How Henry Kissinger Bungled the Arab Oil Embargo

His diplomacy with Saudi Arabia in 1973 was more naive and ideological than drawn from ‘realist’ strategy

How Henry Kissinger Bungled the Arab Oil Embargo
Henry Kissinger meets King Faisal of Saudi Arabia in December 1973. (Bettmann)

Last month marked 50 years since Saudi Arabia lifted a five-month oil embargo it had placed on the United States because of Washington’s support for Israel. On Aug. 10, 1973, almost two months before the eruption of the Arab-Israeli war and the imposition of the oil embargo, then-national security adviser Henry Kissinger told the director of the Office of Energy Policy, John Love, regarding the potential use of oil as a weapon, that “the Saudis are just not sophisticated enough to understand it, and they are, therefore, more dangerous.”

This conversation occurred because Love wanted to discuss what he had dubbed the “Saudi Arabian problem.” By this he meant a recent change in Saudi policy that saw it threaten to use oil as a tool to exert pressure on Israel to withdraw from territories occupied in the 1967 war. Kissinger thought that the Arab-Israeli conflict was “insoluble” and that any “Arab government that would sign a settlement acceptable to the Israelis would be out in two years.” This is why he thought the Saudis were not sophisticated enough to understand the dangers of being at the forefront of this issue both for themselves and for U.S. interests.

Since Kissinger’s death in late November at the age of 100, most of the public debate about his legacy has been centered on questioning the morality of his approach to politics — namely adherence to “realist” policies that may be amoral or unethical but practical, and the consequent prolongation of wars and civilian suffering and deaths, like in Vietnam. Even in the Arab world, which suffered from his policies, he still had admirers. Abdulrahman al-Rashed, one of the most prominent Saudi political commentators, wrote in the Saudi newspaper Al-Sharq Al-Awsat that Kissinger was distinct from other American secretaries of state in being a “strategy-maker” and that “his realism” was admirable.

Yet examining his legacy in dealing with the “Saudi Arabian problem,” as Love put it, reveals little strategic thinking and more of an ad hoc approach influenced by an ideological distorting mirror and a naive understanding of the Middle East.

Before the eruption of the 1973 war, Kissinger underestimated Saudi threats of weaponizing the oil trade, and designed a contingency policy in case the Saudis used oil against the U.S. Yet the Saudis, alongside other Arab oil-producing countries, did institute an embargo against the United States and other countries over their support of Israel during the conflict. Not only that, even his contingency plan failed in mitigating the impact of the Saudi decision. When the war erupted, Kissinger lacked a strategy to contain and ultimately end it. He initially wanted to pursue an ad hoc policy of occupying Saudi oil facilities, a position shaped by 19th-century imperialism and the idea of a hierarchy of world civilizations. When this policy failed, he resorted to threatening to publish the private messages between his administration and Saudi Arabia. While the embargo ultimately ended without the major Saudi demand of total Israeli withdrawal to its 1967 borders having been met, it succeeded in linking U.S. interests in the region’s oil to the Arab-Israeli conflict for the next five decades — an outcome that Kissinger had fought hard to prevent.

In December 1972, Saudi King Faisal ended a long-standing policy of not allowing “oil to be used as a political weapon,” as James Akin put it in a Foreign Affairs article in early 1973. In that month, two American officials, John Connally and Franklin Lincoln, visited Faisal separately and came back with the same message. “King Faisal said that there could be no further development of mutual Saudi-U.S. economic interests or any further expansion of oil production … without a political settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict,” Kissinger reported to Nixon, according to State Department archives.

According to the two visitors, Faisal also told them that he was under immense pressure to “cut off the oil supply.” Kissinger commented on this report by pointing out that this was Faisal’s “first direct linkage of the Arab-Israeli problem with oil.” He concluded his report with the ultimately accurate prediction that Faisal “will no longer remain in a passive wholly friendly posture indefinitely awaiting favorable U.S. action to resolve the Arab-Israeli dispute.”

In the following months, Saudi officials made public their decision to link the future of Saudi-U.S. relations with the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. As historian Ruediger Graf shows in his book “Oil and Sovereignty,” this public campaign started in May 1973 with a Washington Post interview with Saudi Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources Ahmed Zaki Yamani under the headline “Saudis Tie Oil to the US Policy to Israel.” A few weeks later, Faisal pressured the American parent oil companies of ARAMCO to convey the same message. In the summer of 1973, Mobil published a full-page advertisement in the New York Times warning the American people of the economic consequences if the U.S. government did not take serious steps to pressure Israel to withdraw to the 1967 borders. In July 1973, under the headline “Faisal Warns US on Israel,” the Saudi king told the Washington Post journalist Jim Hoagland that “Saudi Arabia will find it ‘difficult’ to continue close cooperation with the United States if American support for Israel remains at its present level.”

