The Geopolitics of War

The Geopolitics of War

Whoever controls Saudi Arabia’s oil wields great power over the world economy.


There are many ways to view the conflict between the United States and Osama bin Laden’s terror network: as a contest between Western liberalism and Eastern fanaticism, as suggested by many pundits in the United States; as a struggle between the defenders and the enemies of authentic Islam, as suggested by many in the Muslim world; and as a predictable backlash against American villainy abroad, as suggested by some on the left. But while useful in assessing some dimensions of the conflict, these cultural and political analyses obscure a fundamental reality: that this war, like most of the wars that preceded it, is firmly rooted in geopolitical competition.

The geopolitical dimensions of the war are somewhat hard to discern because the initial fighting is taking place in Afghanistan, a place of little intrinsic interest to the United States, and because our principal adversary, bin Laden, has no apparent interest in material concerns. But this is deceptive, because the true center of the conflict is Saudi Arabia, not Afghanistan (or Palestine), and because bin Laden’s ultimate objectives include the imposition of a new Saudi government, which in turn would control the single most valuable geopolitical prize on the face of the earth: Saudi Arabia’s vast oil deposits, representing one-fourth of the world’s known petroleum reserves.

To fully appreciate the roots of the current conflict, it is necessary to travel back in time–specifically, to the final years of World War II, when the US government began to formulate plans for the world it would dominate in the postwar era. As the war drew to a close, the State Department was enjoined by President Roosevelt to devise the policies and institutions that would guarantee US security and prosperity in the coming epoch. This entailed the design and formation of the United Nations, the construction of the Bretton Woods world financial institutions and, most significant in the current context, the procurement of adequate oil supplies.

American strategists considered access to oil to be especially important because it was an essential factor in the Allied victory over the Axis powers. Although the nuclear strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the war, it was oil that fueled the armies that brought Germany and Japan to their knees. Oil powered the vast numbers of ships, tanks and aircraft that endowed Allied forces with a decisive edge over their adversaries, which lacked access to reliable sources of petroleum. It was widely assumed, therefore, that access to large supplies of oil would be critical to US success in any future conflicts.

Where would this oil come from? During World Wars I and II, the United States was able to obtain sufficient oil for its own and its allies’ needs from deposits in the American Southwest and from Mexico and Venezuela. But most US analysts believed that these supplies would be insufficient to meet American and European requirements in the postwar era. As a result, the State Department initiated an intensive study to identify other sources of petroleum. This effort, led by the department’s economic adviser, Herbert Feis, concluded that only one location could provide the needed petroleum. “In all surveys of the situation,” Feis noted (in a statement quoted by Daniel Yergin in The Prize), “the pencil came to an awed pause at one point and place–the Middle East.”

To be more specific, Feis and his associates concluded that the world’s most prolific supply of untapped oil was to be found in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. But how to get at this oil? At first, the State Department proposed the formation of a government-owned oil firm to acquire concessions in Saudi Arabia and extract the kingdom’s reserves. This plan was considered too unwieldy, however, and instead US officials turned this task over to the Arabian American Oil Company (ARAMCO), an alliance of major US oil corporations. But these officials were also worried about the kingdom’s long-term stability, so they concluded that the United States would have to assume responsibility for the defense of Saudi Arabia. In one of the most extraordinary occurrences in modern American history, President Roosevelt met with King Abd al-Aziz Ibn Saud, the founder of the modern Saudi regime, on a US warship in the Suez Canal following the February 1945 conference in Yalta. Although details of the meeting have never been made public, it is widely believed that Roosevelt gave the King a promise of US protection in return for privileged American access to Saudi oil–an arrangement that remains in full effect today and constitutes the essential core of the US-Saudi relationship.

This relationship has provided enormous benefits to both sides. The United States has enjoyed preferred access to Saudi petroleum reserves, obtaining about one-sixth of its crude-oil imports from the kingdom. ARAMCO and its US partners have reaped immense profits from their operations in Saudi Arabia and from the distribution of Saudi oil worldwide. (Although ARAMCO’s Saudi holdings were nationalized by the Saudi government in 1976, the company continues to manage Saudi oil production and to market its petroleum products abroad.) Saudi Arabia also buys about $6-10 billion worth of goods per year from US companies. The Saudi royal family, for its part, has become immensely wealthy and, because of continued US protection, has remained safe from external and internal attack.

