Commentary Magazine


Oil: The Issue of American Intervention

I

The turning points in history, we are told, are commonly events whose real significance can only be understood at distant remove. To those who directly experience them, these events are the occasion for endless controversy and uncertainty. At the time, the only point of agreement may be that something unusual has occurred and, as a result, the accustomed order of things will never again be the same. Although the new landscape is not illuminated for all to see, the sensitive observer intuitively grasps that something extraordinary has happened.

Do the changes that have occurred in the world oil market during the past year, and the world’s response to those changes, qualify as a “significant event” in the sense indicated above? To most observers, the answer would seem clear. The preponderant view is that these changes, when taken together with their effects, present and expected, represent one of the two or three signal developments of the postwar period. There are, of course, the usual differences in assessment. To many, the principal import of the crisis immediately brought on by the fourfold increase in oil prices is that it affords a spectacular demonstration, though only the first of many such demonstrations, of the growing power of the new and developing states. To be sure, oil is conceded to be an exceptional case, given the basic and pervasive role it plays in industrial economies. Even so, the expectation is that the example set by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) will be followed by others, with at least varying degrees of success. Thus the oil crisis is seen to presage a radical shift in power as between the developed and capitalist states and those states that until only yesterday formed no more than the impotent objects of the international system.

To others, the essential meaning of the oil crisis is that the developed and capitalist states are at the end of a long period of rapid economic growth made possible in large measure by the cheap raw materials of the undeveloped world (cheap, of course, because of the imbalance of political and economic power). A corollary of the shift-in-power view, this end-of-an-epoch argument comes in several versions which range from the relatively optimistic to the quite pessimistic and even the near apocalyptic. For those of a more optimistic bent, the oil crisis—with all the immense difficulties it may immediately impose—may well prove to be a blessing in disguise if it serves to drive home the lesson that we must mend our wasteful and mindless ways. While forcing us to develop alternative sources of energy with a sense of purpose and degree of effort that otherwise would have appeared only at a later and much more critical period, it may also prompt us to consider seriously the dilemmas of societies that have made material growth their overriding social and political imperative. For the pessimists, however, the oil crisis is nothing so much as an early warning signal of the disaster that in all likelihood awaits future generations. Not only does it clearly point to the ultimate limits to growth but, more significantly in the shorter run, to the increasing pressures we will be subject to by those whose numbers grow daily at an ever greater rate and who are determined to share an ever larger piece of a cake that no longer can be considered as indefinitely expansible.

The point need not be labored. Save perhaps for the most resolute of optimists, there appears to be something for nearly everyone in the oil crisis. It has been regularly invoked as evidence of the inescapable need for increased interdependence among nations. Yet it may also be invoked as evidence of the need to make the nation as independent as possible of the international environment, or, at least, of the material constraints of this environment. Not infrequently, the two responses have been urged almost simultaneously by American officials. While professing to see in the oil crisis the imperative of interdependence, they have also exhorted the nation on the necessity of getting on with “Project Independence.” It is easy enough to criticize statesmen for apparently inconsistent responses. What is worth emphasis is the varied and often inconsistent response of those who do not bear official responsibility. Yet the oil crisis may be used with some plausibility at least as evidence for a number of widely divergent interpretations about the world at this period in history.

_____________

 

II

Given an “event” that has so many dimensions, it is unavoidable that the individual observer will be forced to pick and choose among what strike him as the more significant aspects. The resulting interpretation need not for that reason be arbitrary. Certainly, the interpretations noted above cannot be considered arbitrary because they focus primarily upon certain features of the oil crisis while relegating other features to a peripheral position. But if they are not arbitrary, they are at least curious in that with rare exception they fail to evince the slightest interest in the one feature of the oil crisis that clearly differentiates it so far from international crises in the past: the absence of the meaningful threat of force.

At first consideration, this apparent absence of force as an element in the crisis seems astonishing. At least it must seem astonishing to those who assume some continuity with the past. The very meaning of a crisis in the relations of states has traditionally been defined as a conflict over interests deemed vital by the contending parties and in which the use of force is considered an ever-present possibility. The crisis at hand surely meets the first criterion, though it just as surely has lacked the second. This is one reason, and most likely the major reason, that it has appeared so unstructured when judged in terms of our experience with past international crises. Suddenly, we find ourselves in a strange universe. Whether this universe is largely One of our deliberate choice and design is a question that may for the present be left in abeyance. But however the question is answered, it is clearly the absence of the credible threat of force which renders plausible the expectation that the interests placed in jeopardy by present oil prices will not be preserved in the near future. Moreover, it is the near future that must concern us most. The conflict of interest between the major OPEC countries and oil-importing nations will wither away if and when new energy sources are developed or very considerable oil reserves outside OPEC are discovered. Although expert opinion varies on both prospects, neither seems likely to materialize before the early to middle 1980′s. Assuming the maintenance of something close to the present price structure for oil, how do we get from here to there without those disagreeable intervening consequences we are reminded of almost daily? And the problem is precisely one of getting from here to there. An emphasis on the long—or longer—run is all well and good, provided it is remembered that the short run is still our only way to the long run.

