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Nader Elhefnawy



In the 1973 Arab-Israeli War the Egyptian and Syrian armies initially won considerable successes against Israeli forces. Indeed, it is widely believed that the Israeli government felt pressured to resort to nuclear weaponry to salvage the situation, but its forces eventually turned the tide (with the help of a massive U.S. airlift of supplies).

Following the successful Israeli counter-offensive, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab oil producers in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), imposed an oil embargo on the U.S. in response to its long-resented support of Israel. Of course, as Kissinger notes in his memoir of the period, Years of Upheaval,

      the Arab embargo was a symbolic gesture of limited practical impact . . . the oil companies were operating a common pool, they simply substituted nonembargoed Arab oil for embargoed Arab oil and shifted other allocations accordingly.

Nonetheless, production cuts reduced the total supply, and panic buying tightened supplies and raised prices even more for customers globally.

The shock to the American economy, and American attitudes, was profound. Despite that, surprisingly little has been written by historians about American policymaking in this area. Watergate overshadows it in studies of the period--though the two were not entirely separate. As Kissinger noted, "Lifting [the embargo] turned almost into an obsession . . . partly because Nixon thought that it lent itself to a spectacular that would overcome Watergate."

A bigger factor may be the absence of primary sources providing anything like a complete "inside story" of the event. Just what was being said in the White House during those five "obsessive" months? The numerous books about the later years of the Nixon administration are short on details. Nonetheless, given the readiness of the U.S. to intervene militarily against a threat to its oil supplies in years since, it seems unlikely that this option was not considered. Indeed, a British government document released in 2004 under the 30-year rule indicates that it was considered.

The Energy Crisis: Glimpses From Behind the Scenes

The document in question, which was widely reported on at the time of its release three years ago, was a December 12, 1973 U.K. Eyes Alpha report by Britain's Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) titled "Middle East--Possible Use of Force by the United States." (The U.K. Eyes Alpha classification is the more exclusive one for British memoranda, confined to the intelligence community, armed services and government, and not to be shown to any non-British citizen.) In it British ambassador to Washington Lord Cromer quoted U.S. Defense Secretary James Schlesinger as having said to him in an exchange about the energy crisis that it was no longer obvious "that the United States can not use force."

Nor were such statements limited to talks with American allies. Less than one month later Schlesinger warned of unspecified reprisals against the oil producers, his implication of military measures setting off a furor in the Middle East. Henry Kissinger, who has refrained from being any more explicit about discussions of "reprisals," refers to Schlesinger's statement (which he allowed to stand at a press conference three days later) as "tactics," though there is room for doubt on that score. As he states in the very same paragraph, even before Schlesinger dropped his bomb, he announced at a press conference that "no specific measures" were planned "at this moment," a formulation that he terms "moderately threatening." He also expresses astonishment at those who could have held the belief that "an assault on the economic jugular of the United States . . . had to be endured in stoicism and passivity."

The JIC report goes on to state that the seizure of the oil fields was "uppermost in American thinking when they refer to the use of force," and "reflected . . . in their contingency planning" to which the Committee was presumably privy. In the scenario it discusses U.S. airborne troops staging out of bases in the eastern Mediterranean or Iran would have taken the production facilities in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Abu Dhabi, with two more divisions flying in behind them.

The oil embargo's fizzling out after less than half a year may explain why this never happened, but what if it continued longer than it did, as well it could have? The five months that it did last were certainly longer than President Nixon had expected. He had hoped to be able to announce the embargo's end in his State of the Union speech on January 30, 1974--and was sorely disappointed. As Schlesinger's remark makes clear, American patience had started to run out long before that.

Moreover, the belated conclusion of the embargo, and the containment of the larger danger of oil politics, was due in large part to two American initiatives. The first was Henry Kissinger's efforts to organize a "consumer's cartel" encompassing the major industrialized nations which could counterbalance OPEC's unity, which culminated in the Washington Energy Conference of March 1974. That grouping likewise proved far more difficult to assemble than American policymakers expected. Solidarity on this issue was initially weak, most of the nations of Western Europe fearing economic retaliation for any such action, which was not totally baseless. Along with the U.S., the Netherlands was subjected to a total embargo for its support of American policy.

French President Georges Pompidou explicitly stated that France would not run the risk of a cut-off, and in fact, attempted to lead a European grouping which would negotiate with OPEC separately from the United States. He also proposed that instead of the Washington Energy Conference, the matter be dealt with at the United Nations. Nor was France totally alone in such suggestions. British Prime Minister Edward Heath seemed strongly inclined to follow the French lead.

Abrupt changes altered this aspect of the political landscape, however. In Britain's general election in February 1974 Heath's Conservative Party was voted out, and Labor voted in under a more compliant Harold Wilson. A month later Pompidou unexpectedly died, and Valery Giscaird D'Estaing, who proved to be rather more cooperative with the U.S., succeeded him.

The second effort was the one to de-link the embargo from the Arab-Israeli conflict that was its initial justification, which was anything but simple. In that situation it was not enough to persuade one leader to give up the embargo, no one country being dominant.

