I was rummaging through the library at work, looking for a thesaurus while I was editing an upcoming supplement we’re publishing on the global liquefied natural gas industry, when I stumbled upon one of those mouldering gems of history only a geek or a historian could love. It seems we have not one, but two copies of one of Robert Ebel’s earliest works, The Petroleum Industry of the Soviet Union, published by the American Petroleum Institute (API) in 1961.
API wasn’t simply culling from back issues of Pravda or unclassified Central Intelligence Agency documents and guessing about then-Soviet oil wells, pipelines, refineries and terminals. They actually sent a 10-member delegation — the first — of American notables, executive vice presidents of well-known companies like Socony (the Mobil part of ExxonMobil), Standard Oil New Jersey (the Exxon part of ExxonMobil) Chevron, Phillips, some then-independents, and a couple of U.S. government officials (Ebel himself worked for the Interior Department at the time) to wander around the USSR for a bit, take a lot of photos, collect a bunch of data, and get what appears to have been fantastic access to the then-Soviet Union’s oil and gas industry — from wellhead to service station.
The API team visited the Soviet Union during the trial of Francis Gary Powers, and Ebel noted specifically that "little rancor was evident on part of the people we met." A number of Leningrad and Moscow residents were pleased to meet actual Americans to practice English-language skills hard-won from nights hunched over the shortwave listening to the Voice of America, though "[c]ontent of the program did not have much meaning" because the listeners were "puzzled by the religious tinge" and were not able to "correlate [American] assertions of having achieved world leadership in materialistic success with any religious devotion."
And I’m sorry, God forgive me, but the first image I had in my mind when I read this was Fox News, which makes it clear we definitely live in a post-Soviet world:
The propaganda to which the Soviet people are subjected is heavy and constant and every medium is utilized — newspapers, magazines, posters, radio and television. Each industrial installation, institute, school, Palace of Culture and the like exhibit charts comparing USSR achievements and plans to that of the US. Conversely, a considerable amount of propaganda is directed against the way we live and work, against our conveniences, and, of course, against our "unfriendly" acts. Even in the simplest mind some confusion must result from simultaneously holding us up as a goal and a thing to scorn. (Ebel, 4)
I haven’t had time to plumb the depths of this work, largely because it is mostly statistics that are 40 years out of date, and I’ve no burning desire to know what the naphtha content of Urals crude was in 1958. Plus, being as the work in mostly tables, charts, maps, graphs, and so forth, it’s simply not as entertaining as German journalist Harry Hamm’s visit to Albania later that same year, the visit he wrote about in Albania — China’s Beachhead in Europe in 1962 (which I found in the Alexandria public library’s discard bin). The kind of products Soviet refineries squeezed out of a barrel of oil in the 1950s doesn’t hold a candle to Albanian Communist leader Mehmet Shehu saying at that benighted little country’s 4th Party Congress:
"If anyone is not in agreement with our leaders in any point, we shall spit in his face, bash him on the jaw, and if necessary put a bullet through his head." (Hamm, 144)
(Which also sounds vaguely like Fox News, come to think of it.)
However, it turns out our complimentary copies of the Soviet oil survey also have little gift cards from the then-president of API, Frank Porter, who is ever intent to remind us the book’s
publication at this time will serve to point up some of the problems that face the United States oil industry as it operates within the framework of our free, competitive-enterprise economy.
Maybe I’m reading this wrong, but Porter almost seems to imply that the lack of a guiding five-year plan is a liability, a weakness, something that will doom the likes of Socony, Jersey, Chevron, Phillips, and the minor lights of the then-oil industry to penury and failure.
Too often, conservatives — particularly cultural conservatives — look at what appears to be a well-disciplined opponent marching in apparent unison and working together with one mind and toward one goal, compare it with what seems to be our chaos and decadence, and get anxious. Unless we get disciplined, work together and sacrifice as much as they are, whether we want to or not, we’re doomed.
Because the bad guys will beat us don’t.
That seems to be the way many conservatives reacted toward the Soviet Union, echoing in many ways the critique of the Marxist-Stalinist moralists that somehow we were far too soft and decadent to win a prolonged struggle with a people willing to bear cold, misery and sacrifice. Our individualism, our pursuit of individual interest and pleasure, our unwillingness to sacrifice, to fight, to go without, showed we were weak. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a brilliant man whose three-volume Gulag Archipelago has sat by my bed since I was 16 as perhaps the best thing I’ve ever read on how to live a moral life (and what that moral life means) in a world that deliberately destroys moral individuals, lectured us eagerly on our weaknesses in the mid-1970s.
