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?
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?
Middleton wrote that “Allied officers feared the effect on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization of a unilateral American action.” He even quoted General Johannes Steinhoff, the retired West German Air Force officer who was chairman of NATO’s military committee from 1971 to 1974, as saying that “the alliance reaction” to Kissinger’s statement “had been an exasperated, ‘For God’s sake!’ ”
Middleton reported that other officers “pointed out that European attitudes might change under stress.” Then, as Admiral John P. Weinel, the US representative on NATO’s military committee, told a symposium at the Armed Forces Staff College recently, “If the economic strain became too great, ‘it would be a new ball game.’ ” Were the landing operations militarily and the French TV show psychologically a preparation for it?
Middleton’s interviews indicated a consensus among the US military that Libya would offer a more feasible candidate for seizure than Saudi Arabia. “A combined air-sea strike could be launched against Libya with greater hope of surprise,” they seemed to agree, “than one directed deep into the Persian Gulf area.”
Middleton said that the military men considered “the seizure of selected Middle East oil fields militarily feasible but politically disastrous.” But the political concern was limited to two areas—the NATO countries, who might change their minds under stress, and the US. “There may come a time,” one general said, obviously with regret, “when we should move for our national interest and the memory of Vietnam will stop us.”
Tucker tries to allay this fear. He says we could seize control of 40 percent of OPEC production and 50 percent of OPEC reserves by occupying a “mostly shallow coastal strip less than 400 miles in length” from Kuwait down along Saudi Arabia to Qatar. “Since it has no substantial centers of population,” Tucker argues, “and is without trees, its effective control does not bear even remote comparison with the experience of Vietnam.”
This notion that guerrilla fighters depend on tree cover is about as shallow as you can get. The very name guerrilla originated in the successful struggle against Napoleon by scattered irregular bands in the arid mountainous country of northern Spain. Those who think that Arabia is a poor place for guerrillas and a good one for an occupying force should read the brilliant account in the fourteenth edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica of the Arab guerrilla operations against the Turks in 1916-1918. It is signed “T.E. La.,” i.e., T.E. Lawrence, who helped to lead that successful Arab revolt.
Tucker writes as if Saudi Arabia not only lacked trees but people and weapons. The latter are in ever-growing supply thanks to the US.4 The population is ample and trained enough for a fierce desert guerrilla campaign. The idea that you can slice away a coastal strip of a country’s territory, containing most of its wealth, and just sit there, happily enjoying the fruits of occupation and shipping out the oil spurting from its wells, belongs in an anthology of military-political delusions.
Linked with the military problem is a wide range of political problems, and it is these which none of Middleton’s generals or admirals seems to have noticed. The first is that imperialism has been most easily practiced since the days of the Macedonians and the Romans when there were civil conflicts in which the imperial power could intervene to help one side or the other. The CIA covert operations and our military incursions since World War II have been in this pattern. In Latin America, as in Indochina, we have had the help of contending factions in class war. In Iran when the CIA did the dirty work of the oil companies and overthrew Mossadeq, it could fall back on the Shah. But if you overthrow the Shah—or King Feisal of Saudi Arabia or the oil sheiks of the Persian Gulf emirates—you have nowhere else to go. There is no basis for any support in the populations of any oil state, rich or poor, for an American invasion. There is no Thieu or Chiang Kai-shek in OPEC. There is no oil-exporting nation from “Third World” Nigeria to Communist China to our “good neighbor” in Venezuela which is not out to get every last dollar it can for that ever more precious commodity, oil.
Militarily and politically, an invasion of any Arab oil state could be the beginning of a conflict that would spread like a wildfire. Tucker writes as if the job could be done with surgical neatness simply by seizing the oil wells in a 400-mile strip along the Persian Gulf. Saudi Arabia’s capital, Riyadh, lies some 200 miles from the coast. Do we seize it, or leave it as a center of resistance? What about a new capital further inland, or across the Peninsula in Mecca or Medina? How subdue the country without destroying its government and occupying the whole of it? This desert area is bigger than a dozen South Vietnams combined. And how do you protect American lives and property in the rest of the Arab world?
