The October 1973 War at 50: Legacies of Regional Militarization, Oil Politics, and US Hegemony at the Dawn of Neoliberalism
RoundTable III-2, sponsored byMIDDLE EAST REPORT/MIDDLE EAST REPORTING AND INFORMATION PROJECT, 2023 Annual Meeting
On Friday, November 3 at 8:30 am
The dramatic series of events leading up to and following the so-called October War of 1973 are now widely understood to have constituted a critical inflection point in the history of the modern Middle East and its postcolonial entanglement with the violently mutating geopolitical dynamics of the 1970s. At the same time, the critical events of 1973 have often become as misremembered and misrepresented for some as they have been forgotten — deliberately or otherwise — for others. One need only point to the misattribution of agency to OPEC rather than OAPEC and the so-called “Arab oil embargo” as indices of this ongoing misprision and amnesia. Public and private memories of these events, in and beyond the Middle East, are caught between the vice-grip of political obliviation and ideological repurposing. In the five decades since, the widespread failures of various experiments in governmentality across the region, including neoliberal and Islamist technocracy, have generated much nostalgia around a reimagined l’age d’or of the 1970s, from Morocco to Afghanistan. The contributions to this roundtable will seek to interrogate many of these longstanding and unchallenged myths about the causes, processes, and consequences of the October War, particularly those historical renderings and frameworks of understanding imposed externally as now reified narratives of 1973. Instead, this roundtable seeks to develop an interactive account of the mutual constitution of local, national, regional, and global dynamics in the wake of the events of 1973. At the center of our conversation, will be a consideration of some of the most lasting consequences of October ’73. The first axis is the inception and continuation of hyper-militarization of region, an unparalleled development in the political-economy of the contemporary developing world. The second is the ongoing dialectic of power and profitability in the international oil sector, from the self-inflicted shortages of the 1970s to the price turbulence of 2022. Finally, we will consider the status of the October War as a catalyst for a new kind of post-Vietnam US hegemony engineered around a parasitic neoliberal capitalism feasting on the corpse of Keynesianism.
In my contribution to this roundtable I will discuss the political consequences and the social and environmental impact of the reconceptualization of oil since the 1970s. This shift was from the earlier frameworks of resource nationalism with its emphasis on national sovereignty and the domestic control and management of oil production, to the current neoliberal framework where oil has come to be presented as a depoliticized (and de-socialized) economic sector and a source of finance. As a result of this discursive shift the vast oil complex in the region has become the purview of technical managers and economic and policy experts and political elites who focus on market competitiveness and economic efficiency and productivity. This shift has been aided by the influential rentier state thesis, with its reductive and ahistorical critique of public ownership of oil reserves. Pressing social and ecological concerns and uneven relations of power in labor, envirnonmental, and the spatial-social impact of oil on local communities and global climate change have been systematically pushed aside as a result.
My presentation will focus on how the immediate reactions in the United States to the 1973-1974 "energy crisis" shaped longer-term assumptions and policies regarding the Middle East and the dominant conception of U.S. national security. These include the rise of arms sales as a priority in U.S. foreign policy and the emphasis on secure oil supply as crucial to the new era of globalized leadership U.S. officials envisioned. Building on evidence from multiple U.S. presidential libraries, personal archives, and the Congressional Record, I will discuss how the resultant focus on global economic led to an aggressive logic was deployed in domestic debates about U.S. regional policy at crucial moments, including the 1980-1981 Carter-Reagan campaign battle and the 1990-1991 decision-making process leading to the First Gulf War.
The events and aftermaths of October 1973 are said to represent a decisive inflection point in both (1) the global political-economy of petroleum and (1) the ways in which North Atlantic hegemony world was made and managed in and through Southwest Asia and Northern Africa vis-a-vis US imperialism after the Vietnam War. On the one hand, the means by which petroleum was extracted, circulated, and otherwise made useful for modern societies had undergone a radical transformation. The widespread seizure of oil infrastructures and reserves — from the hands of the major and minor international oil companies to those of the states producing the petroleum — had resulted in a more complicated carbon-based international energy system no longer controlled by North Atlantic companies and their supporting governments. The ability to affect international oil markets had become more broadly shared; and yet, at this moment in history, the so-called Middle Eastern "oil spigot" became a preeminent security concern of the North Atlantic powers, the United States above all. On the other hand, US influence over the region increasingly centered around protecting “the spigot” from regional and extra-regional threats, primarily through strategies of offshore balancing and — following the 1979 Iranian Revolution — the prevention of regional hegemons. As oil prices climbed in the 1970s, arms — both North Atlantic and Soviet — flooded into Northern Africa and Southwest Asia, fueling regional arms races and armed conflicts. The ostensible logic of this new imperialism was a regime of “oil for insecurity,” whereby power (US imperialism) and profit (North Atlantic arms and oil companies) could nonetheless benefit from a Middle East no longer under the thumb of European imperialism and the Seven Sisters. These events, however, should be treated less as a conspiracy of capital and more as a catalyzing — and eventually self-sustaining — conjuncture of forces whose ability to reproduce these violent dynamics of conflict and imperialism cannot be reduced to a singular logic of “differential accumulation.”