This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com.
It was heinous. It was underhanded. It was beyond the bounds of international morality. It was an attack on the American way of life. It was what you might expect from unscrupulous Arabs. It was “the oil weapon” — and back in 1973, it was directed at the United States. Skip ahead four decades and it’s smart, it’s effective, and it’s the American way. The Obama administration has appropriated it as a major tool of foreign policy, a new way to go to war with nations it considers hostile without relying on planes, missiles, and troops. It is, of course, that very same oil weapon.
Until recently, the use of the term “the oil weapon” has largely been identified with the efforts of Arab producers to dissuade the United States from supporting Israel by cutting off the flow of petroleum. The most memorable example of its use was the embargo imposed by Arab members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) on oil exports to the United States during the Arab-Israeli war of 1973, causing scarcity in the U.S., long lines at American filling stations, and a global economic recession.
After suffering enormously from that embargo, Washington took a number of steps to disarm the oil weapon and prevent its reuse. These included an increased emphasis on domestic oil production and the establishment of a mutual aid arrangement overseen by the International Energy Agency (IEA) that obliged participating nations to share their oil with any member state subjected to an embargo.
So consider it a surprising reversal that, having tested out the oil weapon against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq with devastating effect back in the 1990s, Washington is now the key country brandishing that same weapon, using trade sanctions and other means to curb the exports of energy-producing states it categorizes as hostile. The Obama administration has taken this aggressive path even at the risk of curtailing global energy supplies.
When first employed, the oil weapon was intended to exploit the industrial world’s heavy dependence on petroleum imports from the Middle East. Over time, however, those producing countries became ever more dependent on oil revenues to finance their governments and enrich their citizens. Washington now seeks to exploit this by selectively denying access to world oil markets, whether through sanctions or the use of force, and so depriving hostile producing powers of operating revenues.