THE facts are clear, and jarring. The United States imports more oil from Saudi Arabia today than it did before the Gulf war. This growing reliance on Saudi crude, even after 500,000 Americans had to risk their lives to protect the supply, limits the number of options the US has if that source is threatened again. Further, the need for Arab oil encourages weapons sales to the region, which are fueling a destabilizing arms race.
America's response to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait was seen by many to be an appropriate projection of US power. After the war, however, the Bush administration ignored the causal link between America's reliance on Saudi oil and the need to send troops to the Middle East. No effort was made to modify US policy.
Instead of finding other oil sources to reduce the risk to such a large portion of the US supply, the administration flooded the Middle East with weapons in the belief that if the Gulf states were threatened again they could prevent being overrun before American troops save the day - again. Unfortunately, this unwavering practice of supplying the region with arms to ensure oil shipments has had a profound negative affect on our ability to limit arms proliferation there.
In a speech given after the Gulf war, President Bush initiated a call to regulate these sales, saying "it would be tragic" if a new weapons build-up occurred in the Middle East. Talks among the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (the world's largest arms suppliers) to develop rules governing weapons sales to the region began in the summer of 1991.
In the ensuing months, rather than following the spirit of Bush's initiative, the US announced weapons sales to the region worth $35 billion. This undermined America's ability to take a leadership role in controlling conventional arms proliferation in the region. The other Security Council members (Britain, France, China, Russia) signified their lack of commitment to the talks by starting their own round of multi-billion-dollar arms sales. The desire to prevent a Middle East arms race is now in serious q uestion.
THE chance of getting any agreement in the near future is unlikely. Negotiations among the five countries broke down last fall after Bush announced a $7 billion sale of F-16 fighters to Taiwan. China balked at the sale, saying it violated a 10-year-old agreement to refrain from interfering in each other's internal affairs. China withdrew from the talks and has not returned. Since that time the US has sold $4.5 billion in tanks to Kuwait, Saudi Arabia purchased $6 billion in attack aircraft from Britain, and the United Arab Emirates spent $4 billion for French tanks.
In addition, US Department of Energy statistics show that Saudi Arabia accounts for 26 percent of America's foreign oil supply, up from 20 percent prior to the Gulf war. On March 18 the Washington Post reported that Saudi Arabia's policy of presenting itself as an indispensable partner of the US was strengthened due to this rise in US imports.
Former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski succinctly summed up the state of the US-Saudi relationship in a recent interview. "We need their oil," he said, "but they are almost totally dependent on us for their security." The problem with this policy is the degree to which the US relies on Saudi oil and the huge number of arms that are sold to allegedly protect the supply. The crushing American military response to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait indicates how far the US will go rather than change it s oil- import strategy.
If the US reduces the amount of oil it imports from Saudi Arabia, risk to the supply is diminished and less military hardware is needed. This could be accomplished in a number of ways. The US could import more from other, less volatile, sources such as Canada, Mexico, or Venezuela. Or, in a longer term solution, the US could help Russia develop its oil production facilities and buy from them. The Russians need the cash oil can provide and are exporting weapons of their own to get it.
If recent arms sales to the Middle East are any indication, it appears the US has no immediate plans to reduce its reliance on Saudi oil. And the Saudi's understand this. On a trip to Houston in February, Saudi oil minister Hisham Nazer described the importance of Arabia's oil supply to the US. "We have it, you need it," he said bluntly.
This situation presents President Clinton with a challenge. He needs to define America's energy requirements and implement a policy to lessen the need for Saudi oil. Without such a policy the likelihood of a new Gulf war remains.