War for Oil?

Washington

There never was a web so tangled as the oil crisis. If there were no Israel and there were no Arabs there would still have been an oil crisis sooner or later. The era of cheap energy is over, and the adjustment will be painful.

When tension becomes unbearable, human beings often resort to violence for sheer catharsis. So with nations. There is always the pull toward war as a way out, and this is particularly true of a superpower like our own country with a huge military establishment. There is always the subconscious tendency, when we are frustrated by some complex social or economic problem, to reach for a solution by force. What’s the good of spending so much money on the armed forces if we can’t use them in a pinch? This is the undertow which pulls us toward the folly of a military solution for the oil crisis.

In Israel there is the same undertow. A new war is the line of least resistance in Israel, a tempting way to avoid the political and other risks in negotiation and concession for a settlement. And the undertow there reinforces the undertow here, and I see in this the shadow of serious trouble for our country, and in particular for the American Jewish community.

A line has been drawn by Ford and Kissinger. The US will resort to war, not to lower oil prices but to avoid the “strangulation” of the industrialized West and Japan. In all honesty, should a new oil embargo really bring the wheels of industry to a stop, the ensuing anger and panic could make a cry for war irresistible. The trouble with the Ford-Kissinger threat is that by making this explicit, it begins to prepare the public mind for war, and to make war seem a rational and possible solution far short of actual “strangulation.” People will begin to think that the energy crisis can be solved without belt-tightening, simply by seizing Arab wells.

Another dangerous by-product is that the US threat may make Israeli hard-liners feel that pre-emptive war is a good gamble because if it triggers an Arab oil embargo, as it almost certainly will, then the embargo will bring US military intervention against Arab oil producers in the Middle East. In this perspective, the Ford-Kissinger threat only makes it harder to negotiate a peaceful settlement by leading the Israeli government to believe it can postpone serious concessions for peace, and if necessary win a new breathing space by resorting to a new war. The Arab threat of an oil embargo has become a bargaining card for Israel since its resort to pre-emptive war would thus entail disaster for Western Europe and Japan. The danger in this is not a new Masada but another Samson—a Samson who can add the leverage of his enemies to his own strength.

It is most unfortunate that at such a time Commentary should publish an article in its January issue which goes …

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Letters

War for Oil? An Exchange March 6, 1975