Oil and Force
To the Editor:
A few years ago, Robert W. Tucker marshaled his formidable logical talents to produce a powerful plea for a “new American isolationism.” In mid-1973, in discussing his position, I wrote that “it is true that the stability of deterrence insures the physical security of the U.S.; that this security would not be threatened even if a repudiation of U.S. military commitments abroad led to an epidemic of neutralism among ex-allies or to a sharp increase of Soviet or Chinese influence.” But I found Mr. Tucker’s argument unconvincing for several reasons, one of which was that “no great power has ever defined its interest in terms of physical security alone: influence is the name of the game.” Another reason was “the fear . . . of the price tag of a hostile world for U.S. imports and exports (even if oil-producing countries would still have to sell oil to us, they could charge ever more prohibitive rates).”
This has indeed happened, and now Mr. Tucker tells us that “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.” Having revised his assumption, the articulate champion of military isolationism now becomes the champion of military intervention. Once again, the arguments are superb, the analysis is rigorous, and one is almost convinced. But in both instances the same thing is wrong: Mr. Tucker simply leaves out every point that could complicate or undercut his case.
- He tends to attribute the general reluctance to envisage military intervention in other than “worst-case” terms to a kind of post-Vietnam melancholia, an “obsession with the West’s past sins.” Quite apart from the fact that Henry Kissinger is not known to suffer from such dread diseases (indeed, he constantly warns against them), there may be another explanation, less apocalyptic and more cynical. OPEC’s decision to quadruple the price of oil may create formidable problems for all industrial nations (not to mention the poorest developing countries), but it has also helped the U.S. restore its challenged predominance over the polices of Western Europe and Japan, given the much greater dependence of the latter on imported oil. The U.S. is in the best position to develop alternatives to OPEC oil on its own soil and to export them to others thanks to its technological advance. In any vast “recycling” facility, such as the one suggested by Kissinger, the U.S. and West Germany will be the lenders of last resort; only the U.S., however, is likely to be the controlling adviser defining the terms on which needy clients will get help. It is in the International Energy Agency, i.e., under U.S. leadership, that the energy policies of Europe will be determined, not in the EEC. In other words, OPEC’s action, a disaster for many, was, for the U.S., both a headache and a windfall. Military intervention would be primarily an act of altruism on America’s part—and, as Mr. Tucker realizes, one that would not even be well-received by its beneficiaries. Insofar as America’s national interest is concerned (the criterion recommended in Mr. Tucker’s previous essay), intervention might cure the current headache, but it would both create new ones and throw away the windfall.
- Mr. Tucker does not distinguish between economic provocations that would leave no real alternatives to the use of force and those that seem susceptible of other measures. The U.S. government has made it quite clear that a new embargo, or price hikes amounting to “strangulation” of industrial economies, could lead to military intervention. But Mr. Tucker suggests that the measures taken by OPEC so far are sufficient to justify such intervention because of “the distinct possibility of an economic and political disaster.” My question to him is: even if intervention could take place in the optimal conditions he envisages, does he believe that a “possibility of disaster” is enough to serve as a trigger, and if so, and every nation behaved accordingly, what kind of a world would we get? That war may remain necessary as a last resort we all know, even if some would deny even this in the nuclear age. But persons concerned with world order have a duty to indicate with some rigor the circumstances in which the last resort must be envisaged. Britain and France thought that Nasser’s control of the Suez Canal would lead to “economic and political disaster”; we thought that Hanoi’s control of Saigon would lead to disaster; we now think otherwise. Even in the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy did not order a military expedition: he instituted a blockade.
- Let us assume that the financial burdens imposed by OPEC are indeed impossible to bear without “humiliating” indebtedness to the OPEC countries or an unacceptably high level of OPEC investments in industrial nations. Let us also assume that the first stages of military intervention can be carried out as easily as Mr. Tucker suggests. What next? First of all haven’t we some good reasons to doubt that intervention can be as “surgical” as bombing used to be described by its advocates? Are there no grounds for believing that even if we succeed in seizing the oil fields, terrorism could make of oil shipments a political and environmental nightmare? Second, would the costs of intervention and subsequent occupation be substantially lower than the costs of energy-saving measures and programs for the development of substitutes (which would be highly desirable even if OPEC hadn’t shown any hubris) capable of bringing down the price of oil, which is the chief goal of intervention? And if Mr. Tucker replies that these programs may not force it down, can he tell us for sure that intervention will? Third, what about the effects of intervention on the regimes around the Persian Gulf? The toppling of a hostile Nasser by Eden and Mollet might not have led to his replacement by a more pliable Egyptian. The toppling of conservative and anti-Communist feudal sovereigns in the Middle East would not be likely to bring about more “cooperative” leaders—certainly not for very long. Would we therefore have to stay in occupation forever?
- This brings me to the moral and normative aspects of the problem. If the Arabs and Iranians act as they do because they have been humiliated too long, is the best response to humiliate them some more? Even if our purpose is to make cheaper oil available to all, won’t our seizure be seen as an act of pure greed and a lurid fling of neo-imperialism? If the new equalitarianism threatens to breed chaos and “an international system far harsher than today’s, or even yesterday’s,” does the best way of creating a new and stable hierarchy consist of an application of brute force by the mightiest nation, which will only harden the determination of all the underdogs to take their revenge? To be sure, a renunciation of the use of force to redress non-military measures of coercion raises serious problems: it puts a premium on the adoption of such measures and seriously embarrasses Western powers which still control vast resources in the so-called Third World. That was precisely the argument of the British and French at the time of Suez. But is there no other answer than the use of force? Superpowers, in some ways, teach by example. Do we want to teach all nations that force is relevant to economic issues, and that political contests over such issues are to be resolved through military means rather than the admittedly slow processes of international institutions? (But are military “solutions” any more rewarding, or any more final, or any less hazardous and frustrating?) Would not the concern for a world system both less brutal and less unfair than that of the past require that we seek solutions that maximize interdependence, entangle the “newly rich” countries in the economies of the old ones, give the former an incentive to avoid—and indeed deter them from—damaging the latter, and commit the old and the new rich to improving the fate of the poorest nations?