We know how the oil crisis would have been resolved until quite recently. Indeed, until quite recently it seems sate to say that it would never have arisen because of the prevailing expectation that it would have led to armed intervention. It is important to underline this point lest the utter novelty of the present situation be lost. We are not discussing here the growing indisposition of strong powers in this century to resort to military intervention against small and militarily weak states where the vital interests of the former are not in jeopardy. Nor, for that matter, are we concerned with the alleged tendency of strong powers to view more restrictively their vital interests justifying, it need be, military intervention against the small and weak. It may be conceded that there has been a change occurring over several decades in the propensity of the strong to resort to force against the weak, though the scope of the change, its causes, and its permanence remain less than clear. What is of relevance here, though, is that the case histories which are presumed to testify to this change provide no real precedent for the instance at hand if judged in terms of the magnitude of the interests at stake. On the contrary, until as recently as the middle 1960′s, what the instances of armed intervention demonstrate is that great powers continued to manifest a willingness to use force against small states to vindicate interests which affected their well-being less than it is likely to be affected by a continuation of the policies pursued today by the major OPEC countries.

_____________

 

III

How, then, are we to explain that what has been a time-honored alternative in situations of comparable gravity has apparently been dismissed by governments, particularly the American government, and has only seldom been openly and seriously discussed in influential circles outside government? Is the appearance deceptive? Do we have here an instance of pensons-y toujours, n’en parlous jamais? It would hardly seem so. (And if this were the case, it would surely be inappropriate in the present circumstances.) There is no evidence that the alternative of military intervention, or the credible threat of intervention, has been given serious consideration by the American government. There may well be, and probably are, contingency plans for military intervention in the Persian Gulf drawn up within the past year by some Pentagon planning staff. But such plans exist for almost any conceivable contingency, and their existence indicates next to nothing about the seriousness with which governments consider the prospect of armed intervention. That prospect becomes credible to others when the upper reaches of bureaucracy manifest a receptiveness to employing armed force as one distinctly possible solution, when high officials make this receptiveness known through statements, however guarded, and when the actions otherwise taken by a government do not compromise the legitimacy and prejudice the success or the costs of military intervention, should it ultimately be chosen.

Once the record to date is set against these commonplace criteria, there is not much room left for doubt. Instead of leaving the option of armed intervention open, the American government has all but foreclosed it. It is true that governments have been known to reverse what has appeared to be a set policy, but in this case a reversal is made very difficult by the repeated acknowledgment that force is not a meaningful option and, even more, would be an entirely unjustified response to the actions taken by the OPEC countries. Nor is this particular legitimization of OPEC actions offset by the recent statements of President Ford and Secretary Kissinger to the effect that unreasonable action on the part of the major oil producers involves the risk of world depression, the consequent breakdown of world order and safety, and the rise to power of governments that might have fewer scruples about their international behavior. Quite apart from being a rather demeaning way for a great power to behave, these statements probably frighten Western publics more than they do the elites in the major oil-producing states for whom they are intended. At the same time, the American government has underscored its good faith in renouncing military intervention by its projected massive sale of arms—the newest and the best—to Saudi Arabia and Iran. Saudi officials have been quite candid in saying that a major purpose of their arms is to protect their vast underground treasure. Only the obtuse will ask against whom.

If the dismissal of military intervention or the credible threat of intervention must be taken at face value, is it redundant to ask why it has been dismissed? Obviously it is embarrassing to do so, else the question would have been pressed long ago. By a kind of unspoken convention, even to ask the question apparently indicates that one is simply out of touch with the realities of today’s world, that one is a latter-day Colonel Blimp or, for the more sophisticated, an imperialist manqué. Yet it is doubtful that the same question, raised in roughly comparable circumstances, would have had the same reception fifteen or even ten years ago. It might have been turned aside after due consideration, but it would not have been quietly dismissed with pained expression. That it is so turned aside today, and by those who once were persuaded that the nation’s well-being and international position might well warrant military intervention in the Congo, and did warrant military intervention in Vietnam and the Dominican Republic, must surely hold out some moral for us that is of more than passing interest.

There is, indeed, a good deal to be learned by considering the reasons that have been given, though only rarely and then with a rather patronizing air, in rejecting the possibility of using force or posing a credible threat of force. In summary form they are: that military intervention, though confined to a relatively restricted area, would prove technically very difficult, if not impossible, to carry through successfully, even if it is assumed that the Russians would not respond with force; that even if technically feasible, intervention would in all likelihood have to be undertaken unilaterally and would provoke the strong condemnation of our major allies, not to mention the complete estrangement of the developing world; that a militarily difficult and politically inexpedient action would also be unnecessary since there are means by which the financial and economic dislocations attending current oil prices can be contained and ultimately managed; and, finally, that military intervention against any of the major oil producers would be seen as an act of moral bankruptcy by the nation itself and, for this reason alone, would not be countenanced by public opinion.

These are the major reasons for dismissing the prospect of military intervention. There are others—for example, the conviction that intervention anywhere in the Middle East would give rise to widespread acts of terrorism in the Western nations—but the above seem quite enough. It is clear that if any one of them is well-taken, then the alternative raised in these pages must be put aside. One does not seriously consider a course of action, distasteful in any circumstances, that must in the instant case prove impossible, self-defeating, unnecessary, or utterly debilitating from a moral standpoint. Still, it is astonishing that few have found anything particularly instructive in what is presumably the almost utter irrelevance of military power to a conflict that involves vital interests. The prevailing view implies a revolutionary change in the very nature of international society. Yet those who take this view appear to find the change so indisputable as scarcely to deserve attention.

