The U.S. military has used force or the threat of force to protect its energy interests around the world, primarily in the Middle East, for more than five decades, safeguarding foreign oil sources and the sea lanes through which they pass.
According to Roger Stern, an energy professor with the National Energy Policy Institute who also teaches about energy and national security at the University of Tulsa, the cost of keeping a U.S. military presence—particularly naval forces— in the Persian Gulf from 1976 to 2007 was $7.3 trillion. The policy was formulated during World War II when the U.S. battled with Japan over oil shipping choke points in the Pacific. The approach was adopted by the Truman and Eisenhower administrations when Soviet adventurism in Iran and pan-Arab unrest in the Middle East threatened the Persian Gulf oil deliveries.
It was made explicit in 1980 by the Carter administration in response to the Soviet Union’s encroachment in the Persian Gulf. Oil is vital not only to American national security but also U.S. allies’ security because their economies are heavily dependent on petroleum imports. As a result, protection of the world’s oil facilities became part of U.S. national security strategy.
“We believe safe, uninterrupted flow in the commerce of petroleum is one vital to the U.S. and secondarily to our friends and allies,” said Richard Zilmer, a retired Marine Corps lieutenant general. “The United States will always play a role in ensuring the safe transit of petroleum as well as commerce across the sea lanes. We have a vital interest of freedom of navigation around the world that has always been an interest of the United States.”
U.S. military operations and protecting access to oil are not always directly related.But history has shown oil to be an important factor in determining U.S. foreign policy and military strategy, from protecting oil disruption by Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia in the 1990s to today’s redeployment of some military assets to the Asia Pacific region to ensure maritime stability and the freedom of navigation there.
Stern said the U.S. government’s fear of peak oil, the point when maximum oil extraction is reached and terminal decline begins, and Soviet aggression for oil started in the 1950s, but that this growing trend of irrational fears about oil supplies did not immediately translate into military actions to secure oil. “There was a great deal of military activity and the country was in permanent military mobilization, but not that much mobilization had to deal with oil until 1970,” he said.
Even though the U.S. is becoming less dependent on foreign oil thanks to a surge in domestic production, it still imports more than half of its oil. Because of oil discoveries around the globe, the U.S. also increasingly devotes military resources to protect oil-producing regions that are relatively more stable than the Middle East such as West Africa. The stakes are high in the rush to secure oil resources in that region, which has led to a perceived competition between U.S. and China, as both states compete to secure their share of oil supplies.
One of the earliest uses of the military in defending U.S. oil interests came during the Suez Crisis in 1956, when Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser took steps to nationalize the Suez Canal, a vital oil choke point co-owned by the British and French. “The immediate threat is to the oil supplies to Western Europe, a great part of which flows through the Canal,” said Prime Minister Anthony Eden of England to U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower. “We are all agreed that we cannot afford to allow Nasser to seize control of the Canal in this way, in defiance of international agreements.”
Britain and France wanted to assert their power over the canal through military action and found support from Israel, which was constantly threatened by Egypt. The parties agreed on a plan to take over the Sinai Peninsula and the canal. The major operations were undertaken by Israeli forces who stopped short of the canal to allow the Anglo-French forces to seize it. The U.S. opposed the military action and called for a political solution.
The U.S. stance since 1956 would change over the next coming decades; the 1960s saw a decade of relative calm, while the 1970s and beyond introduced the U.S. to new difficulties and conflicts.
The 1970s opened with a decade of new vulnerabilities for the United States and its national security interests. Until 1972 the U.S. relied on the British for security in the Gulf and lacked a significant military presence in the region. It also relied on Iranian leader Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi even as he was growing increasingly unpopular in his own country. “The British left, and then we [U.S.] delegated that protection of U.S. interests to the Shah [the ruler of Iran]. …We really looked to him to provide U.S. security of U.S. interests in the Gulf,” said Gary Sick, a former member of the National Security Council.
After that, the U.S. slowly had to assert its influence in the region because of the vacuum left by the British. There was a need to contain the Soviet Union’s encroachment towards the Middle East. But before the British departure, in May 1972, President Richard Nixon traveled to Tehran to meet with the shah. Afterward, Nixon significantly boosted military aid to Iran as part of a proxy strategy to maintain the safe flow of oil from the region.
