By the Blouin News Politics staff

OPEC who? Oil cartel’s western influence wanes

by in Middle East, U.S..

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, meets with Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, right, in Baghdad, Iraq, Sunday, March 24, 2013. (AP Photo/Jason Reed, Pool)

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, meets with Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, right, in Baghdad, Iraq, Sunday, March 24, 2013. (AP Photo/Jason Reed, Pool)

John Kerry paid a major visit to Iraq the other day—the first in five years by a U.S. secretary of state to a nation that once ranked at the very top of America’s foreign policy and military agenda.

No longer.

What did Kerry really want to talk about with Iraq’s president, who we helped install? Syria. Well, and Iran, too, since it’s Iranian arms transiting Iraqi airspace that are keeping the dictatorial regime of Bashar al-Assad in genocidal power.

Of course, Kerry came to the right place. President Nouri al-Maliki spent many of his formative years as a young Iraqi revolutionary in rebellion against Saddam Hussein shuttling between Syria and Iran—in full sympathy with the regime of Ayatollah Khomeini. Now, he’s striving to build a reliable partner with his Shiite neighbor, while struggling at the same time to preserve a vestige of his own nation’s sovereignty.

But rather than being courted today by the United States—the nation that installed him in power—he is being vilified and abused. For he is quite clearly bent on dramatically altering the direction of a nation where more than 4,400 Americans gave their lives in what has clearly become a vain effort to implant a western-style democracy amid the autocracies, or worse, of the Middle East.

That America has little sway over Iraq anymore—nor any real stake in its continued friendship for that matter, beyond its role as a geostrategic transit point and host of Shiite terrorists—may be traced to two reasons. In my last column, I suggested one such reason America no longer wields any ability really to influence events as it retreats into a post-Iraq, post-Afghanistan period of military isolation and non-interference in the world. Which is that if the United States is unwilling to risk the life of a single American soldier in defending what it proclaims, Obama is unlikely indeed to succeed in bringing to bear very effectively, or on any lasting basis, the kind of moral suasion he clearly hopes to see as his legacy.

But the other reason America seems to be losing interest in Iraq, indeed much of the Middle East, is oil. Indeed, we might ask the question that beyond the region’s potential as a breeding ground of terrorists able to project their deadly force to our own shores and those of our closest allies, why we should be involved there anymore. The fact is that Iraq, and indeed much of the Middle East, simply doesn’t matter that much right now when it comes to that commodity on whose production and sale we once lived and died—oil. Today, we import twice as much oil from Canada as we do from the leading OPEC producer, Saudi Arabia, and six times as much as we import from Iraq. But above all, we’re satisfying more of our needs from home these days than from all our foreign suppliers combined. And that balance is only tipping in our favor. Part of this reason is efficiency, partly increased production and new techniques of milking new hydrocarbons from deposits old and new. In short, the campaign for self-sufficiency has quietly begun working.

“Momentum toward North American energy independence accelerated last year well beyond the wildest dreams of any energy analyst,” a Citigroup report last week began. “But it is in crude oil where last year saw the largest single annual increase in [petroleum] production in U.S. history. The robust growth in North American production over the last two years helped to keep a lid on oil prices globally.” But the most heady conclusion of this landmark report dealt with the cartel that once held America and much of the world in its thrall:

A half decade from now, U.S. and Canadian [oil] output will be in surplus of projected needs….Because of changing dynamics in the spread of production of unconventional as well as conventional supplies and because of growing inroads that natural gas will have in displacing oil products in the transportation sector, OPEC will find it challenging to survive another 60 years, let alone another decade.

Once upon a time, boys and girls, there was a period when correspondents chased the oil ministers of the OPEC nations around the world from their headquarters in Vienna to their periodic get-togethers in such remote locations as the Pertamina Cottages on a remote stretch of beach on Indonesia’s island of Bali. I was among those who hung on the every word of the capo di tutti capi of these ministers—Saudi oil czar Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani, and then his somewhat less flamboyant successor, Ali al-Naimi.

One of my great private sources within in the cartel was the powerful oil minister of the United Arab Emirates who I would meet following OPEC sessions in the privacy of his penthouse suite at the Naga Hilton overlooking Lake Geneva. After one of these backgrounders, I commented in passing on his solid gold Rolex, the 12 hours each marked out with a diamond that seemed larger than the one my wife carries on her left hand. He promptly ripped it off his wrist and offered it to me. It was certainly worth more than a year’s salary, possibly more than I’d earn in a decade. “Here,” he smiled, “in my country, if you admired something, I must offer it to you.”

“Oh no,” I replied, “I could never, for in my profession, we cannot accept gifts from a news source—beyond the wisdom you have just been imparting to me.” He smiled and that Rolex went back on his wrist, to my eternal regret.

Today, OPEC is still generating considerable wealth. But no longer are we obliged to dance to every tune it plays. Indeed, now the power shift is such that it is we consumers who are able more and more to dictate the tune. We are able, without even breathing hard, to embargo all consumption of western oil from that pariah nation, and OPEC member, Iran. The hardships of the embargo are certainly felt far more acutely in the bazaars of Tehran than the stock markets of Wall Street and London or the commodity pits of Chicago.

So what threat can the Middle East (for although OPEC did include non-Middle Eastern oil producers, most notably Nigeria, Indonesia and Venezuela, they were for the most part largely hangers-on) pose to the United States or indeed most of the West any more?

Clearly not an economic threat. For the foreseeable future, oil prices promise to hover in the mid-$90 a barrel, a level to which much of the world has largely adjusted itself and with which Saudi oil officials declare themselves satisfied (since clearly they can’t do much anymore to change it anyway, so why not just accept it?). At the same time, BP economists project that sometime between now and the year 2030, the United States will become self-sufficient, indeed potentially a net oil exporter itself.

None of this is to say that OPEC will find itself with oil to burn. Without question, exploding economies like China and India will sop up much of its capacity, but the United States and the West will be able to thumb their economic noses at the cartel.

OPEC’s influence will essentially shift—from West to East. But that hardly means they will never again be in a position to exercise their economic muscle to political or geostrategic ends. Instead, the power equation will simply shift as well. Increasingly, it will be those—largely non-state players—who are prepared to wield their more insidious capacity of putting their very lives on the line who are in a position to hold the West in their sway. Or at least to force us, yet again, to put our own people in harms way to preserve our way of life and the values we hold and that we would like to see the rest of the world adopt in short order.

David A. Andelman is the Editor of World Policy Journal. Previously he served as Executive Editor of Earlier, he was a domestic and foreign correspondent for The New York Times in various posts in New York and Washington, as Southeast Asia bureau chief, based in Bangkok, then East European bureau chief, based in Belgrade. He then moved to CBS News where he served for seven years as Paris correspondent, traveling through and reporting from more than 70 countries. He is the author of three books, most recently, A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today.