Solar would be Cheaper: US Pentagon has spent $8 Trillion to Guard Gulf Oil

By Juan Cole

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel was in the Gulf on Friday at a conference of defense ministers from the region, including the Gulf Cooperation Council and Iran.

Hagel underlined American commitment to the security of the Arab states on the littoral of the Gulf, including Oman, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait (the six of which make up the Gulf Cooperation Council) and toward which he said the military balance of power had shifted. He said the US had sold $75 billion in sophisticated military equipment to those countries in recent years, more than in the previous 15.

Hagel said that the US had and would keep 35,000 military personnel in the Gulf region, some 10,000 of whom were army soldiers with armor or helicopter gunships. In addition, some 40 US naval vessels patrol the Gulf waters, including an aircraft carrier battle group.

The US commitment to the Gulf is because some 22% of the world’s petroleum is shipped out through its Strait of Hormuz. Qatari and other Liquefied Natural Gas is also shipped out by this route. While the US imports relatively little from this region, its military allies, including Japan and the NATO countries of Europe, heavily depend on it. (But so too does China, which imports from Iran, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries and is now the world’s largest oil importer. Beijing is getting a free ride on energy security because the US is paying for the costs of providing it.)

The GCC and other Arab states wanted to hear these reassurances from Hagel, since they’re as nervous about American negotiations with Iran as long-tailed cats in a room full of rocking chairs.

In fact, the idea of the GCC as a military power in the Gulf is darkly humorous. These are countries with small populations, with the exception of Saudi Arabia, which probably has 22 million citizens. Qatar has 250,000. None of them could defend themselves from Iran or Iraq, the other states on the littoral, which are bigger and have proper military establishments, though Iraq’s is fragile from having been recently rebuilt from scratch. While the Saudi military is well equipped, it is small and lacks combat experience or, from all accounts, much practical know-how or esprit de corps. I wouldn’t count on them being able actually to deploy all those shiny weapons W. sold to them.

It has cost the United States $8 trillion to provide military security in the Gulf since 1976. According to Roger Stern, a Princeton economist, the US has spent as much on Gulf security as it spent on the entire Cold War with the Soviet Union! In recent years through 2010 it has been $400 billion a year, though the US withdrawal from Iraq at the end of 2011 and the gradual withdrawal from Afghanistan this year and next presumably means that the figure is substantially reduced. Still, we have bases in Kuwait, Qatar and elsewhere, and a Naval HQ in Bahrain, none of which is cheap. If it were $200 billion a year, that is a fair chunk of the budget deficit the Republican Party keeps complaining about. And if we could get that $8 trillion back, it would pay down half of the national debt.

Some argue that since the US itself imports relatively little petroleum from the Gulf, we’re crazy to pay for policing it. But this argument seems to me not the right one for several reasons. First, petroleum is more or less a single global market (with a spread of say $10 in different spot markets). If the Gulf couldn’t export petroleum, it would put the price up so much that everyone’s economy would collapse, including that of the US. Second, US policy has been to encourage Germany and Japan not to militarize, in return for an American security umbrella. American geopolitical power benefits from having fewer credible rivals, and that is part of what we are paying for. The US has to police the Gulf if Japan is to stay strong in the face of a rising China, and if Germany is not to be Ukrainized.

The right argument is that we shouldn’t be using petroleum and nor should our allies. The supreme tragedy is that the US has bankrupted itself ensuring military security for the oil-producing nations of the Gulf when oil production is destroying the world. We need a crash program to get the world off petroleum, some 70% of which is used to power automobiles. People should be given incentives to move back to cities so they don’t have to commute. Better public transport is needed. Portland is an example of how a concerted push can change the urban transportation situation quickly. 8% of commuters in Portland now get to work on bicycle, 10 times more than any other American city. Portland adopted a global warming action plan in 1993 and has renewed it, and demonstrates what can be accomplished in only 20 years if a city puts its mind to it. And, we should move as quickly as possible to hybrid plugins or where practical electric vehicles (EVs).

