Viewpoint: Who Really Got Us into the Gulf?


As Congress and the public evaluate the American naval presence in the Persian Gulf, they should realize that it is the consequence of earlier U.S. decisions over several decades. Most obvious is the long-time U.S. support for the Shah's regime, which purchased huge quantities of American arms and pursued a program of state-run economic development that destabilized the private sector and drove merchants and peasants to traditional religious leaders for relief.

But there are more complex, less visible reasons as well: the global role the United States has carved out and its unwillingness as a great power to share responsibilities and resources with smaller nations, namely Japan and Saudi Arabia.

The immediate explanation for the American naval presence in the Persian Gulf is the protection of oil for U.S. allies. Or, more precisely, for Japan. Western Europe gets its oil from the North Sea, Algeria, Nigeria, and the Soviet Union. Japan, by contrast, receives two-thirds of its oil from the Persian Gulf.

Twenty years ago that figure exceeded 90 percent, but the Japanese expected to greatly reduce their dependence on Persian Gulf oil by buying Alaskan oil. Japan was already the major customer for the natural resources—minerals and coal, timber and pulp—of Alaska (as much as 80 percent) and British Columbia (as much as 50 percent). The Japanese hoped to buy billions of dollars of Alaskan oil as well.

But in the 1970s Congress and the Nixon administration enacted a series of harsh, anti-Japanese economic policies, culminating with a decision to prohibit the export of Alaskan oil. (The stated reason for the prohibition was to decrease U.S. dependence on foreign sources and stabilize world prices.)

Thus Congress laid the groundwork for an American military presence in the Indian Ocean. Japan's oil passes from the Persian Gulf through the Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean by way of narrow and shallow straits, such as Malacca, between Malaya and Indonesia. Although that route is navigationally dangerous, economically costly, and militarily unsound, Congress's Alaskan-oil policy forces Japan to follow it. And the U.S. military, which by U.S. policy has taken on the role of world policeman, must protect the route.

The current U.S. action in the Gulf is not the first post–World War II military intervention aimed at protecting Japan's interests. The 1950 intervention in Korea (Japan's client until 1945) not only protected a crucial Japanese market and neighbor but created the demand that fueled the take-off of much of Japanese industry.

And Japanese industry was the chief reason for U.S. intervention in Vietnam at the end of French rule. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, in his "falling dominoes" press conference of April 7, 1954, indicated the Japanese focus of American intervention in Vietnam: Communist success, he declared, "takes away, in its economic aspects, that region that Japan must have as a trading area or Japan, in turn, will have only one place in the world to go—that is, toward the Communist areas in order to live. So, the possible consequences of the loss are just incalculable to the free world."

A year later, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles justified massive U.S. aid to Vietnam as a way to protect Japan's trading sphere. (Perhaps the Republican Eisenhower administration could have found some other way to make reparations for earlier Democratic mistakes, particularly the Roosevelt administration's embargo of oil supplies to Japan, a policy that led to Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.)

U.S. policy has also undercut Saudi Arabian influence in the Gulf. In 1985, with the OPEC cartel in increasing disarray, the Saudis allowed market production to replace OPEC quotas. But when oil prices fell, Iran suffered a grave drop in income from oil exports. Totally dependent on that income, Iran was forced to reduce arms purchases, seriously hampering its ability to withstand Iraq's offensives.

At the end of 1986, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates offered a crucial conciliatory concession. Arab oil producers would reduce production, but Iran could produce without limitations. Iran's oil income and arms purchases therefore increased, permitting further offensives against Iraq.

When Iraq stepped up its attacks on Iran's oil facilities, Iran retaliated by attacking shipments of military supplies, which must come to Iraq through Kuwait. This would, in the natural course of things, be a matter for Saudi Arabia, as the regional power, to handle. But last spring Congress rejected a Defense Department plan to supply arms to Saudi Arabia. So the Saudis pressed the Reagan administration to "do something" for Kuwait. It did. And the U.S. military is in a real quagmire.

Congress is rightly questioning the administration's reflagging of Kuwaiti ships and naval intervention in the Gulf. But it should engage in some self-examination, too. For the limits Congress placed on Saudi arms sales and, earlier, on Alaskan oil exports have led to the current imbroglio.

Historian Leonard P. Liggio is president of the Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University.