There was a revealing interlude in mid-September 2007, when the former Federal Reserve Chair, Alan Greenspan, was quoted in The Washington Post of Sept.17, 2007, as saying that "the removal of Saddam Hussein had been ‘essential’ to secure world oil supplies…." Greenspan’s statement, that "the prime motive for the war in Iraq was oil," apparently shocked the White House, leading an anonymous White House official to explain, "well, unfortunately, we can’t talk about oil." The former Federal Reserve Chair was already on record as conceding that he was ‘saddened that it was "politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil."
But oil was hardly the only subject that the Administration was loathe to discuss, save in coded language. There was the ever present conflict between Israel and the Palestinians in which the US had long been implicated, and there was the role of Israel in US Middle East policy that necessarily included oil. Ignoring these intertwined histories, their individual significance and their connection with US policy in the Middle East was and remains hazardous for those who want to know where it all began.
The subject may be taboo but it is not a mystery. Its roots, insofar as US policy is concerned, are an integral part of US corporate history and its indissoluble links with politics of the domestic and foreign kind. The US record of the critical postwar years, 1945-1949, attests to this and more. It is an invaluable resource for those aiming to learn Washington’s postwar objectives in the Middle East. It exposes the intimate relationship between corporate and strategic interests and it reveals the logic of policies that aimed at guaranteeing US access and control over the oil-producing heartland that led to an overall political surveillance and intervention, whether direct or indirect, in the entire region. Such a policy was not restricted to the immediate post-war years. It persisted, albeit with changes in accord with developments in the area, including those involving nationalization of oil, as in Iran and in Iraq, but the primal connection between the US and Saudi Arabia did not disappear. On the contrary, it shaped the ensuing political and social physiognomy of the Middle East.
In this light, the pronouncement of the ex-Federal Reserve Chair concerning an Iraqi oil connection hardly warranted comment, save in its embarrassment of those committed to keeping the American public in the dark. But that darkness was periodically dispelled, as in the following cases.
News of the US military preparing to "secure and protect Iraq’s oilfields" was readily accessible in early 2003. And revelations of then Vice-President Richard Cheney’s Energy Task Force (2001) that contained " a map of Iraqi oilfields, pipelines, refineries and terminals, as well as 2 charts detailing Iraqi oil and gas projects," as well as a list of "Foreign Suitors for Iraqi Oilfield Contracts" became public in July 2003. Admittedly, the revelations and their timing put the Administration in an awkward position, particularly as the official justification for war was Iraq’s alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction and its alleged link with al Qaeda. The former proved to be non-existent and the latter was without foundation. According to recent disclosures, this served to intensify extreme measures, including torture, to establish a link between Iraq and al Qaeda, despite contrary evidence.
Regrets aside, Greenspan’s transgression is worth considering. It both confirmed the motive for the latest US invasion of Iraq, thus undermining the Administration’s deceptive claims. In so doing Greenspan violated the political rules of the game. Not only had he exposed the Administration’s veritable motives for going to war in Iraq, but he had revealed its duplicity and, inadvertently, its necessary deception. It was, after all, unthinkable that this or any other Administration would openly justify war against a sovereign state, however unsavory, to assure control of oil. The prospect was unlikely to find national — let alone international support — for an act that was flagrantly in violation of international law. The scale of global anti-war demonstrations attested to such concerns, even if the immediate response in the US was far more muted, suggesting the limits of popular knowledge about US policies in Iraq and the Middle East.
But the role of oil in US Middle East policy was not limited to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Earlier US policy toward Iraq was examined in Congressional investigations of the sale of weapons to the infamous Saddam Hussein that forms an indispensable background to the policy that led to the first Gulf War in 1991 and the second, that is the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Those interested will discover that Washington courted Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988. Iraq was then the recipient of multiple favors designed to assure an Iraqi victory over the newly formed Iranian revolutionary government that came to power in 1979 following the fall of the Shah, who had been a favored US ally. In that situation as well, oil had been an inextricable part of US policy, where in 1953, the US and Britain overthrew the democratically elected Iranian leader, Mohammed Mossadegh, in response to his nationalization of Iranian oil.
The problem that Greenspan’s indiscretion exposed, after all, extends far beyond the former Federal Reserve Chair’s remarks. If the role of oil in US policy is taboo, then discussing US policy in the Middle East is similarly off limits save in terms that have little to do with history or politics and none with US policy. I refer to the familiar language according to which the troubles of the US in the Middle East are a product of the glaring confrontation between incompatible cultures and civilizations, theirs perpetually unstable, given to fratricidal conflict and deep rooted hostility bordering on pathology directed against the West.
The caricature is resilient. It figures in official depictions of the region and is actively reproduced in the media and in parts of academia that increasingly favor talking about culture and religion instead of history and politics, let alone international political economy with its built in struggles over class and power, colonialism and its legacy. The result contributes to historical amnesia and the deliberate indifference to the public record of US policy.
