News Story

February 25, 2011

The Geopolitics of Energy

By David Rosenbaum

In March 2003, as then-Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein slipped out of Baghdad, Kilpatrick professor of the practice of international affairs Meghan O’Sullivan rolled into the city as part of the 200-person Organization for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance. She figured she’d be in Iraq for about a month—long enough to help the Iraqi people get back on their feet. She ended up staying 17 months. But as the U.S. occupation of Iraq began, O’Sullivan’s estimate was hardly the only one that was a bit off.
   O’Sullivan, who teaches “Decision Making in Recent Crises” and “Geopolitics of Energy” (also a HUCE Graduate Consortium on Energy and Environment course) at the Kennedy School of Government, recalls that her training for the mission focused on how to minister to herself after exposure to weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). She learned to give herself injections and leave notes describing her condition for the medics who (she hoped) would find her alive but presumably unconscious. There were no WMDs, of course, (although there was plenty of danger as she tooled around Baghdad in “a beat-up Hyundai”), and the size of the humanitarian organization for which she had volunteered proved woefully inadequate to its assigned task: ameliorating water and food shortages, and caring for refugees. Even that mission became hopeless as Iraq devolved into sectarian chaos. How could U.S. policy have been so far off the mark?
   “You have to understand,” says O’Sullivan, from 2004-2007 Special Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor for Iraq and Afghanistan, “the choices policy-makers have are usually between bad options and involve very complicated trade-offs. In any decision made at the highest levels, there’s a long list of stakeholders with interests that rarely align.”
   For example, in her “Geopolitics of Energy” course, O’Sullivan is using her experience with policy-making to help students grasp the difficulties involved in shifting the world to a more sustainable, less politically volatile energy source than oil. “Energy,” says O’Sullivan, “drives alliances, intelligence systems, and, of course, is critical to a nation’s security.” Developing and implementing sustainable sources of energy, she says, would enhance security as it would free nations from dependence upon foreign energy sources—mid-Eastern oil; Russian natural gas—even as it would help address the climate change issue, ameliorating the depredations of CO2 emissions. However, the profits to be made in oil and gas are so great, and the stakeholders profiting from the status quo so entrenched and powerful, that O’Sullivan describes the goal of reducing fossil fuel dependency as, at the moment, more “aspirational” than realistic.
   A former Brookings Institute fellow and author of Shrewd Sanctions: Statecraft and State Sponsors of Terrorism, O’Sullivan remembers that the expectations the administration had for Iraq were similarly more aspirational than realistic. Unfortunately, O’Sullivan says, “We were not able to meet them or even come close because we were not prepared for the collapse of Iraqi society. Within two months, we had to shift to a radically new mission: nation building.”
   Part of the difficulty of nation building, says O’Sullivan, is the almost universal notion that “America is omnipotent.”  Therefore, not only did the Iraqis not understand why the U.S. wasn’t able to provide the necessities for civil society, they assumed it wasn’t providing them because it didn’t want to. This belief helped transform the Americans from liberators to oppressors in the Iraqi mind.
   As for the book she will one day write about Iraq, she says that it will come, but right now  “part of the privilege of being [at the Kennedy School] is having the opportunity to reflect.” 

This article originally appeared in the Fall/Winter 2011 issue of Environment@Harvard.

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