The Biopolitics of Security: Oil, Empire, and the Sports Utility Vehicle
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American Quarterly 57.3 (2005) 943-972



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The Biopolitics of Security:

Oil, Empire, and the Sports Utility Vehicle

In the wake of 9/11 the Bush administration has called upon established foreign policy discourses to cement the idea of a nation at war.1 Given the amorphous and often virtual nature of the "war on terror," in which the adversary is by definition largely unseen, the association of other resistant elements with terrorism has become a mechanism for materializing the threat. Notorious in this regard was the Bush administration's linking of internal and external threats by aligning individual drug use at home with support for terrorism abroad. In itself, this is not a new argument, with alleged links to terrorism having been featured in previous episodes of the country's "war on drugs."2 However, the Bush administration went one step further by making a causal connection between individual behavior and international danger. In 2002, the Office for National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) launched a campaign of hard-hitting advertisements in which the social choices of hedonistic youngsters were said to directly enrich and enable terrorists threatening the United States.3

Others at Home and Abroad Post-9/11

This argument, which was controversial, sought to discipline domestic behavior by linking it to external danger. One ironic response to the campaign, first made by columnist Arianna Huffington, was to argue that if funding terrorism was the concern, then "soccer moms" driving sports utility vehicles (SUVs) were more easily linked to the problem through the increased revenues for Middle East oil producers their reliance on an uneconomical family vehicle generated. Huffington reported that two Hollywood producers had written spoof scripts for advertisements that parodied the ONDCP campaign. Linking individual consumer choice with the international threat of the moment, one of these scripts declared the SUVs parked in families' driveways to be "the biggest weapons of mass destruction."4

Huffington's column generated considerable debate, and a new lobby group—the Detroit Project—was launched so the anti-SUV advertisements [End Page 943] could be produced and broadcast as part of a campaign to link improved fuel efficiency with national security. Although most television stations refused to air the commercials (demonstrating a corporate fear of controversy), they garnered much attention, and came to highlight the cultural clash between SUV manufacturers and users and those concerned about the vehicles' communal effects.5

This controversy raged in the months leading up to the U.S.–led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and was part of a larger discourse about the relationship between oil and security. While the ONDCP campaign targeted the casual narcotic user, the Detroit Project advertisements in effect saw the United States as an addict whose oil habit could be satisfied only by an act of international crime. Both arguments sought to individualize responsibility by positing a tight causal connection between personal choice and political effect, thereby following in a long line of issues whose social and political context have been subsumed by the politics of individualization. While the Detroit Project advertisements simplified issues in a manner akin to the ONDCP campaign, in the context of the relationship between oil and security, they did raise difficult issues with respect to the relationship between the domestic and the foreign.

While individual SUV owner-drivers cannot be said to directly endorse terrorism simply as a result of automotive choice, it is the case that the SUV has come to underpin U.S. dependence on imported oil. This dependence in turn underpins the U.S. strategic interest in global oil supply, especially in the Middle East, where the American military presence has generated such animus. As a result, the SUV symbolizes the need for the U.S. to maintain its global military reach. Given the dangers this global military presence provokes, it might be possible to say the SUV is one of America's greatest national security threats. This article explores the validity of those connections as part of a critical examination and retheorization of the relationship between oil and security...