In January, 1975, the neo-conservative publication Commentary carried an article proposing invasion of Saudi Arabia as a solution to the eternal Arab problem and to our own economic problems. A flurry of similar articles followed that proposed occupying oil fields on the peninsula from Kuwait to Dubai, pumping them dry, and in 50 years or so returning the properties to their original owners.
I was ambassador in Jidda at the time, and I was appalled by the cynicism and the immorality of the suggestion. It was also ignorant, impractical and dangerous. If any party attempted to invade Saudi Arabia, the government would immediately sabotage the oil fields; if the invasion were successful, it would take two years to restore production levels, in which time the world economy would be prostrate. Only the Soviet Union might benefit.
I suggested that anyone who would take this proposition seriously was a madman, a criminal or a Soviet agent. Henry Kissinger, then secretary of state, had another view, and my career in the Foreign Service did not extend much beyond that point.
Later, President Carter stated that Saudi Arabia was of “vital interest” to the United States and that “an attack on Saudi Arabia would be considered an attack on the United States,” which remains the U.S. position.
Nevertheless, there are those in the Bush Administration who will point out that conditions are more propitious now than in 1975 for at least a de facto military occupation of the Saudi oil fields. An invasion would not be necessary.
I am not the only knowledgeable observer who is convinced that Saddam Hussein did not intend to attack Saudi Arabia early last month; that would have been irrational, and Hussein is not irrational. Yet Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney convinced King Fahd that such an attack was imminent, to the extent that he dropped the Saudis’ long-standing resistance to any military intimacy with the United States. I suspect that he did not envision 100,000 U.S. troops, perhaps double that number, on his territory for an indefinite period of time.
The American protective umbrella has since been extended to the United Arab Emirates.
If Saddam Hussein is not overthrown, he will remain a potential threat to Saudi Arabia and a certain threat to the House of Saud if the Americans were to withdraw. So, it is conceivable that U.S. troops might be welcome to stay indefinitely. Whether that would enjoy the favor of the army and the people of Saudi Arabia is another matter.
Those in and out of the U.S. government--including Kissinger--who were serious about taking over the oil fields in 1975 surely will argue that we should not let these extraordinary resources go now that they are in our control.
The scenario can be advanced further. The United States, which has already persuaded the Saudis to increase production by 2 million barrels a day, could order or persuade them to increase production much further. With the current Saudi reserves of 280 billion barrels, and perhaps another 70 billion in Abu Dhabi, the Saudi/Emirates production could be raised to 20 million barrels a day within three or four years through a crash development program. We could then write off permanently--or at least for a generation--Iraq, Kuwait and for good measure Iran.
The oil price could be kept low, ensuring the support of the world’s consumers--an argument used in 1975. Or the price could be set somewhat higher, say, $20 per barrel, far less than it is today and only one-third (in constant dollars) of the peak price it reached in 1980. Cost of production would be no more than $2 per barrel. The United States could take a management fee of $10 per barrel, leaving the Saudi government a generous $8 per barrel. At 20 million barrels a day, our $10 management fee could reduce the federal deficit by $70 billion a year after payment of the occupation costs. Only the Spanish conquest of the New World was so richly rewarded.
Today’s unanimous world support for current moves against Iraq would collapse under such circumstances. The Soviet Union and Britain, both exporters of crude, would be out-priced. The rest of the Arab world would fall into the enemy camp. But the United States, confident of its military presence, could afford to ignore the wishes of other oil-producing Arabs. It might even use some of the Saudi income to subsidize a friendly Egypt and perhaps Tunisia and Morocco.
A more imaginative plan would be the internationalization of all Arab oil, thereby rectifying one of God’s inexplicable errors in placing such a valuable resource in such an unworthy place.
If this is our plan--and it appears to be--it is as foolish as it was 15 years ago. It is absurd to believe that the Saudi Arabian population and the army would remain docile; and it is beyond belief to suggest that, otherwise, they be exterminated or expelled, as was proposed in 1975. Anti-Semitism (Arab branch) may be acceptable in the United States today, but I doubt that the American people would have the stomach to conduct a racial, genocidal war--even in the interest of such enormous gain.
It would be useful if President Bush told us whether he has excluded the possibility of ending the Kuwait occupation through diplomatic means, and if so, why. If he is preparing to starve or invade Iraq, this should be debated and the American public should know that it will face a rocky road.
If the President is planning a long occupation of Saudi Arabia, he will never admit it; it will just happen. It seems to be happening already.