Vitalis, Robert. 2020. Oilcraft: The Myths of Scarcity and Security that Haunts U.S. Energy Policy. Stanford University Press; pp. ‎ 240 pages; Paperback: $22.00; Hardcover: $22.47; ISBN-10 :1503632598; ISBN-13: 978-1503632592

The premise of Vitalis’ book is that oil cannot be the bloodline of the U.S. economy, least of all, of U.S. national security. There are several minerals (a little over seventy) which the industrial world badly needs a constant and secured supply of and which civilization itself cannot do without, but they are not treated as important as oil. Such a state of affairs serves us in questioning contents spread by news cartels! At least, the average observer has never heard that this or that country has waged war or is willing to wage one to ensure reliable shipments of aluminium or copper. What is it so special, then, with oil? Precisely, what is at stake when it comes to oil?

According to Vitalis, oil is less the story of oil, the crude matter, and more the story of cooked data and produced-under-demand type of evidence. Powerful interest groups and lobbies inside the U.S. corridors of power steer such data and evidence toward selling the myth which nearly all people are born to embrace as self-evident. Indeed, the fear of failing to ensure a constant supply of oil (and strangely only) from the Persian Gulf is supposed to spell a trauma. The myth sits on another no less powerful and enduring myth. Both science and reason ensure that there has never been a dwindling supply of oil or any other natural resources. As technology advances, enough reserves of all types of minerals are constantly discovered. The only way to free the U.S. democracy, nay, the very political system and ensure a solid role model for the rest of the world is to shed off these myths. They cripple U.S. policy planners and ruin the U.S. reputation in the world.  
The book comprises five chapters wherein the first serves as an introduction and the last as a conclusion. Chapter One “Opening” sets the stage for revisiting President Bush’s conquest of Iraq in 2003. Since both then and now, the argument goes that the U.S. acted on behalf of large Oil conglomerates. If so, Vitalis rebuts. The proper and easiest way for the U.S. to access that oil was to lift its own 1990s sanctions on Iraqi exports. Like this, oil companies would have entered the market and the problem resolved. Besides, with the rise of prices in the early 2000s, the abundance of hydraulically-fractioned oil has made the U.S. a major producer of oil itself. The U.S. import of oil from the Middle East is around 18 per cent.
Nevertheless, “Junk social science” (p. 5) keeps the scary narrative aflame. In a context where luminaries and public intellectuals are fixated on their myth of ‘oil-as-power’, the term ‘oilcraft’ recalls witchcraft more than statecraft. Vitalis’ analogy is a call towards dispelling confusion and talismanic obsession by promoting a rationalized understanding of decisions about energy policy. When the only evidence ‘junk’ social scientists provide is the rising of prices, then one comes face to face with what Roger Stern ably calls ‘oil-scarcity ideology’ (p. 6). Vitalis stresses the method whereby every statement we encounter in the archive should be taken with a grain of salt.
To counter such an erroneous methodology, he proposes that readers must not overlook three facts: 1- the world is rich in minerals; anyone has access to raw materials. The possibility of oil-as-weapon is at best incorrect and a ‘chimaera’ (p. 14). Instead of embracing the confirmation bias, the abondance should incentivize us to question what lies beyond the phenomenal; 2- the imagined threats to oil supply—even when real—cannot be addressed militarily; 3- oil prices are dependent on other raw materials. A simple comparison of oil prices against other minerals in the long durée—as Roger Stern does—will conclude that oil cannot be the lifeblood of the American way of life.     
Chapter Two, “Raw Materialism”, posits that the idea of a single source being of critical importance for a given national economy is reductionist at best and misleading at worse. Vitalis brings to evidence proponents of the early twentieth century Columbia School (scholars like Edward Mead Earle and William S. Culbertson) wherein the latter notes that U.S. policy since 1918 has been rooted in “bogeys” ranging from rapid depletion of natural resources to British monopoly of these resources (pp. 26-7). Back then, like now, there existed an industry behind the studies fueling these bogeys, infuriating the public and policymakers alike about such imagined threats. Vitalis finds that the idea of ” ‘control’ of foreign oil fields” (p. 29) becoming a priority for the U.S. economy has been sown in Americans’ unconscious fairly recently, during the 1990s. Culbertson finds that wars do not emerge from the need to control or ensure extended supplies of raw materials but from the need for markets to commercialize industrialized commodities. (p. 32) That is how embracing mid-nineteen century protectionism triggers bouts of scarcity syndrome. But a generation or two later, these findings made during the 1920s were all forgotten. The Cold War context made it more likely that the Soviets could threaten U.S. access to Middle East oil. Vitalis adds that even Noam Chomsky falls into confirmation bias wherein “the progressives of the 1970s were a pale imitation of their 1920s ancestors.” (p. 55) as they just kept parroting criticism of American foreign policy without registering the immanent discourse on oil or where that criticism might be heading.
