Crescendo to Panic

A Crisis in the Persian Gulf.

I believe that the United States should discontinue its purported mission of escorting Kuwaiti tankers in the Persian Gulf. First, I will briefly describe the history of events in the region called the “Arc of Crisis.” Second, I will discuss US economic interest in the Gulf. Third, I will discuss US geopolitical interest in the gulf vis-a-vis the Soviets, and I will show how our present actions in the Gulf arise from our need to project power in the region. Fourth, I will show that despite Soviet and US interest in the Gulf, the Superpowers have lost the ability to project power in the region. Fifth, and finally, I will discuss a rational alternative to our present actions in the Gulf. Not only is our present policy in the Persian Gulf poorly defined, but it is based on incorrect assumptions, and it is not having the effect originally intended. The problem is not purely economic, it is geopolitical. Only a careful examination the Gulf’s history can begin to shed light on its dark future.

In the years following WWII, the West sought the peace which had eluded her for nearly half of a century. WWI was so named after everyone realized that it was, in fact, not the war to end all wars. The West, however, wanted to consider WWII in this same vein. The West’s idea of normalcy was for everything to stay the way it was after WWII, and they were prepared to fight, although not on a global level, to ensure the status quo. However, waves of revolution and political upheaval seemed to periodically sweep over Third World countries, and the West, the US in particular, was faced with a very unpleasant situation. Namely, the spread of communism to the Third World. The first wave came after WWII when China was lost, and Korea and French Indochina were partially lost. The second wave came in the late 1950s with crises in Algeria, Cuba, and the Congo (now Zaire). Recently we remembered the 25th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962). This event seemed to mark a turning point in the waves of conflict.[1] However, the effects of the Cuban Missile Crisis were not long lasting. After 1974, the third wave of revolutions swept across the Third World with revolutions in Ethiopia (1974), Afghanistan (1978), Iran (1979), and Nicaragua (1979). This most recent wave of revolutions combined with the loss of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia(1975) has demanded and received US action for two main reasons. First, a large percentage of the world’s oil comes from the Persian Gulf. We need this oil, and our allies need this oil. Second, these latest events are taking place in the “Arc of Crisis.” More specifically, they are centered on the Persian Gulf area which is of great geopolitical importance to the US. We need all the allies we can in the region. We cannot afford to lose another ally as we lost Iran. For these reasons, we have taken action. However, it is the wrong action, and these are the wrong reasons.

The US is supposedly in the Persian Gulf to protect the flow of Kuwaiti oil. In fact, the Reagan administration initiated the reflagging of 11 Kuwaiti vessels in order to demonstrate US dedication to get the oil through. This policy is based on two incorrect assumptions – that the US needs this oil and that it won’t get through without our help. The majority of the oil shipped from the Gulf is used by Japan and Europe.[2][3] (See appendix.) Since the US is not the primary consumer of this oil, and since the US is concerned about the shipping of Kuwaiti oil in international waters, it seems to follow that an international organization (i.e. the United Nations) should take the responsibility to make sure that the oil gets through. In addition to this, there is little evidence that we are doing Kuwait any good. (Even if we are, they are certainly not reciprocating. I’ll discuss this later.) In fact, of the 11 reflagged Kuwaiti vessels, only one is a crude oil tanker, and it spent the months of September and October in dry dock. As of two weeks ago, only one Kuwaiti tanker passed through the Strait of Hormuz compared to the 14 US convoys which have passed through. In fact, Kuwait has been exporting above its OPEC limits.[4] The flow of oil has never seriously been in jeopardy. Iran knows that if they try to cut off the flow of oil in the Gulf, they are essentially cutting their own throats. The countries in the Middle East rely on the oil exports just as much as the rest of the world relies on the oil imports. “The most delicate situation would be the closing of the Gulf by the Arab states themselves, but this turn of events is highly unlikely, given that a world oil embargo would accomplish the same thing.”[5] We need to be realists. Our stated policy is clear, but the oil will get through whether we help it get through or not. Therefore, the policy is poorly defined. It is clear that there are other reasons for our presence – our need to project power.