_____________

 

IV

Even if we grant for the time being the argument that armed intervention as a means for resolving the oil crisis is militarily unfeasible, politically inexpedient, and morally repugnant, it does not follow that there are plausible grounds for believing there is a satisfactory “way out” of the crisis. Military intervention, or the credible threat of intervention, may be rejected. Is this rejection compatible with avoiding the distinct possibility of an economic and political disaster bearing more than a superficial resemblance to the disaster of the 1930′s? The words “distinct possibility” are chosen deliberately and with care. A possibility, even though distinct, is not a certainty. Nor is it a probability, though it comes rather close to one. Those who insist that armed intervention be ruled out so long as we are confronted only with a distinct possibility of disaster are perfectly at liberty to do so. But candor does at least require them to concede that this is what they mean when they say that intervention is unnecessary. For there is a general consensus, which includes most of the “optimists,” that if the present situation goes on unaltered, a disaster resembling the 1930′s is indeed a distinct possibility and that it would have as its immediate and precipitating cause the present oil price. This being so, it is irrelevant, though true, to be reminded that the current economic malaise—above all, the global inflation—had its origins in conditions largely unrelated to the price of oil today and would persist even if this price were drastically lowered. A generally sick man who also happens to be hemorrhaging will not be saved from bleeding to death by being reminded of the other and more deeply-rooted causes of his ill health.

_____________

 

Is there a remedy for stopping the hemorrhage caused by the present price of oil which renders the threat or use of force unnecessary? If there is, it has yet to be advanced. After endless discussion we learn from the experts that the crisis can be safely resolved only if the price is drastically reduced. In the absence of this reduction, the principal “solutions” that are advanced inspire little confidence. The “recycling” solution is increasingly seen by many, and not without reason, as a sophisticated conjuring act, though a conjuring act nonetheless, if it does not lead to the kind of long-term investment in the importing states that permits the latter to provide goods and services to pay for their debts. In the form it is all too likely to take, recycling can lead only to an undermining of the credit-worthiness of many states and, ultimately, to widespread default or repudiation of debt. But even if the massive capital flows to the Arab states were recycled in the form of long-term investments, in all probability these flows would concentrate in only a very few states and precisely the states that have the least need of them. Who would buy the goods and services arising from this investment if the principal creditor states have insufficient need, and if the many poor and debt-ridden states have insufficient means? Moreover, there are limits to the investment capital any state will want to permit when it is directly controlled by foreign governments and can at any time be used for political leverage. This consideration applies not only to direct investment but, in lesser degree, to indirect investment as well after it reaches a certain magnitude.1

At issue here is not whether there are technical solutions to the vast financial drain resulting from present oil prices. No doubt there are, if only in the sense that any economic problem has a strictly technical solution. At issue is whether there is a solution that, while accomplishing what must be the objectives of recycling, is also politically plausible. The essential objective of am it-cycling plan must be to insure that countries running large oil-related deficits will have available to them funds sufficient to meet their foreign-exchange needs. This might be accomplished through an arrangement whereby the principal recipients of the recycled funds make what will have to be for the most part soft loans to both developed and undeveloped states unable to pay for oil imports. Better still would be an arrangement whereby the principal recipients of recycled funds and some of the major producer states combine to accomplish the same end. The risks would be split between the OECD and OPEC states, and the indispensable lenders of last resort would be, among the former, the United States and West Germany, and, among the latter, Saudi Arabia and one or two other major producers. According to its proponents, the risks would then be manageable because spread out. When defaults occur, as inevitably they will occur, they are so shared that they can be made bearable.

As a technical solution, something along these lines would probably meet the problem of recycling. At least many economists have assured us that it can be thus resolved, and although their record of late is not exactly one to inspire blind faith, there seems no apparent reason to doubt them. The difficulty is that the proposed solution not only requires a degree of cooperation that has been quite rare among states in the past, but a willingness to take risks that is very nearly unprecedented save in war. Expectedly, the Arab states have to date shown no disposition at all to cooperate in the kind of plan considered here or to take the risks it necessarily implies. As to the major developed states, in response to an American initiative, they have only recently begun to explore a proposal for a $25-billion oil recycling fund. This “safety net” facility would operate within the OECD framework and would be designed to protect the members against financial collapse in the event their reserves and credit are exhausted. In turn, each participant would undertake the obligation to reduce dependence on imported oil and avoid resort to restrictive trade practices. In addition, a deficit country in applying to the managing board of the fund might be required, as a precondition of support, to make changes in its domestic economic policy. Establishment of the fund, then, would pose substantial political problems if it were to operate effectively. In the form it has been reported, the fund still represents a rather modest commitment for the U.S. ($8 billion). Finally, among American officials, it seems to be predicated on Treasury Secretary Simon’s unwavering conviction that “the question is not whether oil prices will fall, but when they will fall.” Even so, this plan would still leave unresolved a number of very serious issues which are unaffected by recycling—at least by the recycling that concentrates investment primarily in a very few developed states.

There is, of course, a simple alternative to the various forms of recycling, and it is to consume less oil. Minor reductions apart, this alternative assumes governments in the major importing states that have sufficient authority and will to take draconian measures. Such governments are not common today, and even if they were, there is no way by which oil imports might be financed out of current income without creating such shortages in energy as would result in a sharp decline of economic activity. The alternative of drastically reduced energy consumption would thus lead to a reduction in living standards. Even then, the problem of financing oil imports out of current income might remain, given the decline in trade that would attend a general decline in productivity.

These considerations are not materially affected by the kind of cooperative arrangement the major consumers—minus France—reached in the draft agreement worked out in Brussels this past September. That agreement, with its detailed commitment to oil-sharing in the event of a new Arab embargo, may prevent, if effectively implemented, a repetition of the disaster of the 1973 winter. It may also serve, as it is designed to serve, as an important means for eventually reducing present dependence on Middle East oil by facilitating a shift to alternative energy sources. All this may happen if the major importers demonstrate a degree of solidarity that, under pressure, they have yet to demonstrate. Even so, it remains extremely doubtful that the agreement creating an International Energy Agency can accomplish its immediate objective of forcing current prices down without taking measures that none of the participating governments is prepared to take.

