Authors: Andrew J. Bacevich
Tags: #General, #Military, #World, #Middle Eastern, #United States, #Middle East, #History, #Political Science
As a damage control device, the buck-stops-here position that Carter staked out may have been politically expedient. Yet while making a show of accepting responsibility, the president was deflecting attention from questions of far larger importance. Here was obfuscation dressed up as accountability.
Granted, as commander in chief, Carter had signed off on the hostage rescue attempt. Yet when it came to planning and execution, the president had played no direct role. Virtually without exception, the myriad errors in design and execution that doomed the parlous mission fell under the purview of the armed forces. Military professionals had presided over a military failure.
The president’s own errors were of a higher order and occurred in the realm of basic policy. To be fair, his predecessors going back to World War II had done him no favors. Across the Greater Middle East, a vast swath of territory stretching from North and West Africa to Central and South Asia, they had forged ill-advised relationships and made foolhardy commitments while misconstruing actual U.S. interests—even while treating the region as a strategic afterthought.
During Jimmy Carter’s watch, this ramshackle structure had begun to collapse. First came the Iranian Revolution, then hard on its heels the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In response, prompted largely by domestic concerns, this least bellicose of recent U.S. presidents formally added to the list of places for which the United States would fight the oil-rich regions forming the core of the Islamic world. However unwittingly, Carter thereby inaugurated America’s War for the Greater Middle East, compounding rather than reversing the errors he had inherited. With no end in sight and little prospect of achieving success, that war continues to the present day.
As the action that initiated that war, Operation Eagle Claw proved an apt harbinger. Here was a portent of things to come: campaigns launched with high hopes but inexplicably going awry. In retrospect, we might see the events at Desert One as a warning from the gods or from God: Do not delude yourself. Do not indulge in fantasies of American arms somehow resolving the contradictions besetting U.S. policy in the Greater Middle East.
At the time, Americans were blind to any such warnings. Or perhaps out of laziness or irresponsibility, they chose not to heed them. We’ve lived with the consequences ever since.
From the outset, America’s War for the Greater Middle East was a war to preserve the American way of life, rooted in a specific understanding of freedom and requiring an abundance of cheap energy. In that sense, just as the American Revolution was about independence and the Civil War was about slavery, oil has always defined the raison d’être of the War for the Greater Middle East. Over time, other considerations intruded and complicated the war’s conduct, but oil as a prerequisite of freedom was from day one an abiding consideration.
As a young man I required no instruction in that relationship, whose sweetness I had tasted at first hand. In June 1969, a newly commissioned shavetail fresh out of West Point, I was home on leave courting the girl who was to become my wife. She lived on Chicago’s South Side. My mother lived in northwest Indiana.
Every evening I drove my brand-new Mustang Mach I—candy-apple red with black piping—into Chicago to see my beloved and then in the early morning hours returned home. Before each trip, I stopped at a service station to top off. Ten gallons at 29.9 cents per gallon usually sufficed. The three bucks weren’t trivial—a second lieutenant’s pay came to $343 per month before taxes (more importantly, before the monthly car payment)—but the expense took a backseat to romance. I do not recall wondering where the gas came from—Texas? California?—nor about how much more there was. Like most Americans, I took it for granted that the supply was inexhaustible. All I knew for sure was that with four years of West Point behind me and Vietnam just ahead, life behind the wheel of a pony car in the summer of 1969 was pretty good.
It is easy to disparage this version of freedom, as postwar social critics from C. Wright Mills and David Riesman to William Whyte and Vance Packard had already done and others would do. For the ostensibly alienated and apathetic citizens of postwar America, trapped in a soul-deadening “new universe of management and manipulation,” as Mills put it, freedom had become little more than “synthetic excitement.”
Maybe so. Yet whatever the merit of that critique, it never made much of a dent in the average American’s aspirations. The American way of life may have been shallow and materialistic, its foundation a bland conformity. But even for people of modest means, the exercise of American-style freedom did not lack for pleasures and satisfactions.
As with the smell of a new car, those pleasures tended to be transitory. But an unspoken premise underlying that way of life was that there was more still to come, Americans preferring to measure freedom quantitatively. More implied bigger and better. Yet few of those driving (or coveting) the latest made-in-Detroit gas-guzzler appreciated just how precarious such expectations might be.
As I sped off to Chicago each evening, with radio and AC blasting, the gasoline in my tank was increasingly likely to come from somewhere other than a stateside oilfield. In 1969, imports already accounted for 20 percent of the 15 million barrels that Americans consumed daily. The very next year U.S. domestic oil production peaked at nearly 12 million barrels per day, thereafter beginning a decline that continued through the remainder of the century and appeared irreversible. The proportion of oil coming from abroad increased accordingly. Within a decade, imports of foreign oil had reached 8 million barrels per day.