Moreover, we should be pressuring our allies in this direction (Germany doesn’t need any encouragement but Japan and others do). Otherwise we are locking the world into as much as a 9 degrees Fahrenheit increase in average surface temperature over the next century, which could well destabilize our climate. And we are paying through the nose for the privilege! It would be like paying hundreds of billions of dollars a year to ensure that people can get access to meth, which then ruins their health.

A tiny fraction of the $8 trillion we spent through 2010 (surely it is up near $10 trillion now) on Gulf security would, if invested in research and development in solar energy and other renewables, and in reformulating our urban transportation systems, save the world. We are told we don’t have money for that effort. But we had plenty of money for aircraft carriers and wars in the Gulf.

Getting some of this security investment back by selling the Gulf nations sophisticated weaponry is a very bad idea. The bigger the conventional arms stockpiles, the greater the likelihood they will be deployed in war. The US is destabilizing the region, not stabilizing it. That would not be necessary if we weren’t dependent on petroleum.

The answer to the security dilemmas of the Oil Gulf is not aircraft carriers, 39 other big naval vessels, over a dozen military bases, and 35,000 troops garrisoned there. It is a crash program to get off petroleum and to get our allies off petroleum. Buy a Chevy, Ford or Toyota plug-in hybrid for your next car. They’re coming down in price, they are dream cars, and there’s a big Federal tax rebate. You’d be saving the world and also helping bring some of our young men and women home from al-Udeid and other bases in the Gulf.

related video

CBS reports on Hagel’s assurances that Iran negotiations will not affect US military posture in the Gulf:

28 Responses

  1. Rafik Khoury

    It is all about Money & Wealth accumulation for the top 1%. Solar have been utilize very succesfuly in many countries for over five decades.

  2. A useful article for balancing the idea that massive investment in energy conservation & renewables is somehow too expensive.

  3. Tim Senger

    @stacyherbert Why is it that the FED can print/make appear trillions for the banks but taxpayers have to pay to guard the oil?

  4. In the solar stakes I’m surprised that China with its huge land mass and hot climate doesn’t make more use of the solar panels it actually produces for the rest of the world. The deserts of China would be ideal for vast solar farms, and seeing as China is a massive world user of fossil fuels, you would think they would go down this rout. The real problem however, is that man has yet to find an efficient method of storing electrical energy.

    • They’ve been a bit late to the party, but starting this year China is the number one market for PV panels (they’ve been the number one producer for a few years). The US and Japan are running a close race for number two.

  5. Another factor of having the US “protect” Persian Gulf oil is that it has the ability the shut the oil flows down to countries such as China.

    Thank you Jimmy Carter for the Carter Doctrine… a gift that keeps on giving!

  6. The post has good numbers, and I feel it would be even better with some maths. First, given an average GDP of about $10 trillion for 38 years, $8 trillion for Gulf security alone puts the US expenditures for that at more than 2% of GDP. That seems a bit too high to be plausible as total defense expenditures has oscillated between 7.5% and 4%.

    Then $8 trillion would, at today’s cost of $2/W, suffice to install 4 trillion watts of solar capacity, or 4 TW. Since the sun doesn’t shine all the time, this would average at best 0.8 TW. The average electricity production of the world stands at 2.5 TW. $8 trillion to solar wouldn’t even cover a third of current electricity production, much less our transportation needs. So that money is very far from a world saving resource, unfortunately. The challenge is much bigger (if you don’t go for nuclear, then it’s pretty easy).

    I’d also like to point out that the 8 trillion cost is over a longer period than the life of solar cells. Also, no amount of research in the 70-ies and 80-ies would have produced the solar cells we have today. Physics cannot really be forced much, and results are never guaranteed. Our current low PV costs is a result of sustained improvements in material physics, manufacturing processes, computer simulation capacity, an industrial base in China, its acceptance for chemical pollution and much more, little of which was readily available a few decades ago.

    • Hi Jasper! Amazing what one can do with a calculator anda handful of assumptions! Like to establish just what, again? That unless we all go for nuclear power, which with externalities and uncertainties costs HOW much, again? And let’s just ignore the rutting bull elephant on the ballroom, and not “factor in” the real costs, in rights, health, stability and the chance our grandchildren won’t have to eat Soylent Green, or each other in a much more direct manner? The whole shoot in’ match, as constituted, provides a pretty bleak certainty for the little blue planet we collectively had the chance to be stewards of…

      • JTMcPhee, thanks for your reply. However, I suspect I don’t fully get what you’re saying. It might be partly due to English not being my native language, or it is something else. So please forgive me if my answer is off.

