Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Working with the Saudis

On Thursday, August 29, 1974, President Gerald Ford met with a Saudi diplomat. Also present at the meeting were Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft. On the agenda were all the usual items which have always ensured that the Mid-East is a place of permanent instability: oil prices, wars between Arab states, and wars between Arab states and non-Arab states. (There are other factors, too, which have created the structural impossibility of peace in that region.) Historian Barry Werth writes:

Joined by Kissinger and Scowcroft, Ford met in the late afternoon with Saudi Arabian foreign minister Omar Saqqaf. They exchanged vague pleasantries through an interpreter and posed for the press. Saqqaf - a function who during diplomatic meetings with King Faisal "sat so far down down along the hierarchy of other advisors that he would have to shout to get the king's attention," Kissinger recalled - above all hoped to deflect American anger over the energy crisis away from his desert monarchy.

At the beginning of the 1970's, the American economy had troubles with inflation. The oil crisis only made the situation worse. Although most of the oil coming out of the Middle East went to Europe, and not to America, its price still affected the world price, and therefore impacted the business climate in the United States.

Locked in Cold War calculations, gun-shy after Vietnam, and with a "surrogate strategy" for securing Persian Gulf oil supplies that amounted to arming to the hilt repressive local regimes in Iran and Saudi Arabia, the United States could scarcely have been less prepared for the oil shock now playing havoc with the world economy. A little more than a week after Ford's swearing-in, Kissinger had briefed him on the struggle to regroup. "We have to find a way to break the cartel," Kissinger warned. "We can't do it with the cooperation of the other consumers. It is intolerable that countries of 40 million can blackmail 800 million people in the industrial world." As Kissinger outlined the joint program being discussed with the Europeans - consumer solidarity, including emergency sharing of reserves; conservation; development of alternative energy sources; and creation of a financial safety net - Ford immediately had signed on. "I'm not interested in issues," he said, "but in results."

In fact, the government in Iran was starting to loosen its hold on human rights. For the next several years, increasing civil freedoms would define that nation's path. But in August of 1974, that didn't change the economic factors which had President Ford's attention.

Now, as with the rest of the Middle East cauldron, Ford left the handling of the Saudis to his secretary of state, who sought assurances from Saqqaf that Faisal would not take a hard line by opposing separate negotiations between Israel and Egypt, and would help negotiate lowering the cost of Arab-produced oil. Kissinger warned that Western patience with the Saudis, who since the end of World War II had looked to the United States to defend them against stronger, often hostile neighbors, had worn thin.

There can be little doubt that the impressive foreign policy achievements of the Ford Administration were due largely to the work of Henry Kissinger.