Chapter Three, “1973: A Time to Confuse”, rereads the much-mediated event of October 17, 1973, or the alleged OPEC oil embargo. Upon checking the evidence, Vitalis finds the event was anything but a spectacle. Under no stretch of the imagination, the event can be seriously called or even approximated to a threat of cutting supplies, let alone an embargo. Back then, “only 7 per cent of U.S. oil imports originated from the Middle East” (p. 57). Besides, Arab nationalists only expressed a half-hearted and face-saving gesture in the wake of their humiliating defeat against Isarel in June 1967—gestures meant for popular consumption at home only.
Nevertheless, the scarcity-thesis driven by media and the cult of trusting experts and intellectuals for gaining monopoly made it look as if scarcity is imminent and can usher at the end of the world. Vitalis discusses the five hundred pages report by David S. Freeman’s A Time to Choose, released when Americans were experiencing long lines in gas stations. The report makes it super easy to jump to the conclusion that the long queues were a reverberation from the much-publicized shock that spelt serious disruptions of supply and all presumably orchestrated by the Arab Embargo. In reality, though, OPEC “sought a fairer share of the windfall.” (p. 64) In its effort to protect local crude producers from the effects of the unstable market, the U.S. government used a preferential tariff with local crude producers. However, the Nixon Administration decided in 1971 to reverse the preferential tariff policy and open the U.S. market to non-American producers. This new policy, not OPEC’s action, explain the interruption in supply and long queues; the embargo was only a surrogate. Far from disrupting supply, Arabs were terrified of losing their market shares.
Chapter Four, “No Deal”, elaborates on the motoring principle behind the myth that stipulates the invisibility of oil for the American policymaker. It is the key chapter as it uncovers the motive behind portraying oil as the bloodline of the American economy. Vitalis notes that this myth could not become as intense as now without the fantasy-embraced-as-history. Given their nefarious stature in consequence of 9/11, the Saudis, or Al Saud, more exactly: the ruling oligarchs of Saudi Arabia, have invested heavily to paint themselves as peace-loving and reliable suppliers of oil for the U.S. economy. They invented a genesis for a presumed memorandum of understanding or a deal between King Ibn Saud and President Franklin Roosevelt on board the destroyer U.S.S. Qunicy near the end of World War II. The presumed deal which the author finds no trace in the archives or the records hypothetically listed that the Saudis will ensure reliable shipments of crude and the U.S., on its part, will guarantee the protection of the king and his dynasty after him. Vitalis adds: “The only problem is that no account of U.S.-Saudi relation for the next fifty years said any such thing.” (p. 87), underscoring a situation that leads anyone to conclude that “The Saudis, the P.R. firms, and their many friends in Washington would milk the meeting with F.D.R. for all it was worth after 2001”. (p. 91) Indeed, Vitalis is aware that this Saudi fabrication counts among the latest in the arsenal of forgeries specifying the invisibility of oil. Differently put, the deceit and the fable could not go unnoticed without interest groups at home. These interest groups profit from recycling oil dollars in the U.S. economy through purchases of U.S. treasury bonds, consumer goods and, of course, armament bills with astronomical price tags attached to them. That is how it is for the long-term interest of the U.S. to distance itself from a retrogressive and degenerate monarchy. That proximity does considerable damage to the status of the U.S. as a superpower. The crumbling of the Saudis’ rule will be an event that will boost, not hinder, U.S. supremacy or at least its leadership credentials.