To those who ask, how did we get here, why the preoccupation with the Middle East, why the perpetual conflict that seems to define as much as it defies all efforts at mediation, the answers necessarily lie in what came before. Not a generic past, to be sure, but post-World War II US policy in which the so-called Near and Middle East was recognized as critical to US hegemony in the postwar international order.
In this context the years between 1945-1949 proved particularly revealing. To the extent that the newly created Defense Department, CIA, Policy Planning Staff, and National Security Agency, concerned themselves with matters of security, their focus necessarily included the Near and Middle East and the latter’s seemingly infinite sources of oil which proved profitable for the major oil companies and allied US policy. The combination was crucial to the Marshall Plan and the re-industrialization of Europe and Japan, as well as the development of the far flung system of US military bases, including that in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.
The preoccupation with petroleum, in sum, was no aberration. To have considered it a taboo subject in Washington in this period would have been laughable. Its importance was a sign of the altered international environment of postwar Europe and Japan in which the role of the US and the US oil giants of ‘big oil,’ the oil cartel, would be critical to a US directed economic recovery. The Truman Doctrine confirmed Washington’s objectives in the Near and Middle East in the same year in the expansion of the giant US oil company known under the acronym, ARAMCO, was finalized. It was Aramco that was the conduit for the Middle East oil that served US interests, including in Europe where it is estimated to have accounted for more than fifty percent of Europe’s oil, while blocking the construction of local refineries and thereby enhancing its control and profits.
The impact of such developments in the Middle East coincided with another that was to have a profound impact on Middle East, namely, the emergence of the State of Israel in May 1948. Officials in Washington from the Departments of State and Defense and the CIA, had been apprehensive, if not opposed to the prospect of partition and statehood viewing these as inimical to US interests – including oil. But in the aftermath of 1948, US officials reconsidered the potential value of Israel in the context of US strategic interests in the Middle East.
The volatile mandate of Palestine had long been viewed as chronically unstable and therefore as a magnet for Soviet penetration. But there were differences among Washington’s officials on the subject of Zionism and Palestine, and Truman himself was known to be sympathetic to the plight of Europe’s Jewish refugees and close to friends and advisers supportive of the creation of a Jewish state. As an explanation for the turn in US policy that followed on recognition of the Provisional Government of Israel in May 1948, it is not enough to consider Truman’s sentiments. Much as the importance of executive action and decision making cannot be denied, there were other critical ingredients that have been overlooked that contributed to reshaping Washington’s assessment of Israel.
Admittedly, the connection between oil politics and developments in Palestine seems otherwise difficult to fathom, so different and distant were the worlds to which each related. The seemingly obvious incompatibilities between them appeared to render them impossible to reconcile. What did the world of the strategic experts calculating America’s postwar goals, calculating the availability of essential resources and the means of controlling them for future military purposes, have to do with those assigned to assess the political toll and accompanying risks of postwar Europe and Japan?
For petroleum- preoccupied planners, for the talented oil magnates seduced by the promise of profit, for the organizers of the corporate-military industrial complex, the long term consequences of their policies in Saudi Arabia were distant and frankly, a matter of indifference. What counted was the knowledge that they would remain. What was of immediate importance was arranging for steel to build pipelines to transport oil to market, a journey across borders and differing political and social landscapes that sooner or later succumbed to the invasion of modernity, or so it was advertised. What mattered for US oil companies, the de facto agents of US power in the region, was assuring conditions of maximal security to guarantee the perpetuity of contracts and concessions. As to the future petro princes who had not yet grasped the fullness of the prize they held, the promised benefits were impressive. In the Saudi heartland, budgets were secured, toy armies were trained, the royals were courted and the royalties grew, however little by comparison with company profits.
At the same time that Washington praised self-determination and claimed to distance itself from the imperial politics of its allies, it supported a policy of exploitation- by-invitation secured by concessions whose profits transformed the desert Kingdom and with it, the social and political contours of the Middle East. Some fifty years later, the exiled Saudi writer, Abd al-Rahman Munif would describe the effects of "a trilogy: oil, political Islam, and dictatorship," observing that the "increase in oil and wealth coincided with an increase in reaction and dictatorship which spread throughout the region, mainly due to the inability of other political forces to stand up to the challenges."
Meanwhile, in the aftermath of the Second World War, US officials pondered the future of Europe and its radicalization, supporting military rule in Greece and warming to Turkey’s military, at the same time they became increasingly worried over developments in Palestine. In 1945 President Truman sent a delegation to assess conditions in Europe’s Displaced Persons camps, and urged the admission of 100,000 refugees to Palestine. In 1946 the US promoted Anglo-American deliberations over what to do in Palestine. Then came the arguments in favor of and against partition, with the array of US policy elites openly cautious to critical about such an option. US officials serving in the Middle East attested to the intensity of conflict and its evident risk before, during and after the critical days of May 1948 when the British Mandate came to an end and the state of Israel was declared.
