27 November 2020

Car Culture and American Policy in the Middle East

An original PhD thesis analyses American policy in the Middle East since 1945 in light of European oil dependence, itself a product of the European adoption of “car culture” under American economic and cultural influence. Manuel Dorion-Soulié presents his historical study on the origins of CENTCOM, the US military command in charge of the Middle East.

How did you come to choose your research topic?

September 11, 2001, was probably the most important event in my political education, and so for a long time my research interests have centred on American power and its exercise, in particular as concerns the Middle East. How did we get to the attacks of 9/11? And why did the US react the way it did?

This was the very broad backdrop for my first book, an intellectual history of American neoconservatism and its impact on military doctrine in the debates leading to the 2006 “Iraq surge” (published in 2016). For my doctoral project, I moved away from intellectual history and focused on the diplomatic and military aspects of American power in the Middle East. In so doing, I came to realise that understanding American hard power in that region required understanding American cultural and economic power in Europe. 

Can you describe your thesis context, questions and methodology?

In 1983, the United States created CENTCOM (or Central Command), the unified military command that is responsible for the Middle East to this day. Recently declassified NATO archives reveal that between 1979 and 1983 American officials pressured European allies to increase their defence commitments so that the US could divert troops to the Persian Gulf. To argue for this, American officials claimed that it was for Europe, and not primarily for the US itself, that American forces should be used to insure the flow of oil from the Gulf. Europeans, for their part, accepted this argument, and provided political and military support for American policy in the Gulf. 

Based on research in NATO, American, French, and OEEC/OECD archives, my aim was to investigate the American claim and the European reaction by asking two broad research questions. First, was Western Europe really dependent on Persian Gulf oil, and if so, why? How had this dependence been constructed? Second, did the historical record of US policy in the Middle East since 1945 support that it was motivated by European oil dependence? Or was the American claim something that emerged in 1979? 

What are your major findings?

My dissertation makes three empirical arguments. First, the main purpose of CENTCOM was to protect oil flows to Europe (and Japan). Second, this is in perfect continuity with the “logic of containment” as it emerged in the late 1940s, and as it was applied to the Middle East throughout the Cold War. Third, European oil dependence (what made CENTCOM necessary) was largely a function of the adoption of car culture. These empirical arguments lead me to a “theoretical” conclusion: that the expansion of American military hegemony to the Gulf was made necessary by the expansion of American cultural hegemony over Europe, in the sense that car culture in Europe was (largely or partly) the product of American influence as an economic and social model, of American industrial and commercial activity, and of American economic aid during the Marshall Plan.

Can you give an example of a topical issue on which your thesis might help shed a new light? 

Any issue related to American policy in the Middle East – Donald Trump’s turn away from the Iran deal, his ability to push normalisation of relations between Israel and the Gulf states… – must take into account the immense military capabilities the US has gained by creating and maintaining CENTCOM. 

And any issue related to the meaning of mass consumption society, not only for those who enjoy its benefits, but more importantly for those who live in countries were crucial resources are to be found. The Gilets jaunes in France, for instance, were a clear case of people seeking to defend their access to the benefits of car culture.

What could be the social implication of your thesis?

Making people see that their daily life impacts the world at large in ways they may not realise. 

What are you doing now?

I am now an SNSF postdoc fellow at the Centre d’histoire de Sciences Po (Paris) and the University of Cambridge, working on my next book, The Death of the Citizen-Soldier, which looks at how France and the US moved away from universal military service as part of their adoption of a neoliberal social order. 

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Listen also to a related podcast with Manuel:

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Manuel Dorion-Soulié defended his PhD thesis in International History in October 2020. Professor Mohamed Mahmoud Mohamedou presided the committee, which included Professor Jussi Hanhimäki, Thesis Director, and Professor Bernhard Rieger, Institute for History, Leiden University, The Netherlands.

Full citation of the PhD thesis:
Dorion-Soulié, Manuel. “The Origins of CENTCOM: American Hegemony, Car Culture, and European Oil Dependence.” PhD thesis, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, 2020.

Interview by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.
Banner picture: excerpt from an image by Vladimir Sazonov/