Thus we are back to the starting point. The oil price must come down if the crisis, with all its latent dangers, is to be overcome, but no one knows how this is to be achieved within the short-to-medium term. Those who persist in believing that a modest cut in consumption will suffice to break the price structure set by the cartel conveniently ignore the history of OPEC, which affords little support for this belief. Moreover, they ignore what should by this time be apparent to all: that the major producer governments are not moved simply by economic calculation. The Shah of Iran now dreams the dreams of his ancestors, and the Western world, by its actions, encourages him to do so. The Arabs now dream of righting a humiliation that for centuries has lain deeply embedded in their consciousness. Why should men be “reasonable,” according to Western lights, when they have come so far and so fast by being unreasonable?

_____________

 

V

If the view that business as usual, though with appropriate innovations, affords no persuasive, or even plausible, grounds for avoiding disaster, elementary prudence counsels that we at least raise the question of employing extraordinary means for resolving the crisis. Is military intervention technically feasible? Clearly the answer will depend, in the first place, on geography. Since it is impossible to intervene everywhere, the feasibility of intervention depends upon whether there is a relatively restricted area which, if effectively controlled, contains a sufficient portion of present world oil production and proven reserves to provide reasonable assurance that its control may be used to break the present price structure by breaking the core of the cartel politically and economically. The one area that would appear to satisfy these requirements extends from Kuwait down along the coastal region of Saudi Arabia to Qatar. It is this mostly shallow coastal strip less than 400 miles in length that provides 40 per cent of present OPEC production and that has by far the world’s largest proven reserves (over 50 per cent of total OPEC reserves and 40 per cent of world reserves). Since it has no substantial centers of population and is without trees, its effective control does not bear even remote comparison with the experience of Vietnam.

The view that armed intervention is not technically feasible is persuasive, then, if it can be shown that the military difficulties of seizing and holding this area for an indefinite period are beyond our capabilities. If this view is correct, it says a great deal about the significance of American military power and its uses today, for it would be hard to find a group of states with a weaker collective military capability.2 It is another matter entirely to argue the military un-feasibility of intervention by evoking the threat of Russian counter-intervention. But the specter of Russian counter-intervention lacks plausibility unless it is assumed that the Russians now enjoy a sense of military superiority sufficiently great on both the conventional and strategic levels as to permit them to deny what is to the United States, and surely to its major allies, a vital interest. For all the talk, however, about their global conventional capabilities, the Russians still lack the naval forces needed for effective interposition in the Persian Gulf. And for all the talk about our declining conventional capabilities, the United States still possesses at this point sufficient global forces to intervene. Moreover, even if the Russians possessed the forces necessary for effective naval interposition, the balance of perceived interest, as distinguished from the balance of military forces, is certainly against the Russians in this instance. The Russians simply do not have the interest here that we have. For this reason, they would be less prone to take the risks we would be prepared to take, and on any realistic assessment of Russian military capabilities today, those risks would be very considerable. Nor is it a sufficient response to these considerations to argue that the Russians might be tempted to rash action, if not to increase their political standing in the Middle East, then from fear that inaction would lead to a complete loss of standing. The political standing of the Russians would be increased in any event, since even strong verbal opposition—let alone the likely moving of troops into neighboring Iraq—would turn the Russians into the momentary heroes of the Arab world. (It is the distinct possibility that the Russians would move forces into Iraq which would necessitate establishing a substantial American military presence in Kuwait as one of the first moves in intervening.)

Does the record of Russian behavior in recent years suggest that these considerations are too complacent? Surely the Russian response to the events in Czechoslovakia in 1968 does not do so, for Czechoslovakia was seen to raise a threat to imperial security and, beyond this, to threaten the structure of Soviet power and the very integrity of the Soviet state. Even then, what is impressive in retrospect is that, in view of the critical interests at stake, Soviet leadership proved so hesitant and vacillating about intervening. It is true that in the October 1973 war Russian behavior was marked by the appearance of a greater propensity for taking risks. Yet it remains an open question whether this appearance concealed a reality that is still characterized by a low risk-taking propensity. No one knows whether the Russians would in fact have airlifted several of their divisions to Egypt had the fighting not ceased. And even if they had done so, there is a world of difference between placing several divisions before Cairo (to face a foe who had no intention of advancing on Cairo) and taking an action that would put them in direct conflict with American forces. Moreover, in moving toward an open clash with American forces, the Russians would presumably be defending a regime with which they have no manner of commitment nor are likely to have, again in clear contrast to the October war.

_____________

 

To establish that only a relatively restricted area need be seized and held, and to minimize the prospect of Russian counter-intervention, only sets the broad conditions in which a military intervention might be successful. These conditions are admittedly very far from assuring its success. In all probability, a swift operation would be mandatory, not only to reduce whatever residual prospect there might be for counter-intervention, but, more importantly, to minimize destruction to the oil wells and supporting facilities—that is, to the pipe lines, pumping stations, loading jetties, etc. It is the anticipated destruction of the oil facilities that has been insistently raised by those who have dismissed the technical feasibility of employing military power in the Persian Gulf. Intervention would prove self-defeating, the argument runs, if only because we would inherit a shambles that might well take eight or nine months to repair. Is the assumption of systematic destruction from the wells to the terminal areas a realistic one? No one can answer the question with any real confidence. Much would depend upon the swiftness with which the initial phase of the operation were carried out. Yet even if it is conceded that, though swift, there would still be ample warning time—and this concession seems only reasonable—doubt must persist over the shambles we would presumably inherit. The kind and scope of the destruction commonly envisaged evokes the thoroughness of the destruction wrought by German forces during World War II as they withdrew from the East. Would the Arabs match this record? There is little in their past behavior to suppose that they would.

