Persian Gulf Myths

Courtesy Reuters


Policy toward the Persian Gulf, one of the more successful facets of U.S. foreign policy over the last decade, is headed for rougher times in the next. "Dual containment," the strategic heart of U.S. policies toward Iran and Iraq, is unraveling. Alliance support in Western Europe is slipping, internal differences in the Gulf Cooperation Council are growing, the potential for instability in Saudi Arabia has become dramatically evident, and a faltering Middle East peace process puts new pressure on Gulf regimes. America's Gulf policy contains time-honored myths, holdovers from the Cold War, and many formulations that have become cloudy or rigid with use. Those basic principles require reexamination. Moreover, the continuing risk of terrorism against the large U.S. military presence in the region highlights the looming challenges to regional strategy.


Gulf policy is founded on the principle that access to the region's oil is critical to Western -- indeed, global -- prosperity. The Gulf's many small oil-producing states are largely incapable of defending themselves against larger players in the region. Since the collapse of the Soviet empire, however, serious military threats to oil access in the Gulf have diminished drastically. Even the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88 with its assaults on oil platforms, pipelines, terminals, and tankers did not seriously affect the oil market or Western economies. No military power today has the capability to deny the West access to oil, although perceptions of Western vulnerability remain widespread. No anti-American dictator in the Middle East -- not Saddam Hussein, the Ayatollah Khomeini, or Muammar al-Qaddafi -- has attempted to hinder oil sales to the West. What actual task, then, does "maintaining" the flow of oil entail?

Even if a cutoff of oil is only a remote possibility, the West has been concerned that no cartel or group of oil-producing states be able to exert monopolistic control over oil prices. American support for Saudi Arabia, whose oil

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