Tucker says, “It would be hard to find a group of states with a weaker collective military capability” than the Saudis and the adjacent Persian Gulf states. But it would be folly not to think of the shock waves the invasion would set up elsewhere. Would Iran feel safe? Or Libya? Would Venezuela?
What of the Soviet Union? Even Tucker recognizes “the distinct possibility that the Russians would move forces into Iraq” lest its leading Arab oil satellite also be occupied. The appearance of Russian troops in Iraq—he says—“would necessitate establishing a substantial American military presence in Kuwait as one of the first moves in intervening.”
What if the Russians misread this as an offensive “signal” and not a defensive move, and escalated the stakes? No more need be said to suggest the dangers of an American invasion in an area so close to the Soviet Union. A comparable event geographically would be a Russian invasion of Venezuela or seizure of the oil refineries in the Dutch West Indies.
New encouragement was given these dangerous speculations by Secretary of Defense Schlesinger at a press conference January 14 when he called a Persian Gulf military operation “feasible.” A Wall Street Journal dispatch the next day summed up what seems to be the rather woozy Pentagon reasoning behind these orchestrated hints. “An element of calculated irrationality,” it reported, “is useful for keeping other nations off balance.” The price however may be to unbalance ourselves. In the State of the Union Message Ford asked Congress to lift recent restrictions on military and foreign policy. Does he mean the War Powers Act and those recent statutes designed to keep us from sliding back into war over Vietnam and Cambodia? The administration’s penchant for “calculated irrationality” emphasizes the need for maintaining these tight reins.
There are a number of crucial non-military questions with which Tucker does not deal. How do we supply Western Europe and Japan with oil while we repair the blown-up Arabian wells, try to repel guerrilla attacks, and somehow placate the anger in the other oil-producing states? Can this be done quickly enough to prevent the gravest kind of social disorder and economic breakdown in the two areas we are presumed to be defending—Japan and Western Europe, the two other main areas of world capitalism? The US public would have to pull in its belt far more tightly than anyone has yet suggested to meet Western European and Japanese needs—and these might last a long, long time.
And while we are thus supposedly trying to save ourselves and our allies from high oil prices, what will be the cost of all these military measures? Vietnam has cost well over $100 billion and the end still is not in sight. This new episode in militarism might easily cost several times as much as the new price of oil.
If you look closely, the government is not—not—talking about a reduction in the price of oil anyway, not now, and not in the future. The so-called “Project Independence,” which so far is only Nixon-era public relations, depends on a permanently higher level of prices for oil and all other forms of energy. Nixon’s program was based on the ten dollars a barrel newly fixed by OPEC. Ford’s is three dollars higher. His new program, by decontrolling domestic oil prices, and imposing the new oil import duty, would almost double the domestic price of crude. This will be a bonanza for practically all US producers of energy since prices of other fuels will rise with oil.
So long as the problem is attacked in terms of conventional capitalist economics—so-called “market forces” in a market controlled by what is in effect a domestic energy cartel—then the only way to attract new capital into developing new forms of energy (all of them more expensive than petroleum has been or even now is) must be to assure the investor a permanently higher price for energy. Ford even goes so far as to propose in his State of the Union Message that price “floors” be enacted to protect energy producers from any decline in energy prices! Hence Exxon’s hearty endorsement of the Ford program (The New York Times, January 16, p. 65) for recognizing “the importance of relying on market forces.” In the lexicon of the oil companies “market forces” always seem to mean higher prices.
If the US seized the oil wells of Arabia and the Persian Gulf emirates, it would in effect only be joining OPEC, saving ARAMCO and the other US companies in the Gulf states from nationalization, but it would have to leave the new price structure virtually intact. Otherwise there would be no way to attract capital to the development of the alternative energy sources required for growing energy needs much less for “independence.” For Western Europe and Japan the formidable transfer problem would remain—only the transfer of wealth would be to the US and the oil companies.
The sharp rise in oil prices shifted the world balance of power in favor of the US. The quadrupled price was a blow to the European Common Market and Japan, our two main capitalist competitors. The growth of both was beginning to threaten US dominance. The rise in oil prices hurts them more than us because we are far less dependent on foreign sources of supply. From this point of view the sudden action by OPEC served US imperial and US oil company strategy—the oil companies indeed have never been so profitable. The new Ford program aims to keep it that way.
