I was reading Atlantic Monthly on the bus this morning and noticed a pair of stories that inadvertently illustrated an interesting point: Western national-security experts are still wedded to the idea that "threat to our country" means "aggression toward our country," which seems woefully misguided to me in today’s world. Let me illustrate.

(Unfortunately, you have to be a subscriber to access the pieces online, so you’ll have to take my word for it.)

First we have a piece called "Worse Than Iraq?" It’s about the horrific and deteriorating situation in Nigeria:

With an ethnically and religiously combustible population of 130 million, Nigeria is lurching toward disaster, and the stakes are high — for both Nigeria and the United States. An OPEC member since 1971, Nigeria has 35.9 billion barrels of proven petroleum reserves — the largest of any African country and the eighth largest on earth. It exports some 2.5 million barrels of oil a day, and the government plans to nearly double that amount by 2010. Nigeria is the fifth-largest supplier of oil to the United States; U.S. energy officials predict that within ten years it and the Gulf of Guinea region will provide a quarter of America’s crude.

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It is hardly surprising, then, that since 9/11 the Bush administration has courted Nigeria as an alternative to volatile petro-states in the Middle East and Latin America. In 2002, the White House declared the oil of Africa (five other countries on the continent are also key producers) a "strategic national interest" — meaning that the United States would use military force, if necessary, to protect it. In short, Nigeria’s troubles could become America’s and, like those of the Persian Gulf, cost us dearly in blood and money.

A quarter of our crude, huh? So how’s that oil biz holding up?

[Nigerian president Olusegun] Obasanjohas has shown scant appetite for tackling the crime, neglect, and inefficiency rampant in the oil sector. "Bunkering" — tapping into pipelines and siphoning oil into makeshift tankers hidden in the swamps of the Niger River Delta — is widespread; it is responsible for the loss of some 200,000 barrels a day and for catastrophic fires that have incinerated locals attempting to scoop up the runoff. Criminal gangs with government connections are said to be behind the practice — who else could hire the needed equipment?

During his first term, Obasanjo established a development commission to distribute oil revenues among the country’s indigenous peoples, but its efforts have come to naught; most of the windfall oil profits of the last few years have gone toward refurbishing mansions for the elite. Oil spills and gas flares blight the delta, ruining farmland and poisoning fishing grounds. Owing to the abysmal state of its few refineries, Nigeria remains an importer of gasoline. Officials divert gas from the pumps and sell it on the black market. Fuel shortages are endemic.

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The entire country is teetering on the brink of chaos; it it collapses it will become the world’s largest failed state, and any military intervention on our part will dwarf Iraq.

The very next story — "States of Insecurity" — is a poll of "a group of foreign policy authorities — selected for their breadth of knowledge and first-hand experience in international affairs — about threats facing the U.S. and the allies that will be instrumental in confronting them."

Here are, according to these authorities, the main threats:

  Points First-Place
1. Iran 116 18.5
2. North Korea 74 6
3. Pakistan 59.5 5
4. China 57 4
5. Saudi Arabia 30.5 5
6. Iraq 27 5
7. Russia 21 0.5
Write-ins: Egypt, Venezuela (one vote each).    

The comments accompanying the poll were, almost without exception, about aggression or possible aggression toward the U.S. — particularly around nuclear weapons, or selling nuclear weapons to terrorists.

But nobody mentioned Nigeria. Indeed, none of the authorities saw fit to mention the coming end of cheap oil and the concomitant spread of failed states.

People are, by biological design I think, geared toward finding and fighting human enemies, human aggressors. But it’s not open aggression that most threatens us. It’s the loss of easy oil, and the horrific political and social situations we’re going to have to meddle in to maintain what supply is left. It seems pretty clear based on this poll that the U.S. security establishment has not come around to that way of thinking.