Let us, however, make the worst-case assumption. What then? The answer is almost certainly that we would be deprived of oil from the occupied area not for eight or nine months, but for three or four months and possibly less. Obviously, the operation would never be undertaken without making an inventory of the vital items of equipment that would be needed for early shipment. Of these items, the only ones clearly in short supply are the large-diameter pipelines peculiar to high-production areas. Even in this instance, though, there is little reason to assume that resupply within three months would prove beyond our capabilities.

It does not follow from these calculations that the importing nations must therefore have reserves which would permit self-sufficiency for at least a period of three months. Unless OPEC reacts by imposing a complete embargo, a 60- to 90-day reserve would prove quite sufficient even for the major importers (Western Europe and Japan), since most of present oil exports would remain unaffected. Of course, the possibility cannot be excluded that at least some OPEC countries would resort to an embargo, and particularly the remaining Arab states. As against this possibility, however, there is the consideration that almost all the remaining OPEC countries are revenue consumers and would be hard pressed to undertake an embargo for any appreciable period. Save for Libya, this is true even of the remaining Arab states. Then, too, the embargo would presumably be directed most critically against nations that, given their dependence on oil imports, would at the very least divorce themselves from, if not condemn, the American action. Instead of putting effective pressure on the United States to back down from its chosen course of action, an embargo might eventually provoke a hostile reaction from many of its hapless victims. Finally, it is not to be excluded that an embargo would be met by setting those entering it on notice that the newly fixed price of oil, once the Persian Gulf facilities were repaired (and production markedly expanded), would suffer still further as a result of any attempted embargo. With the core of the cartel broken, it is not only difficult to see such countries as Iran or Venezuela accepting this risk, it is even difficult to see Libya doing so.

These remarks on the military feasibility of intervention are very general. Many will insist they are much too general. To show the feasibility of intervention, it has been argued, it is the details which must be considered one by one with careful planning. Sweeping generalizations are of limited value. All this is quite true. But who has made for the most part sweeping generalizations about intervention in the Persian Gulf? Surely not the few who have ventured to suggest the feasibility of intervention. It is rather those who assure us that intervention is impossible. What is more, the assumption has been allowed to pass almost unchallenged that the burden of proof must rest upon those who dissent from the judgment that intervention in the Persian Gulf is not militarily feasible. Given the American force structure and the experience we possess, however, why is it unreasonable to insist that the burden of proof rests upon those who insist we lack the military capability to intervene successfully?

Nor is this all. Those who dismiss the feasibility of intervention on military grounds ought at least to acknowledge the simple logic of their position. If the argument is conceded that we cannot intervene now, it also follows that we cannot intervene even if the Arabs should impose an embargo in the future—only this time a truly harsh and crippling embargo. Let us suppose that within the next year there is another round of fighting in the Middle East and that this time the Arabs are very badly beaten. Let us also suppose that the Arabs react to their defeat by imposing an embargo. What then? Are we to conclude that in these circumstances there will be no disposition to use force because of the reasons given above? Many of the naysayers of today are prepared to admit that in these circumstances we might well be compelled to intervene. Yet if we are unable to do so now, how will we be able to do so then? For the Russians will still be with us and still threatening to put down their presumably “massive forces” in the Persian Gulf, and the Arabs will still be threatening to destroy everything. Our means to prevent all this will not be substantially different then from what they are today. If this is so, the conclusion must be drawn that the world is presently living quite at the mercy of the Arabs and the Russians.

_____________

 

VI

The prevailing, if not universal, assumption that military intervention would have to be taken unilaterally and, initially at least, in the face of condemnation by most of the world, is probably well-founded. At least, it is well-founded if one assumes intervention under present circumstances. No one should underestimate the importance of this likelihood of widespread opposition, and particularly the opposition of at least some major allies. While the latter would feel themselves placed in a very vulnerable position as a result of American intervention, the shoe has not yet begun to pinch badly enough in Western Europe and Japan to cause men to shed illusions now deeply-ingrained. Once economic, social, and ultimately political conditions were to deteriorate to a point apparent to nearly all, the attitude toward intervention in Western Europe at least would almost certainly alter. But by this time the disease might have progressed sufficiently that the costliness of cure would in all probability be proportionate to a lack of sensitivity over the methods employed. It is naive to believe that nothing could be worse than the course of action under consideration in these pages.

It is the reaction of Western Europe and Japan that must for obvious reasons concern us most. This is not to imply that the reaction of the developing nations is of no concern, but only that it must rank lower in the scale of concerns any policy must weigh. The attitudes of the developing world—or, at least, much of it—would predictably be far harsher than those of the developed states, and for reasons too apparent to warrant discussion. On this, the record of the past year affords considerable evidence. The Indian government, to take perhaps the most notable example, has yet to say a critical word on current oil prices that have played havoc with the Indian economy and have brought many thousands of Indians closer to death by starvation. Even so, it defies belief that the developing nations, like the developed nations, would view with anything but relief, however disguised, a break in the petroleum price structure that followed a successful military intervention in the Persian Gulf. In the manner of Frederick the Great’s description of Maria Theresa on the morrow of the division of Poland (“She wept, yet she took”), developed and undeveloped would deplore the action—though in considerably varying degree—while accepting with alacrity the benefits flowing from it.

