OPINION: America's Achilles' heel
March 8th, 2012
04:00 AM ET

OPINION: America's Achilles' heel

EDITOR'S NOTE: Mike Breen is Vice President of Truman National Security Project and a former US Army Captain. Breen is a national security expert and the founding director for the Iraqi Refugee Assistant Project.

From Mike Breen, Special to CNN

As a young Lieutenant on my first combat tour, I served on an isolated fighting camp south of Baghdad in an area known as the “Triangle of Death.” My unit was entirely dependent on daily fuel convoys to power our generators and fuel our vehicles. Recognizing this, Iraqi insurgents consistently ambushed the convoys while my infantry company fought to protect them. That meant almost daily firefights which we jokingly called “fighting for our supper.”

The insurgents had recognized a crucial weakness, one that Osama bin Laden referred to as “America’s Achilles heel”: our dependence on oil as a single source of fuel.

Not surprisingly, Iran has identified a similar weakness in our national energy posture. Oil fuels almost our entire transportation sector – and thanks to decades of inaction, we lack comprehensive alternative options to gasoline. This permits Iran to significantly influence the price of gas at the pump. Rising oil prices sap our national strength, driven by U.S. consumption and ever-increasing demand from developing economies. America sends more than $1 billion per day overseas for oil. It should not be a surprise, then, that oil is the single largest contributor to our foreign debt, outpacing even our trade deficit with China.

Iran reaps the benefits of our single-source dependence. For every $5 rise in the price of a barrel of crude oil, the Iranian regime receives more than $7.9 billion annually, a Truman National Security Project analysis found. Over 50% of Iran’s entire national budget comes from the oil sector, according to the CIA world fact book. That’s enough to pay for Iran’s nuclear program, support for terrorism, and aid to dictators like Syria’s Assad. So not only does our dependence make us vulnerable to their whim, it also puts constraints on our foreign policy choices.

Meanwhile, Iran continues to use oil prices – and the threat of price shocks – as a bargaining chip. Over 20% of the world’s oil supply flows through the Straits of Hormuz, a narrow waterway the Iranian military has threatened to close in response to U.S. pressure to end its nuclear program. Each time Iran escalates tensions, fear of supply disruptions drives the price of gas upward, inflicting damage on western economies. Iran knows this, of course – and periodically uses bellicose rhetoric and military posturing to inflict economic pain.

Iran is not America’s only oil-funded security threat. Even Afghanistan’s Taliban benefits from ever-increasing oil prices. According to former Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke, the Taliban’s major source of funding is private donations from individuals in oil-rich Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other Persian Gulf states.

We must act to meet this danger, in the only way that makes sense: by developing alternatives to oil.

There is no single solution, no silver bullet, that can break oil’s grip on our economy. Fortunately, we have silver buckshot in our arsenal. At a minimum, we must develop a broad range of alternative fuels and vehicle technologies, support communities across America as they transition their infrastructure to support alternative vehicles, and increase tax incentives for families and small businesses that purchase those alternative vehicles.

My earliest military training taught me to anticipate threats and take action to defeat them. Our military leaders understand this when it comes to the cost of oil – a cost that extends beyond the gas pump and onto the battlefield.

soundoff (37 Responses)
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    July 20, 2012 at 8:10 am | Reply
  6. Odin029

    I love reading these types of articles. They come out ever so often talking about how this very vague 'we' have failed to discover a way to power our vast transportation networks with something other than oil. But is it a failure? Really?

    If I were to list all the things crude oil does it would read like science fiction. The worst part of it is that scientists keep finding new ways to use the black goo that comes out of the ground. It's not like oil tech stalled 30 years ago and we're just hanging on to decades old technology. There is so much energy stored with in a given amount of oil that nothing even comes close. A gallon of ethanol for instance only contains 85% as much energy as a gallon of gasoline and takes 115% more energy to produce. Plus oil is the best source for the raw carbon that make up the various super plastics that we've come to rely on in everything from water distribution to medical devices.

    There is no alternative to oil... period. There are going to be many successors to oil however. One for energy. One for lubrication. One for plastics, etc. etc.

