Oilcraft: The Myths of Scarcity and Security that Haunt U.S. Energy Policy

  • Published

Oilcraft: The Myths of Scarcity and Security that Haunt U.S. Energy Policy by Robert Vitalis. Stanford University Press, 2020, 224 pp.

Oilcraft successfully questions and debunks several commonly held beliefs—myths—about oil’s scarcity in the world and its impact on US national security. The author, Robert Vitalis, earned his PhD in political science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1989 and is a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania. His publication, an essay as he calls it, offers a new and valid perspective on a household commodity that reframes the debate over wartime motivations and decision-making in the Middle East.

Professor Vitalis’s work assumes a fair amount of prior knowledge from the reader. While his publication is accessible to those unfamiliar with oil policy, it is perhaps more approachable for political scientists and policy makers with a baseline knowledge of America’s history and policy on oil. Although a dense read, Oilcraft is written conversationally, striking the informal tone of a small lecture. Professor Vitalis’s unique voice includes the occasional obscenity and uncommonly short sentences for greater impact (p. 86). He finds a uniquely refreshing and relatable quality that makes the book a quick read.

While officially listed as 224 pages, Oilcraft is a relatively short work of 134 pages, excluding the acknowledgements, notes, bibliography, and index. The book’s five chapters provide basic context before proceeding chronologically through America’s oil policy since the 1920s. One has the feeling after only the first chapter that Professor Vitalis, with his scholarly and publication background, could have written Oilcraft with relative ease in his spare time. In fact, he states that this is the first book he has written “without decamping for weeks at a stretch to work in various archives” (p. 136).

Oilcraft’s first chapter beyond the introduction begins with the 1920s and the generally held belief that “growing demand for scarce natural resources threatened violence, war, and worst of all, imperial ruin” (p. 124). Critics began to question this sentiment and gradually reveled as none of these dire predictions came true. As noted by one, “The fears of the raw materialists proved unfounded” (p. 125). The debunking of this early belief dovetails to the clever title of Professor Vitalis’s book. Key to his book is his portmanteau “oilcraft,” which he calls “a line of magical thinking closer to witchcraft than statecraft" (p. 6). This is an opening shot that signals to the reader that one should effectively leave at the door everything you think you know about Saudi Arabia, oil, and a so-called bargain for oil in exchange for security. The book questions deeply held beliefs about the role of oil in US foreign policy and the “geopolitical impact of these false beliefs.” Professor Vitalis promises to “break the spell” of oilcraft in the final chapter.

The author takes primary aim at the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) embargo and economic shock in 1973—both of which he says are commonly misunderstood and involve a large degree of US manipulation rather than uncontrollable external forces. He also believes that the notion of the US having a “special relationship” with Saudi Arabia based on an exchange of oil for security is a relatively new invention—perhaps only 20 years old—rather than going back to the 1940s as commonly believed. Any supposed manipulation by Saudi Arabia or OPEC—a so-called invisible hand on the price of oil in markets—is also unsubstantiated and at best an unprovable claim.

Amusingly, Professor Vitalis has no qualms about quoting current authorities that propagate misguided or blatantly false beliefs, including CNN reporters, Brookings Institution experts, the Public Broadcasting Service, and various academics (pp. 91–92). He goes so far as to state, “What the American public knows about Saudi Arabia consists mainly of clichés" (p. 94). At times, it feels superfluous to call out authorities by name who are off target without giving further context or giving them a chance to explain. Yet news personalities and academics are fair game in the great debate over politics and international relations.

Professor Vitalis’s book is strongest when it focuses on the intersection of international relations, economics, and oil. Chapters two through four deliver on this blend of subjects expertly, again, sometimes so much so that new readers in the subject matter may wish for an introductory course on oil policy and history before reaching for Oilcraft. At times, the author draws connections between oil and war, as when he states that President Carter pledged in his January 1980 State of the Union address to use force to prevent outside powers from seizing the Gulf. This in turn begat a Rapid Deployment Force that morphed into what we now know as the US Central Command (p. 73). Readers may be left wondering what further conclusions the author might draw about the current global conflicts preoccupying the command.

A chief weakness of Professor Vitalis’s book is that it is light on proposals. His final chapter, “Breaking the Spell,” is a thin 14 pages, leaving the reader grasping for the impact of his analysis. Where is his insight for the future, and how does he seek to push forward the body of knowledge? Readers in the Defense Department may especially search for actionable takeaways from the book. After most of the book’s backward-looking narrative on oil policy, it would be refreshing to have a glimpse forward in which policy makers and military professionals discuss how some of the book’s premises can be applied to future operations. After all, the book promises to address the “geopolitical impact of false beliefs” about oil. If this is a primary reason for writing Oilcraft, then why not include possible remedies to soften the geopolitical impact of this phenomenon?

Oil will remain a factor in defense planning for generations, even as our primary adversaries in the Middle East slowly take a back seat to great power competition. Thus, the US cannot ignore the central role of oil in long-term defense planning. Russia and China both employ global commodities and market forces to achieve national objectives. Oilcraft is a welcome addition to the conversation as the Defense Department pivots to strategic competition and questions how oil can influence US defense strategy.

Capt Matthew H. Ormsbee, USAF

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."