We've heard and rehearsed the conventional wisdom about oil: that the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf is what guarantees access to this strategic resource; that the "special" relationship with Saudi Arabia is necessary to stabilize an otherwise volatile market; and that these assumptions in turn provide Washington enormous leverage over Europe and Asia.
That common sense is wrong. The author of America's Kingdom: Mythmaking on the Saudi Oil Frontier (Stanford University Press, 2007), Robert Vitalis returns to disenchant us once again—this time from "oilcraft," a line of magical thinking closer to witchcraft than statecraft. Contrary to the deeply-held beliefs of hawkish foreign policy experts and career academics alike, oil is a commodity like any other: bought, sold, and subject to market forces. The House of Saud does many things for U.S. investors, firms, and government agencies, but guaranteeing the flow of oil, making it cheap, or stabilizing the price isn't one of them. Nevertheless, persistent fears of oil scarcity and conflict continue to breed real consequences. Robert Vitalis, Oilcraft: The Myths of Scarcity and Security That Haunt U.S. Energy Policy (Stanford UP, 2020) presses us to reconsider, among many things, the U.S.-Saudi special relationship, which confuses and traps many into unnecessarily accepting what we imagine is a devil's bargain. Along the way, Vitalis resurrects a forgotten school of critics of empire—a reprisal of his task in White World Order, Black Power Politics: The Birth of American International Relations (Cornell University Press, 2017).
Nancy Ko is a PhD student in History at Columbia University, where she works at the intersection of Jewish and Middle East Studies.