But this extraordinary partnership has also produced a number of unintended consequences, and it is these effects that concern us here. To protect the Saudi regime against its external enemies, the United States has steadily expanded its military presence in the region, eventually deploying thousands of troops in the kingdom. Similarly, to protect the royal family against its internal enemies, US personnel have become deeply involved in the regime’s internal security apparatus. At the same time, the vast and highly conspicuous accumulation of wealth by the royal family has alienated it from the larger Saudi population and led to charges of systemic corruption. In response, the regime has outlawed all forms of political debate in the kingdom (there is no parliament, no free speech, no political party, no right of assembly) and used its US-trained security forces to quash overt expressions of dissent. All these effects have generated covert opposition to the regime and occasional acts of violence–and it is from this underground milieu that Osama bin Laden has drawn his inspiration and many of his top lieutenants.

The US military presence in Saudi Arabia has steadily increased over the years. Initially, from 1945 to 1972, Washington delegated the primary defense responsibility to Britain, long the dominant power in the region. When Britain withdrew its forces from “East of Suez” in 1971, the United States assumed a more direct role, deploying military advisers in the kingdom and providing Saudi Arabia with a vast arsenal of US weapons. Some of these arms and advisory programs were aimed at external defense, but the Defense Department also played a central role in organizing, equipping, training and managing the Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG), the regime’s internal security force.

American military involvement in the kingdom reached a new level in 1979, when three things happened: The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, the Shah of Iran was overthrown by antigovernment forces and Islamic militants staged a brief rebellion in Mecca. In response, President Jimmy Carter issued a new formulation of US policy: Any move by a hostile power to gain control of the Persian Gulf area would be regarded “as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America” and would be resisted “by any means necessary, including military force.” This statement, now known as the “Carter Doctrine,” has governed US strategy in the gulf ever since.

To implement the new doctrine, Carter established the Rapid Deployment Force, a collection of combat forces based in the United States but available for deployment to the Persian Gulf. (The RDF was later folded into the US Central Command, which now conducts all US military operations in the region.) Carter also deployed US warships in the gulf and arranged for the periodic utilization by American forces of military bases in Bahrain, Diego Garcia (a British-controlled island in the Indian Ocean), Oman and Saudi Arabia–all of which were employed during the 1990-91 Gulf War and are again being used today. Believing, moreover, that the Soviet presence in Afghanistan represented a threat to US dominance in the gulf, Carter authorized the initiation of covert operations to undermine the Soviet-backed regime there. (It is important to note that the Saudi regime was deeply involved in this effort, providing much of the funding for the anti-Soviet rebellion and allowing its citizens, including Osama bin Laden, to participate in the war effort as combatants and fundraisers.) And to protect the Saudi royal family, Carter increased US involvement in the kingdom’s internal security operations.

President Reagan accelerated Carter’s overt military moves and greatly increased covert US support for the anti-Soviet mujahedeen in Afghanistan. (Eventually, some $3 billion worth of arms were given to the mujahedeen.) Reagan also issued an important codicil to the Carter Doctrine: The United States would not allow the Saudi regime to be overthrown by internal dissidents, as occurred in Iran. “We will not permit [Saudi Arabia] to be an Iran,” he told reporters in 1981.

Then came the Persian Gulf War. When Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait on August 2, 1990, President Bush the elder was principally concerned about the threat to Saudi Arabia, not Kuwait. At a meeting at Camp David on August 4, he determined that the United States must take immediate military action to defend the Saudi kingdom against possible Iraqi attack. To allow for a successful defense of the kingdom, Bush sent his Secretary of Defense, Dick Cheney, to Riyadh to persuade the royal family to allow the deployment of US ground forces on Saudi soil and the use of Saudi bases for airstrikes against Iraq.

