Former CIA head ties oil, terror

Feb. 25, 2010, 1:02 a.m.

Former head of the Central Intelligence Agency Jim Woolsey ’63 spoke Wednesday afternoon to a packed auditorium at Stanford Law School about the challenges that the future generation of policy makers will face in the Middle East.

Woolsey pointed to the religious influence in the region as a key to understanding its deep-seated conflicts. He said the separation of mosque and state has eroded in the region during recent decades, a development which has had far-reaching consequences due to certain aspects of Muslim doctrine.

“Shiite Muslims think they have to work hard to make their savior return to earth,” Woolsey said. “They believe they need to dominate the Middle East and kill lots of people, and that if they can just kill enough people, then [he will] return to earth and they will go to heaven and we will go to hell.”

“These are not cynics we are dealing with here,” he added. “These are honest fanatics. These are true believers.”

Woolsey underpinned his assessment of the region’s political situation by pointing out that eight of the nine top oil-exporting countries in the world are dictatorships or autocracies, as well as every single nation in the world that depends on oil for two-thirds or more of its national income (22 countries in total). He explained these facts by alluding to what he called the “oil curse.”

“If you have a country that is an dictatorship, controlled by a very small group of people, and it comes into possession of a valuable commodity, then even though that country is getting richer, it’s not getting richer in any meaningful way that builds up a prosperous, enfranchised middle class and paves the way for democracy,” Woolsey said. “That added economic rent only enhances the wealth and the power of those few people, consolidating power in their hands.”

This wealth is put to uses that “are not in pretty much anyone’s best interest,” he said.

“By and large, it is oil money that is funding the madrasas that teaches little boys that becoming suicide bombers is a good, reasonable life choice for them,” Woolsey said. “Next time you go to a filling station, you will know where that money is coming from. So, to put it mildly, we are paying for both sides of this war on terrorism.”

While conceding that the Middle East conflict has no single solution, Woolsey stressed the importance of reducing world dependence on oil. He outlined several specific steps to be taken toward accomplishing this goal, including the increased electrification of transportation — notably, plug-in hybrid cars — and the use of advanced biofuels.

“Within a decade, we should be able to make a very substantial dent in our oil dependence,” Woolsey said.

Woolsey illustrated the broad logic of his outlined strategy by drawing an analogy to salt’s role over the course of human history.

“Salt used to be a strategic commodity,” Woolsey explained. “A country could lord it over its neighbors if it possessed salt and its countries didn’t. Then, with the 20th century came electric grids and refrigerators, and salt was no longer needed to preserve meat. It was destroyed as a strategic commodity. We should be trying to turn oil into salt. We should be trying to make oil boring.”

Woolsey received his B.A. from Stanford in 1963 and his LLB from Yale Law School in 1968 after studying as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University. He has served in numerous positions in the federal government over the decades, in both Republican and Democrat administrations. In recent years, he has emerged as a leader of the movement for U.S. energy independence.

Some audience members were impressed by Woolsey’s analysis.

“By putting the energy question and the importance of finding alternative sources of energy in the context of the political conflicts occurring in the Middle East, Mr. Woolsey made clear how interconnected a lot of the biggest problems our society currently faces are,” said Teddy Steinkellner ’11.

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