    March 9, 2012 at 5:34 am | Reply
    • Jo

      There are a lot of people who can't afford Hybrids or Natural gas vehicles. so they are stuck with what they can afford

      March 10, 2012 at 9:40 am | Reply
  7. anti_zionist

    Israel is the achilles heel not only of America, but the entire PLANET!!


    March 8, 2012 at 3:28 pm | Reply
    • David

      You're an a-hole.

      March 8, 2012 at 5:34 pm | Reply
      • Casper

        The knee-jerk reaction of the neo-zionist lobby to any criticism of Israel or of Zionism is to respond to invective. Increasingly this is viewed with disgust by ordinary people all over the world, people that once may have had some sympathy for the Israeli cause. The standard response by the neo-zionist cabal to any criticism of their actions (not criticism of Israel) is to call those criticizing them Nazi's, so David, go right ahead. But the world is not blind.

        March 9, 2012 at 6:47 am |
    • JoeofVT

      Got a little hate going on huh?

      March 9, 2012 at 11:58 am | Reply
  8. Catamount

    “We must act … by developing alternatives to oil.” I’d love to roll out of bed into my Star Trek tele transporter and have my molecules reassembled at the office, but “we” haven’t invented that yet.

    Who is this “we”? Private or public sector?

    Did Daimler need government stimulus to invent the internal combustion engine, or Ford the assembly line, or the Wright brothers the aircraft? Ah, but they were all pre Socialism, back when smart entrepreneurs were incentivized to create, before excessive taxation and burdensome regulatory regimes.

    Now Obama-Keynesian-moron who knows nothing but failed community organizing has disincentivized all that, and compounded the error by pissing away a trillion on completely failed alternatives: Solyndra, Fisker, Abound Solar, Beacon Power, Chevy Volt, and the list goes on and on. I further doubt that America is creating smart entrepreneurs anymore, either. WSJ reports in The Excellence Gap that the democrat dominated public education system is producing qualitatively and quantitatively diminishing numbers of scientists, engineers, and mathematicians.

    So the likelihood of that Star Trek tele transporter being on the shelves at Best Buy anytime soon look bleak to me. In the meantime, my car still runs on gas. So vote conservative: Short term, stop the cap and trade carbon gimmicks and offshore moratoriums, permit the Keystone pipeline and enable the supply to meet the demand. Long term get rid of unionized democrat teachers and embrace Hayek Vienna-School free market capitalism. And perhaps one of our grandchildren may pleasantly surprise us.

    March 8, 2012 at 2:34 pm | Reply
    • Mac Qurashi

      The computer you used write your message is there because of all the inevestments US Government made in NASA. The ipad and iphones and all the gadgets came out of the research either by NASA engineeres or their contractors paid by US Government. Major basic research has always been paid by governments. Germany leads in the solor energy technology with the help of Government subsidies. The entrepreneurs of the past do not exist anymore. Technologies are too complex. Presently corporate CEO's are concerned with quarterly results without the concern for the future.

      March 8, 2012 at 6:32 pm | Reply
    • JamieIRL

      So uhhh, what exactly has Obama done to support anything that you've said? As far as socialism and regulations go? Do tell.

      March 8, 2012 at 9:38 pm | Reply
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        June 28, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
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    • Andy

      Unfortunately left to the private sector alone there is little to no incentive to develop efficient alternatives until such time as the population has had to resort to using bicycles or a horse and cart in order to get from point A to B.

      March 8, 2012 at 10:38 pm | Reply
  9. sielingfan

    Until such a time as alternaive fuels can power a jet, I'd like to see American oil pursued more aggressively. Imagine the damage we could do to Iran, Assad, etc. if we cleared American wells for drilling? If we could take ourselves off the foreign oil market overnight - what do you think that would do to global demand? What do you think the price drop would do to these terror slush-funds Khameni keeps piling up?

    Oil IS a national resource we have. If we use it now, we can hurt our enemies a whole heluva lot. If we wait much longer, the resource will be rendered useless. And I get it, nobody wants to hurt the economy, but look, we're hurting it just as much now - we're just spending three times as much, and the money's funding terrorists. So, you know..... lesser of two evils here.

