The Role of Oil in Post-Cold War US Foreign Policy

Deb Mak, Dickson College, 2009

Yet when we look at all three of these seemingly intractable challenges at the same time, we can see the common thread running through them, deeply ironic in its simplicity: Our dangerous over reliance on carbon-based fuels is at the core of all three of these challenges – The economic, environmental and national security crisis. We’re borrowing money from China to buy oil from the Persian Gulf to burn it in ways that destroy the planet. Every bit of that’s got to change.
Former Vice-President, Al Gore, July 2008.
The increasing reliance on oil in the United States (US) in recent decades has impacted heavily on the course of its warfare and security. The US is by far the largest international consumer and importer of oil, creating a dangerous need for cheap oil in order to retain a healthy economy. The need for cheap oil has influenced decisions to attempt to gain control over oil reserves in the Middle East by means of invasion. The results of the invasions have culminated in reduction in oil productions from the invaded regions, negatively affecting their societies, creating unrest towards the United States and causing a rise in oil prices. The relevance of oil is now vital as its biggest consumer panics as international oil reserves are running out.

Oil appears to provide motivation for military decisions of the United States in the Middle East. The first and second Gulf Wars, in 1991 and 2003 respectively, have been influenced in cause and execution by the price, availability and need for oil. However, defending Kuwait from Iraq in the First Gulf War may not have been the only motivation behind the US intervention in the Gulf. World oil exports from the Middle East were originally controlled by the British, the Dutch and the US. The Organization for Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) was formed in 1960 because the supply of cheap oil to highly oil-dependant countries like the US resulted in a loss of an economically vital and valuable asset for the Middle East. The formation of OPEC resulted in higher oil prices, and for the US, a problem in economy. The shock of higher oil prices caused an economic recession second to only the Great Depression. If Saddam Hussein had gained control over oil supplies in Kuwait, prices would have once more skyrocketed, causing massive damages to the US economy:

…We didn't want him [Saddam Hussein] to have control over the oil, and that part of the world is critical to us because of our dependency on foreign oil, and it's more important than any other part of the world.[1]

The loss of affordable oil would therefore have had devastating effects on the US, and so Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait had to be stopped by means of military intervention. Therefore, the US’s reliance on oil was a motivation for the military intervention which freed Kuwait from Iraq.

The second Gulf War was also related to the US’s need and Iraq’s abundance in oil. The oil-for-food program designed by the UN to reduce poverty after the first Gulf War was believed by the US to have funded the manufacturing of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) by Iraq. Although the US stated that the invasion of Iraq was due to a search for WMD, their reliance on oil would suggest this war there also may have been sparked by the US’s interest in Iraq’s vast oil reserves:

I base that on the fact that there is $5 trillion worth of oil above and in the ground in Iraq, that the individuals involved in the administration have been involved in the oil industry, that the oil industry certainly would benefit from having the administration control Iraq, and that the fact is that, since no other case has been made to go to war against Iraq, for the nation to go to war against Iraq, represents the strongest incentive.[2]

As suspicion arose surrounding the development of WMD in Iraq, the US saw another chance to attain affordable energy security by gaining control over Iraqi oil. It was believed that the invasion of Iraq and, eventually, US control over Iraqi oil supplies, would result in cheaper oil:

The greatest thing to come out of this for the world economy...would be $20 a barrel for oil. That's bigger than any tax cut in any country… Once it [Iraq] is behind us, the whole world will benefit from cheaper oil which will be a bigger stimulus than anything else.[3]

Thus, the US’s reliance on oil became a reason for the second invasion of Iraq in hopes that they would attain affordable fuel.

The US’s response to its thirst for oil has resulted in a greater threat to their national security. According to Stephen J. Randall, the author of [The US Foreign Oil Policy], the US’s search for affordable oil supplies in the Middle East has put the security of the nation at a higher risk.

[The] ongoing search for energy security has taken the United States into regions of the world where its national security interests would not otherwise have been at stake, even at the height of the cold war.[4]

During the first Gulf War, the US military established bases in Saudi Arabia, the most oil-rich country in the world. Originally, the US promised that its forces would be out of the area after the Gulf War was over. However, the military occupation did not leave after Iraq withdrew from Kuwait, and military forces were eventually stationed in Saudi Arabia for twelve years. This angered Saudi Arabians and Muslims, most notably, Osama bin Laden, leader and founder of the infamous terrorist group, Al-Qaeda. In 1998, bin Laden made it clear that the US forces in Saudi Arabia were unwelcome:

The Arabian peninsula has never been stormed by any forces like the crusader armies spreading in it like locusts, eating its riches and wiping out its plantations.[5]

The message was evidently received with agreement in Saudi Arabia, as fifteen of the nineteen hijackers involved in the September 11 terrorist attacks were from Saudi Arabian.[6] Because of Saudi Arabia’s vast oil reserves, estimated to contain 20% of the world’s oil[7] , the increase or decrease of production is likely to affect the international oil market. The US military presence in Saudi Arabia included the guarding of oil pipelines, implying that the bases established may not have been entirely related to military purposes:

…Iraq is hardly the only country where American troops are risking their lives on a daily basis to protect the flow of petroleum. In Saudi Arabia, U.S. personnel are also spending their days and nights protecting pipelines and refineries, or supervising the local forces assigned to this mission.[8]

The US’s attempt to control the world’s biggest oil supplier only resulted in higher anti-American attitudes in the Middle East and a national security crisis that backed the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

The US’s dependence on oil has proved to impact on not only on its own people, but also the international community. The actions of the US in search of energy security led to two invasions of Iraq within the past two decades. The establishment of bases in the oil-rich nation Saudi Arabia has induced negative attitudes to the US, eventually provoking the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on US soil. As the US dependence on oil remains unabated, it will continue to make military decisions based on its energy needs. These decisions could antagonise the oil-rich Muslim countries in the Middle East, which in turn, make it even more difficult for the US to obtain its oil supply. The relevance of oil in the US’s most recent historical acts has been high, and has contributed to the slow demoralisation of the US in the eyes of the rest of the world, as it loses power, respect and money in search of energy security.



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  1. ^ John McCain, US Presidential Candidate for the Republican Party, May 2008.
  2. ^ Dennis Kucinich, US Representative, 2002.
  3. ^ Rupert Murdoch, media tycoon, 2003.
  4. ^ S.J. Randall, Professor of History at the University of Calgary, 2007.
  5. ^ Osama bin Laden, 1998.
  6. ^ Montgomery, R., 2003.
  7. ^ Energy Information Administration, 2008.
  8. ^ Michael T. Klare, 2002