This anticipation of at least a temporarily isolated America may be overly pessimistic, particularly with respect to Western Europe, and even under present circumstances. It is in keeping, however, with the attempt here not to gloss over or minimize the liabilities of armed intervention. At the same time, it is only reasonable to assume that the eventual reaction to intervention would depend very much on what the United States government did to elicit the consent, if not the cooperation, of its allies and, more generally and importantly, what it did after having seized and occupied the area in question. It is not only that the United States would have to act in as even-handed a manner as possible, which means refusing to punish those who had gone out of their way to condemn the intervention; it would also have to impose upon itself a policy of self-denial—at least until the temporary period of threatened or actual shortages passed. If any importer’s share of oil is to decrease markedly during this period, it should be the state that is best prepared to shoulder the burden and that is least subject to reprisal. All this is evident fair play and indispensable to establish the bona fides of the American action. In addition, a system of allocation would probably be acceptable—and, indeed, workable—only if a fixed price were set for the allocated oil.

We pass over the issue of what this administered price should be in order to be judged reasonable to the interests of both producers and consumers. Clearly, the oil price would be designed to influence the structure of the world energy market. It would be absurd and self-defeating to propose a price close to present production costs in the Middle East. On the other hand, it would not be unreasonable to set a price below projected costs of alternative sources of energy, though not so much below as to discourage active development of these sources. It is entirely legitimate, in fixing the price, to respond to the demand that it should thereafter change in relation to the change in the price of goods oil producers must import from oil-consuming nations. It is equally legitimate to respond to the view that the major oil companies not be given a favored position and not be permitted to continue to enjoy their exorbitant profits. Any military intervention that failed to provide an equitable allocation of the oil on a cost-plus basis would be seen, and with no little justification, as a raw display of American imperialism. In any event, it would be widely seen in that light by those whose outlook permits no other interpretation. But there is no reason that this view should be permitted to enjoy some plausibility, and every reason that it should not. A rough basis for judging the relative disinterest with which intervention might be carried out would be if the major oil companies were just about as unhappy over the prospect as the Arabs.

_____________

 

But why consider intervention at all when we must bear its burdens although we enjoy the least vulnerable position among the major oil importers? Why accept the material, political, and moral costs of intervening when we can weather the storm with perhaps the least difficulty? These questions are voiced, remarkably enough, by many who have given consistent support to America’s global enterprise over the past generation. For those of us who have been skeptical of this enterprise, the questions are at least understandable, if misplaced. But for those who have supported it, they can only appear gratuitous. Even the few among us who have argued for a radical contraction of America’s interests and commitments have done so on the assumption that the consequences of an American withdrawal would not be a world in which America’s political and economic frontiers were coterminous with her territorial frontiers, and in which societies that share our culture, institutions, and values might very possibly disappear. No doubt, some of us were mistaken in overestimating the extent to which other centers of power were prepared to provide tor their own security. I for one am prepared to plead guilty to this, though I am still persuaded that if Western Europe and Japan remain political eunuchs today, the responsibility must be found as much in the character of American foreign policy as in the reaction of those who, while resenting their continued dependence, have been unwilling to make the efforts necessary to change the relationship.

The issue of responsibility apart, the fact is that Western Europe and Japan are still dependent upon the United States for their security. Oil is part of that security, considered in a broader sense than simply physical security, and a very vital part. There is no difficulty, then, in answering the question why we should undertake what would be at best a difficult and distasteful action on behalf of those who, while having a more immediate and compelling interest, are unwilling to act. We would presumably take the action because we have a vital interest in the fate of those unwilling—and unable—to act. Nor should there be any illusions about the inability of Western Europe to cope effectively with the oil crisis. The argument that today’s Europe could deal with the Arabs if not for the interference of the Americans is even less persuasive than the argument that today’s Europe could deal on its own with the Russians. Indeed, the two arguments are really one, since if the Europeans could in fact deal with the Russians independently of America, then they might well be able to deal with the Arabs. Unfortunately, they can do neither.

In part, an argument applied to the Arabs that would never be seriously applied directly to the Russians stems from a belief that the Arabs would become much more tractable over oil were it not for the support America insists on giving to Israel. In its extreme, though unspoken, version, this is the belief that if Israel could by some magic be exorcized, the position of the Arabs would change overnight. Though it is nonsense, the belief has its attractions and these attractions may yet find wide appeal. Israel does provide an apparent justification for Arab intransigence over oil, even if the justification is transparent. Certainly, the Shah of Iran has had no need of an Israel to justify his intransigence. Nor do the Arabs. The prospect of becoming economic superpowers, with all that this entails, is quite enough.

These considerations are not affected by the consequences that intervention would have on Israel’s position. Clearly, intervention would in all likelihood markedly improve that position. It would be both useless and insincere to deny the benefits accruing to Israel from intervention, just as it is both useless and insincere to deny the present linkage between the oil crisis and the steady erosion of Israel’s position. What is of relevance here, though, is that the interest in oil would be unchanged with or without Israel. That Israel will be affected, and critically so, whatever the outcome of the oil crisis, is foreordained by geography. To reject consideration of intervention on the grounds that it would be little more than a thinly disguised pro-Israel move is either to ignore this geographical reality or to imply that we must permit, under cover of an apparent “evenhandedness,” the almost certain deterioration of Israel’s position even at the expense of other interests that are clearly of vital concern to us. In this view is to be found a rare combination of obtuseness and perversity.

