What we’re paying for: Terrorism and oil

On Feb. 14, Vice President Biden and former Vice President Dick Cheney had a talk-show showdown that focused on which style of governing is better at keeping our country safe from terrorism: one that utilizes civilian trials or one that disregards the constitution in favor of military tribunals. Unfortunately, neither is getting at the well-oiled root of our foreign policy problem.

After 9/11, Bush made a dramatic change from the policy used worldwide of treating terrorists as criminals to one where anyone found to be an “enemy combatant” could be tried by the military and put in Guantanamo.

Recently, Republicans have begun to slam the White House for the decision to treat Christmas Day bomber Umar Abdulmutallab as a criminal defendant rather than turn him over to the military as an enemy combatant. Sarah Palin recently received much applause at the Tea Party convention for criticizing Obama’s policy of “lawyering up” Abdulmutallab and calling for a “commander-in-chief, not a professor of law standing at the lectern.”

There is a multitude of problems with this critique. The first is that Bush actually didn’t use the military tribunals. Out of the 153 terrorists that the Bush administration convicted, only three were tried in military tribunals.

This is probably because, despite popular rhetoric, the civilian court system actually works better than a military tribunal. Bush himself must have recognized this during his administration when Salim Hamdan, Osama bin Laden’s driver, was given a mere five-year sentence from a military tribunal while Richard Reid, the “shoe bomber,” was given life sentence without parole from a civilian court.

But the real problem behind the polarizing rhetoric and finger-pointing is America’s dependence on foreign oil.

Ever seen the bumper sticker that claims “Osama loves your SUV”? Unfortunately, that might not be so far from the truth. TheNatural Resources Defense Council estimates that Americans spend more than $13 million per hour on oil and over $25 billion per year in the Persian Gulf alone.

Bin Laden’s wealth comes from a family construction company that made its money from Saudi government contracts financed by oil money. But our energy purchases have done more than just help the founder of al Qaeda, they are strengthening the most intolerant, anti-Western, anti-women’s rights strain of Islam—the strain propagated by Saudi Arabia.

As Thomas Friedman explains in his recent book “Hot, Flat and Crowded,” the Wahhabi ruling family in Saudi Arabia follow the Salafiyyah movement in Islam, a strand of the religion that believes Islam should return to its purest roots. This movement wasn’t very popular until radical fundamentalists took over the Grand Mosque of Mecca in 1979 and the royal family realized it could only protect itself against religious extremists by empowering them.

Although Saudia Arabia only has one percent of the world Muslim population, it now funds 90 percent of the expenses of the faith.

The effect of this is immediately evident.

As Greg Mortenson wrote in “Three Cups of Tea,” the power of the Saudi Wahhabi sect to build mosques and schools in areas where none existed was overwhelming.

“Many of their schools and mosques are doing good work to help Pakistan’s poor. But some of them seem to exist only to teach militant jihad,” Mortenson wrote.

When governments make the majority of their money  from drilling a hole in the ground, they have no incentive to educate their people or provide them with freedoms to encourage their creativity. Governments that don’t rely on taxation are unlikely to represent their constituents. In fact, according to Larry Diamond, author of “The Spirit of Democracy,” of 23 countries that derive a clear majority of their income from oil and gas, none are democracies.

“Making America the world’s greenest country is not a selfless act of charity or naive moral indulgence,” Friedman wrote. “It is now a core national security and economic interest.”

If our politicians really want to make America safe, they should start by looking inwards.