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Oil: The Stuff of Mass Delusion

[President Obama meets Saudi King Salman. Image from creativecommons/jozigist.co.za] [President Obama meets Saudi King Salman. Image from creativecommons/jozigist.co.za]

Military primacy, and the routine use of deadly military force, remains the cornerstone of US foreign policy in the Middle East. The 2015 nuclear non-proliferation accord with Iran represents a rare yet fleeting bright moment for diplomacy in a region where wars—in Libya, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen—and the mass displacement of peoples continue unchecked. The United States has done much to precipitate the violence through its unjustifiable and destructive 2003 invasion of Iraq. Today the Obama administration abets the devastation from the air and by arming, directly or indirectly, its weak and embattled client governments. These include Iraq, the Saudi-backed forces seeking to regain control of a barely functioning Yemeni state, a shifting cast of Islamic militants fighting the Assad regime in Syria, and the Kurdish forces fighting the most infamous of the insurgencies, the Islamic State. A host of other outsiders including Russia, Turkey, Iran, Israel, and Saudi Arabia are involved as well, some nominally allied with the United States, others opposed. These foreign backers have found it impossible to reconcile their interests or move their warring clients toward lasting peaceful solutions.

Before the ink had even dried on the Iran Nuclear Agreement, the Obama administration announced arms deals worth billions with its two closest allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia, the first and the third most powerful militaries in the region, respectively. While the need for them is unclear, sales to other already heavily armed countries in the Persian Gulf are likely to follow, thereby speeding the spread of advanced conventional weapons across the region. All the while, the terms of the agreement prevent Iran from upgrading its own outdated weapons systems for years to come. This is not surprising, given the US government gives Israel the benefit of the doubt, particularly when it comes to security matters. Support for the country is strong on both sides of the congressional aisle, and many ordinary US citizens identify with the Jewish state on religious, ethnic, or political grounds, believing that the two countries share many of the same values. For some, the qualifier for such continued US support remains, as the New York Times editors recently wrote, Israel’s “failing to negotiate peace with the Palestinians.”

The contrast with Saudi Arabia, whose own “special relationship” with the United States dates back to before the creation of Israel, could not be starker. As Professor F. Gregory Gause, head of the International Affairs Department at Texas A&M’s Bush School of Government, put it, “There is arguably no more unlikely US ally than Saudi Arabia: monarchical, deeply conservative socially, promoter of an austere and intolerant version of Islam, birthplace of Osama bin Laden and fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers.” But that is putting it politely. US citizens view the country less favorably—as the Pew Research Center phrases it—than any other ally. To its many critics, the alliance demonstrates that concern for human rights, democracy, or other noble principles ranks just about as low on the list of factors that influence US policy in the Middle East more broadly. Topping that list for most historians, analysts, journalists, and activists is the need for “energy security” or, more simply, “oil.” Is it any mystery?

The vast archive of declassified US government documents, official presidential proclamations, PBS documentaries, and shelves upon shelves of books and think tank studies all would seem to make the point too obvious to dispute. There is a 1945 memorandum from a State Department official explaining matters to President Harry Truman, which Professor Noam Chomsky has relied on in his talks and writings for decades now. “In Saudi Arabia…the oil resources constitute a stupendous source of strategic power, and one of the greatest material prizes in world history.” In his January 1980 State of the Union address, President Jimmy Carter upped the stakes with a promise to use “any means necessary” to prevent a hostile outside power (i.e. the Soviet Union) from gaining control of the Persian Gulf region. In the wake of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, his successor doubled down on the “Carter Doctrine” with his own “Reagan Corollary,” clarifying that the US government would act to preserve both Saudi Arabia’s “territorial integrity and internal stability.” Every president since has reaffirmed a commitment to securing uninterrupted “access to oil” and preserving the “security of friendly states” in the Gulf, and every recent administration has sanctioned the use of force on these grounds.

Saudi Arabian leaders and their clients in the United States make no secret of the kingdom’s supposed vital contribution to the US and world economy by supplying “cheap” oil to western countries and consumers. Walk into the Saudi embassy in Washington, D.C. and you will find twin framed photographs of the famous meeting in 1945 between Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the kingdom’s founder Abdulaziz ibn Saud aboard the USS Quincy, where the two wise leaders are said to have sealed the deal—oil for security—that constitutes the core of the special relationship. As I discuss in my book, America’s Kingdom, much ink was spilled after the September 11, 2001 attacks to sell this view of the Saudis to Americans. This kind of campaign is a liability elsewhere. So, across large parts of the Middle East and South Asia, its agents must instead combat the prevailing view of the kingdom’s rulers as traitorous collaborators with the “Zionist-Crusader alliance” as Osama Bin Laden liked to say. 