The subsequent unfolding of Operation Desert Storm does not need to be retold here. What is important to note is that the large US military presence in Saudi Arabia was never fully withdrawn after the end of the fighting in Kuwait. American aircraft continue to fly from bases in Saudi Arabia as part of the enforcement mechanism of the “no-fly zone” over southern Iraq (intended to prevent the Iraqis from using this airspace to attack Shiite rebels in the Basra area or to support a new invasion of Kuwait). American aircraft also participate in the multinational effort to enforce the continuing economic sanctions on Iraq.

President Clinton further strengthened the US position in the gulf, expanding American basing facilities there and enhancing the ability to rapidly move US-based forces to the region. Clinton also sought to expand US influence in the Caspian Sea basin, an energy-rich area just to the north of the Persian Gulf.

Many consequences have flowed from all this. The sanctions on Iraq have caused immense suffering for the Iraqi population, while the regular bombing of military facilities produces a mounting toll of Iraqi civilian deaths. Meanwhile, the United States has failed to take any action to curb Israeli violence against the Palestinians. It is these concerns that have prompted many young Muslims to join bin Laden’s forces. Bin Laden himself, however, is most concerned about Saudi Arabia. Ever since the end of the Gulf War, he has focused his efforts on achieving two overarching goals: the expulsion of the American “infidels” from Saudi Arabia (the heart of the Muslim holy land) and the overthrow of the current Saudi regime and its replacement with one more attuned to his fundamentalist Islamic beliefs.

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 US military personnel and facilities in the Middle East, and key symbols of American power in New York and Washington.

The current war did not begin on September 11. As far as we can tell, it began in 1993 with the first attack on the World Trade Center. This was succeeded in 1995 with an attack on the SANG headquarters in Riyadh, and in 1996 with the explosion at the Khobar Towers outside of Dhahran. Then followed the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and the more recent attack on the USS Cole. All these events, like the World Trade Center/Pentagon assaults, are consistent with a long-term strategy to erode US determination to maintain its alliance with the Saudi regime–and thus, in the final analysis, to destroy the 1945 compact forged by President Roosevelt and King Abd al-Aziz Ibn Saud.

In fighting against these efforts, the United States is acting, in the first instance, to protect itself, its citizens and its military personnel from terrorist violence. At the same time, however, Washington is also shoring up its strategic position in the Persian Gulf. With bin Laden out of the way, Iran suffering from internal political turmoil and Saddam Hussein immobilized by unrelenting American airstrikes, the dominant US position in the gulf will be assured for some time to come. (Washington’s one big worry is that the Saudi monarchy will face increasing internal opposition because of its close association with the United States; it is for this reason that the Bush Administration has not leaned too hard on the regime to permit US forces to use Saudi bases for attacks on Afghanistan and to freeze the funds of Saudi charities linked to Osama bin Laden.)

For both sides, then, this conflict has important geopolitical dimensions. A Saudi regime controlled by Osama bin Laden could be expected to sever all ties with US oil companies and to adopt new policies regarding the production of oil and the distribution of the country’s oil wealth–moves that would have potentially devastating consequences for the US, and indeed the world, economy. The United States, of course, is fighting to prevent this from happening.

As the conflict unfolds, we are unlikely to hear any of this from the key figures involved. In seeking to mobilize public support for his campaign against the terrorists, President Bush will never acknowledge that conventional geopolitics plays a role in US policy. Osama bin Laden, for his part, is equally reluctant to speak in such terms. But the fact remains that this war, like the Gulf War before it, derives from a powerful geopolitical contest.

It will be very difficult, in the current political environment, to probe too deeply into these matters. Bin Laden and his associates have caused massive injury to the United States, and the prevention of further such attacks is, understandably, the nation’s top priority. When conditions permit, however, a serious review of US policy in the Persian Gulf will be in order. Among the many questions that might legitimately be asked at this point is whether long-term US interests would not best be served by encouraging the democratization of Saudi Arabia. Surely, if more Saudi citizens are permitted to participate in open political dialogue, fewer will be attracted to the violent, anti-American dogma of Osama bin Laden.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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