Isn't it ironic to consider that the real source of the mass inferno now engulfing the Middle East emanates from deep, deep under the ground -- well no, not with hell, but with the oil. It is this oil that not only appeases much of the thirst for the world's cars, trucks, trains and airplanes but also fuels the authoritarian devils populating most of the Middle East that have ruled with virtual unimpeded impunity until now.
The world, led by the United States for most of the last 50 years, has relied on a now defunct branch of mathematics that I call the calculus of convenience. Essentially, we made a deal with the devil to overlook all the criminality and repression associated with authoritarian regimes in exchange for cheap and reliable oil.
Should anybody actually be shocked that huge masses in the Middle East have finally grown weary of their dead-end lives in these dead-end countries? All of us in the Western world are now all too familiar with the woebegone statistics illuminating the plight of the average Middle East citizen, at least ever since a disgusted Tunisian vendor got so fed up he made himself a human torch which then ignited a virtual hell across the region.
Prior to a month ago, even in the aftermath of the war in Iraq, we all pretty much blithely ignored the wretched realities of life for the typical Egyptian provided that our gas bill didn't undermine our trips to Walmart. While I don't suggest that we have blood on our hands, but as a country, at a minimum, we do have a cavalier attitude in aligning our practices with our principles just so long as access to our envisaged American birth right of cheap oil remains unfettered.
Let's be slightly aware, if you're the average unemployed 26-year old Egyptian living under the Mubarak thumb for all of your life, it is only reasonable to assume that you not only despise him, but how do you not have deep ill will for his sponsors-namely the United States. And if you're this unfortunate person, you don't need to decipher hieroglyphics to discern the dichotomy between our deeds and our words. You also don't need to be a sphinx to detect hypocrisy. And hypocrisy is corrosive, no matter the culture.
So what next? It might be discommoding, even highly inconvenient to practice what we preach in terms of conducting our affairs on the global stage in an interconnected world. But to be true to our principles and secure a moral high ground that gives us a wider birth in which to act in our national interest and provide long term and durable security, I believe we need initiate a major repositioning of how we operate.
However, before we embark on this path, we need to get it right with managing the spreading Middle East fire. Given the truly life and death nature of what is unfolding, along with the fact that there could be horrific long term consequences if extreme Islamists take over, we clearly can't take the chance of allowing the invisible hand do it's work. We, unfortunately, must be prepared to actively engage on not only a diplomatic level, but potentially militarily as well. When you make a deal with the devil, you ultimately pay a price and that tab has now come due.
Regardless of how it plays out in the relative short term, it is beyond imperative we prepare for the long game and that starts with the oil. We need to reduce our dependency on oil and create a market driven pathway which accelerates a transition to greater efficiency and to alternative fuels so we don't have to make deals with devils. Yes, we could drill for oil off the California coast or in other protected places but that is just a finger in the dike and highly unlikely anyway ever to get traction in this country. Many speak of the need for a "Manhattan" type project to create a world beyond oil. Frankly, all we really need is for the price at the pump to reflect the true cost of this good and let the market do the rest. When gasoline went north of $4.50 a gallon a couple of years ago, it didn't require a government mandate to push people into Prius.' Let's be honest, gasoline is significantly subsidized and allowing it to rise to its natural price will unleash a fury of market driven innovation and modified behavior which will benefit us all in the long run.
The world's worst kept secret is the fact we pay for both sides of the war because of our appetite for oil. No matter how democracy may or may not unfold throughout the Middle East, that oil will be pumped and put on the world market. And as long as bad actors have access to these outsize revenues, they will continue acting in ways that are detrimental to their societies and global security. Do we really want to have to hold our nose and look the other way in supporting the Mubaraks of the world and then pretend we actually inhabit some sort of higher moral plain?
At some point, the piper always gets paid. It took about 50 years for him to collect his toll in the Middle East. Oil has now risen to $100 a barrel due to the uncertainty of how the future will play out and let's face it, it could get far uglier. And it already has for thousands of democracy and dignity thirsty beings who have been crushed in Iran and Libya.
You know, when we speak of acting in our national interest with regard to the Middle East, it is really just code for maintaining cheap oil. Let's begin to imagine a world in which oil could be a fungible fuel and where we didn't need a trillion dollar navy to protect its flow. It started with a now dead formally anonymous Tunisian street vendor. Fortunately for us, destiny, ours, is still a choice we have the power to make. Hopefully we have the collective will, discipline and vision to do so.
Chapin is CEO of USAOPOLY, partner of Zephyr Partners and chairman of Health Savings Associates.