Kleinman Center Event

U.S. Interest in Middle East Oil: A Century of Expert Fabulism


Roger Stern
Faculty Fellow, School of Energy Economics, Policy & Commerce, University of Tulsa


Perry World House Conference Room
3803 Locust Walk
Philadelphia, PA 19104

Event Summary

Talk Abstract

The assumption that the United States has a national interest in Middle East oil has gone largely unquestioned by historians and political scientists. I assert that their assumption is wrong. The notion that US oil supply is or was ever so threatened as to require military protection is a confection, which I call “oil scarcity ideology.” Experts derived the ideology from a meaningless syllogism of secular apocalysm and economic fabulism. The apocalypse was impending peak oil. The economic fabulism was that other countries could and would try to interrupt US oil supply. The USSR, for example, was believed to be planning an invasion of the Middle East to offset its dwindling domestic production, and Middle East oil-producing countries were believed to possess an “oil weapon” with which they could punish the US by withholding supply. The conclusion of the syllogism was that the US must exert military force to protect Middle East supply. This sounded threatening, but since oil always proved abundant and was always obviously so based on market information, the syllogism was meaningless.

There is nothing exceptional in the development of foreign policy by experts, but there was something exceptional in oil scarcity ideology as a basis for policy. The ideology resisted modification when its assumptions were proved wrong, which was always. Despite falsification, there was no learning. Rather, the scarcity ideology policymaking dynamic operated with increasing success. The result was serial escalations in the aggressiveness of US policy towards the Persian Gulf; the US commitment to share of Ottoman oil as spoils of World War I; the 1953 coup against Iran; the Carter Doctrine of 1980; support for Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88; and the 1991 Gulf War. Peak oil anxiety was high in 2003, but was less important as a rationale for the Second Gulf War and occupation of Iraq. By then, decades of US policy based on scarcity ideology had helped destabilize the region, a condition that provided more compelling rationales for intervention.

I suggest that oil scarcity ideology persists because

  1. peak oil arguments seem to be proven scientific theories, and are warranted as such by experts
  2. peak oil is a modern cognate of the Biblical Apocalypse narrative, which has likewise survived numerous failures of anticipated catastrophes to materialize,
  3. the ostensible need for an aggressive policy to secure Middle East oil corresponds with social Darwinist beliefs at the core of IR theory, i.e. that conflict over scarce resources is inevitable, and
  4. for foreign policy analysts, threat exaggeration is a more successful career advancement strategy than moderation

Roger Stern

Assistant Professor, University of Tulsa
Roger Stern is an assistant professor of energy economics, policy, and commerce at the University of Tulsa, Collins College of Business. In 2016-2017 he was a visiting scholar at the Kleinman Center.