Looking Ahead: America’s Role in the Middle East

By Daniel Krcmaric

As the United States winds down its involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan and implements a “strategic pivot” from the Middle East to Asia, it seems appropriate to take stock of America’s future role in the Middle East.

 

The logic underlying the strategic pivot is that the dominant foreign policy issues of the coming decades—in particular, the rise of China’s economic and military power—will occur in Asia.  Since the pivot is occurring in an era of defense spending cuts, the U.S. will need to reduce significantly its commitments in the Middle East if it wants to make a true strategic pivot toward Asia.  While the pivot makes sense given the current and anticipated future power projection capabilities of China (and several other states in the Asia-Pacific region), it is not clear that pivoting away from the Middle East is feasible.

 

Why not? Oil. Simply put, the health of the American economy depends in part on the stable flow of affordable oil, thus making the Middle East a strategically important region.  While much of the rhetoric surrounding the pivot correctly notes that vital U.S. interests were not at stake in Iraq or Afghanistan, it obscures the fact that America’s commitment to maintaining a strong military presence in the Middle East predates these recent conflicts. Indeed, the U.S. has long sought to prevent the rise of a regional power and/or the intervention of a hostile foreign power that could potentially control the region’s oil wealth.  This is especially true in the years since the 1973 OPEC oil embargo, during which oil-rich states in the Middle East have consumed an extensive share of America’s time and resources.  Looking ahead, the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran that could potentially threaten to cut off the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz suggests continued U.S. involvement in the region is likely.  Moreover, China currently depends—and will rely even more heavily in the future—on oil imports from the Middle East. As a result, it is reasonable to expect that at least part of the coming geopolitical competition between the U.S. and China will occur in the Middle East.

 

Given this, is the U.S. doomed to remain bogged down in the Middle East? Not necessarily.  Revolutionary technological advances in hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) and massive new discoveries of natural gas—along with improved fuel economy standards—mean America’s energy dependence on the Middle East will decrease in the following years. The magnitude of that decrease, however, is open to debate.  Talk of American energy independence is popular within some circles, although more prudent analysts warn against over-optimism.  While we can’t predict the future of developments in American energy, one thing seems clear:  a true strategic pivot from the Middle East to Asia is possible only to the extent that the United States reduces its dependence on Middle Eastern oil.

 

Daniel Krcmaric is a National Science Foundation Graduate Fellow and a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at Duke University.

5 comments on “Looking Ahead: America’s Role in the Middle East

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  3. Thanks for your response Daniel. I certainly think that a curtailment of production so as to cause a spike in prices is more likely than a complete cutoff, however, I also think this scenario has been somewhat oversold. The lesson of the OPEC crisis is that pushing up prices produces a short term spike in revenues but a longer term fall as the global economy contracts and consumer countries start looking at conservation and alternatives.
    I think the civil war scenario is possible – as we have seen in Libya. Moreover, if the US were engaged in a large scale war with another great power, that power would of course seek to deny access to Persian Gulf Oil, as both sides did to each other over oil and other vital resources in World War One and World War Two.
    However, I think even states which are political hostile to the US, as long as they’re not actually at war with America, have an interest in keeping oil prices relatively low and stable.
    Moreover, I think the best hedge against the worst case scenarios would be an ‘over the horizon’ capability like the Rapid Reaction Force pre- Desert Storm. Perhaps you would agree on the latter point.

  4. I agree with a substantial proportion of your post, but to me there’s one weak link in the chain. Suppose one power did achieve control over the Middle East’s oil – what then? Given that there’s nothing you can do to stop a third party state from reselling oil to the US if it wanted to, the only way such a power could stem the flow of oil to the US would be to drastically curtail sales to everyone. The result would be price rises in the immediate term, but a renewed global depression, and huge strides forward in conservation and investment in alternatives, so ultimately it would hurt the producers more than the consumers. This is precisely what happened after the OPEC crisis, and why the OPEC nations haven’t tried a similar stunt again. Now, one might argue that the potential oil suppliers hate the United States or the West more than they want oil revenue, but if you look carefully at past behavior, this is generally not the case. Saddam Hussein was more than happy to sell oil to the West given the chance, as was the Ayatollah Khomenei and as is Hugo Chavez. As for Saudi Arabia falling under Islamist control, isn’t it already?
    I would suggest that when compelled to choose between anti-American rhetoric and the oil revenue that keeps them in power, most rulers will choose the latter. Hence, ensuring that oil supplies are under the control of politically ‘friendly’ rulers does not appear essential to me.

    • Charlie: Thanks for your comments. I completely agree with your point that “ensuring that oil supplies are under the control of politically ‘friendly’ rulers does not appear essential” to the United States. In fact, I didn’t intend for anyone to interpret my argument that way, so let me clarify.

      My point is that the U.S. economy depends in part on the stable flow of affordable oil. Thus, anything that significantly affects (1) the price of oil or (2) the ability of states in the region to bring oil to market is potentially threatening to the U.S. The emergence of a hostile power in the Middle East is one way in which these conditions might be fulfilled, although hostility toward the U.S. is far from “essential.” Any regional hegemon in the Middle East (regardless of whether it is a friendly regime) could compromise American interests by wielding near-monopoly power over the region’s aggregate level of oil exports. As you correctly observe, the regional power could not stop its oil exports from eventually reaching the U.S., but it still would hold substantially greater price setting capabilities than OPEC currently possess. Indeed, this is why Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait was so alarming: few observers believed Saddam would stop selling oil to the U.S., but many feared that he would be able to dictate oil prices.

      Another significant threat to the stable flow of affordable oil from the Middle East is the collapse of a major oil exporting regime. For example, if a succession crisis in Saudi Arabia descends into a civil war, the ensuing power vacuum could conceivably threaten American interests as much as the rise of a new power.

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