Chapter Five, “Breaking the Spell”, concludes Oilcraft by reclaiming each chapter’s key pieces of the argument. Vialis starts with underlying that “[p]opular and scholarly beliefs about oil-as-power also have no basis in fact” (p. 122). But the irony that the myth posits is that policymakers who sincerely want to break from this fixation can do little to break the immanent structure whereby oil is received as invisible. The assumptions are that powerful that any attempt to go against them ends in discrediting, if not ridiculing, the credible policymaker. Hence, the first step of leaving that fixation starts with getting the scholarship correct, never allowing unchecked opinions to go for knowledge. Knowledge starts by first making sure that crude producers have no choice but to sell their outputs. Before harming the U.S. economy, cutting supplies will strangle their economies and destabilize their hold on power. Second, one needs to be certain that besides the fact that deploying an army to protect crude supplies cannot be tenable and efficient, the deployment itself raises tensions and causes supply interruptions. Third, the Middle East is a volatile space, and it does not behove a superpower to be constantly dragged into the mess out there. Fourth, by the same depleted logic of scarcity, why does not the U.S. go and chase bauxite, tungsten, tin, rubber lest other powers appropriate them? Fifth, there lies the fallacy with which the degenerate left sells its credentials: as soon as the U.S. steps out of the Middle East, “the fossil-capital-led order” will fall all on its own hence an era of plenitude automatically emerge. In the end, Vitalis notes that “Oilcraft today [has] hijack[ed] the mind of the scientifically literate” (p.128), speaking less of the average person whereby oil passes as an explanation for almost every that is wrong with the world today. Sixth, Saudis’ money should not be allowed to finance studies. Funding (Vitalis rightly calls it “the paid-to-think-tanks” p. 131) will only bring about pseudo-science whose consequences are more confusion and befogged policies, but the propaganda which the funding generates will cover for the asphyxiation of liberties in the Middle East and the world at large. In the end, Vitalis rightly addresses the U.S. policymaker: “why fear an Arabia without Sultans?” (p. 133)
Vitalis finds that well-intentioned and respectful policymakers and advisers stay disabled in the face of the enduring myths. Over the decades, these myths have taken a larger dimension than life. He is correct that the journey to undo their effect starts with unbiased research. But there are instances where Vitalis’ reliance on Posen’s suspicion of the ideology that oil is all but powerful recalls the theory that colonies cost metropolitan centres more than what the latter could squeeze value out of them. But his subsequent elaboration that correlation does not necessarily lead to causation lifts the confusion.
Perhaps what remains missing in Vitalis’ discussion of Columbia scholars’ findings of the 1920s regarding those in favour of open trade and their opponents is how during the time where capital expansion needed nationalism, oil was treated (and for good reasons) as the lifeblood. Vitalis indirectly calls for updating sedimented thinking since capitalistic growth since the 1920s (exactly after WWI) is not conditioned on the old mystique view of oil-as-bloodline, given the abundance of supply. Producers cannot afford to withdraw crude from buyers lest they risk losing their share in a highly competitive market. Similarly, no major power can hinder access to oil because oil remains evenly available everywhere.
At play, there have been two temporalities of capital accumulation, not one: formal and real dominations. The two temporalities explain why Moon notes the necessity (which is, in fact, Karl Marx’s) that animate these temporalties wherein occupying a colony becomes financially inhibitive after WWI. Self-less or anonymous capital is self-regulating at an advanced stage of primitive accumulation. Differently put, during the era of real domination (post-1918), there cannot be a need for a class of bourgeois pioneers to intervene. That explains why the bourgeois class has disappeared. In its place, there emerged a capitalistic class who controlled nothing yet. They pretend they are in charge of managers/administrators (C.E.O.s) appointed by shareholders to speak on behalf of the latter interest. Hence in this context, we read of Parker T. Moon’s quote where “raw materials are colour-blind.” (p. 36) and that colonies are a burden to maintain.
Likewise, Vitalis’ analysis in Chapter Four dwells on the corruption of the Saudis, and their dizzying pace of change ‘from camels to Cadilliacs’ (p. 95) paid for by oil rent may sound racist stays inconsequential in the overreaching impact of oil wealth. For that, oil wealth decides less their conservative outlook but more significantly intensifies their adamant predisposition against the founding of the semblance of an egalitarian polity all over the MENA (the Middle East and North Africa) region. The counter-revolution that quelled the uprisings of the Arab Spring both in 2011 and 2019 have been fueled and financed by their medieval outlook. On the aside, Vitalis notes that with recycled petrodollars, the Saudi acquired F-15 jets that have been since March 2015 bombing civilians in Yemen. But he could have pushed his liberal outlook a little further by noting that worse than the F-15s lies the regressive and ultra-conservative brand of the faith whose sole agenda appears to be the crashing all social movements that promised to propagate towards a lifestyle free from the dictatorship of oil.      
Overall, there are instances where Vitalis’ debunking of myths such as ‘oil-as-power’ falls into the right, and there are other instances where the same debunking falls more into the left. Still, sometimes he can be counted even as a devout communist. But the undecidability of classification is the quality of great scholarship, where he passionately elucidates his points regardless of class or ideology. Indeed, Vitalis embraces his mission to eradicate facile portrayals because masquerading beneath so-called ‘self-evident conclusions’ lies not only the perpetuation of mistaken decisions but the squandering of the U.S. taxpayers’ savings as well subaltern of the MENA chances for a future in dignity.   
Fouad Mami
Université d’Adrar (Algeria)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s