Commentary Magazine

Oil and the West

To the Editor:

To someone removed from the American scene, perhaps the most disquieting feature of Robert W. Tucker’s articles [“Oil: The Issue of American Intervention,” January, and “Further Reflections on Oil and Force,” March] is the insight they offer into the attitude prevailing in what, for the want of a more elegant term, might be called “opinion-making circles” in the United States toward the defense of Western interests in the Middle East. The burden of Mr. Tucker’s argument in his January article, that a situation could well arise which would necessitate a resort to force to insure the security of oil supplies from the Persian Gulf to the Western world and Japan, is so eminently reasonable as to preclude the need for comment. Yet it is evident in every line that he wrote that he felt compelled to put his case with the utmost circumspection, a compulsion he would surely not have felt if the critical air had not been rank with the smell of appeasement. As it is, the reaction to his article proves his caution to have been amply justified, even though unavailing: the familiar voices have been raised in the usual quarters in outraged denunciation of anything so reckless and so wicked as to suggest that the West might take up arms in defense of an interest vital to its survival.

What Mr. Tucker’s critics seem to overlook in their indignation is that the Persian Gulf is a highly unstable area, subject to frequent and often violent shifts of political fortune. It would be a gross dereliction of duty on the part of any major Western government, not least the government of the United States, if it were not to keep this fact constantly in mind and to shape its policy toward the countries of the region accordingly, even to the extent, if need be, of preparing to intervene militarily to keep oil supplies flowing freely. Yet all the evidence so far indicates that the major Western powers have chosen to ignore the reality of the Gulf’s condition, that they are fecklessly hoping that nothing will upset the status quo there, or that Iran and Saudi Arabia between them will somehow maintain the peace and security of the area. It is a forlorn hope: the Shah of Iran himself represents perhaps the greatest single threat to the tranquility of the Gulf, while the record of Saudi Arabia’s relations with the minor states of the peninsula is one of friction and antipathy. Despite the efforts of the United States over a quarter of a century to promote the paramount position of Saudi Arabia in the peninsula, the Saudi government has shown itself to be incapable of exerting a hegemony over its neighbors. Its attempts to do so, however, have been, and will continue to be, a major source of disturbance in the Gulf.

Like Chamberlain facing the dictators, the governments of the major Western powers have failed to take the measure of the regimes with which they are dealing. As a consequence, they have not yet fully comprehended the nature of the menace which now hangs over the West. For all the brouhaha raised about it, the Arab-Israeli conflict is not the reason the Arabs and the Shah are now wielding the oil weapon against the West, however much the conflict might have been the excuse for the imposition of the embargo in October 1973. The Shah, after all, has been in the forefront of those demanding ever higher prices for oil, and he has been neither at war with Israel nor reluctant to sell her oil. It is the price raises, not the threats of an embargo, which are the essential element in the strategy which he and the Arabs are now pursuing toward the West, a strategy which began to take shape early in 1971, long before the Arab-Israeli war in the fall of 1973. What they are endeavoring to do in concert is to hold the Western world for ransom, to place it in thrall, and so to effect a massive transfer of resources from the Christian West to the Muslim East, thereby redressing the balance of power between Western Christendom and Islam which has been tilted in favor of the former for the past three centuries or more.

There is no mistaking the mood of exultation which now grips Sunni Islam, and, to only a lesser degree. Shii Islam. Having suffered for generations from a powerful sense of grievance at the manifest political and economic superiority of the West, the Arabs and the Iranians now believe that in their control of the greater part of the world’s proven reserves of crude oil they possess the means of bringing the West to heel and of reasserting the primacy of Islam. Far-fetched though these ambitions may appear to Western eyes, they nevertheless are real to those who cherish them, and infinitely more seductive than the cooler intimations of reason.

The reaction of most of the Western powers to the economic blackmail being practiced against them by the Shah and the governments of the Arab oil-producing states has been a supine and pusillanimous acquiescence, deriving apparently from the belief that such an attitude will guarantee them continued access to the oil reserves of the Middle East. It will, of course, do nothing of the kind: appeasement will only increase the truculence which the Arabs and the Shah are at present displaying, and confirm them in their conviction that they have the West at their mercy. The Middle Eastern members of OPEC, it should be recalled, have broken every agreement they have made since 1970 concerning prices, levels of production, and the rate at which they were to acquire a majority holding in the oil companies’ equity. Every promise they have made to lower oil prices has been unfulfilled, every threat to restrict production carried into effect. Yet the governments of the West still affect to believe that the various economic nostrums now being peddled around—long-term barter deals, “recycling” of surplus oil funds, “partnership” arrangements, and so forth—will somehow extricate them from the financial difficulties into which they have been plunged by the inordinate increases in the price of oil, and at the same time safeguard the supply of oil in the future. They will not, for the basic reason that none of the Middle Eastern oil-producing states can be relied upon, on the evidence of its past conduct, to honor its undertakings.