_____________

 

VII

There remains the argument that military intervention in the Persian Gulf would on moral grounds alone not be countenanced by domestic public opinion. Nor is it only the public that would presumably find in the act a manifestation of complete moral bankruptcy. One has the distinct impression that the foreign-policy elite shares this view and that in the certitude with which the public’s supposed reaction is diagnosed there is something close to a wish-fulfilling prophecy. It is a curious reaction coming from those who once found no great difficulty, moral or otherwise, in supporting the intervention in Vietnam or who, in finally abandoning their support for intervention, did so not on moral grounds, but because they concluded Vietnam could not have a successful outcome or that, whatever the outcome, the costs had become disproportionate to the interests at stake. Perhaps their present reaction to the prospect of armed intervention in the Persian Gulf is not so curious, though, given this record. It is not surprising that, having lacked a sense of balance, moral and otherwise, in that most painful experience, they should lack a sense of balance today, and that we should find the law of compensation—or rather of overcompensation—at work.

At issue here is not whether there is some clear moral or legal basis for justifying armed intervention in the Persian Gulf, but whether public opinion would be morally outraged by the action. Though it is not uncommon to find them confused, these are two quite different questions. There is no need for positive moral approval, let alone moral fervor, by the public so long as it consents to the need for the action. There may even be considerable gain in the absence of that element which has so often attended policy in the past. The difficulty, of course, is that the public has been long habituated to support the use of force only in cases which have been made to appear as necessary for the containment of Communism, in turn equated with the nation’s security. Could the public be induced, in the shadow of Vietnam, to support a military intervention that bore no apparent or tangible relation to the containment of Communism, itself a factor of diminishing importance in determining the public’s disposition? No one can say. Put in the abstract, the question itself may be rather meaningless. It would take on meaning only after a concerted effort had been made to persuade the public that the alternatives to intervention were laden with dangers to the nation’s well-being. Even then it remains an open question whether an administration could obtain public support, or tolerance, for intervention in the absence of events at home that, once plainly visible, would require little further effort in persuasion. In this instance, the choice might well be between a public that would oppose intervention so long as the interests at stake were not clear, and could not readily be made clear, and a public that would support intervention only when these interests had unfortunately become only too clear.

The point is worth emphasis that we simply do not know what might bring the public to support intervention in the Persian Gulf. If the public viewed such intervention as another Vietnam, they would most assuredly oppose it. But if intervention were to promise success at relatively modest cost, opinion might well move in the direction of support, and particularly if unemployment were to rise to 8 or 9 per cent. Moreover, in this instance, by contrast to Vietnam, the existence of an all-volunteer military force would preclude the painful issues once raised by the draft. Nor is it at all clear that the Left would take the same position toward intervention in the present case as it did toward Vietnam. For the effects of the current oil price on many poor countries do not endear the major oil producers to much of the Left. The relative ease with which Vietnam could be depicted as an attempt to preserve American domination over the developing states, a domination alleged to serve only American interests, would be difficult to repeat today, and this despite the inadequately perceived effects of the oil crisis.

_____________

 

VIII

It is instructive that on the few occasions military intervention has been discussed in the context of the oil crisis, such discussion has almost invariably proceeded by making what are very close to worst-case assumptions. The outcome of the exercise is thus all but foreclosed, particularly once Russian counter-intervention is assumed. This insistance upon finding catastrophe in every corner if military intervention were undertaken affords a striking contrast to past behavior. It is surely not to be decried for that reason; a greater concern for the liabilities attending the use of force would have served us well in the last decade. Even so, a virtual obsession with worst-case assumptions has its own pathology of inaction. In this instance, it suggests that when men do not wish to undertake a certain course of action, they will find any number of reasons for not doing so.

A plausible case for rejecting intervention out of hand cannot be made to rest upon the argument no one would care to deny—that the successful use of force in the Persian Gulf depends upon our having the answers to many questions which we simply cannot answer with assurance. The evident implication of the argument is that in the absence of these answers we are far better advised to continue on the present and presumably the known course. But the present course also has its uncertainties, and by this time we have little excuse for not appreciating how numerous and potentially serious they may be. It is a sobering exercise to review the record of the very recent past and to find how badly off the mark almost all predictions of the nature and magnitude of the oil crisis have been. Even those who seemed at the time Cassandras, in retrospect appear as unguarded optimists. In dizzying succession one demand has led almost as soon as it was made to yet another. As a result, little confidence is left in the stability of a situation that has already brought us to an impasse which presently affords no politically discernible way out. In these circumstances it is excessive, to say the least, to insist that the many uncertainties admittedly attending intervention be answered with assurance before the use of force can be seriously considered. Equally, it is excessive to insist that before using force one must exhaust all other remedies, when the exhaustion of all other remedies is little more than the functional equivalent of accepting chaos. What may be reasonably demanded is a critical weighing—however rough and approximate it must necessarily be—of the uncertainties and dangers attending military intervention as opposed to the hazards of continuing along the present course. Those who dismiss intervention refuse even to make the effort.

Instead, we are almost daily subjected to speculation about the more profound dimensions of our predicament. Confronted with “impossible alternatives,” many find an apparent solace in substituting philosophy for policy. Europeans are heard to argue that the West is now paying the price for the past century or more. In America, there is the now fashionable theme—naturally enough yesterday’s heresy—that we have reached the outer edges of our power and that we must learn to accommodate ourselves to events and trends we may comprehend but cannot alter. A supposedly deeper historical understanding—the new maturity, as it were—thus leads to a kind of quietism. Tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner. The dilemmas of action are thereby overcome by denying their reality. This detached wisdom of passivity has no doubt its proper place. It may even express the truth about our present plight, though if it does, the more practical conclusions that should be drawn from it are scarcely the conclusions which are commonly drawn. It is equally plausible to surmise, however, that the obsession with the West’s past sins, and the sudden attraction to events and trends beyond our control to alter, are often little more than rationalizations of political incompetence and the failure of will.

