PRESIDENT OBAMA’S pivot to East Asia is well-timed. The geostrategic importance of the Middle East is vastly overblown. The region matters to the United States chiefly because of its influence in the world oil market, but that influence has been in terminal decline for a generation, a fact almost wholly unnoticed by outside observers. A confluence of developments—including rising prices and production costs, declining reserves, and the availability of alternate fuels and unconventional sources of oil—will decisively undermine the defining role of the Middle East in the global energy market. Meanwhile, the United States has vital interests at stake elsewhere in the world at least as pressing, if not more so, than its interests in the Middle East. These include thwarting the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, fighting transnational terrorism and maintaining stability in key strategic locations of the world.
For centuries prior to World War II, the Middle East was considered strategically irrelevant. Alexander the Great marched across the impoverished Arabian Peninsula only because it lay between him and his goal: the fabled wealth of Persia and India. The region was merely an expanse to be crossed for traders on the Silk Road between Europe and China in the Middle Ages. The great empires of modern Europe turned to every other region in the world, including Africa, before colonizing the Middle East late in the age of empire because the vast desert appeared to be of little use to them. The British occupied Egypt in the nineteenth century and invested in the Suez Canal not because of anything Egypt had to offer but because it was the fastest way to get to India.