June’s Journal of American History is a special issue on “Oil in American History” featuring nearly two dozen essays on the theme, all of which are currently available full-text online. Below, we’ve posted a short excerpt from Toby Craig Jones’s contribution to the issue, an article entitled “America, Oil, and War in the Middle East.” Jones, whose Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia we published in 2010, is at work on a book about America’s oil wars.
Capturing oil and oil fields and establishing direct or imperial control over oil has not been part of the United States’ strategic logic for war. But protecting oil, oil producers, and the flow of oil has been. This is a critical distinction. The period between 1990 and the end of the long war in Iraq marks only the latest stage of American militarism in the Gulf. If oil and American oil policy—rather than the behavior of Saddam Hussein, the politics of the war on terrorism, or a handful of other political factors—are kept in focus, then one can argue that this period constitutes not a series of wars, but a single long war, one in which pursuing regional security and protecting oil and American-friendly oil producers has been the principal strategic rationale. That the permanent shadow of war has settled over the Persian Gulf in the last three decades is largely the direct outcome of the ways that oil has been tied to American national security and the ways that American policy makers linked security to militarization.
It might be tempting to argue that the escalating involvement of the United States and its history of militarism and military engagement in the Gulf region have provided a kind of security for the region. After all, oil has continued to flow, the network of oil producers has remained the same, and thus the primary interests of the United States in the region have been served. But three decades of war belie this argument. War is not tantamount to security, stability, or peace. Even in the periods between wars in the region the violence carried out by regimes against their own subjects makes clear that peace is not always peaceful. The cost has been high for the United States and especially for people who live in the Middle East. In thirty years of war, hundreds of thousands have died excruciating and violent deaths. Poverty, environmental disaster, torture, and wretched living conditions haunt the lives of many in Iraq, Iran, and elsewhere in the region. Of course, the burden of death and destruction does not fall entirely on the United States and its policy of militarization. The politics of war have primarily served the interests of regional leaders who have, often from a position of weakness, exported violence to deflect internal challenges to their authority. And international political rivalry, particularly during the Cold War, drew in the other global powers, most notably the Soviet Union, which also helped facilitate insecurity and disorder in the Middle East.
The region’s autocrats have also remained in power. As citizens began to challenge ruling regimes in early 2011 in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Oman—three of the closest allies of the United States in the region—it became clear that those governments are all too willing to turn the weapons of war, purchased mostly from the United States, on their subjects. It is also clear that those regimes are hardly stable and that they are and will remain perennially vulnerable to domestic and regional shocks, which poses a real dilemma for U.S. policy. In addition to factoring in the human toll of wars and the moral dilemmas they raise, Americans trying to determine the true price of oil in the United States must take into account the financial cost of maintaining a massive military presence in the Gulf region. Roger Stern estimates that between 1976 and 2007 the total cost of maintaining the U.S. military in the Persian Gulf was about $7 trillion, and that figure does not include the costs of the 2003 Iraq War.
The increasing willingness of the United States to use force and violence to shore up the flow of oil to global markets has not been a sign of American strength but rather of its limits. Popular political discourse in the United States often posits Americans and their government as unwitting victims of an unhealthy and unsustainable addiction or as dupes of duplicitous oil producers. It would certainly be wise to break this addiction to oil, but to do so requires coming to terms with the history of that addiction and the multiple costs it entails. But it is hardly clear that any such reconsideration is happening. Instead, the United States appears set to continue along a familiar path. Having crafted a set of relationships with oil and unstable oil producers and having linked the fate of those relationships to American national security virtually ensures that while the United States is wrapping up the most recent oil war, its military and political strategists are already preparing for the next one.