Additionally, even if enough governments could be convinced that it was in their interest to end the embargo, they could not be seen to be backing down; they had to be able to save face, and minimize the backlash from their populations. Consequently, even after he had come to believe the embargo was backfiring (the U.S. insisting it could do little so long as the embargo was in place), and worry about the embargo's wider repercussions (like antagonizing the U.S.), Saudi Arabia's King Faisal continued to make it clear that they could not end the embargo without something to show for it. Only the Nixon administration's progress in facilitating the disengagement of Arab and Israeli forces after the cease-fire, as well as its promise to deliver more politically (for instance, in regard to the Palestinians) than the U.S. has in the three decades since then, gave them room for maneuver. Indeed, the embargo was only cancelled after Israeli forces withdrew east of the Suez Canal.

A number of upsets might have undermined both the negotiations among the Western allies, and with the Arab states. Continued British and/or French intransigence, perhaps due to Heath's reelection, and better health or more successful diplomacy on Pompidou's part, might have crippled the Washington Conference. The post-ceasefire negotiations between Syria, Egypt and Israel might have hit a snag, so that Faisal and his counterparts would have lacked a face-saving way out of the corner in which they found themselves. Unrest in a key Arab state like Saudi Arabia or Kuwait (to which the leaking of parts of the negotiation process could have contributed) may have put additional pressure on its government to maintain the embargo, or even replaced it with a hard-line regime.

One or more such upsets would have encouraged the view that the time had come for the "last resort" of military action. Even had the embargo not continued longer or seemed direr than it did in our own timeline, greater foresight about the higher prices and tighter supplies to which it would lead during the rest of the decade and after may also have encouraged a forceful response. (The JIC report, notably, did not rule out preemptive U.S. action if the embargo's success led OPEC to reuse the "oil weapon" later on.) If the U.S. had done so, the action could have been a turning point in the Cold War.

America in The 1970s

For the United States as for the Soviet Union the 1970s emerges as a crucial period. Just like the Soviet Union, the U.S. saw its own economic boom come to an end, replaced by grave problems which it likewise failed to resolve. The slow growth, erosion of the manufacturing base, and swelling trade and budget deficits of that period have not just continued, but worsened. The response to the energy crisis fell far short of what it should have been, renewable energy making only modest progress compared to what was economically and technically feasible, and American dependence on oil, particularly from the Middle East, has only grown. (Indeed, these problems were widely seen as heralding the decline of American power and the passing of world economic leadership to Japan or Germany.)

One error the U.S. did not make, however, was directly entering another major conflict after withdrawing from Vietnam in 1973, given the disarray the U.S. military was in at that point. The transition from conscription to an all-volunteer force necessitated by the conflict, as well as the spectacularly successful innovations in technology, training and doctrine that made it what it is today, all took a long time to implement.

There are other, less well-known aspects to the story, however, not the least of them the effect of developments in American society more generally on the armed forces. Problems like rampant drug use are still noted by historians of American military reform, but there is much less recollection of the anti-war movement that emerged in the U.S. military, which took quite dramatic forms. One hears the occasional reference to "fragging," but according to some historians there were also mutinies, desertion and acts of sabotage on a very large scale, often with crippling effects on military operations. (The standard book on the subject is David Cortright's 1973 Soldiers in Revolt, recently reprinted with an introduction by Howard Zinn.) In his discussion of these events historian and literary scholar H. Bruce Franklin has argued that any attempt to dispatch American forces overseas in another such operation would have been nearly impossible, and while this may have been an overstatement, the situation may have been more precarious than people today realize.

Of course, given the military weakness of the Saudis and Kuwaitis, seizing the oil fields may have been a straightforward enough matter despite all that. Occupying them would not have been, however. As the current occupation of Iraq has demonstrated, keeping oil production up in the face of a large, determined insurgency is far from easy, especially given the state of the U.S. armed forces at the time. Moreover, this would not have been a short mission. The JIC assessment in the December 12 memo was that an occupation of the oil fields may have had to continue for as long as a decade.

Other problems would have added to the strain. With the Suez Canal shut down the logistics of a war in the Middle East would have been that much more difficult. Such an occupation would have heightened the risk of the Arab-Israeli conflict flaring up again, particularly with the U.S. deeply embroiled in another conflict in the region and so less able to assist Israel. Insurgents in the Gulf would likely have had the backing of other Arab states, like Iraq and Syria, with which conventional conflict would have been a definite possibility, and which would likely have enjoyed a measure of Soviet material support. Indeed, the JIC's assessment was that the biggest direct danger to the operation was an Iraqi response to the U.S. invasion of Kuwait. (In an ironic reversal of the events of our own timeline, Saddam Hussein--then Vice-President of Iraq, and widely regarded as the power behind the throne--might have been hailed in the region as "the liberator of Kuwait.")

