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.