Some progressive critics in the United States and abroad argue something similar although from a Marxian rather than Islamist perspective. That is, behind the rhetoric of access to oil, the United States really either seeks to gain, or it now exercises, or it is struggling to preserve its “control” of the Middle East’s oil resources, for which a pliant Saudi leadership is its proxy. Such control is in turn a chief means by which the United States maintains global political and economic dominance or what some call “hegemony.” The arguments run the gamut. There are all the factually wrong accounts of the 2003 Iraq War either enhancing big oil’s ownership of Middle East reserves as if it were still the 1950s, or, contradictorily, paving the way for foreign oil companies’ entry into the Iraq market for the first time in thirty years, allegedly in reversal of Saddam Hussein’s policies.[i] The latter argument is equally false, for not only did the Iraqi regime actively court foreign firms, but it was also desperate for US-imposed sanctions to end in order to prevent Iraq’s competitors from consolidating their gains at Iraq’s expense. Other arguments center on the need to protect vulnerable “choke points” and so on. The problem is that all such efforts to demonstrate that the United States actually exercises some kind of overarching power over oil price or supply inevitably come up empty handed.

For many more activists and analysts, however, the problem is not domination but US dependency on Saudi Arabia. It is “the largest and most important producer in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), the bloc that controls around 40 percent of the world's oil,” which the Atlantic Magazine says, is “Why the U.S. is Stuck With Saudi Arabia.” As the cliché from the 1970s imagines it, the Saudis have had the United States “over a barrel” for some time now. The moral dilemma it seems to pose, often couched in overheated language of “addiction”—which the Sierra Club now insists threatens not only national security but the economy and environment as well—is the lead in for some to push for radical transformation away from hydrocarbons. Others find themselves stumping on behalf of the elusive as ever objective of “energy independence.” So a colleague at the University of Pennsylvania, when asked last year at a public forum on Syria about Saudi Arabia’s support for jihadists, confessed, “The sad thing about that is fracking is the best means of weakening Saudi influence, which the green side of me doesn’t approve of, but I’d prefer fracking to being dependent on the Saudis.”

It turns out that there is a mystery after all, because none of these deeply held ideas about threats to access, the capacity to control Middle East energy resources, and about dependency on the kingdom withstands scrutiny. They tell us more about the contemporary folkways of oil in the United States. Some of these mistaken beliefs can be traced back to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when they were treated a lot more skeptically than they are today. They comprise the “conventional wisdom” that circulates among publics and movements—environmentalists, generals, and self-described “energy security” experts. The latter believe such half truths and circulate them despite their implausibility and the lack of supporting evidence, usually at the service of one or another political or ideological program.

Take the seemingly self-evident value of reducing, if not altogether ending, US dependency on Saudi Arabia. If audience members at my university’s forum are like most Americans, or at least like the undergraduates who take my classes, then my colleague’s brief answer would have reinforced the widely held but utterly false idea that US refineries get sizeable quantities of their crude oil supplies from the kingdom and other Persian Gulf states. It is hard to understand what else “dependency” could mean. Yet the largest share continues to come from the western hemisphere, as was the case throughout the twentieth century. The actual value of Gulf imports for the past decade ranges between ten to fifteen percent of total crude imports, with Saudi Arabia and Venezuela neck and neck for third place behind Canada and Mexico. Assume my colleague knows these facts but had no time to go into detail. It would then appear that in one case, that of Saudi Arabia, "dependency" obliges a US administration to tolerate the Saudi regime’s aiding anti-Assad jihadis in Syria, bombing Yemeni civilians, and spreading radical Salafist beliefs everywhere. In the other case, however, that of Venezuela, the same level of import dependency posed no insurmountable challenge to seeking the overthrow of the Venezuelan leader.

The bad news for all those who dream of a Saudi oil-free future for the United States sooner rather than later, or for those who imagine that Washington’s leverage with its Saudi “frenemies” goes up as the quantity of Saudi oil imports goes down is that some elementary features of world oil markets and the refining industry have to be wished away. One is that oil producers sell to large international firms rather than to countries, refiners buy most of their oil on the spot market, and, without a lot of hard work, they usually do not know where any barrel of oil that passes through a US refinery originates. Another is that the largest single US importer of Saudi crude oil is one of the three refineries that the kingdom’s own national oil company, Saudi Aramco, operates jointly with Royal Dutch Shell in the United States. There are others.