To sum up: Mr. Tucker is very eloquent in demolishing some of the arguments that have been put forward about the high risks or unfeasibility of military intervention. But a refutation of selected objections does not amount to a persuasive case. As long as he has not dealt with the whole political and moral context, in a realm where ethics is a matter of consequences, not intentions, it is difficult to refrain from the conclusion that his acknowledgment of his earlier errors has misled him into his present blind spots. Whether he advocates isolationism or intervention, this fine critic of American habits and rationalizations exhibits a constant American trait: impatience with uncertainty, and the resulting desire to find a radical solution that will save us, and the world, from having to live in uncertainty. One may understand the longing, without believing that it can ever be fulfilled.
Center for European Studies
To the Editor:
. . . Many people, including myself, would have no real difficulty in supporting the use of force against a second political embargo, assuming it threatened either ourselves or our allies with economic chaos. Nor can it be credibly doubted that OPEC pricing policies alone could pose so severe a threat to Western financial institutions—and indeed Western governments—as to become the functional equivalent of an embargo, thus compelling a military response.
The question, therefore, is whether events have ripened to this point. On the basis of OPEC’s quadrupling of oil prices and the reasonably foreseeable consequences flowing from that action, would we be justified in now undertaking military action bereft of the support of allies far more adversely affected than ourselves and under circumstances requiring violation of the spirit if not the letter of the War Powers Act? (The need for swiftness and secrecy, both to protect our own forces and to prevent massive destruction of the oil fields, would effectively preclude prior consultation with the Congress. This would in turn force the administration to rely upon the so-called “emergency” provisions of the act which, at best, provide questionable justification for so calculated a venture.)
My own inclination is that the question must be answered in the negative and Mr. Tucker offers little in the way of contrary evidence. . . . Let us see, first, if it is possible to determine how disastrous the new high oil prices have in fact been in the year since they were imposed—a year when their disruptive effects were at their maximum—and how disastrous are they likely to be during the next several years.
One obvious measuring rod is in the balance-of-payments area. According to the December report, Economic Outlook, published by the OECD, the 23 member nations went from a small collective trade surplus in 1973 to a cumulative oil-occasioned deficit of close to $40 billion in the year just ended. The deficit was spread unevenly among the various states, with West Germany and the Netherlands continuing to show healthy trade surpluses and Japan experiencing a $4.75 billion deficit in 1974 but expected to move toward a surplus in 1975, while other nations, including the United States, Great Britain, Italy, and France, face substantial deficits in both years. Serious as these current-accounts situations are, few economists see them as foreshadowing economic Armageddon. . . .
In the slightly longer run, the picture is even less bleak. For one thing, as noted by Edward R. Fried of the Brookings Institution, about 60 per cent of the new oil revenues are headed toward relatively poor nations or others with populations sufficiently large to enable the bulk of such revenues to be spent on goods and services purchased from the industrial West. Included in this group are such countries as Indonesia, Nigeria, Iran, and Venezuela where trade surpluses are likely to be shortlived with hard currency soon flowing back into Western treasuries.
As regards the remaining OPEC members, there is no question but that Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Qatar, and Oman and the United Arab Emirates figure during the next ten years to accumulate perhaps $200 billion to $300 billion more than they can spend. Mr. Tucker is quite correct in suggesting that this is no piddling sum, that it is unlikely to flow back in the form of investments into Western economies with anything resembling perfect symmetry, and that, if concentrated in certain pivotal Western industries, it could give a handful of mischievous regimes inordinate control over the destinies of Western economies.
But as the OECD economists note, long-run trade imbalances would be substantial even were there no OPEC investments to give impetus to corrective action. And it is unreasonable to assume, as Mr. Tucker implicitly does, that Western governments simply lack the resourcefulness to regulate investments by overseas governments and individuals intelligently. . . .
One need not, then, embrace magic recycling formulas in order to emerge with a less apocalyptic view of the short-to-medium-term trade picture than Mr. Tucker presents. Instead, one need only be persuaded that Western governments have both the capability and the will to protect both their financial institutions and their weakest national entities against the short-run danger of insolvency triggered by a shortage of liquid assets.
Most economists make short shrift of the related economic problems of inflation and recession to the extent they are deemed the inevitable consequences of OPEC actions in 1973-74. For one thing, it is clear that the worldwide economic boom of 1972-73, the coincidental crop failures of the same period, the after-effects of U.S. dollar devaluation, the sudden end to wage-and-price controls decreed by the Nixon administration, and, later, hefty wage-and-price increases as organized labor attempted to recoup a portion of workers’ lost real income, all served to fan worldwide inflationary flames. The oil-price boosts also played a prominent role, causing perhaps as much as 50 per cent of the 1974 inflation, according to some estimates. But the price increases were non-recurring events. And even if oil prices stay at their current levels, their impact on inflation will henceforth be marginal.
Of greater immediate concern was the reaction of the Western states to the energy-related inflation. Only a handful of economists seem to have recognized higher oil costs as the equivalent of an excise tax taking purchasing power out of the hands of consumers and creating the need for counter-recessionary rather than counter-inflationary government policies. As a result, at the very moment the 1972-73 demand boom was subsiding, most Western governments were busy treating its inflationary after-effects, together with those attributable to the boost in oil prices, rather than the deepening malaise of recession.
We are now living with the consequences, an 8.2 per cent unemployment rate in the United States as of February, and increasing unemployment in most of the remainder of the free industrial world. Mr. Tucker does not suggest, nor would any rational commentator suggest, that going to war is an appropriate remedy for unemployment. Instead, . . . the United States and other Western nations must provide the sort of additional economic stimulus necessary to prevent the situation from getting completely out of hand. There is no reason to believe this cannot be done. There is, in any event, no reason to suppose that a $2 or $3 rollback in the price of a barrel of Saudi Arabian light crude as the byproduct of armed U.S. intervention would instantly restore Western economies to robust health.
Mr. Tucker has quite properly divorced the political well-being of the State of Israel from his analysis, which is limited to the question of military intervention as a vehicle for getting worldwide oil prices down. . . . But an American military thrust in the Persian Gulf area would hardly enhance the region’s stability. It would of necessity be directed against those governments regarded as relatively moderate in the current context. It would have a traumatic effect upon others, driving some more firmly into the Soviet embrace, causing others to purchase arms at any price from any source, fatally fracturing this nation’s ability to serve as mediator of the Israeli-Arab dispute. In time, America’s physical presence in the area would rival the Palestinian question as a source of enduring friction and controversy.
