, a farm bill and an economic stimulus.
Republican senators, including Alaska's Frank Murkowski, charge that Democrats, especially Daschle, have held the vote hostage to environmental extremists and have threatened to attach the energy bill to every piece of legislation after Thanksgiving if Daschle does not allow a vote.
With an uncertain future and uncertain allies, the United States must take immediate steps toward self-sufficiency. Allowing a Senate vote on approving oil drilling in the ANWR would be a major step in the right direction.
In times of crisis the United States has always been lead by combat and war veterans from President George Washington two centuries ago to President George H.W. Bush a decade ago. Now the veterans are going it alone to lead the charge on allowing Arctic oil drilling for national security. Still, seasoned political observers have questioned why these organizations -- best known for their political clout in supporting their members' interests -- would so willingly enter such a contentious political debate.
It is best explained by a stark fact: the newest members of the veteran fraternity are the victors of a 'war for oil' that was fought only a decade ago -- the 1991 Gulf War, which they know as Operation Desert Storm.
(Geoffrey S. Underwood is president of Think Tanks Network, a policy consulting firm.)