He was wrong. And thank God.
More important, the moralists of enforced social order are wrong — we’re strong in large part because of our decadence, because of our quest for individual interest and pleasure, because most human beings seek naturally to live comfortably, easily and responsibly. And they seek, more than anything, the right and ability to define their own lives, and not have someone impose that definition upon them.
So, when anyone tells you that hoards of young bearded men are sitting in mosques across the Muslim world, fuming over American foreign policy, reading and re-reading certain verses of the Qur’an demanding war against Christians and Jews, and happily teaching their children to hate us and eventually kill us, don’t believe it for a minute.
I spent about six months working and living in Saudi Arabia (as chief copy editor for The Saudi Gazette in Jeddah) late last year and early this year, and can tell you most young Saudi men spend their days flirting with girls, driving their cars too fast while playing their music too loud, studying, looking for work, and working. The same is true of most young Saudi women as well, though they tend to think more about work and school and less about boys than you would expect.
The modern jihadi ideal of creating a world-spanning Islamic state, imposing Islamic law, and restoring the Caliphate — the viceregency of God — as the only legitimate government simply has never been a best-seller in the modern Muslim world. Only in Egypt and Algeria in the early to late 1980s did these ideals have anything remotely resembling popular appeal, and that was hardly mass appeal. Widespread terror in Algeria throughout the 1990s after cancellation of the 1992 election has pretty well soured Algerians on the idea of Islamic rule, and violence in Egypt in the late 1980s isolated the revolutionaries from the rest of the country. Combined with some pretty ferocious policing, Islamic revolution was largely beaten in Egypt.
And the revolutionaries have again reached too far and alienated just about everyone in Saudi Arabia. A major bombing attack that killed foreign Muslims last year combined with a number of shoot-outs between police in the rural heart of the country and around the holy city of Makka, have stripped the Saudi franchise of the international Islamic revolution of much public sympathy and support.
Only when they market jihad under the banner of the ongoing injustices (real and imagined) they see — the plight of the Palestinians, the occupation of Iraq, the never-ending war in Chechnya, the influence of decadent Western culture — do they get significant sympathy. Which can get you a box of riyals and rupees, but that’s hardly the same thing as active support.
Take heart. Bin Laden has already lost, and the proof of that was the September 11 attacks. In order to get his revolution, he had to involve us in a war and occupation of a Muslim state, use us as leverage to try and persuade enough Muslims to side with him against us. And even though the revolutionaries have gotten that war — our idiotic, counter-productive and immoral occupation of Iraq — with its ability to recruit and train a whole new generation of muajehdin, they are still going to lose. The most the revolutionaries can hope for is to go from anarchists who can bomb and kill to Bolsheviks who can seize power (and that may be possible at some point in Iraq, though they won’t be able to hold power for any meaningful period of time). But that is all. Bin Laden may win straw poll popularity contests that have utterly no consequences, but I doubt anyone will actually cast a ballot for him or take to the streets on his behalf if they ever got the chance.
A few smart people knew, early on, that the best way to deal with the Soviet Union was calmly and patiently. A bad system based on bad ideas was bound to fall apart on its own sooner or later. And it did, though many of us (including myself) believed it would not. To contemplate the power of decadence and liberty, consider what Moscow was 40 years ago and what it aspired to. See that once-closed Soviet oil industry is now open to foreign investment, albeit imperfectly and with a great deal of uncertainty. BP (which includes the former Standard Oil of Indiana and Standard Oil of Ohio) has the stake in TNK, and ConocoPhillips holds close to 10 percent of Lukoil.
And not the other way around.
Most Muslims understand that revolutionary Islam, with its utopian promise of God’s perfect order and the just society in the here-and-now, cannot deliver peace, prosperity and security. They still aren’t quite sure how to make those things for themselves, but that’s something every person and human society has to work out for itself.
We can help when asked. And stay out of the way otherwise.
Charles H. Featherstone [send him mail] is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist specializing in energy, the Middle East, and Islam. He lives with his wife Jennifer in Alexandria, Virginia.