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War for Oil?

Washington

I

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 far beyond the Ford-Kissinger line. The article advocates the breaking of the oil cartel, and a restoration of lower oil prices, by seizing the Arabian oil fields along the Persian Gulf. Though the author, Robert W. Tucker, does not say so, this is exactly the kind of rescue operation of which some Israeli hard-liners may have been dreaming.

One of the worst aspects of this inflammatory proposal is the place where it appeared. Commentary is published by the American Jewish Committee. Nothing could be more dangerous for American unity, for the future of the American Jewish community, and for Israel itself than to have it look as if Jewish influence were trying to get the US into war with the Arabs, and to take their richest resource from them.

The question of Israel already occupies a disproportionately large role in American politics. At a time when the US Army has an excessively high ratio of the black poor, US embroilment in a Middle East war has a far greater potential for social disruption, class and racial, than the recent Vietnamese war. The energy crisis and the depression, inflation and joblessness are sufficiently destabilizing in our society without an injection of anti-Semitic paranoia. It was irresponsible for Commentary to publish, at this time, the most explicit call yet for a military solution to the oil crisis.

Nor does such criminal nonsense help Israel. In the eyes of the Arabs the mere suggestion will sound like a repeat—on a far larger scale—of Suez. In the Suez invasion, Israel joined with England and France in a military attack to deny Egypt the revenues for reconstruction and development which the Suez Canal represented. Once again, in Arab eyes, Israel would be spearheading a Western imperialist attack on their possessions and aspirations.

History amply and painfully demonstrates that the safety of Jewish communities depends on the welfare of those among whom they live. The long-range interests of Israel are no different. It cannot survive in the Middle East as an enemy of its neighbors. An American military occupation of the Arabian Peninsula, with or without Israeli military collaboration, would dig deeper than ever the gulf between Israeli and Arab.

The Tucker article has set off a wave of concern and dismay in the American Jewish community, including many who are middle-of-the-road Zionists. But few have the courage to speak out amid the hysteria over Israel. Tucker himself is not Jewish and his proposal came, most unexpectedly, from a teacher and writer who had been in the antiwar movement during Vietnam. His last book was a plea for a new isolationism.1 There is no reason whatsoever to link his turnaround to interventionism in the Middle East with any cabal, Jewish or military. The article was given to Commentary only after it was turned down by Foreign Affairs.2 Politically the article was a freak, but it appeared at a dangerous place and time.

The timing was unfortunate, of course, because it came so soon after the appearance in Business Week for January 13 of the Secretary of State’s interview which put war into the headlines. It is important to look again at exactly what Kissinger was asked and how he replied:

Q. One of the things we hear from businessmen is that in the long run the only answer to the oil cartel is some sort of military action.

A. Military action on oil prices?

Q. Yes.

A. A very dangerous course. We should have learned from Vietnam that it is easier to get into a war than to get out of it. I’m not saying that there’s no circumstance where we would not use force. But it is one thing to use it in the case of a dispute over price, it’s another where there’s some actual strangulation of the industrialized world.

This was not a ringing call for war. Nor was it especially new. Ever since the oil crisis began, it has been the political tactic of the American government under Nixon and Ford to warn that if the oil cartel pushed too hard the US might resort to arms.

This has been given melodramatic illustration in the past year by calculated “leaks” about US Marines training for the invasion of desert countries. The latest was seen on French TV January 9, after a French crew—thanks to arrangements made by the American embassy in Paris with the Pentagon—was allowed to film such a practice invasion by 2,000 Marines off the coast of Sardinia early on the morning of December 20. The French TV audience was told that this was the third such landing maneuver since October. This filming, like the hint from Kissinger, seems to be part of a deliberate strategy to frighten the Arabs. It may not frighten them but it certainly should frighten us, as it has already frightened many Western European observers.

A description of the French TV show was printed in an eight-column spread across the top of page one in the Washington Evening Star-News, Friday, January 10. When the TV interrogator asked whether this was preparation for a battle for oil, a US officer replied that the Marines were ready for it, and that a “high echelon” plan existed for invading Libya. There was a smiling picture of Vice Admiral Turner, commander of the Mediterranean fleet, who starred in the French documentary. “We don’t want to invade,” he told the French audience, and was so quoted in the Star account, “but we are prepared.”

At the Pentagon press briefing that day, the press officer was subjected to sharp questions and sought to parry them lamely by implying that the story wasn’t newsworthy because he had already confirmed the filming of the landing maneuver when asked about it the day it occurred last December 20. For some strange reason the story seemed to disappear, and I saw no reference to it in any of the Washington, New York, or Baltimore papers the next day.3

The failure of the Washington Post to report the landing maneuver in Sardinia is the more puzzling because it had fed the talk of war for oil by printing two prowar proposals only a few days earlier. It reprinted the Tucker article in full as the main feature of its Sunday Outlook section on January 5. On its editorial page the same day it printed a special article by Earl C. Ravenal, formerly a Pentagon think-tanker, now a lecturer at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies where Tucker also teaches.

Ravenal was for ending the Kissinger peace effort in favor of US disengagement from the Middle East, but disengagement of a most peculiar kind. He regards pre-emptive action as Israel’s “most potent instrument of deterrence” and wants to leave Israel free to use it, which Israel cannot do now—he indicated—without fear of risking American displeasure. Hence a “disengaged” US would leave Israel free to wage pre-emptive war while Ravenal would have the US guarantee “minimal replacement of destroyed or exhausted equipment” and an “offer to organize a neutral humanitarian force of interposition if any Middle Eastern population were in danger of annihilation.” Such disengagement would avoid “the onus of forcing Israel to forfeit relatively secure frontiers and flexible military tactics in exchange for dubious international promises.”

This would be to abandon efforts for peace and instead issue Israel a blank check for pre-emptive war. Ravenal’s heady scenario even has the Soviets deciding not to interfere because “several divisions of Soviet paratroopers might be chewed up by the Israelis.” To give prominence to such inflammatory ruminations as Ravenal’s and Tucker’s and then fail to report the invasion maneuvers which surfaced in the French TV show calls for explanation by the Washington Post editors.

The day the story about the maneuvers broke here, The New York Times appeared with a Drew Middleton dispatch, “Military Men Challenge Mideast ‘Force’ Strategy.” Middleton had questioned a number of military men about the feasibility of the Kissinger threat land the Tucker proposal. Middleton said the “generals and admirals” he had questioned here and in Europe “in the last four weeks” all “emphasized that they had no knowledge that any such operation had been or was about to be planned.” Were three practice landings since last October made public just to frighten the Arabs and OPEC?

  1. 1

    A New IsolationismThreat or Promise? by Robert W. Tucker (Universe Books: New York, 1972).

  2. 2

    For constructive non-panicky suggestions for dealing with the increase in oil prices and the attendant transfer problem we highly recommend the first three articles in the January issue of Foreign Affairs, “How Can the World Afford OPEC OIL?,” “A World Depression?” and “Restructuring the World Economy.” The first is by an international group of financial scholar-officials, including the chairman of Iran’s Development Industrial Bank. On the political side we also recommend George Ball’s article, “The Looming War in the Middle East and How to Avoid It” in the January Atlantic Monthly.

  3. 3

    In its early “bulldog” edition The New York Times, Sunday, January 12, published a dispatch from Flora Lewis in Paris on the disquiet created there by the French TV show and then dropped the story from its “Late City” or main edition.

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