When drone and missile attacks bombarded two Saudi Arabian oil facilities recently, the response from the Trump administration was fast and furious. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asserted that Tehran was behind the “unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply.” According to the administration, the attack was nothing less than an affront to the global economy and international law and order — and Iran would be held accountable.
Such a bellicose, locked-and-loaded approach to protecting oil interests is a relic of the past, one unlikely to lead to peace and stability. While the United States in the 20th century made global oil central to its security and power, recent decades should shake loose the notion that citing oil insecurity as a rationale for war is a wise choice.
One reason this idea endures is that anxiety about the stability of “global oil” has pervaded U.S. political culture since the middle of the 20th century. One great lesson of World War II was that “in war or peace, the United States has only one oil barrel,” as Interior Secretary Harold Ickes told Congress in 1945. Oil had been central to fighting the war, and by 1945 it had also transformed global transportation. A new system of fields, pipelines, tankers, refineries, fueling stations and bases emerged under U.S. control, ready to fuel the nation’s postwar security and economic prosperity. The new U.S. refinery and pipeline network laid end-to-end would reach “from New York to Yokohama via the sea route through Suez and Singapore,” Ralph Davies, an oil executive turned government official, told a Senate committee in 1945.
Ensuring an inexpensive and stable supply of global oil, largely from the Persian Gulf, became crucial to U.S. authority in the Cold War. From European reconstruction to the emergence of Asian allies as laboratories of capitalist success, oil from the Middle East was a necessary element of the American world-building project. At home, the celebration of energy-intensive abundance fanned out into all aspects of U.S. culture, from muscle cars to electric appliances to manicured suburbs. The prodigious use of oil was “the identifying feature of modern civilization,” said a 1968 pamphlet from the Interior Department.