The Real Purpose of US Mid-East Policies

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Dear Professor Bacevich, I enjoyed reading your January 29 article in TAC. Like everything you write, it displays much level-headedness and appreciation of the relevant historical and political facts, all of which are lacking in the latest harebrained neocon-presidential scheme to “surge” another batch of U.S. troops into harm’s way in Baghdad for no good reason.

I differ with your views, however, in two regards.

First, you write as though the past sixty years of U.S. policy in the Middle East amount to little more than a series of stupid and unsuccessful episodes. Of course, if one supposes that these policies were intended to realize their ostensible purposes, you are correct. I do not believe, however, that those ostensible purposes were much more than pretexts.

As a general rule for understanding public policies, I insist that there are no persistent “failed” policies. Policies that do not achieve their desired outcomes for the actual powers-that-be are quickly changed. If you want to know why the U.S. policies have been what they have been for the past sixty years, you need only comply with that invaluable rule of inquiry in politics: follow the money.

When you do so, I believe you will find U.S. policies in the Middle East to have been wildly successful, so successful that the gains they have produced for the movers and shakers in the petrochemical, financial, and weapons industries (which is approximately to say, for those who have the greatest influence in determining U.S. foreign policies) must surely be counted in the hundreds of billions of dollars.

So U.S. soldiers get killed, so Palestinians get insulted, robbed, and confined to a set of squalid concentration areas, so the “peace process” never gets far from square one, etc., etc. — none of this makes the policies failures; these things are all surface froth, costs not born by the policy makers themselves but by the cannon-fodder masses, the bovine taxpayers at large, and foreigners who count for nothing.

Second, near the end of your article, you speak of the necessity of “ending our dependence on Persian Gulf oil.” I have mentioned this matter to you before, but your statement leads me to conclude that you have not taken my previous objection to heart.

To be as brief as possible, the U.S. is not dependent on Persian Gulf oil in any significant economic way. Yes, the Persian Gulf pours substantial amounts of oil into the world supply pool, and U.S. demanders draw heavily from that pool. But the Persian Gulf sheikdoms have every interest in selling their oil, whether Exxon Mobil, Shell, Texaco, or somebody else does the grunt work to bring it to the surface and transport it to the harbors. The U.S. government need do nothing special to see that this oil continues to flow into the world’s supply pool, any more than it needs a policy of coercing the Russians to sell their oil on the world market.

Moreover, the U.S. cannot substantially reduce its use of oil drawn from the world oil supply pool in the short or medium terms: modern technology relies heavily on petroleum and its derivatives, and substantial changes in relative prices and oil-related public policies of various sorts would be required to alter this great reality, however possible it may be to alter it in the long run by means of technological change spurred by relative price changes.

But the U.S. military presence in the Gulf serves not to ensure that the oil keeps flowing; it merely ensures that U.S. corporations (oil and weapons companies in particular), banks, insurance companies, and so forth will be the specific parties raking in the profits from dealing in the Gulf oil. If they didn’t do these jobs, the jobs would still get done, but they would get done by the efforts of other firms (European, Chinese, Japanese, and so forth), which is precisely the point: U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East serves the purposes of specific U.S. economic entities, which in turn more or less control the policies by the way they exercise their financial muscle in U.S. politics.

The neocon madness of the past few years is an aberration. It has not turned out to serve the purposes of the true movers and shakers (represented roughly by Baker and Co.), and so ultimately it will have to give way. The dimwitted president currently serving, who has run off the reservation by virtue of his personal ineptitude and immaturity, may extend the present madness until he leaves office, but eventually the actual powers that be in this country will reassert their control. They may have to do so with a Democratic administration, but they will still do so. Best wishes, Bob Higgs

Robert Higgs [send him mail] is senior fellow in political economy at the Independent Institute and editor of The Independent Review. His most recent book is Depression, War, and Cold War: Studies in Political Economy. He is also the author of Resurgence of the Warfare State: The Crisis Since 9/11 and Against Leviathan.

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