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American Assumptions in the Gulf

By David D. NewsomDavid D. Newsom, former undersecretary of state, is Marshall B. Coyne Research Professor of Diplomacy at Georgetown University. / August 24, 1990



FOUR assumptions have been at the base of United States policy in the Persian Gulf for many years. Today they underlie the US decision to send forces to defend Saudi Arabia. If Washington continues to proceed on the basis of these assumptions, American involvement in the intricate politics of the region is likely to last for a long time. The assumptions are: First, that only friendly regimes are likely to insure access for other nations to the region's oil on a reasonable basis;

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Second, (closely tied to the first) that ordinary market forces will not preserve access to oil;

Third, that continuing American commitment to defend friendly states can maintain the status quo; and

Fourth, that the industrial nations cannot substantially reduce their dependence on Middle East oil.

Each of these assumptions can be challenged.

History has not demonstrated that governments nominally friendly to the United States will preserve access to oil on reasonable terms. The shah of Iran, then a close ally of the US, led the huge increase in the price of oil in the early 1970s. Saudi Arabia, under Arab pressure after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, masterminded the embargo that created long lines at American gasoline pumps.

Successive US administrations have been unwilling to test another assumption: namely, that market forces may prevail over politics. The fear of the domination of the Gulf by inimical powers, whether it be the Soviet Union or extremist dictators, has conjured up visions of exorbitant prices and policy blackmail. Yet experience suggests that countries with oil must ultimately sell their product at the market price - whatever their political orientation.

History has also demonstrated the difficulties the United States has faced in preserving friendly regimes in the Middle East. In the last 35 years, three regimes in major oil producing states of the region - Iraq, Iran, and Libya - have been overthrown unexpectedly and replaced with regimes antagonistic to Washington. It is wishful thinking to assume that the traditional sheikdoms of the Gulf will remain forever free of the political currents that have shaken these other nations.

Finally, the United States, among all major industrial nations, has done the least to make itself independent of outside energy sources. Legitimate conflicts over environmental and nuclear power issues have been part of the problem. But beyond these, the insistence on maintaining a price of gasoline among the lowest in the world, the profligate use of energy generally, the backsliding from the post-1973 conservation measures, and the ideological block against government-industry cooperation add up to assure the very dependence that lies at the heart of today's crisis.

President Bush argues that the current deployments are a reaction to more than the threat to oil; they result from the naked Iraqi aggression against Kuwait, from the threat posed to the entire region by the Iraqi willingness to use missiles and chemical weapons, by the dangers posed to American citizens, and by US commitments to friendly Arab states. The president's justification is bolstered by the remarkable world-wide support for sanctions against Baghdad. It is difficult to argue that Mr. Bush does not have several solid bases for deploying US forces to the region.

At the same time, the central motivation - access to oil - cannot be denied. It is doubtful that so massive a buildup of American military power would be employed in the event of brutal aggression against a small state in another region of the world. The president made this clear when he spoke on August 15 of the ``threat to the American way of life.''

But that threat comes, in the long run, less from an Iraqi invasion of Kuwait than it does from the continuing vulnerability of the United States and other industrial countries because of their dependence on resources located in an unstable and unpredictable part of the world. However this present crisis ends, priority efforts should be undertaken in Washington, Europe, and Japan to examine current assumptions with the objective of eliminating this dangerous link between the economic health of the world and the volatility of Middle Eastern politics.