The biggest problem, however, is that even if imports from the Persian Gulf nominally dropped to zero, the price of oil produced in the United States would still rise and fall with the price that all Gulf and other oil producers sell at. It is impossible to insulate against price volatility. That is, not unless the government restricts oil imports, imposes price controls, and, as a result devises a system of rationing. The last time it did so led to the infamous gas lines of the 1970s, which we now falsely attribute to the “Arab” or just plain wrong “OPEC boycott” that did not succeed because it could not conceivably do so. For a few short months, the United States suffered a loss of a mere five percent of the pre-boycott volume, a safe guess as to why no one has tried a boycott again. The good news is that neither my colleague nor anyone else has to give up their “green side” on the grounds of national security, which makes no sense and would make no difference.

The inextricable entanglement of global markets is Exhibit A for defenders of US primacy who argue that a military presence in, and constant vigilance over, the Middle East is needed more than ever against the threat of some malignant power taking over the Gulf and cutting off access to oil in order to “blackmail the world,” as the conservative thinker Walter Russell Mead recently testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee. The even better news therefore is that opponents of militarization as well as critics of the US–Saudi alliance can carry on as before with just a little tweaking of their arguments. This is because the stories spun about the threats to access—used to justify the enormous sums expended to protect the oil from any potential hostile takeover and to keep economies running—are no more plausible than the ones told about the national security costs of dependency.

During the throes of the hazily remembered, so called “energy crisis,” the US government began selling advanced arms both to the shah of Iran and the Saudi regime (the latter among the so-called “boycotters”) in order to secure regional stability and preserve access to oil. While the “militant right” at the time called for the government to occupy the Saudi oil fields, MIT economist Morris Adelman tried to bring reason back into the discussion. He noted how markets guarantee buyers access without the need for force. After all, producers cannot target a specific country without shutting down production to all countries. Further, no state has ever opted to keep its oil in the ground rather than sell it for the goods, services, prisons, palaces, weapons, and so on that it buys. Nevertheless, the United States has fought multiple wars in the Persian Gulf region, and today continues to concentrate significant naval war-fighting capacity there. By the middle of the last decade, and, importantly, excluding the cost of the 2003 invasion of and counterinsurgency in Iraq, the sums spent on Persian Gulf force projection had already cost about the same as the bill for the entire Cold War. The yearly costs of maintaining such forces in the region are higher than all oil exports from the region to the rest of the world.

Another MIT professor and head of the university’s security studies program, Barry Posen, is following in Adelman’s footsteps. In Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy, Posen calls for a radical rethinking of the US government’s “unnecessary, counterproductive, costly, and wasteful” globe-spanning strategic posture and military force structure in Europe, Asia, and the Persian Gulf, including any effort now or in the future to preserve the current Saudi regime in power. To make his point, he analyzes a set of routinely evoked claims that ostensibly justify US military presence, including the presumed vulnerability of transit routes and the threat of a future Saddam Hussein-like figure who would raise prices or withhold supply. Posen concludes that the “threats and benefits that are usually invoked are not compelling or cannot be dealt with efficiently by military power.” He argues that since the results of a cost-benefit analysis are straightforward and inescapable, some other “factor x” must explain the enormity of the sums that the US government expends, given that the flow of oil itself has never seriously been at risk. “I suspect that global prestige and influence is this factor x,” which is close to what some scholars mean when they talk about US hegemony, but, Posen adds, “even this argument is not self-evidently strong.”[ii]

Consider the irony. After World War II, US policymakers publicly defended interventions in far-flung places such as Greece, Guatemala, Iran, Korea, and Vietnam on the grounds of maintaining the “credibility” of the United States’ commitments to the defense of freedom and out of fear of the “domino theory,” whereby one country falling to communism would lead others to do so as well. These utterances are what Chomsky and others distinguish as “the professed goals” rather than real objectives of policy or what professors of international relations call “strategic rationales.” As the Cold War consensus and containment of domestic dissent at home gave way in the 1960s, the antiwar movement favored those new left critiques and revisionist historians who sought to uncover the real “material” interests and objectives that had propelled the Korean and Southeast Asian wars, and the covert interventions and coups in the Caribbean and Iran.

