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Why is the Middle East so important to us?

The answer can best be summed up in a single three-letter word: tea. The Middle East is the route through which East Asian teas travel before they reach our pots and empty cups. Without peace and stability in the Middle East, black teas like Darjeeling, Assam, Orange Pekoe and Lapsang Souchong would be difficult to come by. Earl Gray and Ceylon blends might vanish altogether. And what would become of our silk, spice and salt supplies if the Middle East succumbs to barbarians?

Perhaps, one day, advances in windsailing techniques might make sea travel around the Horn of Africa more feasible, so our trading routes could bypass the Middle East altogether. But I don't think it wise to put our economic and, dare say, gastronomic fate in the hands of such far-flung fantasies as that.

Did I say tea? Sorry. I meant oil. In my effort to conserve energy, I accidentally recycled an old column.

Since the discovery of massive quantities of oil in the Middle East -- coincidental with the transformation of Europe, North America and, later, East Asia from rural agrarian societies into urban industrial ones -- stability in the region has been crucial to our economy. A demonstration of what would happen if the Middle Eastern cut off our oil supply came in 1973, when Arab nations stopped selling us the stuff for a while to punish us for supporting Israel in the Yom Kippur War of the same year. The embargo, combined with government price controls, resulted in a fuel shortage.

After the embargo was lifted, fuel prices remained high. Even adjusted for the inflation that its high prices caused, the price of oil nearly tripled during the 1970s and didn't decline again until the 1980s. The result was a sluggish economy and the hit TV series, "Dallas." Strangely (and unfortunately), the high price of oil in the '70s didn't stop the proliferation of petroleum-based fabrics like polyester from gaining unprecedented popularity. Disco culture, it seems, was unstoppable.

To make sure oil keeps coming our way, cheaply and reliably, we spend gazillions propping up undemocratic "moderate" countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the other little oily sheikdoms. In U.S. government speak, "moderate" means "willing to sell us oil." Even Saddam Hussein was once a "moderate" in our estimation. So unshakable is our focus on oil that we ignored that Saddam used poison gas against his own people. As long as his army was fighting Iran's army, thus keeping Iran's hands off our ... I mean, off Arab oil, he was cool by us. Now we want to topple him for doing pretty much the same stuff he always did, except for the bit about protecting our ... I mean, Arab oil.

But there's one small complication in the above theory. Europe and East Asia get more oil from the Middle East than we do, yet we're the ones with air and naval bases there. Why is that?

It's because we want to make sure that we're the only superpower. A Pentagon memo, prepared by now-Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz (and leaked to the press in 1992), explained that our strategy is to discourage industrial nations from aspiring to regional or global military reach. In other words, if we don't protect the flow of oil ourselves, Japan, Europe or China might develop a military that could.

Anyone for a cup of tea?

Next week: Who really shot J.R.?

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