Fighting a war like this would also have heightened military recruitment problems, already so sharp in the early years of the All-Volunteer Force. It would certainly have diverted resources crucial to the process of military reform that made the American armed forces what they are today. Where raw numbers of troops are concerned, a multi-division combat commitment to the Middle East would have made it difficult to maintain U.S. force levels in Europe and Asia. There would have been a great demand for more military spending at a time of tight budgets, resulting in some combination of more taxes, more debt, lower social spending, additional economic strain and/or more cash-starved forces, as well as bitter rancor at home over all of it. The rift the 1960s created would have grown that much wider, radicalizing both Left and Right, just as if Vietnam had continued for several more years, even without the draft.

All of this could have been compounded by the deepening of the general economic downturn of the early 1970s. The expense of the war aside, it is conceivable that the disruption of an invasion and military occupation would have caused the region's oil production to drop below pre-invasion levels, exacerbating global scarcities, and placing additional strain on American relations with friendly countries not directly targeted by the embargo (like Britain and France). Meanwhile, Americans would likely have grumbled about the failure of their allies to support the war effort with troops or other resources, further alienating Americans and Europeans.

The Consequences

America's loss would have been the Soviet Union's gain, and the latter would have found numerous opportunities to strengthen its position. Along with the revenues from its own higher-priced oil sales, the division in the Western alliance would have helped it make inroads into Western Europe which would have meant, among other things, better access to Western high technology. By aiding client regimes and insurgent groups in the region against the U.S., it would also have increased its standing in the Arab world, while acquiring a freer hand to act elsewhere. The fact that the United States was fighting a major war not much further from its southern border than Cuba is from the American coast may have contributed to social peace at home.

A more dramatic difference, interestingly enough, might have been the absence of one of the major armed conflicts of the 1980s, the Soviet war in Afghanistan. With the U.S. fighting in the Persian Gulf, an alliance with Islamic fundamentalists in southern Asia would have been out of the question.1 As a result the Soviet Union would have been much less likely to make a major military commitment to that country, sparing itself a high cost in blood, treasure and prestige.

These changes could easily have lengthened the life of the Soviet Union, delaying the outcome of the Cold War we know for a time, and possibly indefinitely, if they impacted the reform process. While some such process may have been inevitable after Brezhnev's death, with the United States in a weaker position, and the Soviet Union in a somewhat stronger one, the perceived need for reform might have been less acute, delaying or moderating action, while providing more room for maneuver.2 In particular, the economically disastrous course the Soviet Union followed under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev might have been avoided--and with it, Soviet collapse.3

At worst a still-intact Soviet Union would have seen the United States pull out of the Gulf, demoralized, drained and overstretched if not defeated. American retrenchment would have been likely, on account both of a war-weary isolationism in the wake of Indochina and the Middle East, and a weakening economy.

Even in our own timeline the early 1990s saw a great deal of argument that the U.S. was in decline as a superpower, and a search for successors. As of 1991 Germany would still have been divided, Japan would likely have started to stumble anyway, and China's boom would still have been in a relatively early phase.4 Accordingly, no particular country would have looked like the future, but perhaps the emerging European Union might have looked like just that.5 The great question, then, would have been how exactly the European Union and the Soviet Union related to each other, and in particular whether Charles De Gaulle's vision of a Europe stretching from the Atlantic to the Urals was to become a reality, and on whose terms.

Even assuming relatively slow Soviet economic growth, the Soviet Union's would still have been the largest economy in Europe. Demographically and militarily, its weight would have been even greater. Especially when the EU's political differences with the Soviet Union are taken into account, this would have been a powerful inhibitor to closer relations--but only up to a certain point. Just as in Asia today, where China's economic and political weight is reorienting the region toward it, partial integration of the Soviet bloc into Europe may not have quite turned the EU into a vehicle for Moscow's ambitions, but it would have been a powerful prop to them as it muddled along.6 Should this have coincided with an inward turn on the part of the U.S., the result might have been an ambiguous Soviet victory.





1 Then-National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski stated in a January 1998 interview with Le Nouvel Observateur that U.S. aid to the rebels in Afghanistan began prior to the Soviet invasion, and was conceived specifically to induce that Soviet intervention.

2 It is conceivable that the Soviet Union would not just have survived, but even computerized. Generally running a decade behind the West, it could have seen personal computers proliferate through the 1990s, and the Internet by the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century.

3 Mark Almond, "1989 Without Gorbachev: What if Communism had not Collapsed?" In Niall Ferguson, ed., Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals (New York: Basic Books, 1999), pp. 392-415.

4 Of course, short of really impressive economic and political reform, the Soviet Union's image would have been too tarnished for that by this point--though in this scenario it would have remained too important a player to be counted out.

5 Given America's retreat, its vision of capitalism, and of globalization, would likely suffer. European states, today seen (not always fairly) as economically sclerotic, would have been under rather less pressure to reform their markets and trade in social democracy for the Anglo-American model.

6 It should be noted that the Chinese path, in which a party only Communist in name continues to govern a totalitarian state, is not plausible in the case of the Soviet Union. China's troubled but rapid growth was a result of both its comparative backwardness (even after three decades of high growth China's per-capita GDP remains below that of the Soviet Union in the 1980s), and its massive decentralization under Mao (compared with the extreme centralization of the Soviet Union).



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