The War on Terror and Strategic Oil Supplies

United States involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan is part of a long-term strategy that began at the end of World War II. To fully understand current events it is first necessary to view the roots of the conflict in a broader geoscience and historic context rather than simply as part of the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.

As World War II drew to a close President Franklin Roosevelt recognized that the United States would play the major role in the West as a war-weakened and empire-weary United Kingdom, France and Germany abdicated positions they had held for nearly 150 years in the Middle East and elsewhere. Roosevelt appointed State Department economic advisor Herbert Feis to head a study on American strategic policy in a post-war world. Feis' study concluded that U.S. access to oil was the primary reason for victory over German and Japanese forces in World War II. Oil had powered the vast network of tanks, ships, aircraft and personnel carriers that gave allied forces the competitive edge over their adversaries who lacked sufficient access to petroleum. Germany and Japan had, quite simply, run out of enough oil to continue the war effectively.

It had been, ironically, access to petroleum that lead to Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor in December, 1941. By the late 1930's the Japanese Empire had largely accomplished its territorial objectives but wanted to take Indonesia for its oil and rubber, both critical parts of a military empire that ran on petroleum-powered ships, planes and land vehicles. Indonesia was a former Dutch colony and Japan's leaders worried that the United States' treaties with the Netherlands might bring the U.S. into a war against Japan if Indonesia was attacked. In an odd quirk of logic Japan decided to make a pre-emptive strike on U.S. forces at Pearl Harbor to prevent war with the United States.

Feis and his colleagues recognized that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia held the world's most plentiful source of petroleum. They also recognized the political instability of the Kingdom and concluded that the United States must assume responsibility for the support and defense of Saudi Arabia in return for a guarantee of oil supplies. In one of the more extraordinary and little-known events of the post-war era Franklin Roosevelt, on his return from the Yalta Conference, met with King Abd al-Aziz Ibn Saud, the founder of the modern Saudi regime, on a U.S. warship in the Suez Canal in February 1945. Roosevelt gave the King a promise of U.S. protection in return for privileged American access to Saudi oil, an arrangement that remains in full effect today and constitutes the core of the U.S.-Saudi relationship and American policy in the Middle East.

Fast-forward to 1979 when a series of events raised the US-Saudi relationship to a new level of strategic importance. In 1979 the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, the Shah of Iran was overthrown by anti-government forces and Islamic militants staged a short-lived rebellion in Mecca in Saudi Arabia. President Carter issued a response that became known as the Carter Doctrine stating that the United States would view any action that threatened supplies of oil from the Middle East and especially from the Persian Gulf as a threat to U.S. strategic interests with military force as a possible consequence.

Carter established the Rapid Deployment Force that later evolved into the U.S. Central Command in order to provide combat forces to the Persian Gulf Region if necessary. Carter authorized covert U.S. actions to undermine the Soviet presence in Afghanistan. The Saudi government was deeply involved in both of these initiatives and was responsible for providing both funds and manpower, including Osama bin Laden, for the anti-Soviet effort. It was during this period that Osama bin Laden went to Afghanistan to fight with the mujahedin rebels against the Soviet occupying forces. The U.S. and Saudi Arabia spent more than $3 Billion under Carter and Reagan in arms and support to the anti-Soviet insurgents in Afghanistan (Klare, 2001).

Reagan continued policies begun under Carter and declared that the Saudi Arabia would not become another Iran. The main aim of the first Persian Gulf War under George H. W. Bush was to protect Saudi Arabia from threats of attack by Saddam Hussein. Kuwait was the catalyst but really a secondary cause for the invasion of Iraq. In fact, there are tape recordings of an interview on July 25, 1991 between the U.S. ambassador to Iraq April Glaspie in which she gave Saddam Hussein diplomatic permission to invade Kuwait.

"We have no opinion on your Arab-Arab conflicts," the transcript reports Glaspie saying, "such as your dispute with Kuwait. Secretary [of State James] Baker has directed me to emphasize the instruction ... that Kuwait is not associated with America" (Cole, 1999).

Hussein invaded Kuwait on August 2, 1999. In effect Iraq was baited into attacking Kuwait in order to justify armed action against Iraq for the protection of Saudi Arabia. On August 4, 1991 Bush convened his top advisors at Camp David and decided to take military action to defend the Saudi kingdom against possible Iraqi attack. Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney went to Riyadh in Saudi Arabia and got permission to place U.S. ground forces in that country and to use Saudi bases for air strikes against Iraq.

Following the Persian Gulf War Osama bin Laden focused his efforts on two stated objectives: expulsion of U.S. military forces from Saudi Arabia and overthrow of the Saudi regime. "Both of these goals put bin Laden in direct conflict with the United States. It is this reality, more than any other, that explains the terrorist strikes on U.S. military personnel and facilities in the Middle East, and key symbols of American power in New York and Washington" (Klare, 2001).