The Ford program is geared for maximum profitability to the Western energy cartel. A socially planned program would conserve gasoline by rationing, to protect the many people who must have gasoline to go to work because public transportation is inadequate and sometimes nonexistent. Many workers may have to economize on food before they can economize on gasoline. Gas and fuel prices are highly inelastic and to depend on higher oil prices for conservation is to invite a further rip-off by the oil companies at the expense of the hard-pressed worker. It is good to see that the new Democratic program calls instead for conservation via rationing and allocations.
The Ford program is inequitable. The new oil excise and import taxes add up to $30 billion—and the impact on the consumer will be far greater than that. The energy cartel and the middlemen will take their cut on the increased costs of fuel, transportation, electricity, and every product dependent on energy, including food.
All energy prices will go up with oil. The effect will be a sharp rise in the already inflated cost of living. The cruellest blow hits the most vulnerable. Those on social security are entitled by law to a 9 percent increase this year to keep pace with inflation. Ford would cut this meager relief to 5 percent. To counterbalance the new inflationary upsurge Ford offers the inadequate remedy of a $12 billion tax rebate of 12 percent, but no more than $1,000 per taxpayer. The maximum means a gift of $1,000 each to the 1,500,000 taxpayers in the over $40,000-a-year bracket. That should help the sale of Cadillacs.
Even the poor who pay no income taxes will suffer as consumers for the $30-billion rise in oil taxes, while the well-to-do will get a $1,000 tax bonus. Abroad OPEC and the Western energy cartel, mostly US multinationals, may be encouraged to raise world oil prices another three dollars a barrel to keep pace with the three dollars a barrel rise in oil prices within the US market. The “ripple” effects may hit the poorer countries, still staggering from OPEC’s quadrupled price, like a second tidal wave.
The new Ford program is neither fiscally conservative nor is it populistic. It is auto industry and oil company economics. The Democratic program is better because it reflects concern for the less privileged sectors of the economy. But its turgid campaign-style prose also reflects little readiness to cope with the more fundamental problems raised by higher energy costs.
A painful and basic problem is how to end the dominant role of the automotive industry and its satellite highway lobby. In the long run even free mass transit, with revived use of the railroads, would prove far less costly in energy, raw materials, and pollution than the private automobile era. This may be the minimum adjustment that the new high energy price level requires. It calls for a shift of priorities from middle-class wastefulness to public needs, and that would spell a better life for the poor. We need a revival of socialist thinking and perspectives for economic planning. An era of scarcity will no longer permit the waste on which capitalism has fattened.
The difficulties ahead are great enough without nonsense about a solution through war, a hate-Arab campaign, or a Jewish hysteria about Israel so irrational that it strengthens the hard-liners there and invites anti-Semitism here. The immediate need is for a settlement in the Middle East which will guarantee Israel’s survival side by side with a Palestinian Arab state.
Those who cannot forget the holocaust are filled with anguish, as I am, lest we live to see another in Israel. But to rely on another Mideast war or threats of war to prevent it would be to invite what we fear. The lesson of the holocaust is not to be learned in the war colleges but in our prophets. The lesson of the holocaust is that to treat other human beings as less than human can lead to the furnaces. The way to honor the dead is to see the Palestinian Arab as a displaced brother, not as an expendable. The language of Hobbes is no less repellent when we hear it in Hebrew from Jerusalem; the logic of Hobbes is not for small nations, nor for minorities, and especially not for those of us who are Jews. Isaiah says Zion shall be redeemed by justice. Some modicum, at least, of justice for our Palestinian Arab brothers is now the keystone of world stability and Israel’s survival.
February 6, 1975
A New Isolationism—Threat or Promise? by Robert W. Tucker (Universe Books: New York, 1972). ↩
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. ↩
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. ↩
Tucker himself in a footnote acknowledged that the “impotence” of the Arab oil states was temporary because during 1973-1974 Western arms sales to the Persian Gulf states were reported in excess of $3 billion and included such sophisticated equipment as the F-14 fighter, the harpoon anti-ship missile, and a variety of SAM systems. He added that while “it will be at least a year before these weapons enter Arab inventories in sizable numbers, their eventual availability will undercut the current US dominance both in quality and in quantity.” Our arms salesmen seem to have hit the Arabian beaches first. ↩