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U.S. Oil Thirst Vexes Moderate Muslims

Energy policy fosters perception problems.

October 07, 2002|MARK LENZI | Mark Lenzi is a former Peace Corps volunteer and Fulbright scholar working as an environmental engineer in Baku, Azerbaijan.

BAKU, Azerbaijan — Ground breaking last month on the monumental Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline marks the beginning of a project that could affect the average American much more than any war with Iraq, and it is a fascinating case study in how Muslim nations view the U.S.

For years, just the concept of an oil pipeline that would stretch for more than 1,000 miles through Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey was thought to be a pipe dream.

However, this region is where Central Asia meets the Middle East, and now that the project is underway it appears that no price is too high for Washington and world oil companies to link the oil of the Caspian Sea region with the Mediterranean Sea without passing through unstable southern Russia or Iran.

Although President Bush hailed the construction as "enhancing global energy security" and "a model for future cooperative efforts in the region," the fact is that the million-barrel-a-day pipeline will severely harm a region that has already been devastated by years of shameless oil exploitation by the Soviet Union and the West.

The area around the oil fields in Azerbaijan has by far the worst environmental damage I have ever seen. It is an ecological disaster of epic proportions.

Many in this Muslim nation, sandwiched between Iran and Russia, have expressed faint optimism about the pipeline and the possibility that it will bring some economic income. Yet they hold no illusions that anyone other than the leadership, a few oil tycoons with government contacts and the West will benefit. How could they? Gas prices here, right outside oil fields and refineries, are exactly what they are in the U.S.

The Muslims here are moderate and want to give the West the benefit of the doubt, but the underlying view by many is that the U.S., under the leadership of a former oil boss, will go to any length--even 1,100 miles of inhospitable territory--to keep oil prices down.

Lost in the debates about Iraq, the war on terrorism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the underlying fact that Muslims' exasperation with the U.S. goes much deeper than any of these issues.

If you scratch below the surface, you find what really bothers moderate Muslims: It is that the average American believes it is his or her God-given right to have gasoline at about $1 a gallon and to own a sport utility vehicle; and that practically no one in the U.S. knows or cares that their government overlooks the practices of brutal regimes in places such as Myanmar or Equatorial Guinea in the name of cheap gasoline.

For every American who even knows where Equatorial Guinea is, there are 1,000 Muslims who not only know where it is but view Western oil practices there as exploitive.

For many Muslims here and around the world, places such as Kabul seem just as far away and unknown as they did to Americans before Sept. 11.

However, when you face daily exploitation, by politically corrupt regimes propped up by the West and by the misuse of resources right outside your window, you become angry. Maybe not to the point of taking action, but there are millions of moderate Muslims who are nonetheless angry inside. These are precisely the people the U.S. must win over if the war on terrorism or any long-term plans for the Mideast are to succeed.

From a strictly economic point of view, the pipeline probably makes a lot of sense--the oil companies would not build it if it didn't. However, my worry is that the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline is symbolic of the perception problems the U.S. is facing in the Muslim world. Washington needs to recognize the perception problem it has with moderate and liberal Muslims and take immediate actions to remedy the situation.

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