An even more immediate impact would likely be felt on the course of U.S.-Soviet detente. One can accept as sound Mr. Tucker’s assessment of the “low risk-taking propensity” of Soviet foreign policy as barring direct confrontation with the United States in the Persian Gulf itself. But it is difficult to imagine that those Kremlin forces opposing arms-limitation agreements, trade pacts, and liberalized emigration policies would be anything other than strengthened by an American military takeover of the Persian Gulf oil fields.
Mr. Tucker also mentions the plight of developing nations hard hit by the increase in oil-related materials. Here, I confess, the essay has a distressingly familiar tone, for armed intervention is no longer justified solely in terms of vital American interests but as the sort of thing any decent humanitarian nation might undertake in order to save the world.
The case would be more compelling, even at first blush, had Western concern for the famine-plagued people of Africa and Asia been more in evidence at the Rome Food Conference last November, where the consensus seemed to be that some $2 billion in concessional aid could have obviated the worst of this winter’s distress, or had we demonstrated more of an inclination in recent months to lend other forms of financial assistance to the truly impoverished.
On the other hand, it is far from clear that the newly oil-rich states are unwilling to assist their less fortunate brethren or that the latter are without political leverage in dealing with the former. Minds which come so readily together on the expulsion of Israel from UNESCO, the suspension of South African voting privileges in the UN General Assembly, and the extension of diplomatic invitations to PLO terrorists . . . ought certainly to be able to meet on matters of human survival. And, if they cannot, unilateral American military intervention against the wishes of all would hardly seem to supply the missing catalyst. . . .
C. Robert Zelnick
National Public Radio
To the Editor:
If the United States were to force down the inflated price of oil by taking control of the oil-producing areas of the Arabian peninsula, besides solving a present problem, it would be returning to its historic role of international leadership.
Three times before in this century, American leadership has been needed to defend the integrity and vital interests of the community of industrial states which, though lacking formal political institutions or a common culture, are tied to one another by lines of trade and finance. In two world wars the United States provided the margin needed to defeat Germany’s attempt to subjugate Europe. In the post-World War II period, America’s Marshall Plan and its related programs halted the slide toward chaos of the wartorn countries of Western Europe and put them on the path to steady recovery.
Since 1917, when the United States entered World War I, each time it has retreated from active leadership of the industrial states, this community has drifted toward disintegration and collapse. Immediately after World War I America turned inward. By 1920 the pattern was set: the United States would have no entangling alliances; it would not act to preserve the structure of Europe which it had helped secure by war and formalize with the settlement at Versailles. Without American support, the French and British soon lost the will and then the means to stand against a resurgent Germany bent on conquest. In 1939, when Germany launched its second drive for European hegemony, America remained isolationist and disarmed. Only when bombed into war at Pearl Harbor did it again accept the role of international leadership. . . .
From this perspective, involvement in the quagmire of Vietnam marked a new isolationism for America inasmuch as it permitted a secondary goal, the “containment of Communism,” to distract it from its historic primary international objective, the defense of the vital interests of the community of industrial states. . . .
As long as the United States fails to break the cartel decisively, the other industrial countries, too weak and disunited to act on their own, must be expected to appease the oil producers and compete for illusory small advantage. . . . If the United States does act to break the OPEC cartel, as Robert W. Tucker has suggested, there should be no doubt that the Europeans and the Japanese will be at its side, for it is they who have the most to gain.
If the United States is going to act as Mr. Tucker has suggested, its leaders will have to treat the people with a new maturity. No longer can Americans afford to understand their country’s role in the world in terms of myths and misleading slogans such as “waging war to end all war,” “making the world safe for democracy,” and “stopping the spread of international Communism.” Renewed American international leadership will have to be understood and justified for what it has always been in this century: defense of the integrity and vital interests of the industrial nations of the Atlantic and Pacific—on whose security rests the stability of the entire world.
Flushing, New York
To the Editor:
. . . Americans never want another Vietnam and fortunately Middle East deserts are not Asian jungles. If the U.S. cannot militarily prevail over Kuwait and Qatar, we are all entitled to question what a nearly $100 billion defense budget is buying. Morally, there is a world of difference between Vietnam and the Middle East. There is nothing particularly uplifting in paying blackmail and incurring the tragedy of unemployed millions to satisfy a handful of monarchs. Furthermore, Israel, as a likely beneficiary of American intervention, actually happens to be a member of the free world as well as a faithful ally whose abandonment would be morally shocking.
Robert W. Tucker’s comments on allied reactions are interesting, paradoxical, and correct. Our allies would doubtless express regret and outrage at American military intervention (remembering the American response to the Anglo-French Suez affair of 1956), but it is also quite possible that their fundamental response would be to support the United States. Much depends on how we treat our allies in this matter. Obviously we must be prepared to divert a great deal of oil to West European countries according to need, assuming there is another embargo. We should take the risks involved in confiding in our allies what we intend to do short of revealing precise military tactics. . . .
Finally we come to the USSR. If in fact we have lost the military advantage to the Soviet Union in an area of vital American interest, this is a terrible indictment of U.S. foreign policy in the last decade. I agree with Mr. Tucker that we are still sufficiently capable of protecting our vital interests in the Middle East. The USSR is not likely to risk nuclear war to preserve the independence of Kuwait and Qatar.
I am left with the impression that neither President Ford nor Secretary Kissinger has a very high regard for the wisdom and courage of the American people. Americans have always responded to serious threats to their national way of life once they perceive the stakes. Given intelligent and forth-right leadership, our nerves won’t fail us now.
Alan R. Goldman
Fitchburg State College
To the Editor:
At last Robert W. Tucker opens a dialogue on the obvious but heretofore unmentionable. That the delay has lasted until now is the most certain symptom of what Henry Kissinger has described as the West’s “crisis of authority.” . . .
It is certain that sooner or later conservation coupled with recently discovered oil just now beginning to reach the world market will break the cartel’s price structure. Some of the oil exporters, observing the current and sharp breaks in price of such commodities as copper and sugar, may well settle for long-term sales agreements with assured markets at far lower than prevailing prices. What is not necessarily certain is that the economies of many nations will survive to see this day of deliverance. . . .