It was partly in reaction to this shift in Saudi policy that Kissinger sought to develop a strategy to minimize the impact of any potential Arab oil embargo. In March 1973, he ordered a national security study memorandum, NSSM 174, to be prepared on the “national security implications of world energy.” The study was completed in August. In addition to general suggestions to meet the threat of being vulnerable to international supply shortages, the study specifically addressed the effect of the Arab-Israeli conflict on potential oil cutoffs. The study encouraged a set of strategies to prevent “moderate Arabs,” primarily “our key supplier, Saudi Arabia,” from using oil to influence U.S. policy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict. These strategic ideas included increasing the cost of such action through greater involvement of the U.S. in oil-producing countries’ security and economies as well as decreasing the effectiveness of weaponizing oil by relying more on Iran and increasing domestic production.

In addition to the national interest in preventing Saudi Arabia from using its oil power against the United States, Kissinger also thought that it was not in Saudi Arabia’s best interest to do so. He believed that Saudis were “less equipped … to deal with the Israeli problem” — essentially because he believed the problem was not soluble and Saudi Arabia was putting its own regime at risk by attempting to solve it. For him, it was impossible for Israel to withdraw to the 1967 borders, and any peace outcome would be less than the Arabs expected. Therefore, it was better for the Saudis to be isolated from the ramifications of such a policy. Recall his quote in that August that “the Saudis are just not sophisticated enough to understand it and they are, therefore, more dangerous.” He kept repeating this position on many occasions. For example, he told the Israeli minister of foreign affairs on Aug. 17 that he thought it was “a mistake to get the Saudis involved in the Arab-Israeli dispute.” On Sept. 10, he informed the Israeli ambassador of his “strategy to keep the Saudis out of the Arab-Israeli dispute.”

Kissinger’s strategy failed miserably, as he failed to isolate Saudi Arabia from the Arab-Israeli conflict and his NSSM 174 mitigation plan failed to isolate U.S. consumers from the Arab strategic use of oil. Indeed, up until the day before the Arab oil-producing countries’ decision to boycott the U.S., Kissinger insisted that the Saudis would not do it.

A closer look at Kissinger’s performance from Oct. 16 to 20 reveals the limits of his so-called realist and pragmatist approach to politics. On Oct. 10, the CIA reported that Yamani informed American oil companies that Saudi Arabia might cut oil production. This information was leaked to the New York Times, which ran a front-page story on Oct. 16 under the headline, “A Saudi Threat on Oil Reported.” What this means is that, by Oct. 16, Kissinger was well informed about the Saudi threat through both the CIA and American media. Still, he did not take it seriously. This is probably because he based his judgment not on a nuanced understanding of the history, politics and balance of power in the Middle East but rather on his Oct. 12 personal conversation with Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Omar al-Saqqaf, in which the latter “affirmed that the Saudis had no intention of ‘hanging themselves’ by cutting off oil and bringing further trouble to the Middle East.”

On the morning of Oct. 17, a delegation of Arab foreign ministers, led by Saqqaf, met with Nixon and Kissinger. The discussions focused on the need for a cease-fire, forcing Israel to withdraw to the 1967 borders and the resupply of American arms to Israel. At noon, Kissinger told Nixon that their meeting with Arab ministers “was a most successful morning.” After 3 p.m., Kissinger chaired the Washington Special Actions Group to discuss the Middle East. In that meeting, he bragged that we “don’t expect an oil cutoff now in the light of the discussions with the Arab foreign ministers this morning.” He jokingly asked the participants, “Did you see the Saudi foreign minister come out like a good little boy and say they had had very fruitful talks with us?” After 4 p.m., in another meeting, Kissinger congratulated Nixon for “the best-run crisis since you have been in the White House.”

At the same time that Kissinger was celebrating himself for preventing the weaponization of oil, the Arab decision to use oil in the war effort had already been made. In Kuwait, the Arab oil ministers convened and decided to reduce oil production by 5%, to be followed by an additional 5% reduction every month until Israel withdrew to the 1967 borders. The Saudi government, alongside other countries, decided to go beyond the agreed percentage and cut 10% of its production. Also, they unilaterally imposed a 70% increase in the price of oil from $3.01 per gallon to $5.12. In a call the morning of Oct. 18 with the White House Press Secretary Ronald Ziegler, Kissinger downplayed the impact of the reduction decision and called it “a token thing.” Less than 48 hours later, in retaliation against Nixon’s request to Congress for $2.2 billion in aid to Israel, Saudi Arabia announced a complete oil embargo on the United States.

