Should We Spill Blood Over Oil?

"Defending our economic interests in the Middle East" has become a cornerstone of US foreign policy. A hard look at the facts indicates a new strategy.


Shortly after assuming the presidency, Ronald Reagan criticized Jimmy Carter's pledge to defend the Persian Gulf as "clumsy and ill-advised" because the United States lacked the men and matériel to uphold the pledge. Though little has changed militarily in the intervening months, President Reagan, in his October 1, 1981, press conference, virtually reiterated the Carter pledge. "There's no way," he said, "that we could stand by" and allow the Persian Gulf to be taken over by anyone who would "shut off that oil." He should have stuck to his guns.

If it wants war, the administration is on the right course; if it wants oil, it's on the wrong course. To ensure a steady supply, the solution to uncertainty about the Middle East is to stockpile. If there were on hand in the United States a 12-month supply of oil, Americans would have time to adjust and compensate in the event of a cutoff.

In spite of his reversal on the advisability of defending the Persian Gulf, the president has not emulated the neglect of his predecessors in filling the government's strategic petroleum reserve. When Mr. Reagan came into office there were only 110 million barrels of oil in the reserve; by early October 1981, 200 million barrels were there—more than an 80 percent increase in just nine months. Still, 200 million barrels cover our imports for only about five weeks.

The administration suffers further from the mismanagement of its predecessors; the government's present storage capacity is only 250 million barrels. Storage is currently being built for another 290 million barrels, and plans for another 210 million are on the drawing boards. For a year's replacement of imports, however, we need over two billion barrels stockpiled, whether in government or private reserves.

Americans can insulate themselves against interruptions in the supply of oil by stockpiling a sufficiently large quantity—one year's or, better still, two years' worth of present imports. Such a stockpile can bestow a more important benefit, also: preventing the United States from rashly going to war in the Persian Gulf.

The United States is separated from the Gulf by 7,000 miles; the Soviet Union, by a few hundred. To exert control, the Kremlin does not even have to invade. Its bombers, based in its own territory near the Soviet border with Iran, are within range of the Gulf. One bomber need drop only one bomb. No matter where it lands, it can't miss; the oil tankers would refuse to enter the Gulf. On the odd chance that one venturesome tanker captain was willing to run the gauntlet, Lloyd's of London would see to it that the resultant increase in insurance would be prohibitive.

In defending the sale of AWACS planes to Saudi Arabia, the State Department wrote a new scenario: Libya, Ethiopia, and South Yemen, three Soviet surrogates who recently signed an entente, attack the Saudis. In theory, the Saudi army will not have to fight single-handedly: the first shots will trigger an immediate response from our rapid deployment force (RDF).

In all the fanfare surrounding the creation of the RDF, a crucial fact has become buried: we have neither the airlift nor the sealift capacity to project a credible force to the Gulf, and it would take many years and billions of dollars to develop one. Even if we had the troops and matériel, ferrying them to the Gulf would be a logistical nightmare. For less money and in less time, we can stockpile oil.

During the Vietnam War, we were reminded of the warnings uttered by senior military commanders at the close of the Korean War against American involvement in another land war in Asia. What was true for Southeast Asia is equally true for Southwest Asia. If the Reagan administration, following in the steps of its predecessors, chooses to ignore the warnings, it will be repeating what is perhaps the fundamental defect of American foreign policy since the Korean War: committing the United States to a strategy that pits American soldiers against Soviet surrogates on a battlefield thousands of miles from American shores, while the men in the Kremlin sit back and smile. Given the choice between American lives and oil from the Persian Gulf—the source of less than 8 percent of the total energy consumed in the United States—most Americans would choose to forgo the oil. After all, we can take the bus.

This is something the United States must come to realize by itself without any assistance from its allies. Since the Gulf supplies approximately 50 percent of Western Europe's imported oil (as opposed to less than 25 percent of our imported oil), we can hardly expect the allies to be as cautious as they have been regarding, say, El Salvador. In fact, the allies so desire the United States to play the superpower role in the Gulf that the truly extraordinary has happened: the allies have made faint sounds about shouldering a little more of the burden in Europe for the high-minded purpose of freeing American forces for the Gulf. The words, however, have not been followed by actions. Granted that Western Europe and, even more, Japan needs Gulf oil, they too can stockpile. If they want the oil and if they believe an RDF is required, nothing prevents Japan and Western Europe from creating their own RDF.

Wars and preparation for wars are two kinds: wars for survival and wars for economic benefit or prosperity. In preparing for or waging a war for survival, money cost becomes immaterial. In preparing for and waging a war to gain or hold prosperity—apart from the question of ethics—the money cost is all-important. Obtaining oil from the Persian Gulf is not for our survival; it is for our prosperity. The cost of preparing would exceed the benefits; the cost of waging such a war, not to mention the expense of maintaining and supplying troops to hold the oil, would sink us economically.

On the question of price, a bit of sabre-rattling is to be expected. Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger huffed and puffed, but nobody quailed. Jimmy Carter, the man of peace, threatened nuclear war by "the Carter Doctrine." Still, Ronald Reagan exudes confidence, and perhaps when thinking of the potency of its oil weapon, the Saudi royal family should bear in mind this reminder from Machiavelli: "Money, alone, so far from being a means of defense will only render the prince more likely to being plundered.…The sinews of war are not gold, but good soldiers; for gold alone will not procure good soldiers, but good soldiers will always procure gold."

That judicious warning is salutory for OPEC in weighing the question of the price of its black gold, but it does not change for us the fact that ensuring our prosperity via the RDF does not warrant its cost. The even greater danger is that the momentum of our rhetoric may impel us into war.

We don't own the oil. Lying perilously close beneath the surface of the discussion is the assumption that if we need the oil badly enough we ought to take it by force. Apart from its immorality, such a doctrine falls of its own economic weight. According to one administration estimate, war in the Persian Gulf would cost a trillion dollars, not to mention the bloodshed and the danger of nuclear war. Such a war would so split the country—and it should—that the home front during the Vietnam War would seem a paradise.

If our "economic realists" insist that, in accordance with real politik, we should be international thieves, why not steal closer to home? Mexico, Canada, and Venezuela have lots of oil. If we choose to fight a war against those countries for their oil, we could more easily bring home our dead.

Far better to take the bus.

Laurence W. Beilenson is the author of The Treaty Trap, Power Through Subversion, and Survival and Peace in the Nuclear Age (recently published by Regnery/Gateway). Kevin Lynch is the articles editor of National Review.