The U.S. did not have significant military installations in the Middle East throughout the 1970s. The oil price surge caused by the Arab oil embargo, which began in October 1973 and went through March 1974, led U.S. administrations to develop foreign and military policies that prioritized protecting oil in the Gulf. “When you are being strangled, it is a question of either dying or living. And when you use the word ‘strangulation’ in relationship to the existence of the United States or its nonexistence, I think the public has to have a reassurance, our people, that we are not going to permit America to be strangled to death,” President Gerald Ford said on Jan. 23, 1975.
On Aug. 24, 1977, President Jimmy Carter was even more aggressive, signing Presidential Directive 18, which authorized the Pentagon to create a Rapid Deployment Force to respond to any oil disruptions in the Gulf region and described the force as light with strategic mobility and independent from overseas bases. By 1979, the uprisings in Iran had turned into a full-fledged revolution; the shah fled the country and was replaced by a virulently anti-U.S. religious cleric, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Within a year, 66 Americans were taken hostage at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, followed by a 444-day hostage crisis.
In response to incidents such as the Iranian revolution, the standoff between South Yemen and North Yemen, and the Soviet Union’s threat to Saudi Arabia, the Carter administration sent an aircraft carrier group from the Pacific theater to the Arabian Sea.
Fearing disruptions in its oil supply from the Soviet Union and unstable regimes, the U.S. increased its emphasis on maintaining a long-term military presence in the Persian Gulf in late 1979, allocating seven prepositioned ships with mechanized equipment, ammunition fuel and other supplies, as well as 300 jet transports and 500 turboprop transports that were made available for airlift. There were tactical air force contingencies that would be able to reach the Middle East within hours. B-52 bombers were conducting reconnaissance flights into the Indian Ocean for the first time and an amphibious ready group of 1,800 marines detachment were deployed into the area also for the first time.
This militarized energy policy was formalized by President Jimmy Carter in January 1980 when, in response to the Soviet’s invasion of Afghanistan and the Islamist revolution in Iran, he announced that the secure flow of Persian Gulf oil was in “the vital interests of the United States of America” and that, to protect oil interests, the U.S. would use “any means necessary, including military force.”
Carter’s principle of using force to protect the flow of oil became known as the Carter Doctrine. It was later cited by President George H.W. Bush to justify American intervention in the Persian Gulf War of 1990-91 and provided the underlying strategic rationale for the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The U.S. also engaged in several cases of preventing oil from falling into the hands of unstable regimes as well as the freedom of navigation. On Aug. 8, 1983, President Ronald Reagan announced the deployment of two AWACS electronic surveillance planes, eight F-15 fighter jets and ground logistical support forces to assist oil-rich Chad against Libyan forces. In March 1986, after Libyan missiles fired at U.S. forces engaging in freedom of navigation exercises around the Gulf of Sidra in the Mediterranean Sea, the U.S. retaliated with missile strikes that shot down two Libyan jets.
By 1983, Reagan took the first steps toward transforming a rapid deployment force that the Pentagon had established into a much larger permanent unified command, the United States Central Command, or CENTCOM, carving out a geographical area of responsibility in the Middle East from regions previously served by European and Pacific Commands.
The Tanker Wars from 1984 to 1988 were a turning point for the U.S. in its direct confrontation with Iran over protecting oil supplies. During that period, the Iran-Iraq War was at its height. Iraqi forces attacked Iran in 1980 when Saddam Hussein saw an opportune moment as Iran was transitioning from its revolution. The U.S. was supporting Iraq and Iran laid mines in the Persian Gulf to disrupt Kuwaiti oil tankers as a response to Kuwait’s economic assistance to the Saddam Hussein regime. The U.S. responded with Operation Earnest Will from July 1987 to September 1988 to reflag Kuwaiti oil tankers and provide military escorts through the Persian Gulf and to de-mine the gulf.
“[The U.S. is] fundamentally, irrevocably committed to maintaining the free flow of oil through the gulf,” said Vice President George H.W. Bush in April 1986 to a group of American businessmen in Saudi Arabia.
After the guided missile frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts struck an Iranian mine in the Persian Gulf on April 14, 1988, the U.S launched Operation Praying Mantis, in which the U.S. Navy attacked two Iranian oil platforms and destroyed 25 percent of the Iranian navy.