Oil is a strategic commodity of prime importance, and it is folly of an almost suicidal order for the West to have allowed itself to drift into a situation where it is incapable of controlling its major source of supply. With the decline of Western influence in the Middle East, and more particularly after the British withdrawal from Aden in 1967 and from the Gulf in 1971, the West lost the control it had previously exercised over the Gulf’s oil. It will somehow have to recover that control, not necessarily directly or by a physical presence, but at least to a degree that affords greater security than the present state of near anarchy. The advocates of appeasement in the West maintain that the acquisition of oil is a purely commercial transaction, and they buttress this contention with glib arguments about a sense of self-interest on the part of the Middle Eastern oil-producing states and a further sense of mutual interest between them and the Western oil-consuming countries in keeping oil flowing, arguments whose purpose is to demonstrate that all is really for the best in the best of all possible worlds and that there is no cause for the West to fret. But these arguments not only ignore or distort the record of the past few years, they also depend upon assumptions about good sense, reasonableness, moderation, and the sanctity of agreements which are native to the West but which are not subscribed to by the Middle Eastern governments in question. The issue, contrary to all that OPEC’s Western apologists may say, is by no means a purely commercial one but, as the motives which impelled the Arabs and the Shah to raise oil prices to exorbitant levels clearly reveal, it is almost exclusively a political one and should be treated primarily as such. We have got ourselves into the predicament in which we find ourselves today by ignoring this fact—a melancholy consequence of following Keynes instead of Clausewitz.

The vast surplus funds now at the disposal of the Middle Eastern oil-producing states pose a further, and potentially more sinister, threat to the West than mere financial embarrassment. Given the nature of the regimes in power in these states, it is inevitable that they should employ these funds for political purposes, as likely as not of a louche variety, beyond their own borders. What signs there may be in the United States of the deployment of these funds for such purposes I have no way of knowing; but here in Britain evidence grows with the passing of each week of the creeping corruption of our political, economic, and social institutions by both the overt and the covert use of oil money, predominantly Arab. Since Britain is now on the verge of economic collapse, mainly as a result of its own profligacy, there is an understandable, if far from commendable, reluctance to resist the inflow of this money, and a corresponding readiness to truckle to the Arab oil magnates and the Shah, especially since the depositing here of the Danegeld they have extracted helps to keep up the spurious appearance of financial solvency which the British government is desperately anxious to maintain. But the canker is by no means confined to political and financial circles in Britain: it has spread far and wide, into commerce and industry, into publishing and journalism, even into the universities and learned societies, to the extent that London is beginning to wear the aspect of being, after Mecca and Medinah, the third holy city of Islam.

To a considerable extent the West has got itself into the precarious situation in which it now stands with respect to the security of oil supplies from the Gulf and the crippling prices it is paying for them by treating the petty states which control the Gulf’s oil reserves with far more deference than their standing in the world warrants. None of the oil-producing states of the Middle East is the peer of any of the major powers of Europe, and it is simply ridiculous as well as profoundly humiliating to see the foreign and finance ministers of Europe scurrying from one dusty Middle Eastern capital to another, to wait patiently upon the pleasure of some disdainful potentate, to attend gravely to his plaints, and to plead humbly for his favors. Here, in truth, increase of appetite grows from what it feeds upon: all that Western cajolery serves to achieve is to make these petty despots more intransigent and arrogant than ever and to heighten their contempt for Western power. It is high time that the West began to disabuse them of their illusions by employing the array of political and economic weapons it has at its disposal to end the extortion currently being practiced by Iran and the Arab oil-producing states. It can be done, if the will is there. Cracks have already appeared in the façade of OPEC unity under the pressure of the present glut of crude oil in the world’s markets. Further pressure will split the cartel wide open, especially since none of its members, not even the Middle Eastern ones, is the natural partner of the others.

