America, oil, and war in the Middle East

Toby Craig Jones writes: Middle Eastern oil has enchanted global powers and global capital since the early twentieth century. Its allure has been particularly powerful for the United States. The American romance began in earnest in the 1930s, when geologists working for Standard Oil of California discovered commercial quantities of oil on the eastern shores of Saudi Arabia. In the years that followed, enchantment turned into obsession. Shortly after World War II it became clear that oil was more than merely a coveted industrial commodity. The most visible and celebrated event in that history occurred when Franklin D. Roosevelt hosted ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Ibn Saud, the founding monarch of Saudi Arabia, aboard the USS Quincy on Egypt’s Great Bitter Lake in February 1945. The meeting permanently linked Middle Eastern oil with American national security. It also helped forge one of the twentieth century’s most important strategic relationships, in which the Saudis would supply cheap oil to global markets in exchange for American protection. A bargain was made. And so too was a future tinderbox.

Over the course of the twentieth century, preserving the security not just of Saudi Arabia but of the entire Persian Gulf region and the flow of Middle Eastern oil were among the United States’ chief political-economic concerns. The pursuit of American power in the Gulf has been fraught with peril and has proved costly in terms of both blood and treasure. Oil has flowed, although not without difficulty. Since the late 1970s the Gulf has been rocked by revolution and almost permanent war. Security, if measured by the absence of conflict, has been elusive, and safeguarding the Persian Gulf and the region’s oil producers has meant increasingly more direct and dearer forms of U.S. intervention.

The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the American military occupation there represented only the latest stage of American militarism in the Middle East. While more considerable in scale, duration, and devastation than previous military misadventures in the region, the Iraq War was the outgrowth of several decades of strategic thinking and policy making about oil. It is true, of course, that terrorism and especially the attacks of September 11, 2001, helped accelerate the drive to war in 2003, but to focus too much on 9/11 is to overlook and discount the ways that oil and oil producers have long been militarized, the role oil has played in regional confrontation for almost four decades, and the connections between the most recent confrontation with Iraq and those of the past. Oil and war have become increasingly interconnected in the Middle East. Indeed, that relationship has become a seemingly permanent one. This outcome was not inevitable; the United States has not only been mired in the middle, but its approach to oil has also abetted the outcome.

It is also important to understand the U.S. emphasis on security, and the contradictions of its approach to it, in a broader regional context. While this essay does not dwell on the U.S.-Israeli relationship, U.S. Persian Gulf policy and America’s relationship with the region’s oil producers were often at odds with the alliance between the United States and Israel. The tensions created by American policies in the Gulf have undermined U.S. claims about pursuing regional security more generally. This contradiction played out most spectacularly during the 1973 oil crisis. [Continue reading…]

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