The US wants to prevent Soviet expansion into the Gulf and our present military action is a direct result of our attempt to project power in the region. “The ‘Arc of Crisis’ [is] spanned along the shores of the Indian Ocean with fragile social and political structures in a region of vital importance to us threatened with fragmentation…. The resulting political chaos could well be filled with elements hostile to our values and sympathetic to our adversaries.”[6] Zbibniew Brzezinski said this in part of his speech before the Foreign Policy Association in December of 1978 during the Carter administration. This set the stage for US action in the region. Slowly but surely, the status quo that the West sought to preserve was beginning to deteriorate. From 1978 on, US policy was one of nonintervention. The US has recently been recently changed this policy due to increasing hostilities in the Gulf. We perceive the problem to be the Soviets. We fear a Soviet takeover in the region which not only would give the Soviets a warm water port, but it would also give them control over a large percentage of the world’s oil supply.

President Reagan said “Let’s not delude ourselves. The Soviet Union underlies all of the unrest that is going on. If they weren’t engaged in this game of dominoes, there wouldn’t be any hot spots in the world.”[7] Because of the fear of Soviet domination in the Gulf, we have been trying to project our power to dissuade them from doing the same. However, what we have succeeded in doing is provoking confrontation with the unpredictable Iranians and helping the Soviets economically because they are selling arms to Iran. “When Iranians and Americans shoot at each other, Moscow benefits.”[8] There are basically three things wrong with President Reagan’s assessment of the situation. First, the Soviets did not instigate the regional unrest. Second, the Soviets have little to gain from a direct confrontation in the Gulf. Third, the US and the Soviet Union are no longer able to influence policy in sovereign Third World states. The post-WWII status quo is in fact not the norm.

The Soviets may have interests in the Gulf, but they are not the perpetrators of violence or of this most recent wave of revolutions. Not one of the revolutions in the “Arc of Crisis” was caused by the Soviets.[9] In fact, since our stepped – up activity in the Gulf, tensions have increased, and they are only going to get worse. It seems that we are causing problems in the Gulf, not the Soviets. Iranian Foreign Minister recently warned of ‘all out war’ in the Gulf.[10] We should heed this warning. We should also be aware that Soviet assets in the region can be more correctly described as liabilities. Ethiopia and Afghanistan are two cases in point. Soviet losses have essentially canceled out Soviet gains. All of this leads to one logical conclusion. Neither Superpower can project power in the Gulf anymore. We thought Iran was our ally, but they disposed of us. Similarly, the Soviets thought that Egypt was their ally, but Egypt disposed of them too. This trend, which I alluded to earlier, is continuing as demonstrated by Kuwait’s refusal to let US ships dock in its ports. They will use us until it is no longer convenient for them to do so. This attitude contradicts US and Soviet notions of fair play. Despite most differing views of the Superpowers, both still cling to the antiquated notion of rules of detente. The Gulf states, and on a larger scale the Middle East, and on an even larger scale the “Arc of Crisis,” is not clearly delineated between East and West. Policies based on traditional clear dividing lines, such as those in Europe, do not apply here. The countries involved are sovereign states and must be treated as such. The Soviets are learning their lesson the hard way in Afghanistan. Unless we act now, the US is destined to learn the hard way in the Gulf.