        Costs of nuclear power are completely arbitrary in the old world (US and Europe). Here, costs are determined by the amount of unnecessary red tape, regulations, licenses, political uncertainty and emission limits. In the new world, however, nuclear power is being built for $2-3/W. This is comparable to solar, but with five times the capacity factor, three times the life and no need for storage, for a cost advantage of a factor 10-15 at low penetrations and even more at high.

        Tens of millions have died due to air pollution that nuclear power could have prevented. The oceans are acidifying and we’ve lost three decades (and counting) combating AGW. We are dependent on oil with all its geostrategic implications. So the costs of giving up nuclear progress has been staggering and keeps accumulating – way beyond these 8 trillion dollars.

        • “Here, costs are determined by the amount of unnecessary red tape, regulations, licenses, political uncertainty and emission limits.”

          What makes you think any of that is unnecessary? Is it a coincidence that the Old World nuclear programs are throttled with regulations as the Old World strives to reduce pollution of all kinds while some of the New World’s unfettered nuclear programs are accompanied by air that’s so filthy with pollution that people are routinely warned to stay indoors?

    • I think what you are saying is largely true, especially about decisions made years ago. The opportunity for PV to displace oil is really only becoming thinkable today. OTOH, subsidies to push Pv adoption need not cost $2/watt, they only need to high enough to cover the cost difference versus the alternatives, and this cost difference has been shrinking dramatically lately. Of course its not just PV, wind is a good complement to solar. Also hydro and geothermal. Renewables should be considered as a complete system, not as a collection of independent technologies.

    • You are comparing US military expense there to world electricity production. Other hidden costs to the US include funding the warmongering industry and its control of media and elections, and social support of the amoral right wing. Other costs to US victims are incalculable.

    • There’s always the simple approach to storing solar: hydroelectric dams and reverse-pumping. It’s been done for a while: one uses electric pumps to put water back into the reservoirs during periods of lower demand for electricity, and use the water to run generators during high demand (or at night, when demand tends to be lower anyway).

      That, conservation, and some other tricks should greatly help lower demand for fossil fuels. Remember, too: all that oil, coal, etc. is actually stored solar power…

      • @RepubAnon: Pumped hydro is great cost-wise and efficiency-wise where available. However, it is very limited in scale due to the limitations in suitable sites. Please remember that Three Gorges in China has 22 GW only, which is less than one percent of world average production. And of course, Three Gorges evacuated a million people and its capacity is largely not suitable for pumped hydro.

        Conservation is a no-brainer in the US, but are you suggesting Chindia, Africa and the three billion additional people that will come into the world in the next 40 years, should not be allowed to expand their energy use? The US and Europe is only a tenth of world population together. Our action does not dominate CO2 emissions anymore. Half of world coal is consumed in China.

    • Jesper is way off on his assertion about solar cells losing their power producing potential over just four decades, they lose some but not all of their potential after 40 years and I’ll put my money on the USA for technology gains on solar into the future that dwarfs anything we have available today. If our country had put more effort and money into solar cell efficiency during the past 40 years we would be at a much better place than where we are now and I would argue that if we had done so during the Bush-Cheney lost years China wouldn’t be as big a player in solar globally as they are today.

  7. One important benefit is the reserve currency status of the US Dollar. Much of those $ 8 trillion is simply paper the Fed printed, then used to purchase valuable assets, including oil. That is a Great Bargain, military might and control of oil trading make it possible.

  8. ” Beijing is getting a free ride on energy security because the US is paying for the costs of providing it.”

    It seems China’s negotiators get better returns on investments that our warriors. If I recall correctly, China signed some contracts in Afghanistan for rare minerals without so much as firing a bullet while our troops were being blown up by IEDs and other devices.

