It’s a Good Time to Leave the Persian Gulf

It’s a Good Time to Leave the Persian Gulf

From the perspective of the American national interest, Europe and East Asia matter; the Persian Gulf does not.

In a notable and unexpected political achievement, China has brokered a deal between bitter foes Saudi Arabia and Iran. The rival states agreed to reestablish formal diplomatic relations, restore bilateral flows of trade and investment, and breathe new life into a lapsed security cooperation agreement. The pact, or, more to the point, China’s role in bringing it about, has led to some handwringing in Washington and elsewhere (the New York Times described the agreement as “representing a geopolitical challenge for the United States and a victory for China”).

Such responses are not surprising. The United States, after all, likes to think of the Persian Gulf as its turf. It maintains a very large military presence throughout the region, tends to fight wars there, and for decades has been the ultimate guarantor that Gulf oil will not be impeded from reaching world markets. Those long-invested in these and attendant commitments do have reason to calculate that American political influence is on the wane in the Middle East, and, perhaps alarmingly, that China’s is on the rise.

It is important not to allow the fanfare to run ahead of the facts. However welcome (or, to some eyes, unwelcome) this one agreement may be, the region remains rife with intricately enmeshed political conflicts and rivalries. What the People’s Republic of China wants to achieve, and what it has the capacity to achieve—plausibly little more than contributing to stability in a region that has been the site of violent and bitter political contestation, with the bonus of reducing the Americans to spectators of their diplomatic accomplishments—remains to be seen.

Likely not by coincidence, Saudi Arabia has apparently now communicated its price for normalizing relations with Israel: more explicit security guarantees for the kingdom from the United States, the right to purchase more advanced weapons, and support for its development of an, ahem, “civilian” nuclear program. (Notably absent are concerns for the de-facto Israeli absorption of most of the West Bank, or the fate of the millions of Palestinians living there.) This would be an exceedingly high price for the Americans to pay, which is why the timing of these proposals cannot but convey the suggestion that, with potential alternatives to American patronage perhaps visible on the horizon, the United States is in little position to drive a hard bargain with its Saudi friends.

The good news is, none of this is bad news. In fact, it presents a golden opportunity for the United States to engage in a long-overdue reassessment of its military and political commitments in the region. And by reassess, I mean withdraw.

Such a reassessment rests on good realist reasoning. Realism has gotten a bum rap recently, as some loud, prominent, self-proclaimed realists bask in the infamy of making outrageous claims (arguments, ironically, often at odds with their own theories). But realism comes in many stripes, and many of its incarnations are intellectually robust and analytically insightful, and it remains an approach that can serve as a valuable guide to understanding world politics and informing foreign policy. And although realists can and will disagree on much—the paradigm reflects a common analytical disposition, not a shared playbook—one would be hard-pressed to find a realist who would argue that deep military and political engagement in the Gulf can today be defined as in the American national interest.

This was not always the case. In the 1970s and 1980s, when Gulf oil ran the world and the advanced industrial economies were dependent on it, it was reasonable that the United States would want to ensure that no single hostile power would come to dominate the region, and, more narrowly, to prevent the closure of the Strait of Hormuz—commitments made explicit by the Carter and Reagan administrations.

Fast forward forty years, however, and this posture can only be described as vestigial and anachronistic. Regarding the Gulf, the United States is now in the position summarized by Bob Dylan: “I used to care/but things have changed.” World energy markets have been transformed. The United States is now the world’s third-largest oil exporter and second-largest exporter of natural gas. Gulf oil now flows largely to China (which is why the People’s Republic has an interest in regional stability). Moreover, given the challenge of global climate change, it makes little sense for the Americans to be subsidizing the world price of oil by providing the security guarantees that ensure its flow.

It is also very hard to make the case that active U.S. engagement in the region has been a smashing success—although it has smashed much, from its support of the overthrow of democracy in Iran in 1953 to its catastrophic war against Iraq a half-century later. If the United States indeed has any remaining interests in the Gulf, history suggests perhaps it would be better served by just getting out of the way.