The industrial democracies other than the United States (much less the Third World) are in no condition to take action. Japan is disarmed, Britain struggles with Ulster, West Germany lacks a navy, France lacks a will, and Italy verges on anarchy. One could add that none of the above possesses a government popular or strong enough to do more than take a very minor role in any military approach.
Unfortunately our Vietnamese experience has created a public disillusionment with military solutions, and thus American intervention on the Arabian peninsula is not at the moment available as a viable option. Times change, however, and in the 20th century they seem to change with great rapidity. . . .
“Strangulation”—the term used by President Ford and Secretary Kissinger—is a peculiar word. It is so nebulous that to the one out of four auto workers who is currently unemployed or to a merchant facing bankruptcy it might appear to describe our current situation. As the perception of our economic dilemma spreads and the options for its resolution become clear, it is to be expected that the nature and the use of force will assume their proper perspective. Force may well be the only approach to those who, in a time of peril, refuse to listen to reason.
Henry B. Cohen
To the Editor:
Robert W. Tucker accuses those who oppose American military seizure of Arab oil fields of arguing on the basis of the “worst-case assumption” that military action would fail. Very well, let us assume that it succeeds. Let us also dwell for a moment, though Mr. Tucker does not, on what that success will leave in its wake. Above all, it will leave the virtual deification of the rule of might in its new incarnation as Tucker’s Law of Necessity. Now any nation that can act militarily will be entitled to do so on the basis of its own interests as it defines them. We have already assumed in this “best case” that American action will go unanswered by the Russians. But does anyone seriously believe that the Soviet Union will remain forever silent; that it will not discover that some other piece of territory (Turkey?) is vital to its interests and seize it? Or that other nations will not do the same? . . .
The United States, of all the Western industrial nations, is the least dependent on Arab oil. Presumably, then, our action will be on behalf of others. But who is calling for such action? Not the Western Europeans. Only Mr. Tucker, who seems to know what is best for them better than they do.
What astonishes Mr. Tucker is that for the first time in history military action has not been seriously discussed as a means for dealing with a crisis. He decries this fact; I applaud it. Maybe man is growing up after all.
Michael C. Nelson
Johns Hopkins University
To the Editor:
I wish to object most strongly to Robert W. Tucker’s article. . . . He must know that U.S. intervention would invite retaliation on many levels and (in my opinion) surely bring on World War III. . . . What difference would the price of oil make in that event? . . .
Janet A. Hilbert
St. Paul, Minnesota
To the Editor:
. . . Robert W. Tucker sees the oil crisis and the increasing power of the OPEC countries as “presaging 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.” . . . What Mr. Tucker politely calls “the international system” is of course the historical colonial, imperial, and capitalistic system of the Western world which has practiced every form and manner of aggression, political domination, economic exploitation, and simple plunder of the peoples, natural wealth, and markets of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. . . .
. . . I . . . find it incomprehensible that a serious-minded American, a professor of international relations at that, would want the United States to go to war with the Arabs for the sake of a reduction in the price of oil. The economic considerations involved do not warrant an invasion of the Persian Gulf. Only a gross misunderstanding of international economics can keep one from appreciating the true extent of the danger to the economic systems of the industrialized countries of the West. Inflation, recession, mass unemployment, etc., are not new problems but are the . . . systematic attributes of capitalism. Even if America should forcibly take possession of the whole Middle East, these problems would not be eliminated. Witness the depression of the 1930’s which occurred at a time when the West was in absolute control of “the impotent objects of the international system.” . . . It is only too well known that economic considerations are not the only ones in the oil crisis. Mr. Tucker wants an open discussion of all issues and alternatives available. I suggest he is using oil as a pretext. Mr. Tucker’s hidden motive is to have America invade the Middle East for the sake of Israel.
San Pedro, California
To the Editor:
. . . I am not qualified to judge the merits of Robert W. Tucker’s proposal in regard to its military feasibility. . . . But the question of whether force should or should not be employed is not confined to military matters. The basic moral issue is whether human beings, including entire nations, should act aggressively when not provoked by aggression initiated by the proposed victim. . . . Assuming that individuals ought to be free to do what they will with what is. theirs, provided this does not involve aggressing upon others, could there be a moral justification for invading OPEC countries? (I will not argue for the above assumption since its denial would remove the problem at issue.)
We need to ask, however, whether the OPEC countries are in fact doing something with what is indeed theirs. Do the OPEC countries rightfully possess the oil? It seems to me clear that they do not. . . . The oil exploration and production for use and trade was started by freely-admitted business interests from foreign countries. Later what was developed by these freely-admitted interests was confiscated by the governments of the OPEC countries. Nationalization, even with token payments for the nationalized items, constitutes the confiscation, by force, of what belongs to some people by other people, even if these other people happen to be government officials. . . .
Of course the response to this theft and extortion ought to have been carried out when these actions occurred. It would clearly be dubious now to justify invasion of OPEC countries by reference to the above line of argument. What can be done is to realize that the toleration of immoral conduct on the part of other people and countries can lead to subsequent events the facing of which is likely to involve more drastic responses than what could have been done (instead of the initial toleration). . . .
Tibor R. Machan
Santa Barbara, California
To the Editor:
. . . It might be that by being more selfish the U.S. could help the world more than by recycling or any of the other contemplated moves. If we strongly limit the ability of the oil-rich countries to invest here, they will have to come to terms with the consumers themselves. Furthermore, we could help to forge the Third World countries into a trading bloc. If India and Pakistan had a large share of desert oil, their tremendous needs would provide a source of prosperity for the whole world. The West would need their oil and they would need food and industrial products. We would then have a basis for establishing a reasonable exchange rate. . . .
We could encourage such a solution by stopping all aid to these countries and telling them that they will not only have to pay for their own oil but also that prices for food and fertilizers will be tagged to the price of oil. . . .
If those countries will realize that a share in desert oil is needed for their survival, they will find a way to share in it either by negotiation or by force. (We could also help them in the latter course.) World opinion could accept this far more easily than a one-sided takeover by the West. This might not be a perfectly just solution, but may well be the most humane and just solution in an imperfect world. It could solve not only the energy crisis of Europe and provide a breathing spell for long-range solutions, but also give the poor countries a chance to avert mass starvation and obtain sufficient capital for a meaningful start in solving their own problems. . . .