Access to, or control of, “raw materials” and “strategic minerals” such as bauxite, chromium, cobalt, copper, manganese, rubber, uranium, and, yes, oil, at the behest of corporate capital was a favored explanation, not least because it was easy to find support for such claims in records of the era if not in the public utterances of the presidents. Since the 1970s, that list of vital material interests has seemingly been reduced to one—oil—although, paradoxically, it is impossible to account for that interest in any kind of tangible way. It is difficult to know the discounted price that refiners pay, additional quantities shipped, or extra reserves that “big oil” claims on its books as a result of decades of force projection. Beware those who claim the issue is more complicated but do not specify how. If it is “global prestige and influence” that strategists and activists believe the US Navy delivers, well that reads like just another strategic rationale to me.

Oil is different,” or so Michael Klare, the Nation Magazine’s long time defense correspondent and, until recently, a leading proponent of “oil scarcity” ideology on the left, tells us. But is the claim true? Sure there are plenty of books, some of them quite hefty, that tell “just so” stories of the role played by oil in propelling the course of contemporary history. Only there are other books that argue the same about aluminum or coal or nitrates or cotton or slaves or some other “commodity.” Historians will also continue to mine the archives for evidence that behind the lofty rhetoric, oil preoccupied the principals in some event or crisis, and ending the investigation there, as if “oil” explains itself. It does not. Historians owe it to themselves and to their readers to explain and judge the rationality of the beliefs of those they study. 

Saudi Arabia is different in the eyes of many. The kingdom’s large reserves give it unique capacities alone or as part of the OPEC cartel to affect prices and in other ways reward friends and punish foes. “They have almost total leverage,” the New York Times quoted Maine Senator Angus King last February in support of the view that its papers’ readers are paying so much less for their gasoline this year because the Saudis are busy punishing Iran and Russia. Then again, the New York Times said the result ought to be a “weakening of Russian support” for the embattled Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, when in reality, the Russians instead moved part of their air force there in September and began bombing Assad’s opponents.

Finally, for many policymakers and analysts, the United States itself is a uniquely stabilizing force in the market for the world’s most vital commodity. Absent US primacy, supply and therefore price would be that much more volatile. Posen encapsulates the view of which he is quite skeptical, as follows. The guardianship of the US military since the 1980s has preserved order, guaranteed supply against political shock, and so has underwritten the price that all consumers pay, although, he adds, he has “seen no evidence of this benefit.”

This is because there is no evidence. To the contrary, as the work of University of Tulsa professor Roger Stern shows, all these accounts of oil’s unique “strategic value” driving the politics of intervention, of a potent oil weapon that the Saudi leaders wield alone or as part of OPEC (wittingly or not on behalf of the US patron), and of the gains from US efforts on behalf of refiners and consumers founder if we compare the volatility of oil prices with all the other more humdrum commodities bought and sold on the world market. The reality is that since the early twentieth century, these rise and fall in tandem, meaning that control in one case is an illusion. It is true across different eras and under different production regimes: (1) before oil was discovered in the Middle East; (2) during the heyday of British primacy; (3) in the era when the western oil giants are falsely believed to have controlled prices; (4) in the time of “low” US involvement; and, (5) since the 1970s, the era of unrivaled US hegemony in the region. It turns out that all the blood and treasure spent on the so-called “prize” has not mattered a bit, at least not in the ways that most experts and citizens, consumers and activists, and, yes, even many presidents and generals, imagine.[iii]

Old ideas about scarcity and conflict, rooted in nineteenth century social Darwinism, neo-mercantilism, geographical determinism, and scientific racism, all of which are impossible to disentangle from the imperialism of that era, have a long half-life. In their modern guises they mobilize environmental activists and galvanize opposition to intervention (no war for oil). They win votes (yes, war for oil if it means lower gas prices). They justify arms sales, guarantee the weapons makers’ bottom lines, and subsidize the costs that the Pentagon pays for its own purchases. They smooth the way for government transfer of public wealth into private hands. The world still pays for Gulf oil in dollars and Saudi petrodollars continue to flow into US finance and real estate markets. There are other effects. It is just that the ideas themselves are not true. 



[i] See Brian Black, Crude Reality (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2012), p. 183, for a particularly egregious misrepresentation of Iraqi oil policy since the 1970s and the unfortunate choice of Shell Oil Company to “exemplify” the return of US companies there. Shell is a wholly owned and increasingly tightly owned subsidiary of the Netherlands-based parent, Royal Dutch Shell.

[ii] Barry Posen, Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2014), pp. xi, 112.

[iii] Stern has shared his unpublished work with the author. For the periodization see Rovner and Talmedge, “Hegemony, Force Posture, and the Provision of Public Goods: The Once and Future Role of Outside Powers in the Gulf, Security Studies 2014. 

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