But what are those interests? America’s most intimate partner, Saudi Arabia, is an amalgam of personalist authoritarianism and radical theocracy—not obvious foundations for a shared vision of political goals. (And in assessing the American interest in the Middle East more generally, it is worth noting that should Israel choose to join a club of illiberal theocracies, it will become increasingly difficult to define exactly what ties bind that long-standing special relationship.)

Perhaps most significantly, faced with daunting domestic political problems and confronted with shifts in the global balance of power, the United States, mighty but not inexhaustible, must better align its capabilities with its interests. With regard to defending the American national interest, some parts of the world—in particular Europe and East Asia—are much more important than others.

In sum, rather than bemoaning the prospect of China’s increasing influence in the region, the United States should, in an orderly fashion, disentangle from its commitments, withdraw its forces, and reallocate them in the service of more important and pressing priorities. Because although the United States has no high-priority national security interest in the Persian Gulf, it does have other vital interests in the world, well-articulated by the logic of realism—in particular the contributions of classical realists like George F. Kennan and Arnold Wolfers, inflected with a hint of Carl von Clausewitz. The greatest contribution that latter figure—counterintuitively for some who would reduce the insights of this combat-hardened Prussian general to the aphorism “war is politics”—was his insistence on the primacy of politics, and that always and everywhere actors must be able to articulate plainly their political goals, especially when contemplating the use of force and in forging grand strategy.

On the evolving world stage, regarding the American national interest, two primary and pressing political goals stand out. It remains vital for the United States that its allies and affiliates in Europe remain secure, democratic, and well-disposed toward each other. This is an example of what Arnold Wolfers called “milieu goals”—which are especially important for countries like the United States that do not face present and immediate military threats at the border.

As Wolfers insightfully described, milieu goals relate to foreign policy measures taken to influence world politics in ways that make the international environment conducive to the thriving of national values, and one in which political allies feel secure and content in their shared affinities. For a great power, this, more than anything, is the stuffing of foreign policy in practice.

Pulling out of the Persian Gulf, then, is not the first step in a broader disengagement from world politics. Despite an increasingly audible chorus calling for the United States to withdraw from the NATO alliance, such a move would prove disastrous. The question is not, as some proponents of “restraint” emphasize, whether the alliance has accomplished the mission for which it was originally designed. The only measure that matters is whether the political benefits of continued American participation in NATO outweigh its costs. And for all the protestation about the “costs” of the alliance to the United States, and (more understandable) grumblings about whether some members ought to be making greater contributions to the collective defense, it is unlikely that the United States, which if anything seems inclined to increase its already very high levels of military spending, would save some—indeed save any—money by pulling out of NATO. But the political costs (and geopolitical dangers invited) could be extremely high, as active American engagement in Europe has had, as Wolfers would anticipate, numerous salutary effects. It has bolstered the fortunes of like-minded, friendly countries in one of the world’s geopolitical and economic epicenters, and has made war there—wars that would be exceedingly ruinous to the American interest—much less likely. From a grand strategic perspective, rather than a costly albatross, NATO has been a bargain, the best we have ever had.

Another major strategic priority is East Asia. Following the classical logic best associated with Kennan, it is a vital national interest of the United States that no single power comes to politically dominate this enormous and dynamic region. That fraught-with-peril prospect is not inconceivable, as China’s increasing might makes clear.

The implications of this for policy are commonly mischaracterized. Many in Washington appear spoiling for a fight, or at least a militarized confrontation, with China. This disposition is unnecessary, imprudent, and unwise. Following Kennan, although the stakes in East Asia are enormous, both the challenge and the requisite response are political in nature. Military capabilities matter, but not in the service of trying to win a regional arms race, or to assert (increasingly unachievable) local predominance, but rather as a component of a broader political strategy. Sustained and deep U.S. engagement with traditional allies and like-minded actors will buttress their confidence and wherewithal to do what they would like to do—resist China’s political pressure. Should the Americans withdraw, in contrast, many will make the dispiriting calculation that they have no choice but to politically bandwagon with China, and accede to its political domination. From a U.S. perspective, that would result in a much more dangerous world, and one in which its political influence would be considerably diminished.