U.S. Interest in Middle East Oil: A Century of Expert Fabulism
- Roger SternFaculty FellowSchool of Energy Economics, Policy & Commerce, University of Tulsa
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
- peak oil arguments seem to be proven scientific theories, and are warranted as such by experts
- peak oil is a modern cognate of the Biblical Apocalypse narrative, which has likewise survived numerous failures of anticipated catastrophes to materialize,
- 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
- for foreign policy analysts, threat exaggeration is a more successful career advancement strategy than moderation
About the speaker
Dr. Roger Stern is an Assistant Professor of Energy Economics, Policy and Commerce at the University of Tulsa, Collins College of Business. Dr. Stern’s recent research mainly concerns the intersection of U.S. energy policy, foreign policy, and national security and economic history. He focuses in the study of mineral scarcity. He has presented seminars to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations; US Department of State; Council on Foreign Relations Nuclear Security Roundtable; Canadian Security Intelligence Service; King Abdullah Petroleum Science and Research Center and several universities op-ed essays have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The International Herald Tribune and The National (Abu Dhabi). Following a career in land conservation and environmental policy, Professor Stern pursued his PhD. Before joining the University of Tulsa, he held a Post-doctoral fellowship at Princeton University’s Oil, Energy & the Middle East Program.
Dr. Stern earned a Ph.D. in Geography and Environmental Engineering from Johns Hopkins University, a M.S. from the University of Vermont, and a B.A. from Antioch College.