US officials witnessed the historic developments and the transformation of Palestine. Those assigned to Palestine as consular officials learned about the land, its occupants, its contestants, their histories and claims. Their reports, duly filed in Washington, were unexpected and alarming. Here was evidence of atrocities, of expulsions, of popular flight and escalating misery along with violations of the UN Partition resolution that increased territory in Jewish hands. Jordan was also to be the beneficiary of such territorial deals, as British historians later revealed. But in the interim, the alarming reports sent to Washington attested to the worsening condition of Palestinian refugees whose numbers were estimated at over 700,000. The record of what Washington knew of the origins of the refugee problem has little in common with what has long passed as the story of this neglected and distorted history.
Truman, the very same President toasted by supporters of Israel as the compassionate head of state whose support sidelined the contrary views of his own formal advisers, was aware of such developments and urged the new state to compensate for its violation of the borders imposed by the UN Partition Resolution and to accept at least some repatriation of Palestinians whom it was responsible for expelling. The newly established government of Israel, in turn, responded by disclaiming responsibility for the refugee problem in much the same manner that it would continue to repeat through the coming decades, even after Israeli historians disclosed contrary evidence present in Israel’s own civilian and military archives.
But the impact of 1948 on US officials had other repercussions. The very same government departments that had been known to oppose partition and to fear statehood as inimical to US oil interests in the Middle East, reconsidered. Impressed by what they regarded as Israel’s political discipline and military capacity, which they contrasted with the lack of preparation and inferior military performance of its Arab neighbors, US officials concluded that the new state offered possibilities they had not previously considered.
Fundamental to such reconsideration was, as the Acting US Representative to the United Nations, Philip Jessup, explained in July 1948:
"From the strategic viewpoint we assume that Palestine, together with the neighboring countries is a major factor[. P]resumably in any future major conflict this region would be of vital importance to US as a potential base area and with respect to our lines of communication. Presumably also the oil resources of the area are considered vital. It is our feeling that this last point may not perhaps have been dealt with adequately and frankly enough in official and public discussion of the Palestine question."
The same official continued with a no less blunt appraisal. "With respect to oil, we recognize that the oil supply from the area is of great importance in the European recovery program. Were it not for this factor, however, and the strategic importance of oil, we should probably not allow the economic importance of this commodity to condition our judgment substantially with regard to Palestine." Such considerations appear to have conditioned other judgments, notably on the importance of the Palestinian refugee problem which, while consistently recalled as critical, was nonetheless subordinated to the newly recast relationship between Washington and Tel Aviv.
Here, then, is the connection between US oil policy and Palestine/Israel, the intertwined foundations of postwar US policy in the Middle East whose toxic expression, some fifty years later, haunts its subjects and citizens.
In 1949, the US military concluded that Israel’s harbor at Haifa, where a major oil refinery that previously carried oil from Iraq was located, and its military bases could be useful in US Middle East policy. It was the same year in which the US-dominated petroleum cartel controlled more than 92 percent of global oil, thereby making a mockery of those who had claimed that support of Zionism and Israel would undermine US oil interests. Those in charge knew better, but then that is another story, one that contributes significantly to understanding the evolution of US policy towards Israel and Palestine.
The July 1948 remark by the Acting US representative at the UN Philip Jessup about what has not "been dealt with adequately and frankly enough in official and public discussion of the Palestine question," namely, its connection with US oil and strategic interests in the Middle East, remains valid in 2009. Were inconvenient political truths responsible? Greenspan in 2007 spoke to the acknowledgement of what, he claimed, everyone knew on the subject of oil and Iraq.
On reflection, what is at issue is not recovering inconvenient political truths, but covering them in the first place with the knowledge that an informed public risks questioning policies and resisting deception. Examining the record of the foundation of US policy in the Middle East is a critical step in the process.
1. Times Online, September 16, 2007.
2. "US begins secret talks to secure Iraq’s oilfields," Guardian, January 23, 2003.
3. Media Advisory. Cheney Energy Task Force Documents Feature Map of Iraqi Oil Fields, Judicial Watch, July 17, 2003.
4. See Noam Chomsky, "The Torture Memos," forthcoming in Z; and Jonathan S.Landay, "Cheney Said Gitmo Detainees Revealed Iraq-Al Qaida Link," McClatchy Newspapers, May 15,2009.
5. Iskandar Habash, Unpublished Munif Interview: "Crisis in the Arab World-Oil, Political Islam, and Dictatorship."
6. The Acting United States Representative at the United Nations (Jessup) to the Secretary of State, July 1, 1948, in U.S. Dept. of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1948, vol. V, part 2, p. 1181.
Irene Gendzier is Professor in the Department of Political Science, Boston University. She is the author of Notes From the Minefield: United States Intervention in Lebanon and the Middle East, 1945-1958 (Columbia University Press, 1997, 2006), co-editor with Richard Falk and Robert J. Lifton, Crimes of War: Iraq (Nation Books, 2006) to which she contributed the essay, "Democracy, Deception, and the Arms Trade: The U.S., Iraq, and Weapons of Mass Destruction"; she is also the author of "The Risk of Knowing," in Edward J. Carvalho, ed., Works and Days, special issue on Academic Freedom, vols. 26-27, 2008-9. She is currently completing a study of the foundations of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East in the period, 1945-1949, entitled Dying to Forget.