    March 8, 2012 at 1:10 pm | Reply
    • sielingfan

      *"Economy" should say "Environment"

      March 8, 2012 at 1:11 pm | Reply
  10. Charles

    Mike, did your unit ever get to use any of the renewable energy projects? Solar, etc?

    March 8, 2012 at 11:44 am | Reply
  11. michaelfury

    "bellicose rhetoric and military posturing"


    March 8, 2012 at 8:55 am | Reply
    • Nick

      The oil leak is stopped for now as the cap on the well is nrikowg. The two relief wells will soon be in operation and when they are they will insert the mud and cement that will permanently seal the leaking well and then the relief wells will be used to pump oil to ships that will store it and transfer it to land based processors. The relief wells will reduce the pressure on the leaking well. There is still the possibility the relief wells may not be able to push the mud and cement into the leaking well and that would create a whole new problem for BP.

      April 4, 2012 at 4:19 am | Reply
  12. michaelfury

    "Iraqi insurgents consistently ambushed the convoys while my infantry company fought to protect them"

    And how many companies of infantry do you figure will be needed to protect this pipeline, Mr. Breen?


    March 8, 2012 at 8:52 am | Reply
    • oldbear60

      I don't believe he was advocating any particular pipeline, drilling etc., but rather a wide spread approach to solving the problem. Unfortunately as long as the Coal and Oil industry control a large portion of the politicians in the US, there will be no real progress. Perhaps some of the companies men and officers need to do a search and destroy in Exxon, Texaco, Conco, Shell, etc. and get rid of "terrorist" there . I agree with the article

      March 8, 2012 at 12:01 pm | Reply
  13. hypewaders

    Israel is the leading agitator in this context, not Iran.

    March 8, 2012 at 8:43 am | Reply
    • oldbear60

      Another leftist apologist for the thugs of IRan heard from. On your way to facing Mecca, just kiss our butts

      March 8, 2012 at 12:02 pm | Reply
      • anti_zionist

        No, just common sense.

        Pull cokk from ass, whore of Zion.

        March 8, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
      • JamieIRL

        Really? He's a leftist? Really?

        March 8, 2012 at 9:41 pm |
    • JoeofVT

      Explain how Israel is the agitator?

      March 9, 2012 at 11:14 am | Reply
  14. krolus

    Yes,oil is our econimies achillies heel but not for our military!The pentagon has been developing electric and hybrid trucks for 15 years now with serious goverment funding through DARPA.While we here in the states would be suffering,our troops would still be able to function adequetly.

    March 8, 2012 at 7:46 am | Reply
    • thinkitthrough

      That should work pretty good assuming that the enemy has installed enough charging stations in the field of battle for our troops. Where's the magic electricity going to come from?

      March 8, 2012 at 1:26 pm | Reply
      • JoeofVT

        Your comment is a little near sighted. The military isn't banking on one solution. Their DARPA expenditures are more then just electric, they are looking at hybrids, bio-fuels, hydrogen fuel cells. The military runs now on diesel, but I seriously doubt they regularly pull up to a gas station in Afghanistan.

        March 9, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
      • mamarox

        Solar Generators = Magic Electricity

        March 13, 2012 at 10:36 am |
    • Andy

      Perhaps that is the case, but there is as yet no major rolling out of such vehicles to my knowledge, with blended fuels only being a relatively recent occurence for the military in the US.

      March 8, 2012 at 10:41 pm | Reply
  15. mipolitic

    the weak link of the usa or any country of this time is that of four part combination. cyber space , economy , weak leadership on the world stage , and corruption , these four things will bring down any country . the cyber space attacks will aid all three of these other factors.
    as the warm weather comes this spring more occupy and strikes and riots will occur in europe along with a cyber war . the civil unrest is attached to economy and corruption, and since the mid east is in chaos with no answers the virus of riots will spread from country to country , so the oil thing is nothing compared to civil unrest.

    March 8, 2012 at 7:19 am | Reply
    • oldbear60

      You haven't lived thru serious unrest and civil disturbances as you call them. There are wost things than a shortage of something, unless it's water- hope your dire forecast isn't a reality anytime soon. As to cyber- we'd be alot better off with less of ti.

      March 8, 2012 at 12:06 pm | Reply

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