Oil: The Issue of American Intervention (1975)

In Jan 1975, Commentary Magazine argued that the US should threaten to invade the Persian Gulf if they did not:

  1. agree to price oil exclusively in dollars, thereby generating demand for dollars
  2. save oil profits in US Treasury bills, thereby financing the US debt
  3. buy American weapons, including surplus Vietnam war equipment, and future US weapons, thereby financing the military industrial complex


There remains the argument that military intervention in the Persian Gulf would on moral grounds alone not be countenanced by domestic public opinion. Nor is it only the public that would presumably find in the act a manifestation of complete moral bankruptcy. One has the distinct impression that the foreign-policy elite shares this view and that in the certitude with which the public’s supposed reaction is diagnosed there is something close to a wish-fulfilling prophecy. It is a curious reaction coming from those who once found no great difficulty, moral or otherwise, in supporting the intervention in Vietnam or who, in finally abandoning their support for intervention, did so not on moral grounds, but because they concluded Vietnam could not have a successful outcome or that, whatever the outcome, the costs had become disproportionate to the interests at stake. Perhaps their present reaction to the prospect of armed intervention in the Persian Gulf is not so curious, though, given this record. It is not surprising that, having lacked a sense of balance, moral and otherwise, in that most painful experience, they should lack a sense of balance today, and that we should find the law of compensation—or rather of overcompensation—at work.

At issue here is not whether there is some clear moral or legal basis for justifying armed intervention in the Persian Gulf, but whether public opinion would be morally outraged by the action. Though it is not uncommon to find them confused, these are two quite different questions. There is no need for positive moral approval, let alone moral fervor, by the public so long as it consents to the need for the action. There may even be considerable gain in the absence of that element which has so often attended policy in the past. The difficulty, of course, is that the public has been long habituated to support the use of force only in cases which have been made to appear as necessary for the containment of Communism, in turn equated with the nation’s security. Could the public be induced, in the shadow of Vietnam, to support a military intervention that bore no apparent or tangible relation to the containment of Communism, itself a factor of diminishing importance in determining the public’s disposition? No one can say. Put in the abstract, the question itself may be rather meaningless. It would take on meaning only after a concerted effort had been made to persuade the public that the alternatives to intervention were laden with dangers to the nation’s well-being. Even then it remains an open question whether an administration could obtain public support, or tolerance, for intervention in the absence of events at home that, once plainly visible, would require little further effort in persuasion. In this instance, the choice might well be between a public that would oppose intervention so long as the interests at stake were not clear, and could not readily be made clear, and a public that would support intervention only when these interests had unfortunately become only too clear.

The point is worth emphasis that we simply do not know what might bring the public to support intervention in the Persian Gulf. If the public viewed such intervention as another Vietnam, they would most assuredly oppose it. But if intervention were to promise success at relatively modest cost, opinion might well move in the direction of support, and particularly if unemployment were to rise to 8 or 9 per cent. Moreover, in this instance, by contrast to Vietnam, the existence of an all-volunteer military force would preclude the painful issues once raised by the draft. Nor is it at all clear that the Left would take the same position toward intervention in the present case as it did toward Vietnam. For the effects of the current oil price on many poor countries do not endear the major oil producers to much of the Left. The relative ease with which Vietnam could be depicted as an attempt to preserve American domination over the developing states, a domination alleged to serve only American interests, would be difficult to repeat today, and this despite the inadequately perceived effects of the oil crisis.