America Can't Escape the Middle East

Growing energy security won't let Washington turn its back on a crucial region.

By most accounts the United States will soon shift from being the world’s largest importer of petroleum to being a major global exporter.

This will result from greatly increased domestic discovery and production of petroleum combined with growing energy efficiency and expanded use of U.S.-produced natural gas. While this profound energy transition is bound to have large implications for both the American and global economies, what will its impact be on U.S. foreign policy, especially towards the Middle East? Perhaps, surprisingly, energy independence will not have a large effect on American foreign policy towards this area of the globe.

The Middle East has been a vital area of U.S. foreign policy since the early decades of the Cold War. While this owed in part to America’s global policy of containing the Soviet Union, the region’s petroleum reserves have always been one of the major reasons for U.S. interest. Indeed, the United States’ presence in the Middle East has only increased in the decades since the end of the Cold War.

However, if the United States is no longer dependent on oil imports, might not its interest in the region wane?

Though growing energy independence seemingly would allow the United States to vastly reduce its role in the Middle East, this is unlikely. Despite temptations and pressures to recede from the region, the United States will continue to have a vital interest in maintaining stable global energy markets and in countering security threats emanating from that part of the world.

The case for shifting U.S. attention and resources from the Middle East is straightforward. Both Latin America and especially Asia are growing in economic and strategic importance and will demand greater American engagement. This has already been reflected in the Obama administration’s “Pivot to Asia.” Given that American foreign-policy resources are limited, for these other regions to receive a bigger share, other locations have to receive less. While Europe is a candidate for less attention, growing U.S. energy supplies make the Middle East a candidate as well. Simply put, energy independence seemingly eliminates the main reason for U.S. policy makers to concern themselves with the Middle East. Indeed, to the extent that U.S. policy has created enmity in the region, lowering America’s profile could have significant benefits, such as reducing popular support for groups such as Al Qaeda.

The problem is that simply reducing America’s profile in the Middle East will not eliminate all the potential security threats toward the United States and its allies. For example, the danger posed by nuclear proliferators, such as Iran, will continue and perhaps accelerate if the United States becomes less active in the region. And while opinion polls show that hostility towards the United States in the Arab world mostly stems from U.S. foreign policy, simply altering America’s role would do little to eliminate the threat posed by global jihadist groups like Al Qaeda, whose objectives go far beyond the tenets of U.S. foreign policy.

It must be remembered that the primary goal of Al Qaeda and other jihadi groups is the resurrection of the Muslim Caliphate and the institution of sharia law throughout the world. Indeed, even states with no appreciable foreign-policy presence in the Muslim world, such as Sweden, have been targeted by jihadi groups. Simply ignoring this threat would be counterproductive, meaning the use of drone strikes to target Al Qaeda leaders and associated fighters will continue. The United States will remain at the center of high-profile counterterrorism efforts throughout the region, as well as part of continuing multilateral nonproliferation efforts. In other words, it is unrealistic to expect the United States to significantly lower its profile on security issues in the Middle East any time soon.

Equally important, just because the United States may not be importing oil does not mean it will be unconcerned with global oil markets or flow of oil from the Middle East. Quite the opposite: as the world’s largest economy and a leading energy user, the United States remains vitally concerned with ensuring the global price of oil remains stable. This would be true even if the United States becomes a net exporter of oil. Any price spike in the global oil market would still impact the United States. For example, American producers would increasingly sell their oil abroad if they could get a better price than at home. And in an interdependent world, downturns in foreign economies—including those caused by oil-price spikes—increasingly affect the United States. Last, U.S. allies in both Europe and Asia do import oil directly from the Middle East, giving the United States a security stake in ensuring the flow of oil. The bottom line is clear: the United States will have ongoing security and economic interests in the Middle East even if it is not a net importer of oil.

Finally, it must be remembered that the debate over America’s future role in the Middle East takes place is the in broader context of America’s future role in the world. An American retreat would induce others to advance. Should the United States substantially reduce its footprint in the Middle East, surely others would be motivated to fill the void. Western European states would have interests in maintaining the flow of oil; however, the steady decline of Western European defense budgets strongly suggests that those states would not be up to the task, meaning the void would have to be filled by the Chinese. How this would ultimately impact regional and global security is unclear—certainly the Chinese would have an interest in maintaining stable energy markets—but it is unlikely the Chinese would prioritize the interests of the United States and its allies. The Americans won’t want to find out, providing yet another motivation to remain active in the Middle East.

Thus, though the United States is moving towards energy independence, it does not follow that Washington will cease to be interested in global energy markets and the global and regional security issues attached to them. Energy independence will not eliminate threats to America’s economic and national security emanating from the Middle East, and a U.S. withdrawal could prompt rivals to increase their presence in the region. For these reasons, energy independence will not significantly alter U.S. policy toward the region.

Zachary C. Shirkey is an associate professor of political science at Hunter College, CUNY.

Image: Flickr/dynamosquito. CC BY-SA 2.0.