Even if the price-fixing ring is broken, however, the problem of the security of oil supplies remains, which brings us back to the point with which this letter opened. Western Europe and Japan are dependent for their principal supplies of oil upon the good will of regimes notorious for their fickle and perverse behavior. The political situation in the Gulf is highly volatile and dangerous, and it has been made even more so by the thoroughly shameful and senseless conduct of Britain, France, and the United States in flooding the region with arms for the ignoble purpose of soaking up excess oil revenues. Every state in the Gulf nurses a grievance of one kind or another against its neighbor, and recent events have only sharpened their mutual suspicions and antagonisms. The assassination of Faisal ibn Abdul Aziz has given encouragement to the subversive elements in the Arabian peninsula, while the accord between Iraq and Iran, at least for as long as it lasts, has freed their hands for adventures in the Gulf. No doubt it suits the Shah and others to proclaim that the affairs of the Gulf are solely the concern of the states around its shores, and to weary the world with a lot of gasconade about the terrible things that will happen if the Western powers so much as dare to show their faces in the region. The Shah, however, is a paper tiger, and the West should not allow itself to be duped by his growls, or those of his Arabian counterparts, into resigning its economic destiny into his or their hands.

Mr. Tucker has courageously grasped the nettle by facing up to the basic question of whether, in the end, the West might have to resort to force to insure control over its major source of oil. His critics have evaded this painful duty by conjuring up instead all manner of dreadful apparitions which, they say, will become reality if the West takes military action in the Gulf—the gigantic figure of the Russian bear, lurching down the valleys of Mesopotamia, snow still clinging to its paws; the sky over Arabia rent with flames from a thousand exploding oil wells; the ferocious hordes of Araby sweeping out of the sands to strike like lightning at the invading infidel, and then vanish, as swiftly as they came, into the desert wastes, there to prepare to strike again before the sun is up (or down). How the Russians would react to armed Western intervention is unknown, probably even to themselves and most certainly to the Western oracles now vociferously prophesying calamity. As for the prospects of a determined and effective Arab guerrilla campaign, they cannot be judged very formidable if the history of warfare in eastern Arabia in the past century or so is a reliable guide. Yet by arguing in the way they do, Mr. Tucker’s critics have in a sense, and despite themselves, answered the question to which he addressed himself and which they have refused to face up to squarely. The answer they have given is a depressing one, for it is characteristic of the want of spirit and resolution which today dominates much of the Western world. Instead of congratulating themselves for having so faithfully manifested this malaise, they would do well to reflect that if the West persists in its present abject policy of appeasement toward the Arabs and the Shah, it will render inevitable an eventual recourse to the kind of measures the very thought of which now makes them pale.

Stanley Hoffmann’s letter, which appears in the correspondence on Mr. Tucker’s articles [Letters from Readers, April], might have been written to illustrate what I have said about the nervelessness and make-believe which characterize fashionable thinking these days about Western relations with Asia and Africa. His arguments are all depressingly familiar: they are those used by a collection of sophists and cut-rate sages in Britain in the 1960’s to justify the abandonment of its responsibilities in Africa and the Middle East. Every confident calculation made by these fossoyeurs about the beneficial consequences of such an abandonment has been disproved by subsequent events, yet they are still rhapsodizing about the ineffable joys of retreat and appeasement. One of their more sublime moments of triumph came at the end of 1967, when Britain slunk out of Aden, surrendering the British colony and protectorate to a gang of terrorists. Would Mr. Hoffmann care to assert that this retreat and the British withdrawal from the Gulf four years later had no bearing whatever upon the increasing use of intimidation by the Middle Eastern members of OPEC from 1971 onward in order to raise the price of crude oil, expropriate the oil-companies’ holdings, and constrict the supply of oil to the West?

I don’t know what Mr. Hoffmann’s qualifications may be to pronounce upon the affairs of Arabia and the Gulf, but from the remarks he makes about the Anglo-French intervention at Suez in 1956 he would seem to understand little of the political tradition of the East. He might try impressing his theories about the pacific settlement of disputes and the voluntary renunciation of force as a means of achieving political ends upon the Marxist-Leninist junta in Aden, whose bloody deeds of repression provoke such delighted squeals in the cafes of the rive gauche and other fashionable intellectual watering-places, where the politics of Asia is excitedly discussed in an ideologically hygienic atmosphere into which the rude breath of reality is forbidden to intrude. Or he could equally well explain his convictions to the rulers of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, who know a thing or two about how to settle sectarian quarrels or territorial disputes, or to the Marxist fedayeen who plot to overthrow them and who also know a thing or two about the power that resides in the barrel of a gun. Mr. Hoffmann is welcome to his breast-beating: for my part, I would prefer to go tiger-shooting in the company of Mr. Tucker.

J. B. Kelly
London, England


About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

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
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.
for 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
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.