Not only did Kissinger fail to prevent the Saudi weaponization of oil against the U.S., he also mistakenly thought that an oil embargo would be more effective than oil cuts. “We were so focused on the danger of an embargo that we thought the production cutback,” he wrote in his memoir, “largely a symbolic gesture.” In fact, as the historian Victor McFarland shows in his book “Oil Powers,” the effect of the embargo was quickly mitigated by oil companies shifting non-Arab oil to America while sending Arab oil elsewhere. On the other hand, the oil cuts reduced the total volume of oil available globally, leading the price of a barrel to reach $11.56 by December 1973. This, alongside poor and unprepared American regulatory systems, disrupted the U.S. economy, famously symbolized by the long lines at gas stations. The energy crisis and the ensuing panic transformed the lives of many Americans, as it pushed them to struggle daily to secure fuel to drive their cars, heat their homes and run their workplaces. In April 1974, the New York Times ran a story headlined “For Gasoline, Little Is Certain but High Prices.” It described how the energy crisis had “created chaos and, at least for a brief time, changed the driving habits of an entire nation.”

Realizing that his strategies to prevent or mitigate the effects of the Saudi deployment of its oil leverage had failed, Kissinger adopted ad hoc policies to end the oil embargo. The first idea that came to his mind was to invade Saudi oil facilities and claim the oil.

When this idea was first suggested on Oct. 24, 1973, by Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger, Kissinger dismissed it and called Schlesinger “insane.” However, two days later, he started fantasizing about the idea in front of his employees in a staff meeting at the Department of State.

“I know what would have happened in the 19th century,” Kissinger told them. “The idea that a Bedouin kingdom could hold up Western Europe and the United States would have been absolutely inconceivable.” He went on imagining what 19th-century imperial powers would have done. “They would have divided up the oil fields, and they would have solved the problem.” Still, up to this point he maintained his position that this idea could not be implemented.

But in November, when Schlesinger mentioned the idea again, Kissinger replied that it was “ridiculous that the civilized world is held up by 8 million savages. … Can’t we overthrow one of the sheikhs just to show that we can do it?” As Andrew Scott Cooper details in his book “Oil Kings,” Schlesinger and Kissinger developed plans to “seize Abu Dhabi,” the oil-rich emirate in the newly founded United Arab Emirates, in the last days of November. Although the plan was not actualized, Kissinger organized a press conference on Nov. 21 where he publicly threatened “countermeasures” if the economic pressure continued. The following day, Yamani, the Saudi oil minister, appeared in a TV interview in Copenhagen and declared that Saudi Arabia would cut 80% of its oil production if any countermeasures were taken. He also told his American, European and Japanese audiences that the Saudi government was willing to blow up its oil facilities if the United States were to take any military action. These threats were substantiated by the CIA and ended Kissinger’s attempt to dissociate the issue of Arab-Israeli peace from the oil embargo.

Kissinger’s second ad hoc approach was to threaten in January 1974 to publish the secret messages between the administration and Saudi Arabia. This threat stemmed, it seems, from his perception that the motivation behind the Saudi oil embargo was a desire for survival in a region filled with radical states, and that the Saudis “have to be more radical than the radicals.” Threatening to publish the secret messages could “expose” the Saudis in front of their Arab neighbors. Such exposure would reveal that, contrary to public pronouncements, Riyadh promised to lift the embargo if an Israeli-Egyptian disengagement was achieved — regardless of Israeli withdrawal. This became especially urgent for him after the Saudi government backed down from the promise they made privately to Nixon, who relied on that promise in his public commitment to end the embargo in his 1974 State of the Union address. When the U.S. ambassador in Riyadh communicated this threat to Saqqaf, the latter simply replied by pointing out that these messages were more damaging to Nixon than to Arabs. This is because “every conversation with the secretary or with me, was basically a plea to protect Richard Nixon. It was just that the Arabs had to take action to protect the presidency of Richard Nixon.” He then told the ambassador that if Kissinger went ahead and published the messages, the Saudis would “also release any parts of the exchanges which Washington omits.”

Saudi Arabia, alongside other Arab oil-producing countries, lifted the oil embargo on March 18, 1974, only after some of their demands were met. While a complete Israeli withdrawal from territories occupied in 1967 was not achieved, the embargo succeeded in linking the Arab-Israeli conflict with U.S. interests in the region’s oil — an outcome that Kissinger tried very hard to prevent from happening. This failure was directly linked to ideological positions he held that influenced his understanding of the politics of the region. His views on the behavior of the states in the region were influenced by a binary of “radical” versus “moderate” Arabs, the idea of a world hierarchically divided into multiple civilizations as well as a complete lack of knowledge of global energy interdependence. These views rendered any attempt at strategy-building futile, and, as Harvard political scientist Stephen Walt argued in Foreign Policy after Kissinger’s death, are at odds with the realist tradition and its theories.

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