Seizing Arab Oil

Harper’s finally has a website worth speaking of—nothing to match The Atlantic’s just yet, but at least they’re putting some actual content up on the Web, and they have a good, elegant design. On their front page at the moment is an article from their archives: Seizing Arab Oil, by a guy writing under the pseudonym Miles Ignotus (Latin for ‘unknown soldier’). I read it with interest, never having heard of the article or the guy before—apologies if all of this is old news for people savvy to Cold War history and those who were politically aware in 1975, when it was first published.

Briefly, “Seizing Arab Oil” addresses the threat that OPEC posed to the world economy, especially after the oil embargo of 1973. After surveying the extent of the danger, the author discounts all possible responses other than direct military action, and then goes on to describe in considerable detail an operation to literally invade Saudi Arabia and take control of the Dharan oil fields. The remainder of the article addresses the geopolitical consequences of such an action and argues that if it was done with enough surprise, Russia wouldn’t be able to respond.

Wacky, wacky stuff. The whole while I thought that it sounded like something written by Henry Kissinger—it was well-articulated, sensible enough if you went along with some of its shakier premises, and displayed keen appreciation of global power politics without a single thought for loss of human life or other concerns of morality. But halfway through, Ignotus remarks disparagingly on Kissinger’s current solution for the OPEC problem.

Turns out, though, it was Kissinger who wrote it. Probably. All the info that follows is just a google search away; I’m sure there are historian bloggers out there who can flesh this all out, and I hope they do.

James Akins, then U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, criticized the article, saying in a television interview that whoever wrote it was “either a madman, a criminal, or an agent of the Soviet Union.” The basis for that last comment was the fact that Ignotus’ estimates for how long it would take to get the oil fields running again post-invasion were way off, and in the meantime (Akins argued) the European economy would certainly collapse, leaving it wide open to Russian aggression.

That’s not a critique that occurred to me while reading it; the most glaring weakness was the author’s blithe assumption that the rest of the world wouldn’t mind unbridled American aggression as long as it helped keep the price of oil down. (The world’s response to the Iraq invasion, which was not a surprise and even had a pretext, bears that out.) Also, Ignotus completly fails to consider the possible actions of the Arab populace, assuming them to be a passive mob safely under the thumb of the royal family who will adjust equally well to U.S. dominance. How’s that for naive? He also paints what is, in retrospect, a nonsensical view of the consequences if Saudi Arabia is not invaded:

For if we do not do it, [we’ll end up with] a somewhat impoverished America surrounded by a world turned in a slum. Almost everywhere, this would be an authoritarian slum, the product of utter hopelessness among the poor and mass unemployment among the former rich, all of us being forced to finance the executive jets of the sheiks and the fighter bombers of the dictators.

But back to Akins: he received a rude awakening when he discovered that it was Secretary of State Kissinger who had penned the article under the Ignotus pseudonym. This is the part I’d love to be able to confirm; it’s something that’s mentioned in a number of articles but nowhere absolutely definitive. At any rate, Akins was fired a month after he gave that interview.

According to some sources from the far left, “Seizing Arab Oil” is a foundational document of the neoconservative movement, and evidence that the Iraq War is something that’s been decades in the making. The most interesting and most-linked article on the subject is The Thirty-Year Itch, by Robert Dreyfuss, published in Mother Jones. All these articles, though, glide over the fact that “Seizing Arab Oil” argues that only by cutting into Saudi Arabia can OPEC be broken; in 1975, the author’s main concern about Iraq was that it would ally itself with the Soviets in response to America’s attack on its southern neighbor. (Oh, how times change . . .) The article is far too specific in both place and time to serve as a general blueprint for future Gulf aggression.

Anyway. It’s an interesting read, especially because a matter-of-fact policy argument that’s so brutally aggressive would never fly today. We’re left with the question of whether, in those smoke-filled back rooms, the architects of America’s current foreign policy look back on assessments like Ignotus’ with chagrin or with nostalgia.

One point on which “Seizing Arab Oil” is right and continues to be right even today: Saudi Arabia has us by the balls. There’s no solution to that problem that isn’t messy beyond measure.

UPDATE: Jim Henley offers another possible take on the article: it’s a bluff.

What if the article was the plan? That is, what if the point wasn’t to advocate seizing the Saudi oil fields, but to be seen to do so – to send a Kissingerian message about not pushing the US too far? If that were the case, you would want the Saudis to be able to figure out who the real author was, and you’d sacrifice Akins (who got fired about a month after the interview).

Jim’s theory is definitely supported by the excruciating logistical detail that dominates the middle part of the piece. Why get that specific unless you were trying to make a point? Of course, the plan requires the element of surprise, which is lost the minute the plan gets published. Then again, the fact that other versions of it appeared in several different publications again suggests that that may have been the point.

UPDATE: Then again, consider these links.