School of Engineering
The City College of CUNY
New York City
To the Editor:
I agree with Robert W. Tucker that the option of American intervention over oil prices should receive more serious consideration. If nothing else, it would make other measures appear less extreme. As an actual policy, however, it has a fatal flaw: the world’s vulnerability to countermeasures by the other OPEC nations.
Mr. Tucker is undoubtedly right that the United States has the military capability to take over Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. He is also probably right to discount the likelihood of Soviet intervention, at least in ways that would involve Russians firing at Americans. But he is on less firm ground in discounting the prospects for thorough sabotage of the oil fields, mainly because a swift operation is impossible. . . .
Now, let us consider . . . what measures the other OPEC countries could take to counteract the effects of the American takeover.
The first approach, representing the least that could be expected, would be a complete OPEC embargo of the U.S., accompanied, of course, by a corresponding cut in production. In the early stages, while production from the captured areas would be small, the U.S. would face an oil shortage about three times as severe as the embargo of 1973-74. . . . Since the rest of the world would also be deprived of production from the captured areas for this period of time, they too would face an oil shortage of similar magnitude. . . . Such a shortage is far beyond what could be dealt with by the usual conservation measures and living off existing stocks.
But this is only the gentlest of countermeasures. The OPEC countries . . ., to take just one example, could institute an embargo against the U.S. and then further reduce production to compensate for the oil being produced from the captured areas. . . . In this scenario, the world would face the loss of about one-third of its oil for at least a year or two. . . . To sum up, for this period of time, the producing countries could cause as large a shortage as would be needed to bring about the result they would want: an ignominious U.S. withdrawal and an immeasurably strengthened cartel. The world would have no alternative but to comply with their wishes. . . .
Arnold M. Kuzmack
Chevy Chase, Maryland
To the Editor:
As a former military staff officer and a petroleum engineer, I would like to comment on Robert W. Tucker’s article.
It is quite possible that the Russians would not intervene directly in the defense of the area to be occupied, but they would not have to. Regular Arab forces with Russian arms and “advisers” are already well established in the area.
It was demonstrated in the Yom Kippur War that Arab infantrymen armed with guided anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles can inflict unacceptable losses on massed armor and low flying, fixed-wing aircraft, and can completely interdict the low-level use of helicopters. It must be emphasized that these weapons are now as portable as the World War II bazooka. Recent experience in Vietnam confirms their efficacy. Current U.S. landing-force tactics depend essentially on helicopters and tracked vehicles. . . .
It is ridiculous to assume, as Mr. Tucker does, that the collection and transport of the forces involved could be carried out in sufficient secrecy to provide suprise. . . . Mr. Tucker appears to envisage only “sledge-hammer” destruction of oil facilities. But it is not hard to set fire to a primary-producing well (the type in which the oil flows naturally to the surface due to internal pressure in the field). Almost all the wells in the Kuwait-Qatar area are of this type. Extinguishing a single well fire takes an average of two to three weeks and requires the services of specialists. As few as 100 strategically-placed wells set on fire could immobilize the entire operation.
Mr. Tucker’s statement that . . . guerrilla operations could not be conducted is remarkable in view of the operations of T. E. Lawrence in World War I and of the current PLO. He also completely disregards the probability that sabotage would also be conducted within the U.S. itself and in its foreign facilities.
It is my personal belief that any occupation of the oil-producing states would trigger a protest movement that would make the reaction to Vietnam appear mild. . . .
Paul D. Hobson
To the Editor:
. . . Robert W. Tucker discusses briefly a possible Soviet “interposition” in the Persian Gulf, but does not touch upon the many other ways the USSR might defeat a U.S. move to coerce Middle Eastern oil.
Instead of interpositioning their naval forces in the Persian Gulf, the Soviets could mine the Straits of Hormuz and commit a portion of their attack submarine force to interdicting tankers to and from the occupied Middle East. Alternatively, they might choose a less risky course and back an Arab interdiction effort. Either way, it is doubtful that oil could be moved from the Persian Gulf to distant consuming regions promptly and in the quantities needed. Furthermore, the problem of securing the sea lanes would endure as long as the Western world retained an appetite for Arab oil. . . .
The former Chief of Naval Operations expressed the view that the Soviet navy has more capability to interrupt our sea lanes than we have to keep them open. As a consequence, any limited warfare for control over sea lanes that chiefly involved submarines could continue indecisively for months or even years. Indeed, it is difficult to see how such a conflict could be ended short of expanding the war to the Soviet Union itself or withdrawing our occupation forces from the Middle East. In the meantime, those nations critically dependent upon Arab oil would thirst.
A Soviet-backed Arab interdiction effort is another possibility. . . . Finally, an assessment of Soviet risk-taking that considers the balance of conventional military power may lead to a different view of the Soviet will to counter-intervene. Instead of behaving with the restraint shown by the U.S. over the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, the USSR could react to a military move into the Arabian peninsula in a manner far closer to the U.S. actions in the October 1962 Cuban missile crisis.
Desmond P. Wilson, Jr.
Center for Naval Analyses
To the Editor:
Congratulations to you and Robert W. Tucker for thinking the unthinkable and applying rationality instead of sentiment to the possibility of military intervention in the Persian Gulf. But let’s go a little deeper into the unthinkable. Has Russian behavior over the past decades taught us . . . so little that possible action can be seen only as non-forceful or as the direct intervention described by Mr. Tucker?
No consideration has been given to the fact that about half the people living along the southern shore of the Persian Gulf speak Persian, not Arabic, and that half or more of the Arabs of Iraq are Shias, as are the Persians. . . . There is a national split in the region which goes much deeper than the publicized Iran-Iraq military confrontation. Both sides are eager eventually to expand at the expense of the other. Each fears the other. Clever, realistic diplomacy should permit the U.S. to use one against the other, and to obtain the results of military intervention without the firing of a single shot by an American.
While either side could theoretically be used against the other for U.S. purposes, the Arab-Russian marriage means that the decision is already made for us. Our course would be to encourage Iran to expand militarily into Kuwait, the sheikhdoms, and perhaps, with Kurdish assistance, into Iraq. Iran would probably like to do so any time it could get away with it (as the Arabs would like to expand into Khuzistan). But Iran can’t get away with it because it fears Russian military intervention on the side of the Arabs. Only one state can possibly forestall Russian protection of the Gulf Arabs—the U.S. The trade is obvious: a given quantity or percentage of the oil at stake at low prices for the U.S. for so many years, in return for the U.S. guaranteeing no overt Russian intervention. . . .
