Via Political Animal, this little nugget got me thinking:

In other words, the bill to bring Army and Navy battalions back to the status they were in before the invasion … [will be] $50 to $100 billion. “The next president will face a staggering bill,” Wilkerson says, not even counting the costs of further efforts in Iraq.

So, not counting the cost of the war itself, just returning U.S. armed forces to the fighting condition they maintained back in ye olden dayes of Feb. 2003 will cost as much as $100 billion. The estimates for the total cost of the war have been pegged as high as $2 trillion.

We talk a great deal about the “externalities” of oil. It’s important to remember that one of its costliest externalities — probably No. 2 behind climate change — is American military spending in the Persian Gulf, and at least two major wars.

Of course, America is only dependent on Persian Gulf oil so long as it is dependent on oil — but the inverse is true, as well: so long as America is dependent on oil, it will be dependent on Middle East oil, the cheapest and most plentiful source available. Indeed, the Gulf’s share of global oil reserves is expected to grow in the future as non-Gulf supplies decline more rapidly.

That is why the first president to enunciate a strategic foreign policy with the Persian Gulf at its heart was not named Bush or Reagan, but Carter. This isn’t a partisan issue, really: so long as America is dependent on oil, it is in America’s national security interests to keep the supply stable.

Which brings me to one of the more tragic books in the English language, The Great Illusion by Norman Angell. Wikipedia has a nice summary:

The thesis of that work is commonly (and incorrectly) described as saying that the integration of the economies of European countries had grown to such a degree that war between them was unimaginable, making militarism obsolete. However this is not what Angell actually argued. His central argument was that war between modern powers was futile in the sense that no matter what the outcome, he thought both the losing and the victorious nations would be economically worse off than they would have been had they avoided war. [emphasis mine – JM]

Angell was right, of course — even the nominal “victors” of World War I were deeply impoverished by the war. The Great Illusion was written in the last years before World War I, and Angell was writing in direct opposition to the sentiment in London, Paris, and Berlin that saw colonies and imperialism as the road to national greatness.

Angell proposed the remarkable heresy that it didn’t really matter who “owned” India so long as British merchants could trade with Indian ones. Meanwhile, efforts to keep India, South Africa, and other colonies within the imperial fold were a substantial net cost for Great Britain. Rather than being a source of national greatness, Empire made Britain less Great with every passing year.

So why was Empire so popular? Well, it wasn’t “popular” in the sense you or I would use the word — imperialism has never had much electoral cachet, and doesn’t today in the U.S. Rather, historian Douglas Porch argues that the classic imperialism of the 18th and 19th centuries was a result of commercial expansion coupled with a lack of political accountability: Merchants and far-off soldiers would “claim” some chunk of land for the mother country, and by the time the word got back to the capital, it was a fait accompli. Ah, the freedom the telegraph cost us.

Bills always come due, though. As Porch notes in his book Wars of Empire:

Lacking a deep wellspring of public support, colonial adventures could be continued 1) only if their costs were small and hence easily hidden from the public and 2) if colonial wars were also fought without significant costs in either lives or money. The Second South African War brought this harsh reality home as never before.

Before 9/11, you could expect a storm of protest if you described America’s role in the world as imperial. This was before intellectuals like Ignatieff, Ferguson, and others began attempting to resuscitate the term. Either way, America’s relationship with the Gulf states — especially Saudi Arabia — mirrors those of Great Britain in South Asia (though historical analogies are always inexact). Read any decent history of the Arab-American Oil Company (ARAMCO) to get a feel for this.

Which brings us back to oil. America has a massive commercial interest in oil and natural gas, two resources concentrated in the Persian Gulf. While the oil majors control relatively little of the oil produced in the Middle East, they control virtually all of the gasoline, diesel, and other products refined and sold in the United States. Most U.S. oil now comes from outside U.S. borders. (The U.S. produces less oil domestically than any time since Truman was re-elected.) American leaders have consistently said that the flow of oil from the Gulf is a strategic concern for the United States.

This means that, whatever else happens, so long as Americans consume gasoline (and perhaps, in the future, liquid natural gas) there will be a major U.S. military presence in the Middle East. That’s costly, and leads inevitably to wars. Remember bin Laden’s repeated statements about the intolerable U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia, if nothing else.

Meanwhile, those of us who advocate for a change from the status quo are, like Angell in his day, effectively aligning ourselves against the forces of nationalism and Empire. Getting off oil is synonymous with a threat to America’s way of life. This resistance isn’t reserved solely for the environmental movement, either: Exxon’s reaction to President Bush’s wish to get America off foreign oil was ridicule.

Whether we acknowledge it or not, oil imperialism costs us mightily, as it cost Empires back in the day. You can point to the hundreds of billions (perhaps trillions) for the war, you can point to climate change, you can point to any number of costs — and the alternatives would be cheaper. (Ask Gar Lipow about that part.) Like the British of the early 1900s, the only thing that stands in our way is making the choice: give up the Grand Illusion that colonies/oil are vital to our national greatness, and decide that it isn’t worth fighting a war over.

As the British began to change their relationship with their colonies after the Boer War, and especially after World War I, I hope Americans will begin the process of changing their relationship with oil after the war in Iraq reaches it’s bloody end.