America Unhinged

January 2, 2014 Topic: Grand StrategySecurity Regions: United States

America Unhinged

Mini Teaser: The "most secure great power in world history" continues to engage in costly interventions to defend merely peripheral interests.

by Author(s): John J. Mearsheimer

Am I overlooking the obvious threat that strikes fear into the hearts of so many Americans, which is terrorism? Not at all. Sure, the United States has a terrorism problem. But it is a minor threat. There is no question we fell victim to a spectacular attack on September 11, but it did not cripple the United States in any meaningful way and another attack of that magnitude is highly unlikely in the foreseeable future. Indeed, there has not been a single instance over the past twelve years of a terrorist organization exploding a primitive bomb on American soil, much less striking a major blow. Terrorism—most of it arising from domestic groups—was a much bigger problem in the United States during the 1970s than it has been since the Twin Towers were toppled.

What about the possibility that a terrorist group might obtain a nuclear weapon? Such an occurrence would be a game changer, but the chances of that happening are virtually nil. No nuclear-armed state is going to supply terrorists with a nuclear weapon because it would have no control over how the recipients might use that weapon. Political turmoil in a nuclear-armed state could in theory allow terrorists to grab a loose nuclear weapon, but the United States already has detailed plans to deal with that highly unlikely contingency.

Terrorists might also try to acquire fissile material and build their own bomb. But that scenario is extremely unlikely as well: there are significant obstacles to getting enough material and even bigger obstacles to building a bomb and then delivering it. More generally, virtually every country has a profound interest in making sure no terrorist group acquires a nuclear weapon, because they cannot be sure they will not be the target of a nuclear attack, either by the terrorists or another country the terrorists strike. Nuclear terrorism, in short, is not a serious threat. And to the extent that we should worry about it, the main remedy is to encourage and help other states to place nuclear materials in highly secure custody.

CONTRARY TO what isolationists think, there are three regions of the world—Europe, Northeast Asia and the Persian Gulf—that are indeed of vital strategic importance to the United States. Of course, Europe and Northeast Asia are important because the world’s other great powers are located in those regions, and they are the only states that might acquire the capability to threaten the United States in a serious way.

One might counter that they still cannot attack across the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans and reach the shores of the United States. True, but if a distant great power were to dominate Asia or Europe the way America dominates the Western Hemisphere, it would then be free to roam around the globe and form alliances with countries in the Western Hemisphere that have an adversarial relationship with the United States. In that circumstance, the stopping power of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans would be far less effective. Thus, American policy makers have a deep-seated interest in preventing another great power from achieving regional hegemony in Asia or Europe.

The Persian Gulf is strategically important because it produces roughly 30 percent of the world’s oil, and it holds about 55 percent of the world’s crude-oil reserves. If the flow of oil from that region were stopped or even severely curtailed for a substantial period of time, it would have a devastating effect on the world economy. Therefore, the United States has good reason to ensure that oil flows freely out of the Gulf, which in practice means preventing any single country from controlling all of that critical resource. Most oil-producing states will keep pumping and selling their oil as long as they are free to do so, because they depend on the revenues. It is in America’s interest to keep them that way, which means there can be no regional hegemon in the Gulf, as well as Asia and Europe.

To be clear, only the oil-producing states of the Persian Gulf are of marked strategic importance to the United States, not every country in the broader Middle East. In particular, Washington should be concerned about the fate of Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, because it wants to make sure their oil flows uninterrupted into world markets. Middle Eastern states that do not have much oil are of little strategic significance to the United States. They include Egypt and Syria, as well as Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Yemen. Thus, it makes little sense for Americans to worry much about what is happening in Egypt and Syria, much less countenance military intervention in those countries. In short, what happens in Cairo and Damascus has little effect on American security.

It is apparent from the discourse in the American foreign-policy establishment, as well as the Obama administration’s behavior, that my views about the strategic importance of Egypt and Syria are at odds with mainstream thinking. So let us consider in more detail how those two countries might affect U.S. security.

EGYPT AND SYRIA are weak countries by any meaningful measure of power. Both have small and feeble economies, and hardly any oil or other natural resources that might make them rich like Kuwait or Saudi Arabia.

Furthermore, neither Egypt nor Syria has ever had a formidable military, even when the Soviet Union provided them with sophisticated military equipment during the Cold War. Neither was a serious threat to its neighbors, especially Israel. Remember that Israel fought major wars against Egypt in 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973, and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) clobbered the Egyptian army in each instance. Syria fought against the IDF in 1948, 1967 and 1973, and it too suffered humiliating defeats at the hands of the Israelis.

Egypt and Israel made peace after the 1973 war, but Israel and Syria remain enemies. Nevertheless, every time there has been a possibility the two sides might become embroiled in a war—during the 2006 war in Lebanon, for example—the Syrians have gone to great lengths to avoid a fight. The Syrians fully understand they could not hold their own against the IDF. Of course, the recent turmoil and conflict in Egypt and Syria have weakened those two countries further. Indeed, Israel is now so confident of its military superiority over its Arab neighbors that it is actually reducing its conventional forces.

Most importantly for the issue at hand, neither the Egyptian nor the Syrian military is a serious threat to the American homeland or even to U.S. forces stationed in the Persian Gulf. And there is no reason to think that situation will change in the foreseeable future. Given that Egypt and Syria have little economic or military power and hardly any oil, advocates of global domination rely on a variety of other claims to make the case that they are core American interests.

One argument is that the United States should care greatly about Egypt because it controls the Suez Canal. Roughly 8 percent of global seaborne trade and 4.5 percent of world oil supplies travel through that passageway. Moreover, the U.S. Navy uses the canal to move ships from the Mediterranean Sea to the Persian Gulf. Thus, if Egypt were to close the canal, it would damage the international economy and complicate American efforts to project power into the strategically important Gulf.

This is unpersuasive. If Egypt closed the Suez Canal, it would not seriously hurt the international economy. Ships would be rerouted, mainly around the southern tip of Africa, and oil from the Middle East would be distributed to the recipient countries in different ways. Furthermore, Egypt would pay a significant economic price if it shut down the canal, which is its third-largest source of revenue and is sometimes referred to as an “economic lifeline.” Not only would Cairo lose the money generated by that passageway, but it would also risk economic and political retaliation by the countries hurt by the closing. It is worth noting that the canal was closed from 1967 to 1975 and the international economy experienced no serious damage.

The threat of preventing the U.S. Navy from reaching the Persian Gulf by shutting the canal is an empty one, because American ships can reach the Gulf through the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea. It might be more convenient for the United States to send some ships bound for the Gulf through the canal, but it is hardly essential for projecting power into that region.

ONE CAN DISCERN four arguments in the public discourse about why Syria might be a vital American interest. Some maintain that toppling Assad is important because it would deliver a staggering blow to Hezbollah and especially Iran, since they are both staunch supporters of the Assad regime. Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah put the point succinctly in the summer of 2011: “Nothing would weaken Iran more than losing Syria.” A few months later, Tom Donilon, President Obama’s national-security adviser, explained that the “end of the Assad regime would constitute Iran’s greatest setback in the region yet—a strategic blow that will further shift the balance of power in the region against Iran.”

Image: Pullquote: The United States, which is the most secure great power in world history, has been safer over the past twenty-five years than at any other time in its history.Essay Types: Essay