Of course, this possibility rests on the assumption that the U.S. has the military capacity to keep the Russians off Iran’s back. We can be fairly certain at least that its capacity to do so has been and is declining. To the extent this is true, action ten years ago would have been safer than action today, and action today would be safer than action two or five years in the future. If so, why haven’t we tried something like this in the past, when the odds were better? . . .
As for Mr. Tucker’s philosophical question, isn’t it true that Western, and to a lesser extent Russian, decision-makers have convinced themselves of the inevitability of a rapid escalation of warfare from limited conventional to nuclear exchange in any armed conflict between nuclear powers? Though probably false, this assumption seems wide and deep enough to explain by itself the reluctance of the West to take up arms.
John W. Bowling
Troy State University
Robert W. Tucker writes:
One cannot but be impressed by the overall quality of these letters. They are thoughtful, they raise a broad range of issues, and many of the criticisms they make are incisive. In some measure, I have already responded to a number of points the letters raise in my March COMMENTARY article (“Further Reflections on Oil and Force”). Still, there are other issues the letters deal with that have not received adequate attention. Unfortunately, I cannot do justice to them without writing yet another lengthy essay on the oil crisis and this, I fear, would tax the patience of readers of COMMENTARY and abuse the purpose of this column. Even in writing this quite selective response, I am taking advantage of the tolerance of the editors.
There are three broad issues that are briefly dealt with in these lines. The first concerns my turn from isolationism to interventionism. Although consistency is surely not always a virtue, even for professors, one must still answer for what appears to be an abrupt change in position and particularly if, as Stanley Hoffmann charges, in supporting either isolationism or interventionism I have left out “every point that could complicate or undercut” my case. The charge deserves a response. So, too, the closely related matter of America’s relations with Europe, seen in the context of the oil crisis, requires more explicit comment. Why, it is frequently asked, should we even contemplate an extreme course of action, given its many risks, when our interests are much less affected than the interests of allies who give the appearance of wanting to avoid any confrontation, let alone one holding out the prospect of military action?
Finally, there is the persistent objection that any moral justification for using, or even threatening, force against the oil producers is lacking. To inject the issue of force in the oil crisis, it is argued, is to abandon such progress as we have made toward achieving a more moderate international system and to embrace the ancient doctrine that “necessity knows no law.” Although “toughminded” critics of the force option have dismissed this objection as insignificant, it is by no means so. A change has occurred in our attitude toward force. Its threat or use is increasingly difficult to justify despite the fact that we continue to live in a world which has yet to find a satisfactory and effective substitute for force.
In advocating a “new isolationism” for America I emphasized that whether isolationism is seen as a threat or a promise depends upon interest and circumstance. Isolationism is not a theology; it is not even a philosophy. It is, first and foremost, a policy, though admittedly a policy informed by a certain attitude. As a policy, isolationism is essentially characterized by the refusal to enter into certain relationships (alliances) and to undertake certain actions (military interventions). It is not to be identified with the absence of all significant relationships with other nations. At least, it has never been so identified in our past and I did not so identify it.
Moreover, a policy of “military isolationism,” to use Mr. Hoffmann’s expression, need not be applied everywhere. Here again, interest and circumstance must be taken into account. I indicated that a new isolationism might even take the form of a geographical reversal of interwar isolationism, stopping short of Europe while centering on Asia and Latin America. I did so for what seemed to me obvious reasons: the continued political, economic, and cultural importance of Europe to America, even though the strictly military-strategic significance of Europe had declined; the divisive and disastrous effects of our postwar Asian policy (a policy not based on considerations of political and cultural affinity and increasingly unpersuasive when cast in strategic terms); and the counter-productive political effects as well as the increasingly strategic super-fluousness of alliances and intervention in Latin America.
In sum, I wrote that isolationism might be applied selectively and rejected the assertion that we must apply such policy everywhere or refrain from pursuing it anywhere. That assertion, I argued and still argue, is no more persuasive than the assumption it so evidently reflects: that American interests and commitments form an integral whole which cannot survive the disappearance of any of its component parts. While placing our interest in Europe in a category by itself, I went on to urge that there was reason to believe that in time and with American encouragement the grand formula might one day (in perhaps a decade or so) be applied to Europe as well. Many critics took me to task for what they considered a serious inconsistency—that is, the reluctance to apply a new isolationism to Europe until circumstances so permitted. Now I am taken to task for the sudden abandonment of a former position in advocating intervention, if necessary, on behalf of American interests in Europe (and intervention in the Persian Gulf would evidently be taken largely on behalf of those interests). Yet I cannot have been inconsistent both then and now.
What I can be fairly charged with is the failure to have foreseen that Europe’s dependence (as well as, of course, Japan’s, the developing states, and—to a much lesser degree—the United States’) on Middle Eastern oil might some day require the threat or use of American military power. By an omission that in retrospect appears monumental, I did not deal with the Middle East, though if I had done so in all probability I would have applied a new isolationism there as well. I would have done so because I too readily accepted the conventional wisdom of the day on the prospects of an effective oil cartel and thus discounted the sudden emergence to power and influence of the Arab states. In the years from 1967 to 1972 the prospect that has become a reality in 1975 would have been dismissed as a fantasy. To say this is in no way to excuse my failure. If this century has taught us anything, it is the frequency with which today’s fantasies have been turned into tomorrow’s realities.
In a more general sense, the argument for a new isolationism, though attended by a number of qualifications critics conveniently ignore, overestimated the prospects that our major allies might soon play the political role their economic power allows them to play. I saw emergent centers of active power, and consequently the elements of a new order, that have not materialized and show little sign of doing so in the foreseeable future. In this context, it is irrelevant though true to say that American statecraft has scarcely contributed to the devolution of power Secretary Kissinger has so long identified as a pillar of American policy. Whatever the relative share one allots to American unwillingness to relinquish control over allies and to European (and Japanese) unwillingness to acquire the means and manifest the will to regain strategic independence, the result is the persistence of a symbiotic relationship that continues to frustrate the emergence of a world in which a new isolationism for America would prove quite feasible.
