Not in Oil's Name

DANGEROUS MYTHS

Since oil became vital to industrial societies, it has been the subject of mythmaking. This is not surprising since the control and pricing of energy is an emotionally charged issue that lends itself to conspiracy theories and distorted interpretations of past events. Conspiracy theorists are once again active, spurred on by the conflict in oil-rich Iraq. They see multinational oil corporations working with the U.S. government to dominate the supply, distribution, and cost of oil. To them, the ultimate goal lurking behind major international crises, such as Iraq, is access to oil. But the relationship between oil and politics is not so simple. Neither oil scarcity nor energy security -- the twin concepts that underpin much thinking about this issue even in some official circles -- is a sound starting point for thinking about oil policy. Getting beyond such notions, however, requires an examination of the myths and the realities of oil.

THE GOLDEN AGE

In World War II, oil played an important international role, proving essential to the conduct of mechanized warfare. That experience, coupled with the Soviet threat, prompted U.S. policymakers and their British and French counterparts to choose oil over coal to fuel the rapid reconstruction of Europe's industries and societies. But this daunting task and growing U.S. demand required fresh sources of oil. Whereas before the war the United States had been able to supply 90 percent of Europe's then modest oil needs, by 1948 the country had become for the first time a net importer of oil. Thus attention focused on the Middle East, which alone possessed the huge oil resources needed to serve as Europe's oil tanker and as America's supplier of last resort.

The region, however, was wrenched by Arab nationalism, anticolonialism, and the emerging Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the resulting political instability provided fertile ground for the expansion of Soviet influence. In response, the Truman administration devised a multistage strategy, whose rationale was eventually codified in National Security Council Resolution 138/1, to secure oil resources for the Western world. The initiative turned out to be a great success.

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