By 1973, even I was obliged to take notice. That fall, in retaliation for the U.S. supporting Israel in the October War, Arabs suspended oil exports to the United States and the West. The impact of the embargo was immediate and severe. The resulting oil shortage all but paralyzed the U.S. economy and produced widespread alarm among Americans suddenly deprived of the mobility that they now considered their birthright. Oil had become a weapon, wielded by foreigners intent on harming Americans. Here, it seemed, coming out of nowhere, was a direct existential threat to the United States.
With the crisis inducing another eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger announced that U.S. forces were on alert, pending their possible deployment to the Middle East. At the time, I was a captain, stationed at Fort Bliss, Texas, alongside El Paso and just across from Mexico. The regiment in which I served had war plans to deploy to West Germany to participate in NATO’s defense of Western Europe. If required, we probably could have occupied Juarez. But we had no plans to fight in the Persian Gulf, whether to thwart a threatened Soviet intervention there or to seize Arab oil fields.
The very notion seemed preposterous. At the time it was. Not for long, however.
Fortunately, no such deployment occurred, the immediate emergency passed, and oil imports from the Persian Gulf eventually resumed. Yet the availability and price of gasoline had now become and thereafter remained a matter of national concern. Even as Americans were learning to live with nuclear weapons—the prospect of a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union now appearing more theoretical than real—they were also learning that they could not live without oil. Ever so subtly, the hierarchy of national security priorities was beginning to shift.
As an immediate response to the crisis, the Nixon administration hastily cobbled together a plan that promised, in the president’s words, “to insure that by the end of this decade, Americans will not have to rely on any source of energy beyond our own.” Project Independence, Nixon called it. The immediate emphasis was on conservation. Details of what the government intended beyond urging Americans to save were vague, Nixon simply vowing that “we will once again have plentiful supplies of energy,” with the energy crisis “resolved not only for our time but for all time.”
This did not occur, of course, but Nixon’s vision persisted. The nation’s political agenda now incorporated the goal of energy independence as one of those “must-do” items that somehow never get done, like simplifying the tax code or reducing cost overruns on Pentagon weapons programs.
The idea persisted because it had broad popular appeal. Yet in some quarters, the larger policy implications of pursuing energy independence did not sit well. The very effort implied retrenchment or giving in. This was not the way the world was supposed to work in the latter half of the twentieth century. Rather than the United States accommodating others—in this case, the newly empowered Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), with its largely Arab membership—others were expected to accommodate the United States.
As an outgrowth of this dissatisfaction, the notion that American military muscle might provide a suitable corrective began to insinuate itself into the policy debate. Writing in the January 1975 issue of
for example, the noted political scientist Robert W. Tucker bemoaned Washington’s apparent unwillingness even to consider the possibility of armed intervention in the Arab world. “If the present situation goes on unaltered,” Tucker warned, “a disaster resembling the 1930s” beckoned. To “insist that before using force one must exhaust all other remedies, when the exhaustion of all other remedies is little more than the functional equivalent of accepting chaos” was therefore the height of folly. When it came to something as important as oil, the putative lessons of the recently concluded Vietnam War simply didn’t apply. Tucker wanted policymakers to get serious about the possibility of using force in the Middle East.
Two months later, in
the pseudonymous but apparently well-connected Miles Ignotus went a step further, outlining in detail a plan to seize Saudi oil fields outright. Four divisions plus an air force contingent, with Israel generously pitching in to help, would do the trick, he argued. Echoing Tucker, Ignotus categorized spineless American leaders alongside “the craven men of Munich.” Allowing OPEC to dictate the price of oil amounted to “a futile policy of appeasement” and would inevitably lead to further disasters.
In contrast, forceful military action promised an easy and nearly risk-free solution.
Ignotus was actually Edward Luttwak, well-known national security gadfly and Pentagon consultant. In positing a U.S. attack on Saudi oil fields, he was pursuing an agenda that looked far beyond mere energy security. Luttwak was part of group seeking to “revolutionize warfare.” Saudi Arabia, he and his like-minded colleagues believed, offered the prospect of demonstrating the feasibility of using “fast, light forces to penetrate the enemy’s vital centers,” thereby providing a shortcut to victory. This was an early version of what twenty years later became known as the Revolution in Military Affairs. The invasion of Iraq in 2003, Luttwak would later claim, signified “the accomplishment of that revolution.”
Along with a strikingly strident tone, a strong sense of entitlement pervaded both essays. That Americans might submit to “the political blackmail of the kings and dictators of Araby,” Ignotus wrote, in order to ensure access to “a product [Arabs] had neither made nor found” represented an affront. Sure, the vast petroleum reserves were located on “their” territory. But for Tucker and Ignotus, that fact qualified as incidental at best. Middle East oil properly belonged to those who had discovered, developed, and actually needed it. By all rights, therefore, it was “ours,” a perspective that resonated with many ordinary Americans. All that was required to affirm those rights was the vigorous use of U.S. military power.