There is, however, a rational solution to the problem in the Gulf – to get out. As long as Iran considers the US the “Great Satan,” peace and US presence are mutually exclusive. In addition to the lives that it has already cost, the Gulf war has forced the Navy to go over budget by $20 million per month. The costs are too high and the benefits are too few. If the international community is as concerned about the area as it claims to be, then the United Nations should take action. Concern about a Soviet veto on the Security Council will prove to be unwarranted as the Soviets become a net importer of oil in the next few years.[11] We are doing more harm than good and we need to consider the long term consequences of our actions. “For while US administrations have a long history of pursuing policies that are inappropriate to the circumstances, they have been able to do so because of a favorable combination of power and luck. That combination might not last. As power becomes irrelevant, there is the high risk that luck will fail.”[12]

If the issue is simply whether or not to escort Kuwaiti tankers, then it is clear that there is no need for our presence. The assumptions that the US needs the oil and that we are the only ones who can ensure its safe passage are both erroneous. The issue is much larger than that. In a geopolitical sense, the world is seeing yet another departure from East/West preconceived notions of normalcy. These notions grew out of the rubble of WWII. The only difference is that the latest wave of revolutions in the so-called “Arc of Crisis” was neither instigated by nor can it be dictated by either Superpower. Given the lessons of Iran and Egypt, the whole notion of power projection is defunct. Our presence in the Gulf, therefore, is unwarranted. The Soviets seem to have learned their lesson. The US hasn’t. To date we have been fairly lucky, but unless the US disappears from the Gulf, we will experience escalation, a crescendo to irrational unnecessary panic, and finally, our luck will disappear.


1. Fred Halliday, Soviet Policy in the Arc of Crisis (Institute for Policy Studies, Washington, DC,1981), p. 11.

2. IBID, p. 47.

3. Mazher A. Hameed, Saudi Arabia, the West, and the Security of the Gulf (Croom Helm Ltd, London, 1986), p. 33.

4. Nancy Cooper, “A Balance Sheet in the Gulf,” Newsweek, vol. CX, no. 19 (19 Nov 87), p. 59.

5. R.B. Byers and David Leyton-Brown, Superpower Intervention in the Gulf (Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies, Toronto, 1982), p. 85.

6. R.B. Byers and David Leyton-Brown, Superpower Intervention in the Gulf (Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies, Toronto, 1982), p. 22.

7. Fred Halliday, Soviet Policy in the Arc of Crisis (Institute for Policy Studies, Washington, DC, 1981), p. 7.

8. Russel Watson, “More Blood in the Gulf,” Newsweek, vol. CX, no. 16 (19 Oct 87), p. 45.

9. Fred Halliday, Soviet Policy in the Arc of Crisis, (Institute for Policy Studies, Washington, DC, 1981), p. 23.

10. Russel Watson, “More Blood in the Gulf,” Newsweek, vol. CX, no. 16 (19 Oct 87), p. 44.

11. Amos A. Jordan and William J. Taylor, Jr., American National Security (The John Hopkins Press Ltd., London, 1984), p. 360.

12. William Stivers, America’s Confrontation with Revolutionary Change in the Middle East, 1948-83 (St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1986). p. 106.


Byers, R.B. and Leyton-Brown, David. Superpower Intervention in the Persian Gulf. Toronto: Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies, 1982.

Cooper, Nancy. “A Balance Sheet in the Gulf.” Newsweek. Vol. CX, no. 19, 9 Nov 87.

Halliday, Fred. Soviet Policy in the Arc of Crisis. Washington, DC: Institute for Policy Studies, 1981.

Hameed, Mazher A. Saudi Arabia, the West, and the Security of the Gulf. London: Croom Helm, 1986.

Jordan, Amos A. and Taylor, William J., Jr. American National Security: Policy and Process. Foreword by Maxwell D. Taylor. Baltimore and London: John Hopkins University Press, 1981; Rev. Ed., 1984.

Stivers, William. America’s Confrontation with Revolutionary Change in the Middle East, 1948-83. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986.

Waton, Russel. “More Blood in the Gulf.” Newsweek. Vol. CX, no. 16, 19 Oct 87.

[This article was written while Erik J. Heels was a student at MIT for the course AS41 – US National Security. It was reprinted here on 04/10/07.]

2 Replies to “Crescendo to Panic”

  1. How does hindsight see this article now? Would 911 have happened if we withdrew from the Gulf back in the 80’s, or would there have been something even worse. Like to know your thoughts – you have a lot of insight & views on this topic already…

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