America: AWOL in the Middle East

Is the Middle East still strategically indispensable to the world in general and to the security interests of the United States in particular? Americans no longer think so. They have grown weary of the region after controversial and often inconsequential wars in Afghanistan (2001-2015), Iraq (1990-1991; 2003-2011), Libya (2011), and now again in Iraq against ISIS—and this is to say nothing of the “peace process” that has encouraged much Palestinian violence. Americans in surveys express a general uneasiness with the region. Most do not favor the proposed Iran non-proliferation deal; most do not support the Palestinians over the Israelis; and most do not favor America’s high profile in the Middle East. They oppose both military intervention in and foreign aid to almost all the countries of the region. At the same time, they have grown tired of Muslim jihadists and their barbaric violence.

Location

The Middle East since antiquity has been the commercial nexus of three continents: Africa, Asia, and Europe. The Suez Canal is the only eastern exit out of the Mediterranean. Stop shipping in the canal (as happened between 1967-1975), let terrorists’ missiles disrupt commercial airspace over the eastern Mediterranean and Persian Gulf, or have Iran shutdown entry into the Persian Gulf, and much of Asian and European commerce would come to a halt. On any given day, most of the world’s tensions and fault-lines that are likely to spark wars—Shiite-Sunni, Muslim-Christian, Kurdish-Turkish, Israel-Arab, Iranian-Arab—arise in the Middle East.

The likely Iranian acquisition of a bomb will only fuel these tensions, and be matched over the next 20 years by Sunni governments’ commensurate efforts to ensure their own nuclear deterrents. By combining the specter of nuclear arms and medium and long-range missiles with traditionally unstable regimes, tribalism, terrorism, religious extremism, and fundamentalism, the Middle East may inflict existential destruction well beyond its own borders. To paraphrase Leon Trotsky’s purported warning, you may not be interested in the Middle East, but the Middle East is interested in you.

Oil

Since the early twentieth century, the big powers of the West have tried to get their hands on Middle Eastern oil. Now an ascendant oil-hungry Asia is entering the region and replaying the role of the United States in the 1950s. North America may well become energy independent by 2020, but Europe, China, and most of Asia will probably need lots of imported energy sources for the foreseeable future. Moreover, petrodollars will continue to fund armies and terrorists. In fact, the less that Middle-East oil and natural gas factor into American strategic thinking, the less likely U.S. military forces will maintain their half-century high profile in the region—and the more likely Russians, Chinese, and Iranian interests will intervene, collide with each other, and provoke Sunni responses from Turkey to the Gulf monarchies.

It is rarely appreciated that since the 1960s, American warships and bases have largely ensured that all countries had access to Middle Eastern oil and maintained the ability to ship it safely out of the Persian Gulf or Mediterranean. With the eclipse of America’s guardian role, it is likely that other powers will not be so internationally inclined, and tension over energy will only increase.

Israel

Changing energy realities may win Israel more international support but not necessarily in the short term and not in the eroding strategic landscape in which the Arab nation state disappears and it becomes unlikely that Israel will remain the only nuclear power in the area. The value of unique U.S. backing for Israel will only increase, as growing Muslim populations in Europe weaken public support for the Jewish state, and Israel’s various enemies gain new and more dangerous weapons.

Yet, the same factors that historically engaged the United States in the Middle East are still relevant today: geography, religion, history, the position of Israel, and oil wealth. And these considerations may explain why we are drawn back to the Middle East even though we want to disengage from such an unpleasant place. The unspoken corollary of the often heard “America go home” is now either “And take us with you” or “But now come back.”

Full article: America: AWOL in the Middle East (Hoover Institution)

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