In the 1990s, U.S. officials started to express interest in other major oil-producing regions besides the Persian Gulf, including the Caspian Sea basin in Central Asia, as well as Africa and Latin America. President Bill Clinton sought to exploit the energy potential of the Caspian basin and established military ties with future suppliers, including Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Georgia, to deter instabilities in the region.
According to Michal Klare, a Columbia University professor in peace and world security studies, Clinton was the first to champion construction of a pipeline from Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, to Ceyhan in Turkey and took steps to protect that conduit by boosting the military capabilities of the countries involved. President George W. Bush later continued the effort, increasing military aid to these countries and deploying American combat advisers.
With the invasion of Kuwait by Iraqi forces beginning on Aug. 2, 1990, President George H.W. Bush ordered forward deployment of U.S. armed forces into the Persian Gulf region to help defend Saudi Arabia. The U.S. demanded that Iraq withdraw from Kuwait. Iraq’s refusal led to the launch of Operation Desert Storm on Jan. 16, 1991, as aircraft of the U.S. and its coalition of allies attacked Iraqi forces in Iraq and Kuwait in what became known as the first Gulf War.
The U.S. victory generated animosity in Iraq, leading to an attempted car bomb intended to kill the elder Bush during his visit to Kuwait in April 1993. In response, Clinton ordered a cruise missile strike against the Iraqi Intelligence Service building in Baghdad two months later.
After the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, global terrorist organizations rapidly expanded their targeting of petroleum extraction, refining and transport infrastructure, among other targets. Concerned that such terrorist activities could paralyze allies that lacked counterterrorism capabilities, the U.S. expanded its new “War on Terrorism” around the globe to help allies prevent the proliferation of terrorist organizations.
The U.S. still maintained a strong presence in the Persian Gulf but, because West Africa and South America have seen an increase in exports to the U.S., they also have seen a surge in American military’s interest in protecting the region.
Between late 2002 and early 2003, the U.S. sent Special Forces advisers to train 4,000 Colombian soldiers in counterinsurgency warfare to protect a 500-mile pipeline that transports more than 100,000 barrels of crude oil per day and was attacked at least 170 times in 2001. While the U.S. receives only a small amount of its oil from Colombia, the pipeline was owned in part by a Los Angeles-based company.
The Pentagon also provided military aid to Angola and Nigeria and continues to help them with training and recruiting. Meanwhile, the U.S. hoped to establish permanent bases in the region, with a focus in Western African countries including Senegal, Ghana, Mali, Kenya and Uganda.
The U.S. acquired basing rights and access to airfields in Djibouti, Uganda, Mali, Senegal and Gabon, as well as port facilities in Morocco and Tunisia. In addition, it also expanded its covert intelligence operations across Africa in the name of combatting terrorism. By expanding its military presence in Africa, Washington hoped to ensure the free flow of African oil.
In 2005, the U.S. launched the Gulf of Guinea Guard Initiative to help Nigeria, Angola, Chad, Equatorial Guinea and other West African governments deal with transnational threats, including the protection of harbors, ships and oil platforms. On Oct.1, 2008, the U.S. established AFRICOM, or Africa Command, in part because of the continent’s strategic stores of oil and mineral deposits and its position along key shipping lanes.
In 2011, during Operation Odyssey Dawn, coalition forces enforced U.S. Security Council Resolution 1973 with bombing of government forces in oil-rich Libya as they tried to suppress a rebellion. In the same year, the U.S. sent in combat troops to Nigeria and Uganda as advisers.
Since late 2011, the U.S. has been rebalancing to the Asia Pacific, where the world’s emerging economic powers are aggressively pursuing energy to fuel their growths. Countries like China, India, Vietnam and the Philippines are in heated disputes over the oil-rich South China Sea in Western Pacific. Fearing the escalation of ongoing disputes could lead to larger armed clashes that will disrupt the freedom of navigation, the U.S. has been developing new naval capabilities and incrementally deploying more ships to the Pacific in order to secure the vital see lanes and choke points. The U.S. is also in discussion with Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines regarding reusing some long-shuttered military bases and facilities.
China sees the South China Sea as a second Persian Gulf in terms of future oil capacity, and it is being more assertive in claiming the region, both diplomatically and militarily. The Beijing government is also developing long-range anti-ship missiles and modernizing its South Sea Fleet, sparking concerns in the U.S. and among its less-powerful regional allies, which also largely depend on oil imports.
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