    • Of course, neither the bits of “China” that did those deals with Karzai’s gang for the sale of “national” common wealth are hardly more honorable than contractors flying the US imperial colors. Just sharper at the Game of Empire than the Players flying “our” flag…

  9. “Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel was in the Gulf on Friday at a conference of defense ministers from the region, including the Gulf Cooperation Council and Iran.”
    This implies that defense minister from Iran was also present to hear The US defense secretary make the covert threat of use of force against the Islamic Republic and participated in an orgy of Iranophobia afterward.

  10. According to the April 24, 2011 Time magazine article you referenced, one can calculate that the Persian Gulf force deployment cost $1.2 trillion for the years 2008-2010, or $400 billion per year. Although this seems very high, even half that is a huge drain on the US, which could use that money for so many better needs. Could this be considered an indirect sanction by Iran on the US economy, and shouldn’t we want to get out from under it?

  11. INSANITY. This also has a great deal to do with the concept of the “petro-dollar”, not as much alliance and altruism.

  12. It would be interesting to know the proportion of the eight trillion which is fairly attributable to the nature of our relationship with Israel.

  13. I’m retired, living on a modest fixed income, so I really don’t have the money to buy a a hybrid car. But fortunately where I live, the greater Akron, Ohio Metro Area, has great public transportation. So I take the bus during the winter months. But I bought a Trek bicycle a coupe of years back, which I ride around on, when it warms up, to do minor chores. I also actually do something that the other senior citizens in my apartment building think is quite radical, namely, I walk a lot.. Yes, you heard me correctly. In the warm months, I actually use my legs walk to and from the local grocery store. Or I bike there with my backpack in which I put my groceries. Of course, I have to make more trips, whether I walk or bike, because you can only carry at most two smaller bags of groceries. But it’s great exercise at my age, and in my own humble way I am doing my part to break our country’s dependency on fossil fuels. And, believe or not, my daily life goes on quite well for me. Yes, there is life without a car. And riding a bus, you get to know and interact with other fellow citizens.

    • Jasper has posited a “right” of the present 7.129-odd billion humans, and the 3-4 billion his assumptions add to the population in the next 40 years, to “expand their energy usage.” Apparently with a tacit assumption that all the present indulgences and modes of converting stored to kinetic to waste-heat energy for “consumption” must be allowed to continue and expand, especially for the many humans who have not experience the pleasure of driving a Cadillac Escalade. The present level of combusto-consumption conversion, I bet he agrees, is unsustainable on a living planet, and from wherever he is coming from, politically and socially, I kind of doubt that “nuclear” has a prayer of making the situation any better. Nuke plants are as safe as they are (not very, it appears) largely because of “regulation” (and there’s some anecdotal evidence that even with “regulation” in a world plagued with corruption and mischance, that is “not very”) and a huge wealth transfer from ratepayers and public sources to the owners and rentiers of those plants. (Here in west FL, we ratepayers are, thanks to regulatory capture, giving Duke Power a $(as yet to be determined number of but at least 4) billion-dollar windfall in “rates” to pay for a nuclear plant that WILL NEVER BE BUILT. link to abcactionnews.com And for a plant at Crystal River that “free enterprise” suits (albeit from the Progress Energy entity that Duke bought to get that unearned profit), in their arrogance, was so badly damaged in “improving” it without benefit of “costly” outside engineering guidance that it is off the grid forever. link to articles.orlandosentinel.com

      link to dailyfinance.com

      Partisans for “energy options” ought to announce their interest. In the name of that silly myth, “transparency.” So the rest of us have a prayer of making choices, that of course includes the choice to “eat drink and be merry,” because apres nous le deluge…

  14. To say that China, or any other country gets a free ride, assumes that there is a credible force that would stop the movement of oil from the Gulf. In 1953, the U.S. and Britain overthrew the Iranian government, not to assure that oil would flow, but to assure that profits would flow – to U.S. and British oil giants. In 2003, the U.S. overthrew Hussein not to ensure that oil would flow but to ensure that profits would flow – to the giant oil companies. There are far more examples. The role of the U.S. military is corporate profits enforcer. The $10 trillion didn’t protect China’s access to oil nor did it benefit the 99% in the U.S. Arguments to the contrary justify the U.S. military grab of the world’s resources for the rich.

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