The current "War of Terror" did not begin with the September 2001 attacks on the United States. The first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993 marks the beginning of the current struggle. Subsequent attacks in Saudi Arabia, Kenya, Tanzania and Yemen in the period 1995-1998 were part of plan by bin Laden to destroy the U.S.-Saudi alliance begun in 1945. Neither President George W. Bush or Osama bin Laden will directly reference the present conflict to this decade-long dynamic. Make no mistake, however, that current events in Afghanistan and Iraq have far more to do with maintaining American supplies of oil from the Middle East and protecting the Saudi regime from overthrow than do the events of September 2001.

If Bush loses the 2004 presidential election it will be because of consumer dissatisfaction with the high cost of gasoline more than issues of war in Iraq or the economy. Franklin Roosevelt recognized that oil was the critical factor in American strategic policy and he must also have seen that the revitalized, post-depression U.S. economy had recovered and would prosper on abundant, inexpensive supplies of petroleum. If you doubt this consider the devastating economic effects of a four-day hiatus in petroleum usage following the September 11 attacks. Imagine the far greater impact of even a few days of interruption in petroleum supply on the U.S. economy.

Al-Qaeda is not primarily a terrorist organization. It is, of course, true that terror is an outcome of attacks by Islamic groups but I think this blurs and confuses the intent of those attacks. The motive is nothing less than destruction of the West. The fact that this is a totally unrealistic, unachievable goal illuminates the psychology of our enemy. If we try to understand the enemy in terms that make sense to us we will miss the point entirely.

In the West we need to understand things in terms of cause-and-effect. We explain, for instance, the recent 2004 bomb attacks in Madrid as an attempt to influence the Spanish election results and weaken the military alliance in Iraq and Afghanistan. These motives certainly influenced the timing and location of the attacks but do not satisfactorily explain why attacks occurred in Spain and not, for instance, in the U.S or Great Britain. Does the outcome of elections is Spain really make any difference in the scheme of things for fundamentalist Islam? Is Spain a critical factor in the occupying force in Iraq with only 1500 troops and does their withdrawal have any material affect on the U.S.-led occupation in that country?

The war we are fighting is clearly not about or against terrorism. The U.S. is occupying Iraq and Afghanistan as part of a 60-year-old policy to ensure oil supplies from the Middle East and to protect the Saudi regime from overthrow or civil war that might interrupt that supply. The war that our enemy is fighting is to make the West go away; it is, in effect, a fantasy ideology (Harris, 2004). Somewhere, however, embedded in the Al-Qaeda strategy, is overthrow of the current regime in Saudi Arabia and disruption of the U.S.-Saudi alliance; that is the point of convergence that we must recognize if we want to understand this war.

Critics of the occupation of Iraq fail to grasp that the issue there has little to do with weapons of mass destruction or bringing democracy to the Middle East outside of how these factors affect the supply of oil to the U.S. and the survival of the Saudi regime. The U.S. economy cannot survive an interruption of oil supply.

Americans lack a strong interest in history especially as it relates to the world outside of the United States. This is not a criticism, just an observation. Our press and our leaders do not wish to disturb this state-of-mind so events are cast and explained in terms that we can grasp. The fact that these threads of explanation do not really explain anything keeps pundits in business and forms the basis for political debates between liberals and conservatives, democrats and republicans.

As geoscientists we should understand better than most the geo-politics of oil. We know that in the U.S. we cannot begin to supply ourselves with enough oil to fuel our needs even if we open ANWR and find 5 Prudhoe Bay-sized accumulations. We are irrevocably dependent on the Middle East for oil and there is no way that is going to change. Whether we agree with the specifics of decisions taken on Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel or any other topic in the Middle East we must view it in terms of a long-term strategy and policy that centers on maintaining oil supply to the United States. We must also realize that, whatever our political leanings, an interruption in oil supply would make all of us wish we had done something more deliberate and forceful to prevent it. In the hindsight of a United States economy without adequate petroleum supply the niceties of international law and the United Nations, self-determination of sovereign nations, human rights and weapons of mass destruction would seem a weak excuse for allowing ourselves to miss the point of what has always been the focus in the Middle East since at least 1945.


Cole, Carleton, 1999, The Home Forum: Christian Science Publishing Society.

Klare, Michael T., 2001,The geopolitics of war (United States petroleum interests in Saudi Arabia and Osama bin Laden): in, The Nation, Nov. 5, 2001, v. 273, no. 14, p. 11.

Harris, Lee, 2004, Civilization and its enemies: the next stage of history: Free Press, New York, 232 p.