This mea culpa would not be complete without also noting that I underestimated the difficulties marking North-South relationships. No doubt; the oil crisis promotes the tendency to exaggerate these difficulties. Still, it is by now apparent that the relationships between the industrialized and developing states will be characterized much more by conflict than by consensus and that if one projects a world in which military power is increasingly at a discount this conflict may exact a heavy price from the industrialized states. Thus what was only recently viewed as the deliverance from one threat, the extension of Soviet (or Chinese) influence throughout the developing world, has been succeeded by a new danger, the prospect that disruptive pricing policies and other measures taken by the new states may prevent an orderly distribution of the world product and the promise of orderly growth. The much celebrated triumph of nationalism and pluralism may have mitigated the particular anxieties of the cold war. It is that very triumph, however, that along with an unwillingness on the part of the industrialized and capitalist states to enforce the order of the past has given rise to a welter of conflicting and seemingly insoluble claims.
These are mistakes and shortcomings enough without having to admit to errors not made. Mr. Hoffmann implies that in advocating a new isolationism I was somehow unaware that for great powers “influence is the name of the game.” I was quite aware of this. Indeed, it was the prospective loss of influence attending a new isolationism which largely prompted my skepticism that America would pursue the policy proposed. At the same time, it seemed to me that the competition for influence had become an increasingly expensive game that was increasingly devoid of durable consequences and this for the reason that the traditional instruments for exercising influence, particularly over the states of the developing world, had declined in effectiveness. Very few observers would care to dispute this decline and many among Western elites welcome it. Whether it is welcomed or decried, the consequences of the decline have now been vividly illustrated in the oil crisis.
Does the “new internationalism,” with its commitment to an ever-increasing interdependence, prevent these consequences we see in the oil crisis? To date, at least, the evidence is that it does not. Mr. Hoffmann has argued that the pursuit of a new isolationism would carry with it a huge price tag of a hostile world. But so does the pursuit of Mr. Hoffmann’s internationalism, with its “renunciation of the use of force to redress non-military measures of coercion” and its reliance on “solutions that maximize interdependence.” If one is to judge the isolationism I advocated against Mr. Hoffmann’s internationalism in terms of the price tag each would entail, I fail to see a difference.
There are of course differences between the two positions and they are important. Whereas Mr. Hoffmann finds in the maximization of pacific interdependence a promise, I find in it anything but that. The prospect of a world that is ever more interdependent is scarcely a comforting one when such a world is still one of states and still one in which the bases for conflict and disorder are many and deep—if anything, more numerous and intractable than ever—while the traditional instruments for providing what modicum of order international society has enjoyed in the past are increasingly at a discount. In the absence of any serviceable substitute instruments of order, to find in this prospect a promise requires nothing less than an act of faith to which I cannot subscribe.
This is why I remain ambivalent about the period ahead. In the present situation we have little choice but to attempt to reassert American power. This does not mean a return to the mid-1960’s. Nor does it mean a call for intervention tomorrow in the Middle East. It does mean the restoration of the credibility of force in a manner that has been lacking in the oil crisis. If this should prove impossible, for whatever reasons, we would be very foolish not to draw the appropriate lesson and to move toward a position of greater detachment and withdrawal. For the inability to restore where and when necessary the credibility of American power, while increasingly mortgaging ourselves to a world over which we have decreasing control, is sheer improvidence for a nation that still retains the ability to reduce dependencies very markedly.
Although the oil crisis has not altered America’s relationship with Europe, it has illuminated that relationship as has no other event in a long time. Once again, we are made acutely aware of a relationship that breeds resentment and recrimination and that will continue to do so until it is essentially changed. Once again, it is apparent that there is not and cannot be anything approximating a partnership of equals between Europe and America so long as Europe remains a military dependent of the United States. The charge voiced by many that America has used the oil crisis to reassert its predominant position over Europe (and, in lesser degree, Japan) has more than a measure of truth. At the same time, the questions persist: what course of action might the United States have reasonably been expected to take that would have avoided such reassertion? Even further, how might we have prudently used the crisis to help galvanize the Europeans into doing for themselves what they have for so long expected, and continue to expect, America to do for them?
At issue, then, is not a matter of American altruism in acting on behalf of its major allies (or, even less, for the developing nations). No one has seriously discussed the prospect of American intervention in terms of disembodied altruism rather than of national interest. Certainly I have not. I assumed that if we were to intervene we would do so in our own interest, though that interest happens to encompass the economic and political stability of Europe. That intervention might, in Mr. Hoffmann’s words, “throw away the windfall” OPEC action has presumably given us by helping to restore our predominance over major allies is not at all one of my concerns. I doubt moreover that it is the prime concern of the Secretary of State, despite the zeal he has shown in turning the threat posed by the oil crisis into a new exercise in an American-led “collective security.” The difficulty with the view that the “headache” the oil crisis has caused the U.S. may nevertheless be outweighed by the windfall it has given us is not that it is cynical but that it assumes a desire to reassert American hegemony over Europe of such intensity as to surpass belief. No doubt, we remain loath to relinquish our predominance. Mr. Kissinger has made this abundantly clear during the past year by his various schemes for organizing the major consumer states. But it is one thing to say that America’s response to OPEC has been self-interested and quite another to suggest that we do not wish to resolve the oil crisis, with all its latent risks if allowed to drag on, because we find it convenient in terms of allied relationships.
What course might America have taken in the oil crisis that would not have accentuated its predominant position? One response is that we could have encouraged the Europeans to reach their own separate arrangements with the Arab oil producers instead of pushing them to follow the American lead of confrontation. In this view, the Europeans are quite capable of meeting the situation on their own even while each government goes its separate way. It is the French who have developed this view of a Euro-Arabia with greatest insistence, while showing the greatest displeasure over American confrontation tactics (modest and faltering as these tactics have been). This does not mean, however, that the French view of a Euro-Arabia has no place for the United States. On the contrary, it is clear that America would be expected to guarantee the new arrangement by retaining a military presence in the Middle East. For without that guarantee, the arrangement would always be vulnerable to Soviet pressure. One cannot fault those who want the best of both worlds. At the same time, one can scarcely regard as perverse the American refusal to look upon this arrangement with enthusiasm.