At the same time, an apparent pessimism and resignation before the inevitable may, and often does, conceal an optimism that takes for granted that we will somehow have our way in the end. If force is ruled out, it is in part because we assume, whether consciously or unconsciously, that the Arabs are, after all, still only Arabs, and that in the deadly game we are now playing with them, generations of political superiority and economic supremacy must count for something. To this assumption is added the belief that we still do hold the trumps when all is said and done. No longer able to comfort ourselves with yesterday’s thought that the Arabs cannot drink their oil, we have been able to find a serviceable substitute in today’s thought that the Arabs cannot bury their dollars. The hostages thereby turn out to be the hostage-holders, since foreign debt can always be wiped out through default and foreign investment can always be redeemed through expropriation. One can only hope that this latest argument designed to reassure us that all will end well enjoys a better fate than its predecessor.

_____________

 

There is much more than this in the explanation of the refusal seriously to consider force as an alternative in the oil crisis. It has been said many times, though it bears repeating, that we are confronted here with a special case in that it involves actions which have long been regarded as within the sovereign prerogatives of states. The exclusive control a state may exercise over its natural resources implies the power, or license, to take such action as has resulted in the present crisis. To this must be added the legacy of Vietnam which evidently weighs heavily upon those who in the broadest sense managed the war, and probably much more so than it weighs upon the public at large. Finally, there is the pervasive and still growing conviction among the foreign-policy elites, a conviction clearly related to though not identifiable with the Vietnam experience, that military power has lost most of its former utility. The concomitant of this conviction is that force has also lost its legitimacy, save in the most restrictively defined circumstances.

These considerations round out, in all likelihood, the explanation for the current rejection of force as a real option in the Middle East. To treat them with the care they deserve would carry us far beyond the confines of this essay. Here it must suffice to point out that it is almost always the “special cases” which constitute the classic dilemmas of statecraft. It may be true that although the price set by the oil cartel constitutes very injurious action toward consumer states, there is little in international law that forbids such behavior. But in this sense, the Cuban missile crisis also was a special case, since there was little, if anything, in international law and practice that forbade the Soviet Union from sending nuclear missiles to Cuba or Cuba from accepting them. The critical issue at stake in the Cuban missile crisis was not whether the actions precipitating the crisis were within the sovereign prerogatives of states, but whether in the exercise of those prerogatives, the vital interests of other states were placed in jeopardy. It is the same issue that is in question in the oil crisis, however one cares to answer this question. Moreover, the same issue would remain if the Arab states were to impose an embargo, and this time a serious embargo. In imposing an embargo, no less than in imposing an unsupportable oil price, the Arab states would be exercising their sovereign rights over the disposal of their natural resources. There are those who nevertheless are now prepared to draw a line here and to insist that an embargo would be a just cause for force. But if the price for oil promises the same effects ultimately as an embargo, it is not easy to see the legal or moral basis for the distinction thereby drawn.

There is little to be served by making once again the already well-worn and unavoidably abrasive observations on the legacy of Vietnam. But it is important to address, however briefly, the broad conviction that armed force has lost most of its former utility and legitimacy. If this conviction is well-founded, then those who hold it should draw the appropriate conclusions for American foreign policy. The principal conclusion to be drawn—that the present structure of American interests in the world must change, and radically so—may be avoided only by assuming that in place of an obsolete policy of power and intervention we may substitute a policy of pacific interdependence rather than one that clearly points toward isolationism. The oil crisis is providing us with a supreme object lesson in the politics of interdependence, though, and to date the lesson is not very reassuring. If there is a moral to be drawn from the crisis that bears on the new interdependence, it is that interdependence is all too likely a prelude to a new autarchy—at least for those who can afford it. That, after all, is the meaning of “Project Independence.”

In truth, however, the oil crisis is not a manifestation of interdependence in the sense that proponents of interdependence have in mind when using the term. Nor is it, clearly, a manifestation of the “old politics.” Instead, it is the latest manifestation—though by far the most spectacular to date—of an egalitarianism which, if permitted to run its logical course, is likely to result first in chaos and then in an international system far harsher than today’s, or even yesterday’s, system.

_____________

 


Footnotes

1 Determinedly optimistic economists are fond of quantifying the transfer of wealth successful recycling would entail. The exercise is designed to show us that “after all” this transfer would not amount to a great deal when set against the combined GNP of the developed capitalist states. While not particularly illuminating in economic terms, the exercise is quite revealing of the basic outlook that views the transfer with apparent equanimity. Equally revealing is the relative equanimity with which the prospect of a growing control over the most active and productive resources of Western economies is viewed, and this despite the fact that we have not the slightest assurance of the uses to which this control might be put.

2 The transitory nature of this impotence should not be overlooked. In 1973-74 Western arms sales to the Persian Gulf have been reported in excess of $3 billion, and have included such sophisticated equipment as the F-14 fighter, Harpoon anti-ship missile, and a variety of SAM systems. Although it will be at least a year before these weapons enter Arab inventories in sizable numbers, their eventual availability will undercut the current U.S. dominance both in quality and in quantity.

_____________

 

About the Author




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.