The Skeptics

Does the U.S. Military Actually Protect Middle East Oil?

The regional balance of power is also favorable. According to Joshua Rovner, “the chance that a regional hegemon will emerge in the Persian Gulf during the next twenty years is slim to none. This is true even if the United States withdraws completely.” No state in the region possesses the capabilities necessary to conquer neighboring territories or gain a controlling influence over oil resources, and most are bogged down and distracted by internal problems. Overall the region is in a state of defense dominance: while too weak to project power beyond their borders, the major states do have the capability to deter their neighbors, making the costs of offensive action prohibitively high.

So, three of the major scenarios that have traditionally justified a forward deployed military presence in the Persian Gulf—the entrance of a hostile external power, the rise of a regional hegemon and a military clash among the major states—are exceedingly unlikely even absent the U.S. military presence.

Might U.S. forces in the region serve usefully as an insurance policy, just in case?

Probably not. The extent to which an active U.S. military presence actually secures the free flow of oil is very likely overstated. The U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet in Bahrain and daily patrolling of the Persian Gulf supposedly serves as the principal deterrent stopping a state like Iran from attempting to close the Strait of Hormuz. But Iran would run unacceptably high risks in attempting to do so even absent the U.S. naval presence. To begin with, closing the strait would be severely damaging to Iran’s own interests, as it represents a critical source of national income, especially now that many sanctions have been lifted in the aftermath of the nuclear deal. Only if Iran found itself in the midst of some regional conflagration in which the survival of the regime was at risk would Tehran do something so reckless. Moreover, any sustained attempt to close the strait would likely mobilize an overwhelming international military coalition against Iran, like the one that was generated in response to Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, a prospect that would itself threaten the survival of the regime.

And there are practical obstacles to closing the strait. The waterway is wide and deep enough to make full closure exceptionally difficult, given Iran’s capabilities. Fully mining the strait (to the extent necessary to actually disrupt traffic) without early detection would be hard, but even if successful, “mines would only harass shipping rather than close the waterway,” and even then only partially and temporarily. This happened during the Tanker War in the 1980s, which slowed, but didn’t halt, shipping. An Iranian attempt to supplement mines with antiship missile attacks would not be terribly effective against resilient oil tankers, and “the heavy ship traffic through the strait would quickly consume Iran’s entire arsenal.” Finally, the U.S. military could ably respond to such an unlikely scenario with offshore, over-the-horizon forces.

The other nightmare contingency that could do serious damage to U.S. energy interests is some kind of collapse or radical overthrow of the Saudi regime. But this scenario is even less susceptible to remedy by a forward military presence. Indeed, the presence may itself create the tensions that could destabilize the monarchy. Any mission to stabilize a severe case of civil unrest in Saudi Arabia would require a massive military occupation on the order of Iraq 2003-2011. But Iraq showed that counter-insurgency campaigns are costly and often ineffectual in serving long-term U.S. goals. Military intervention would be so risky and fraught with potential negative consequences that the pain of a price spike or temporary shortage is likely to be easier to endure than the costs and risks associated with military action. In any case, the likelihood of an internal collapse of the Saudi regime or of its ability to export oil is, according to Thomas W. Lippman, “so unlikely that it can be disregarded from strategic planning.”

In general, the case for using bases and troops to protect the free flow of oil is weak. A large and permanent military force in the region is not particularly useful for oil security and has often been counterproductive. Even if the United States was forward deployed prior to Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, it’s not clear it would have deterred Saddam Hussein. Nor would a hegemonic presence have done much to prevent the OPEC oil embargo of 1973.