Protecting Oil Means Protecting Balance of Power : Mideast: The United States has regarded the Middle East as a region of strategic interest since World War II. Why should it change now?

Daniel Yergin is the author of "The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power," which this is partly based on.

Great historical events don't happen for one single reason. That applies to the Gulf crisis, despite all the efforts to sum up the rationale in a sentence. It is about the post-Cold War order, about aggression and sovereignty, about chemical and nuclear weapons.

It is also about oil, though not in the way many thought. It is not about cheap oil, but about Persian Gulf oil as a critical element in the global balance of power.

George Bush was hardly the first President to think in these terms. In fact, he was building on a policy dating back to Franklin D. Roosevelt: No single hostile nation should dominate Gulf oil reserves.

Yet such domination was exactly what Saddam Hussein had in mind. The prize was enticing: to control 20% of world oil reserves directly and dominate the region that holds 65% of world reserves. He would have used that pre-eminence, along with the money accompanying it, to further build his military power.

But he miscalculated. By invading Kuwait, he put himself on a collision course with policies and interests going back to another war--World War II. Indeed, the starting point to the undoing of the Aug. 2 invasion may well have been 1943.

That was the year Interior Secretary Harold L. Ickes, Roosevelt's oil czar, sent Everett Lee DeGolyer, the eminent oil geologist, on a secret mission to size up the oil potential of the Middle East. Since Pearl Harbor, oil resources had become vital to Washington.

The geologist was extraordinarily excited by what he saw. At that time, the United States was the world's largest oil producer. But DeGolyer realized America's days as leading producer were numbered. No longer would Texas and the Gulf of Mexico dominate world oil. Instead it would be another Gulf--the Persian Gulf. One member of DeGolyer's team declared, "The oil in this region is the single greatest prize in all history."

Washington promoted development of Saudi Arabian and, to a lesser degree, Kuwaiti oil resources, to help lessen the call on U.S. oil reserves. This meant, in turn, seeking to ensure that the oil resoures remained accessible.

When the Cold War began, Americans grew increasingly concerned about Soviet encroachment into the region. For oil was needed to fuel the Marshall Plan--and, from June, 1950, to meet the military requirements of the Korean War.

Saudi Arabia had become a significant focus for U.S. policy-makers. In October, 1950, President Harry S. Truman wrote a letter to Saudi King Ibn Saud that revealed how U.S. and Saudi national interests had become intertwined: "The United States is interested in the preservation of the independence and territorial integrity of Saudi Arabia. No threat to your kingdom could occur which would not be a matter of immediate concern to the United States." That guarantee would resonate in 1990.

In 1956, security of Middle Eastern oil proved central to the split among the United States and Britain and France over the nationalization of the Suez Canal by Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser. Britain was convinced a Nasserite victory would be the first step in the destruction of its Middle East oil position, thus undermining its overall economy. But President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles thought the British and French, in attacking with Israel to regain the canal, would so inflame passions in the Arab world that they would end up losing access to the oil.

The Eisenhower Administration applied economic pressure on the British and French to abort their military campaign. But the real winner was Nasser. Throughout the Middle East, he was hailed for his great victory--a triumph of Arab nationalism over the old colonial powers. Among the many millions so convinced was the 19-year-old Hussein.

In March, 1957, Eisenhower met with Britain's Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to heal the trans-Atlantic breach over Suez. There was a striking focus on Kuwait, then a larger oil producer than Saudi Arabia. The British emphasized the importance of maintaining the security of Kuwait and other Gulf states vulnerable to Nasserite coups. Eisenhower agreed.

The security of Kuwait was soon tested by Iraq. In 1961, three years after a violent and savage revolution toppled Iraq's Hashemite rulers, Kuwait became independent of Britain. Iraq not only asserted sovereignty over Kuwait, but even massed troops on the border. It backed off only after Britain dispatched a small military squadron to help defend Kuwait. That episode showed how British power underpinned the Gulf's security.

However, Britain, its balance of payments under chronic pressure, decided the costs of maintaining a military presence East of Suez were too great. It packed up and left in 1971. The Gulf countries were dismayed. "Who asked them to leave?" said the ruler of Dubai.

That departure meant there was no longer any functioning security system for the Persian Gulf--at a time when its oil was becoming ever more critical to the entire world. Washington's response to the security dilemma became known as the Nixon Doctrine--supporting regional powers as policemen. And no one seemed better prepared to assume such a role than the shah of Iran.

Iran became the "Big Pillar" of security in the Gulf, while Saudi Arabia, much smaller in population and power, was the "Little Pillar." But then, in the late 1970s, the "unthinkable' happened--the "Big Pillar" toppled with the collapse of the shah's regime. It was replaced by that of the Ayatollah Khomeini, hostile to the West and particularly the United States. All that was left was the "Little Pillar"--hardly sufficient to protect Gulf security.

Then, in December, 1979, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. They seemed intent on an age-old goal--driving toward the Gulf. President Jimmy Carter responded in January, 1980: "An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force."

The Carter Doctrine made explicit what U.S. Presidents had been saying as far back as Truman's pledge in 1950. It also implied that domination by a hostile force from inside the region would also be resisted. The likely force then was Iran.

In the next years, the region was dominated by one reality--the Iran-Iraq War, started by Hussein in September, 1980 on the mistaken assumption that Iran would crumble. In April, 1986, Vice President Bush visited Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region. His main purpose was to underline the U.S. commitment to security of the nervous Arab states. But one could hardly be expected to go to Saudi Arabia and not discuss oil--especially when the price had just collapsed from $29 a barrel to less than $10.

Throughout his trip, Bush left no doubt that he thought oil prices had fallen too far. The collapse would cripple the U.S. domestic oil industry. Some may have thought his remarks were intended as a placebo for the U.S. oil patch. But what the Saudis heard the vice president saying was that the price collapse threatened U.S. security.

The Bush mission, on top of the other concerns, provided reason for the Saudis to look for a way out of the battle for market share that had sent prices into a tailspin. In August, 1990, they would be grateful they had been responsive to U.S. security needs.

There was widespread hope that greater stability would return to the Persian Gulf after the Iran-Iraq War ended in 1988. Hussein, mindful of how close he had come to defeat, also seemed changed--more pragmatic, less belligerent. Yet by the winter of 1990, there were definite signs the "new" Hussein was a ruse--or simply turning back into the "old" Hussein. By late spring, Iraq had assumed a new self-appointed role as OPEC's "enforcer"--intimidating other exporters, including Kuwait. Iraq succeeded in pushing oil prices up. Indeed, Hussein was getting his way to such an extent that one must ask why he bothered to take the gamble and invade Kuwait.

But invade he did. Once again, as with his invasion of Iran a decade earlier, he miscalculated. He also misread the United States--and history itself.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World