It is quite true that Europe has far more at stake in the oil crisis than has America. But it does not follow self-evidently from this that Europe must therefore have the prevailing, or even equal, voice in the strategy devised to counter OPEC actions. Europe has far more at stake in Europe than has America, yet this has not prevented Europe from remaining strategically dependent upon America. If that dependence means anything it means that in the last analysis it is America, not Europe, that will decide upon the circumstances and means of Europe’s protection, and this despite the wording of all formal undertakings. There has never been any way of insuring that American decisions in defending Europe would coincide with European estimates on when and how Europe is to be defended. Although we have lived with this situation for over a quarter of a century, many nevertheless find it anomalous because extended to the Middle East. Yet that extension was always implicit in the American-European relationship, given Europe’s vital dependence on Middle Eastern oil.
In its bearing on European-American relations, the oil crisis has little, if anything, to tell us that we did not already know. The crisis has shown once again that America will not accept real equality with Europe so long as it remains the guarantor of Europe’s security. Moreover, this reluctance is particularly apparent in time of crisis. It may be argued that it is precisely in time of crisis that the opportunity arises to forge a new relationship. But the opportunity is not one the predominant power can reasonably be expected to seize. It must be seized by those who wish to end a relationship of inequality and are ready to pay the price of independence. To date, there is little indication of such readiness. Instead, we find the same disposition to remain an American protectorate while resentful of the price to be paid for this status.
There remain the broadly moral objections that have been raised against the threat or use of force as a means of countering OPEC action. In large measure, these objections may be attributed to the unusual circumstances attending the oil crisis. The crisis was not brought on by the kind of action that has come to be considered in the common view as aggression. The oil producers did not use or threaten force; they simply acted in the manner of an oligopoly and raised the price of oil. In doing so, in seeking to obtain the best possible price for their natural resource, it is arguable whether they thereby violated any right in international law of the consumer states. No doubt it may be argued that the producers have acted in a manner injurious to the interests of consumers. But that is a different matter from establishing a case for the violation of rights. And even if such a case could be made, it would not in itself justify the response of force. For this response is no longer legitimate as a reaction against any violation of right but only against the rights of territorial integrity and political independence. At the very least, then, it must be shown that the actions of OPEC seriously threaten the latter rights before force could be justified.
So runs the common argument against introducing the instrument of force in the oil crisis. In substance, this view comes close to maintaining that force is justified today only as a measure of individual or collective defense against the use of force. There is no need here to go into the many problems this view must raise if consistently adhered to. Even if adhered to, however, it would still not limit the justification of force only as a defense against the unlawful use of force. In acknowledging that states may use force to preserve their independence, the way is opened for justifying force in circumstances other than unlawful armed attack. For a state’s independence may be threatened in circumstances other than those of armed attack. It may be threatened by being cut off from a material without which its economy cannot function.
I have noted elsewhere (“Further Reflections on Oil and Force”) that in relation to the oil crisis there are very few who are willing to adhere consistently to the position that force is justified only in response to the use of force, and this quite apart from the consequences the refusal to employ force might entail. Applied to the issue at hand, this position must mean that even a total embargo of oil would not justify a forcible response. The letters bear out this unwillingness to carry the no-force argument to its logical, and absurd, conclusion. Whether explicitly or implicitly it is conceded that there are circumstances in which force would not only in fact be employed but would be justified.
The obvious limiting situation apart (that is, an embargo that literally “strangles”), it serves no useful purpose to pretend that one can define with any real precision the circumstances in which force would prove justified. We are, after all, dealing with a situation which is highly unusual, if not unique. Even in situations of crisis that bear more readily recognizable features, the difficulties of defining those circumstances in which force is justified are notorious. In the present situation such circumstances may be and have been delineated, though only in a very general way. Those who insist that this is not sufficient, as do C. Robert Zelnick and Stanley Hoffmann, are quite free to do so. At the same time, unless they believe that force is justified only in the case of literal strangulation, I fail to see why they should not do what they demand of others. If Mr. Hoffmann is persuaded that I have “a duty to indicate with some rigor the circumstances in which the last resort must be envisaged,” I may ask in turn that he indicate with some rigor the interests he would be prepared to jeopardize or sacrifice before sanctioning force. Neither Mr. Hoffmann nor others have shown much disposition to indicate precisely where, short of actual strangulation, they would draw the line—and with good reason. I see no valid reason then why I should be expected to do what they have not done.
It is another matter entirely to insist that force should not be employed in defense of interests, however vital, until non-forcible alternatives have been seriously tried and found wanting. Though unexceptionable, the point is well-taken. But this does not mean that it is only strangulation that would leave no satisfactory alternatives to the use of force. It is true that many do appear to assume that in circumstances other than literal strangulation, such alternatives may be found. This assumption, however, depends upon the satisfaction of a number of conditions that may not in fact be satisfied. Consumers may not be able to agree upon common measures that are indispensable to the protection of their interests. Even more, producers may not evince much desire to act cooperatively and with restraint, at least so long as they do not believe in the credibility of force. To the extent that producers do so act, it would scarcely prove surprising if their actions were in part at least the result of the threat of force. however covert. Indeed, candor would be served by admitting that we have already come, however haltingly, to rely in some measure upon the threat of force in inducing the producers to act with greater restraint. Certainly, the threat of force, if effective, is far preferable to the actual use of force. Even so, there is something rather disingenuous in pretending that military power which is not actively employed, or openly threatened, is therefore indicative of the triumph of pacific interdependence.
The oil crisis, though still unresolved, has already taught different lessons to different people. To some, it has taught the lesson that force is no answer to the conflicts of interests arising between the Western powers and the states of the Third World (or now the Third and Fourth Worlds). Even if successful in the short term, it is argued, the price of military intervention will still prove exorbitant in the long-term effects it may be expected to have on the prospects of a tolerable world order. But if force is no longer the answer, if either or both its short- and long-term effects are now too costly, what then is the answer? Is it sufficient to say that we must “maximize interdependence” when interdependence is itself one of the reasons for conflict? It is surely tenuous to assume that between the rich and poor of the world—or, for that matter, between the old rich and the new rich—the maximization of interdependence will breed moderation and good will. If anything, it is likely to foster resentment and innumerable occasions for conflict. How we may manage to cope with these unhappy prospects in the absence of the traditional instruments of order is a question that has no apparent answer.